Berfrois has just published “Growl“, the title poem from my adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. The following essay tells the story of how I came up with the idea to appropriate the famous 1955 Beat poem and turn it into a stark reflection of the present.
In the spring of 2014, curator Joseph Quintela invited me to take part in a reading he was going to host at the Undercurrent Project, a small venue in the East Village. Each participant was asked to write and bring an original haiku, a sonnet, and an elegy. I readily accepted the invitation but, ever the procrastinator, didn’t get around to even begin working on the three pieces until the day before the event. I managed to compose a whimsical haiku and a sonnet that mimicked the coiled prose and sardonic tone of Gertrude Stein but got nowhere when it came to writing an elegy.
After several hapless fits and starts, I scanned my books in search of inspiration. On a whim, I pulled out my old copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Perusing the title poem, it hit me that I was in effect looking at an elegy. Pressed for time, I decided to lift some key phrases from Howl and base my elegy on them. The famous opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” became “I saw the worst minds of my generation redeemed by money.” This decisive alteration was my breakthrough – I had finally found a directive.
At the reading on the following evening, the audience’s response to my elegy was so enthusiastic that I felt compelled to tackle rewriting Howl in its entirety, line by line. In the following months, I completely immersed myself in Howl. I wanted to find out for myself if this poem, still in print nearly sixty years after its first publication and supposedly rooted deeply in America’s collective consciousness, had stood the test of time. After reading up on its history, delving into manifold academic interpretations of it and listening to recordings of Ginsberg reciting it, I wondered if Howl, like many other classics of American literature (Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass comes to mind), had not become the victim of its own success.
I decided to conduct a test run with a group of students from The New School. Not very surprisingly, none of them had ever really read Howl, although all of them claimed to have heard of it, mostly via the recent Hollywood biopic starring James Franco as Ginsberg. Reading the poem in class, I realized that many of Ginsberg’s vintage references – the jukebox, the boxcars, the El, Benzedrine – carried little meaning for the students, while their own notion of a “hipster” was a far cry from Ginsberg’s free spirits and political radicals. Howl’s romantic final mantra (“Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!”) felt especially antiquated to them, accustomed as they are to the new thrills of revolutionary technology and its supposedly endless possibilities. What’s more, they found it hard to believe that this old sex-and-drugs anthem had once been considered enough of a threat to social mores to be tried for obscenity. All this confirmed that Howl, with its “platonic conversationalists,” “saintly motorists” and “human seraphim,” rings hollow to the ears of young adults today.
Ginsberg himself recognized that there might be a need to write an update to Howl. During a lecture at Naropa University in 1989, he confessed: “I keep thinking I would like to be able to write another ‘Howl.’ You know like taking the problems of the eighties, like ecology and the Moral Majority, and all that.” He continued: “But you know you can’t do that deliberately, it has to come accidentally almost.” I, however, had no qualms or apprehensions about writing “another” Howl – I have a long history of producing works that closely reference pre-existing paintings or texts: my notorious Pussy Painting is a grotesque mash-up of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde and Réné Magritte’s La trahison des images, and my first book, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart, is a postmodern adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. The revamped, or, rather, re-invented poem became my J’accuse, my open letter to a radically changed New York, a city that I dearly love and have called my home for nearly thirty years. I simply called it…Growl.
I began by making a crucial modification to my original rewrite of the poem’s opening line by changing its past tense to the present tense. This placed the entire Part One of Growl in the here and now. Next, I pushed the directive I had already devised for my elegy even further: whereas Howl had celebrated the anarchistic ethos of the romantic beatnik, Growl would denounce the epidemic spread of a cold-hearted value system created by a corrupt financial elite. In Part Two of Growl, I got down to the root of the problem and spelled it out by replacing Ginsberg’s biblical Moloch with another no less dangerous monster: Money.
Since all of Part Three of Howl is addressed to the poem’s dedicatee, fellow writer and mentor Carl Solomon, I had to choose my own dedicatee before tackling the third part of Growl. Unwittingly, I thought of the only Solomon I knew, award-winning author Andrew Solomon. As luck would have it, these two Solomons turned out to have more in common than just name and profession. Both men had not only been treated for clinical depression but also written about it in great detail: Carl had published an account of his shock-therapy treatment (Report from the Asylum: Afterthoughts of a Shock Patient) and Andrew is the author of The Noonday Demon, An Atlas of Depression, which became his first bestseller.
But I had another, more important reason for replacing Carl with Andrew. Heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, Andrew, whom I had first met in 1999 and who wrote a very nice blurb for my first book in 2013, is something of a modern-day Renaissance man: PEN President, high-society darling, progressive thinker, dandy, gay husband and devoted father, philanthropist and activist in LGBT rights, mental health and the arts – Andrew does it all. His status of a well-connected, privileged overachiever made him a perfect candidate for Part Three, in which I intended to take a sharp turn and distance myself from my dedicatee – unlike Ginsberg, who had pledged his sympathy and empathy with Carl in his. By amending Ginsberg’s incantation of “I am with you in Rockland” to “I am not with you in Gotham,” I wanted to highlight the growing chasm I perceived between Andrew’s class and self-reliant, bohemian artists like myself. I was well aware that this admission of differences could jeopardize my friendship with Andrew, whom I admire very much as a writer and who has always treated me with kindness and benevolence. But I was hopeful that he would understand that it was not my intention to personally corner or attack him.
Mustering all my courage, I sent him a copy of the finished poem, explaining that Growl was truly neither about him nor me but rather a satire and piece of social commentary that virtually called everybody, including myself, “phony.” To my great relief, Andrew graciously replied with a letter in which he not only thanked me for having dedicated Growl to him (although he candidly admitted to feeling both honored and insulted by it) but also found words of praise for its mix of irony and unbridled passion. Ginsberg himself had not been that lucky with his dedicatee: reportedly, Carl Solomon had some serious misgivings about Ginsberg’s unauthorized use of his name and personal history.
Emboldened by Andrew’s generous response, I thought, “Why stop here?” and promptly rewrote the other ten poems included in the original 1956 City Lights edition of Howl and Other Poems. This time however, after having labored for months over Growl, I took a lighter approach and completely let loose, distorting and perverting Ginsberg’s sometimes deadly earnest, early writings to my heart’s content.
When it came to choosing an epigraph for Growl and Other Poems that could match Ginsberg’s choice of Walt Whitman, I opted for the obvious and simply kept the original: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” After all, what else had I done if not follow Whitman’s exhortation? Only by ripping each and every hallowed word from the cult poem could I hope to provoke my contemporaries with a jolt that would do justice to Ginsberg’s historic, poetic outcry for humanity.