To Howl: A Feminist Take on Ginsberg's Howl

Amy Newman's Howl embraces a poetic form that has been exclusive to male poets.Newman's transgressive Howl tresspasses a poetic form that has been exclusive property of Allen Ginsberg. Newman asserts that women, unlike their male counterparts, are not entitled to the "epic wandering" that is the male writer's prerogative. In particular, Newman scrutinizes the male-centric Beat poem, Howl, by Allen Ginsberg. The Beat movement was a notoriously misogynistic genre, where women poets were only portrayed through what Newman calls the "rear-view mirror,". While Newman's version of Howl microscopically investigates gender imbalance in the writing community, on a larger scale, her poem is an example of Literary Activism. As Newman invigorates Ginsberg's poem, she shows her readers that this form, or any poetic form for that matter, is accessible to any poet who aims to facilitate social progress.

As it turns out, Ginsberg's Howl, is a form and structure that is inhabitable, accessible to all types of writers. As Newman talks about in her interview, as a professor, she'd had students write their own Howl, and that it provoked exciting, passionate language and content. At one point, it occurred to her to try her own hand at it. In doing so, Newman makes a safe passageway for diverse voices to emerge, reclaiming power from the white patriarch of poetry.

When it comes to structure (stream-of-consciousness, long run-ons, very little punctuation), energy (exuberant, passionate, tragic), and indelible one-liners, ("the UTI of the Punishing God who decided who wins," "who felt the embryo always crunching futures,"), Newman's Howl exquisitely pays tribute to Ginsberg's original. It's tempting to compare and contrast. I'm inclined to draw a Venn diagram: where do these circles overlap, where do they separate? Yet, I think Jonah Raskin provides enough context about Ginsberg's impact on Newman's poem.

Newman's Howl opens, like the original: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by," and then Newman moves into the bondage of the modern woman. These women were destroyed by "wedding planners, dieting, in shapewear." These college educated women were allowed to enjoy "the sensual indulgence" of university life. This indulgence stopped there. Women then took "the lonely exit ramp on the nature"; in other words, women turned to motherhood, marriage, and the demon of domesticity. This "lonely ramp," is especially harsh for women writers, artists, as to not sacrifice some of your art for motherhood is often unheard of. While the father, the man who only wants to see his DNA reflected, thinks nothing of abandoning the family for his urge to wander.

Newman reverently conjures female writers just as Ginsberg howled upon the male writers he was so enamored by. Sylvia Plath's apparition is extremely recognizable. Newman alludes to both Plath and her husband Ted Hughes profusely. Newman writes about their marriage when describing Plath as "star-spangled lost in her housebound Eden...writing & nursing." In the next breath, she portrays Hughes as "[dipping] a pen quite elsewhere repeatedly...who burned her novel...a second Bell Jar."

While critics might argue that Newman's Plath-allusions reveal nothing new, that perhaps for too long we, the women poets, writers, and artists, have hanged Hughes. Shouldn't we just let him R.I.P.? After all, remember how he wrote all those Birthday Letters for Plath? I can imagine male professors (bloodless poets), sitting in their stifling, airless faculty offices, shaking their head at this persistent dialogue, debate. Let it be clear: Plath's tragedy endures for her narrative reveals the devastating effects of torching the female artist.

I read Plath's 2000 unabridged journals. I was fortunate to attend Smith the year it was published and spoke personally with the archivists while I gazed at Plath's original, handwritten first drafts, lecture notes, and annotated passages of To the Lighthouse. One thing that Plath mentioned more than once throughout her journals (spanning from high school and then well into her marriage with Hughes), was that she did not think marrying a poet would be sound, after all, wouldn't she just be hiding in his literary shadow? Well, yes. But then the love affair with Hughes had its way. Once she bit his cheek, drawing blood, the damage was done. You can see this scene come to life in the film Sylvia.

Plath was skeptical of men in general. In her journal writing, she routinely critiques basic male privilege. As Newman points out in her interview, Plath wanted to "walk freely at night." In Plath's time, and now, and I quote feminist folk singer Holly Near, "A Lady don't go out alone at night." There was no way in which Plath could imagine moving freely in the world without being demolished. When Newman writes--echoing T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, who is himself echoing Shalespeare's Ophelia--"ah, ladies, good night, good night ladies," knowing readers hear Plath's voice, serving as the snare drum, signaling Newman's dramatic finale. From there, Newman brings in other female voices--mythological, historical, autobiographical--demanding we all howl upon the women before us, drawing from tragedy, carving out a frontier absent male-dominance.

Newman's Howl is an expression against male-dominated culture in general. This universal tone is established at once: Newman dedicates Howl to Toni Keller, a NIU student who was abducted and then murdered after taking a walk at the park. Newman teaches at NIU, and organically, unexpectedly, Keller visited the poem's landscape. Keller's presence, too, deeply echoes Plath's yearning to walk freely, firmly grounding the dangerous reality women face when we wander.