Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Manuscripts Now Digitized & Put Online, Revealing the Beat Poet’s Creative Process

Some­how you have to imag­ine that, from its very open­ing — “I saw the best minds of my gen­er­a­tion destroyed by mad­ness, starv­ing hys­ter­i­cal naked, drag­ging them­selves through the negro streets at dawn look­ing for an angry fix” — Allen Gins­berg’s poem “Howl” sim­ply emerged ful­ly formed and launched itself per­ma­nent­ly into Amer­i­can cul­ture. But deep down we all know that no work, poet­ic or oth­er­wise, actu­al­ly does that, no mat­ter how wide­ly read it becomes, no mat­ter how vivid­ly it cap­tures a time and a place, no mat­ter how many gen­er­a­tions look to it as an exam­ple. Gins­berg had to work on “Howl,” and now, thanks to Stan­ford Libraries, we have an up-close way to see some of that work in progress.

“From its first pub­lic read­ing at the Six Gallery in San Fran­cis­co in Octo­ber 1955 to the noto­ri­ous obscen­i­ty tri­al that fol­lowed in the wake of its first pub­li­ca­tion in 1956,” writes Stan­ford Cura­tor for Amer­i­can and British Lit­er­a­ture Rebec­ca Wing­field, “the poem is indeli­bly tied to the Beat Gen­er­a­tion and their cri­tique of the staid morals and cus­toms of Eisen­how­er-era Amer­i­ca.”

Before all that, it began with a sev­en-page first draft writ­ten in Gins­berg’s North Beach apart­ment, gained a sec­ond sec­tion before that now-leg­endary Six Gallery read­ing, and final­ly, after Gins­berg tried out dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tion­al tech­niques and fol­lowed dif­fer­ent sug­ges­tions in search of a way to cap­ture Amer­i­ca as he saw it, evolved into a long poem com­pris­ing three sec­tions and a foot­note, pub­lished along­side oth­er works by City Lights Books as the paper­back that made him famous.

“The ‘Howl’ man­u­scripts and type­scripts in the Allen Gins­berg Papers,” which you can view online at Stan­ford Libraries, “doc­u­ment the for­mal devel­op­ment of the poem, trac­ing Ginsberg’s exper­i­ments with dif­fer­ent struc­tures and word­ing in each of the poem’s sec­tions.” These pre-“Howl” “Howl“s, man­u­scripts and type­scripts both, retain the cor­rec­tions and anno­ta­tions that reveal details about Gins­berg’s dis­tinc­tive cre­ative process. But giv­en the most well-known aspect of the poem’s con­struc­tion, that each line lasts as long as exact­ly one breath, a full under­stand­ing can only come from hear­ing it as well as read­ing it. You can hear Gins­berg’s ear­li­est record­ed per­for­mance of the poem, at Port­land’s Reed Col­lege (alma mater of Gins­berg’s Beat col­league Gary Sny­der) in 1956, at the top of the post, and a lat­er read­ing on record here. (The text of the com­plet­ed poem can be viewed here.) Look and lis­ten close­ly, and you’ll find that a cri de coeur, espe­cial­ly as Gins­berg cried it, demands delib­er­ate crafts­man­ship.

See the Howl man­u­scripts online here.

via Stan­ford News/Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing “Howl” (1956)

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Famous­ly Cen­sored Beat Poem, “Howl” (1959)

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celes­tial Home­work”: A Read­ing List for His Class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

Allen Ginsberg’s Hand­writ­ten Poem For Bernie Sanders, “Burling­ton Snow” (1986)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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