Fifty years after its publication by City Lights in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" still manages to provoke a diverse array of reactions from the reading public. Ridicule is common, as is enthusiastic devotion. Whether its reception is due to poetic merit or simple notoriety, one can't help but marvel at the fact that the poem has reached and influenced a vast worldwide audience.
The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later focuses on those who have drawn some kind of illumination from it, or those who had some kind of contact with Ginsberg and the cultural birth of the Beat Generation. The book is a collection of essays by many well-known writers, including Andrei Codrescu, Rick Moody, and Luc Sante.
Rick Moody's essay, "On the Granite Steps of the Madhouse with Shaven Heads," writes about the motivation the poem provided for him and his band when he was a student, and he suggests that punk's anti-authoritarian ideological stance is a direct descendent of "Howl".
Andrei Codrescu's essay, "'Howl' In Transylvania," recalls receiving a smuggled, translated copy of the poem in Romania—and the impact this had on both his attitude and his writing. "I had become instantly infected by an irresistible appetite for freedom," he writes, going on to describe how the poem made its way through the "light-starved minds" of his generation in all the countries of the Eastern Bloc.
But while there are many interesting ideas in The Poem That Changed America, there's only so much room in a collection like this for full elaborations of the poem's impact, which might have made some of the pieces more convincing. The especially illuminating essays fully plunge into one aspect of the poem—like Marjorie Perloff's excellent deconstruction, "'Howl' And The Language Of Modernism," which focuses entirely on interpreting the poem's specific poetic effects.
However, the book's strength still lies in the panoply of opinions, criticisms, and interpretations expressed, and should give new and seasoned readers of the poem plenty to think about.