Genius breeds copycats, along with armies of critics armed to the teeth with words intended to slay literary reputations. No twentieth-century American poet of genius bred more imitators than Allen Ginsberg, except perhaps his friend and fellow Beat poet, Jack Kerouac, both of whom began their careers by imitating the elders in the tribe. Kerouac ratcheted up his voice and tried to sound like Thomas Wolfe and William Saroyan. Ginsberg played ventriloquist and copied the likes of Hart Crane and T.S. Eliot. The more Kerouac and Ginsberg copied classics such as You Can't Go Home Again and The Waste Land, the less they sounded like their cultural forefathers and the faster they found their own individual voices. The way to be original was by way of rejecting originality.
Kerouac hit his stride in 1957 with the publication of On the Road, a novel he'd slaved over for nearly a decade. Ginsberg reached his peak performance a year earlier, in 1956 when City Lights published Howl and Other Poems. In 1957, he became a household name when his work was prosecuted for obscenity. With notoriety and success came backbiting, backstabbing, and bloody rivalry. Three years after On the Road appeared on The New York Times bestseller list, John Updike cranked out Rabbit, Run, a novel about a high school basketball star who never moves emotionally beyond high school or the basketball court though he moves constantly. In an interview, Updike said that he wrote his novel in response to Kerouac's tale of hipsters and their cars to show "what happens when a young American family man goes on the road - the people left behind get hurt."
Ginsberg reared up nearly a whole generation of poets who insisted that like him they too saw "the best minds of their generation, destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked." But there were detractors almost everywhere one turned in academia and in little magazines such as Partisan Review that were aimed at professors and their graduate students.
In 1986, on the 30th anniversary of the publication of 'Howl', Christopher Buckley and Paul Slansky published a parody of Ginsberg's poem that they called "Yowl" and that begins,
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by stress frazzled overnight burn-out/jogging through suburban streets at dawn as suggested by the late James Fixx."
If Ginsberg meant to honor the insanity and the creativity of the hipsters of the 1940s, Buckley and Slansky aimed to reveal the hypocrisy and the fakery of the baby boomers of the 1980s. They were mean-spirited while Ginsberg was nostalgic and sentimental.
Now comes a new poem that begins word for word the same way that Ginsberg's masterpiece begins, though after the word "destroyed" it quickly veers off course with the phrase, "by wedding planners, dieting, in shapewear/dragging themselves in cute outfits through the freezer section for the semifreddo bender." It doesn't take a genius to realize that the author of the poem is a woman. Who else but a woman would write about wedding planners, dieting, and shapewear? No one but a woman could have written this "Howl." Indeed, her name is Amy Newman. She's a poet and a professor of English at Northern Illinois University. With uncommon gumption and real bravado, she calls her poem "Howl" and describes it as an "homage" and not a parody. Indeed, she doesn't mean to mock Ginsberg but to steal some of his thunder and fuse it to her world of a society gone awry.
Published in Poetry magazine in the July/August 2015 issue, this new "Howl" has attracted attention from Ginsberg fans, feminist critics, women poets and from the inner circle of Ginsberg devotees. Meanwhile, Allen Ginsberg's work goes marching on, nearly 20 years after his death in 1996. HarperCollins has just published The Essential Ginsberg, edited by biographer Michael Schumacher, with representative samples of a lifetime of work. Grove has issued Wait Till I'm Dead, a volume of previously unpublished poems that are edited by another Ginsberg scholar, Bill Morgan. Ginsberg wrote so much poetry from the 1940s to the 1990s that he couldn't possibly squeeze all of it into the volume titled Collected Poems.
But why, one might ask, read Newman's "Howl" when you can read Ginsberg himself in two new editions? For one thing because Newman offers a feminist version of "Howl." It's as though Allen Ginsberg -- who was never fixed in any single gender role and who moved from bisexual and homosexual to super boy, superman, tender son and sweet brother -- has come back on the page reincarnated as a woman. That's hard to believe, given the fact that Ginsberg called himself "a misogynist" and once told Kerouac, "I hate women." Both attitudes are in evident in his "Howl" in which women figure principally as shrews and as sex objects who are seduced and taken to bed, or the backseat of a car for "innumerable lays" by a man identified by the initials "N.C." and who is described as the "secret hero of this poem." No big secret there. N.C. = Neal Cassady, who also appears as the anti-hero of On the Road.
Professor Newman has ventured into enemy territory, slain the giant and at the same time paid tribute to his greatness. In the process, she has written a poem that mirrors "Howl," undermines the misogyny of "Howl" and that fires off some amazing verbal pyrotechnics of its own. From beginning to end, Newman's "Howl" is packed with compressed images and explosive language. There's raw energy and distilled wisdom in lines such as "who passed through universities with sensual indulgence addicts devoted to the indefinite space of maps and science labs while the committees shifted paperwork."
Like Ginsberg, Newman wasn't afraid to make a poem that offers a critique of a materialist culture, without adopting sociological or psychological clichés, and that adheres to her own vision. Like Ginsberg, Newman tells a story about a generation, not of men but of women. Like him, she's sensual and bookish, too, as in the lines,
who burned her novel this actually happened destroyed a second Bell Jar dedicated to/ him call her impossible but the leap from it must have been split-second/ maddening rapturous, who blew him three times and then his friend because it was hard to say no.
At times, Newman's images feel too dense and tightly compressed. She might have provided more breathing more for readers. Moreover, she doesn't have lines as memorable as the lines in Ginsberg's "Howl" including, "the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox" and "the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality." But give her poem time; her version of surrealism might age well.
Like Ginsberg who revised his "Howl" again and again, Newman revised hers. Unlike him, she didn't write under the influence of drugs such as marijuana, peyote and LSD, all of which he used to jump-start his imagination. "I don't write well under the influence of mind-altering substances," Newman told me. Moreover, unlike Ginsberg who met with a psychiatrist in San Francisco while writing "Howl," Newman wasn't in therapy when she turned on the creative juices to produce her homage to the master of Beat poetry. But like him she has known stage freight. "I have had performance anxiety," she said.
Now, when she teaches Ginsberg's "Howl," which she has been doing for years, she might ask her students to read her take on a generation of women destroyed by madness and more.
"Students fall in love with Ginsberg's poem," Newman said. "They recognize that it's not bullshit and that it's pure energy." There's no bullshit in Newman's epic poem either. Surely, Ginsberg would recognize her genius and welcome her into the tribe of American poets.
Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation, as well as six poetry chapbooks including Rock 'n' Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation.