“We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness.”
So wrote the great American mid-20th century modernist poet William Carlos Williams in 1956, in his introduction to the printing of Allen Ginsberg’s provocative and now famous poem “Howl.”
The poem that helped to change America.
The poem in which the young poet Ginsberg — heir to fellow gay poets Walt Whitman and Hart Crane — put his own queer shoulder to the wheel of history and found a new place of greater sexual freedom and personal liberation.
The poem Ginsberg first read the year before to a wildly cheering audience, for they must have intuitively understood that “some rough and shaggy beast was crouching towards America to be born,” in that reading at a San Francisco art gallery.
And now that poem will be read, with musical accompaniment, as “Howl in the City,” tonight and tomorrow night, July 23 and 24, at Busboys and Poets (5th and K streets, N.W.), in a partnership with the National Gallery of Art and the museum’s showing of Ginsberg’s photography on exhibit there through Sept. 6.
“We are blind,” Williams wrote in the opening pages of the City Lights Books edition of the poem, adding that “poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of angels.”
“Angel headed hipsters,” Ginsberg called his generation, but they were also “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he wrote, doomed by the blandness and blindness of the post-World War 2 years of conformity and conventionality and sexual singularity. And Ginsberg’s early masterpiece surely stands in the literary canon with T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” as well as Jack Kerouac’s own experiment in “beat” writing, the novelistic “On The Road” as a testimonial and confessional of the coming of age of a creative talent turned loose in a barren landscape, where the blind are leading the blind. And in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
Anne Waldman, who will read “Howl” as well as from some of her own poetry at both 8 and 10 p.m. each night, was by Ginsberg’s side through much of his life in his later, post-“Howl” years.
“I met Allen in 1967,” she told the Blade in an exclusive interview from Boulder, Colo., where she teaches each summer at Naropa University, the center of higher consciousness as well as learning she and Ginsberg helped to found in the 1970s.
“He was then still a very young poet when we met at the Berkeley poetry conference, and I worked with him extensively after that, in New York, and London and we spent summers together in the 1970s,” when she lived on his farm in Cherry Valley, N.Y. In 1974, she recalls, “we came out to Boulder for what we thought would be just a summer session, but we ended up founding the Kerouac School there and Allen ended up teaching there until his death,” in 1997 at age 70. The school continues with a year-round program of courses and is fully accredited for BA and MFA degrees in writing, psychology and contemplative studies, according to Waldman, who now lives in New York City except during summers when she returns to Boulder.
In addition to reciting the memorable lines from “Howl,” Waldman will read from her own recent published work, including poems from “Manatee/Humanity,” which she calls “an ecological hybrid poem” and is now available in a Penguin paperback.
Speaking of Ginsberg, she calls him “a prophet — he was prescient, he was a seer, a very appropriate word, in fact, invoked by the (French symbolist) poet Rimbaud.” So prescient in fact that Waldman points out how in “Howl” Ginsberg’s language seems eerily to forecast the events of 9/11, even the bodies falling from the World Trade Center towers as people leaped to their deaths.
Writing nearly 50 years earlier, Ginsberg invoked Moloch, the Old Testament Canaanite fire-god of destruction who, as Waldman said, “demanded that parents sacrifice their children in a ritual auto da fe,” or test of their faith, much like Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice his own son.
“Moloch,” wrote Ginsberg, “whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
“Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets … and antennae crown the cities!
“Moloch whose love is endless oil (and) whose soul is electricity and banks!
“Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving!”
“Allen was writing this section presumably under the influence of peyote,” says Waldman, “and it’s a shout towards the hold of ‘Moloch’ — this mind-control, tyrannical hold on our imagination and our freedom.”
Joining Waldman for each of the “Howl in the City” readings will be the musician Kyp Malone.