On Poetry Reading

Earn Your Judginess (On Reading Ginsberg’s “Howl”)

Ewwww, Ginsberg? Kerouac? They were so blasé in their politics, if you can even say they had any. Counterculture just because. Horny, spoiled white bros playing at radical leftism. Hard pass.

I’d carried around that knee-jerk reaction to the Beats for over a decade. I’d heard classmates I couldn’t (wouldn’t) take seriously rave about them, from high school through grad school. Emphasis on rave.

Nothing against the stoner trombonists in 2nd period band–truly–but I wasn’t taking reading suggestions from them. And PhD students? Grow up, y’all!

Last week I read part of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” for the first time and…I rolled my eyes. I resisted liking the music. But the guy definitely took his poetic tradition seriously. More so than I ever have as a PhD student in literature.


“Howl” made me think. Worse, ego-wise, it made me squeal and laugh and pull out way too many good parts.

It gifted me puzzles–what the heck is a “gyzym”? It called to mind much of my favorite poetry with its demand that the reader make associations. Seeking “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” sounds a lot like what William Blake was doing in the mysterious poems I like best. Ginsberg took epic Milton and Kabbalah and Zen and Johannes Kepler, theologian-astronomer, and rooted them everywhere from Kansas to Brooklyn. “Howl” is FULL of Sherwood Anderson’s everyday grotesque and Walt Whitman’s rattling “blab of the pave.” What seem and are flights of fancy are also painstakingly well-observed microcosms.

I’m in no danger of becoming a Beatnik, but I am a “Howl” aficionado now (can you tell?) Reading it, besides being a great time, has given me all sorts of experiments to run in my own poetry. Reading poetry for fun and not work, I came to it with a lightness and natural curiosity that I tend to suppress as too amateur when I read ancient authors for research.

In short, “Howl” is doing me a lot of good. I was wrong to reject it sight unseen. But Ginsberg had the grace, in his dizzying inclusivity, to teach me that without shaming me for not knowing better.

Now I know a little better. To tide me over this winter I’ll be picking away at authors I pre-judged and rejected so they can pick away at my defenses. I want to earn my tastes and opinions, not inherit them. I can’t wait to find out how many works I was wrong about.

And that’s huge: I’m not often graceful about being wrong. But if I let fear of facing my prejudices hold me back, I’ll be missing out on a lot more than some powerful literature. No more.

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