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The heart of a poem still beats loudly

The Poem That Changed America: ``Howl" Fifty Years Later
Edited by Jason Shinder
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288 pp., paperback, $14, hardcover (with CD), $30

``Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies , we are going through hell," wrote the poet William Carlos Williams in his introduction to the first edition of Allen Ginsberg's ``Howl and Other Poems," published by City Lights in 1956.

Fifty years later, the Beat Generation's most famous poem -- arguably the most influential poem of any kind of the 20th century -- has, like its late creator, come to represent a quaint notion of social-outsider status, an ecstatic, overly earnest, easily parodied celebration of self-destructive youth.

Or has it? As the poet suggested, we still live in a vastly imperfect democracy, with impossibly lofty ideals that tend to mock reality; the flames are undoubtedly still licking the edges of the gowns. As the contributors to this half-century reassessment of Ginsberg's landmark work attest, ``Howl" has withstood the test of time in spite of its dated particulars -- the fixation on the bomb, the willful effrontery of the graphic gay imagery.

Formalists remain outraged by the manic rush of words, so many of them deliberately ugly, colloquial, ungrammatical , or all three . Moralists remain appalled by the wanton behavior of the narrator and his extended circle of cultural anarchists, ``the best minds of my generation."

The poem is as much a part of college (and high school) curricula as Freud and Malcolm X. It may well be, as Luc Sante suggests, ``the last poem to hit the world with the impact of news and grip it with the tenacity of a pop song."

Compiled by Jason Shinder, a poet, writing professor at Bennington College, and longtime assistant to Ginsberg, ``The Poem That Changed America" features essays by such noted and wide-ranging writers as Andrei Codrescu, Rick Moody, Marge Piercy , and Robert Pinsky. It covers a catalog of themes nearly as exhaustive as Ginsberg's famed, breathless litany of ``angelheaded hipsters" and their frantic quests ``for the ancient heavenly connection": from the poem's sexuality, spirituality, politics , and its many academically ``acceptable" influences to recollections of first, often life-changing, encounters with the work.

Ginsberg's extreme magnanimity is a recurring notion, from his gentle urging of a nervous young Village Voice reporter on her first assignment (at Jack Kerouac's funeral) to his affinity for people of all kinds.

``He loved putting on his suit and being soft-spoken and agreeable and attentive," recalls longtime New Yorker correspondent Jane Kramer, who wrote an early book about the poet. ``He loved to épater la bourgeoisie by being just like them, and actually he felt quite tender toward what he called `groovy rich ladies.' " He was, writes Sante, the author of ``Low Life," who lived for years in the same East Village apartment building as his subject, ``literally Christ-like: wandering the world healing the lame and the halt, distributing loaves and fishes, being alternately hailed and jeered."

The jeering, some of these writers admit, could be all too easy at times. Phillip Lopate writes that as a young man he was quick to laugh at the poem's indulgence: ``In retrospect, I think I may have been threatened by its intense emotions, and deaf to its more ironic registers."

Likewise, Sven Birkerts notes that Ginsberg's hippie-era celebrity put him off the poem that had earlier sent such an electric charge through his young mind: Ginsberg ``had grown into an avuncular pop icon, all finger cymbals and rolling waves of `Ommmm' that I could not take seriously."

Ginsberg, who died in 1997, would have embraced these misgivings as he sought to engage his detractors. For all its affirmations, writes Newsweek senior editor David Gates, one of the most perceptive of the book's contributors, `` `Howl' . . . is a profoundly oppositional poem, and it counts on being opposed."

Some of the essays take the form of academic treatise, attempting to reconcile the poet's reputation as the chief perpetrator, for better or worse, of unbridled free-form poetry with his prodigious appetite for the classics. For lay readers, technical discussions of the author's use of catachresis, zeugma , and transferred epithet may seem a bit much.

But Pinsky, the former poet laureate and an unabashed fan, rather succinctly identifies ``Howl" as ``the world's least postmodern poem. Pain, rage, terror, panic heartfelt and body-felt without protective irony or afterthought or sneaking reservations," he writes.

If ``Howl" were to be published tomorrow, he suggests, it might carry the same wallop it had back in 1956: It would be a critique not only of a world still struggling with its Moloch -- Ginsberg's personification of the industrial ``machine" -- ``but also, implicitly, of our postmodern cool."

At its heart -- and a very big heart it is -- ``Howl" still comes to us in direct contrast to the flip, detached, irresponsible pose the Beat Generation was often accused of striking. As the writer and punk provocateur Richard Hell once said of Ginsberg, the poet was ``a one-man generation."

James Sullivan is the author of ``Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon," to be published next month. He lives in Amesbury.

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