Sunday, May 07, 2006

From a Howl to a Snark

Howl is fifty years old.

In a perhaps too dismal essay, David Barber complains that people know more about the image of Howl than the erudition and exuberance behind it. Ginsburg had his issues with American society, with the military industrial complex, and the law. But, he was a lover of poetry, declamation and song. He was part of a tradition, of many traditions actually.

We are talking about a poem, after all, that's modeled on ancient prosodic blueprints, bardic and Biblical: the litany, the psalm, the dithyramb, the catalog. It's a poem whose original working title was ''Strophes," knowingly harking back to the incantatory template of Attic choral odes and Athenian tragedies. It's a poem inescapably cosponsored by those two magisterial 19th-century rhapsodists, Blake and Whitman-and not merely in its impassioned appropriation of their soundtracks (great rolling cadences, cascading refrains, margin-busting line measures) but also their mindscapes (ecstatic hyperbole, cosmic visions, declamatory speechifying). We are talking about a poem, in other words, that's animated by the most atavistic article of faith in the book-the power and glory of poetic utterance itself.

Today's readers are comfortable with the idea of Ginsburg as angry radical (instead of angelheaded hipster) becuase it's an image in line with their own lazy cynicism, but not one that fits the man himself. They know how to play subversive, but because they're fundamentally unable to take anything seriously, cannot possibly understand what it means to be subversive.

It's safer to exalt ''Howl"'s vehemence at the expense of its earnestness; it's easier to buy into its subversive scatalogical explicitness than to put stock in its subversive absence of irony.

Howl is still dangerous. And I think Barber doesn't realize that those readers who are willing to earnestly plumb it's meanings will return. The clerisy isn't dead- just sleeping.

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