Allen Ginsberg, America, American Exceptionalism, American literary Canon, anal penetration, Beat Poetry, Conformity, Daniel Radcliffe, Douglas Sadownick, Harry Potter, Harry Potter getting fucked in the ass, history, Homosexuality, Homosexuality in 1950s, HOWL, Individual Will, Kill Your Darlings, Literature, Male Sexuality, Masculinity Studies, Poem, Poetry, Queer Male Identity, Sex Between Men, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality
Watching Harry Potter get fucked in the ass was when I officially knew that my childhood was over.
Kill Your Darlings is a beautiful movie about Allen Ginsberg as a young man, finding himself, his sexuality, and his creative voice while attending college and meeting the group that would become the Beat writers who would usher in a new age of American writers and voices before they all collectively began to implode. Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg, and near the end of the film the reader gets to watch him go to a Jazz bar, pick up a gorgeous hot blonde stud, take him back to a hotel room, and then get fucked in the ass. I had grown up alongside Radcliffe because I was eleven years old when the Harry Potter books came out, and I watched the films and read the books at the same time he was growing up. Harry Potter mattered so much to me because I was able to see another young man dealing with growing up and dealing with the pain in the ass(*snort*) of puberty at the same time as me. And so watching a man I had grown up with gasp and sigh as another grown man pumped his cock into him was a moment of serious reflection.
It was also a chance too to recognize a newly formed homoerotic fixation with the man, but that’s a conversation for Tumblr…Or at least it used to be.
Before Luke Goebel walked into the desert with his dog Jewly and disappeared from my life completely he managed to teach me a lot. I can’t remember much of it, the man always seemed to either be communicating in a series of unintelligible grunts or else bardic YAWPS that seemed echo down the halls of the academic institution he taught for. But in the few small moments when he would speak at a readable pitch he often spoke about the works of other writers and their work, one of them being Allen Ginsberg. On one day, in particular, he stopped class to pull up Ginsberg reading America, and as the man spoke he would pause bringing attention to cultural references and economic philosophies that were supposed to be contained underneath the strange declarations the man was speaking.
HOWL, was something else entirely.
To be honest, I can’t even remember all the finer detailed points of the lecture, I just remember Luke barking the word Moloch over and over again. But somewhere in all of that the poem just hit me and sunk a hook into my brain. I could feel the power of the words, even if they didn’t all make sense. And because it’s me, I suspect the fact that Ginsberg was gay there was something beautifully queer in the poem that inspired what T.S. Eliot refers to as the “mermaid songs” or what Alison Bechdel describes as a “siren song.”
That’s just my way of saying I knew or felt there was something gay in the poem and so I was drawn to it.
HOWL, much like Fahrenheit 451 or To Kill a Mockingbird, seems to embody the idea of Banned Books because shortly after it was published copies of the books were seized as they were sent over by the London publisher, the owner of City Light books a man by the name of Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao was arrested for selling the book to undercover policemen, and a major trial took place which has been immortalized largely because of now iconic line “I don’t know how to define what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” HOWL was eventually cleared of such charges but to this day few teachers possess the audacity to actually tackle teaching the poem.
Describing the dramatic situation of HOWL, or what the poem is about, is difficult because it’s not a narrative in the traditional sense. Simply put, the poem is written mostly in a kind of free verse akin to Walt Whitman, and it’s mostly Ginsberg telling his reader about a series of disjointed scenarios that he’s seen over the course of his life. Each of these scenarios deals with people who have, in some form or capacity, had their will broken by the conformist society which dominated America at the time of the writing.
He begins with what is still one of the most memorable opening lines in literature:
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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall (9-10).
I suspect part of life is watching the mad geniuses of youth slowly die off, or at least surrender their wills to the necessary conformity of life. Part of the initial appeal of HOWL for me was the sense of truth the poem had. It felt real. The first time I read the poem was in college and I was surrounded by the idealism that comes with being in that space. My life at the time was reading books, having ideas about said books, and dreaming of the incredible feeling of destiny my life had. I was going to be a teacher, and a writer, and so were all of my friends. There were a great many writers in the English program at UT Tyler, or editors, or in far too many instances education majors who just needed a major. This last group didn’t phase me because the people I spent the most time with were writers and damned good ones at that. A few of them were, in my estimation, some of the greatest writers of this next generation. Which is why, after college, and even to some extent during that time, I recognized the painful fact that not everyone was so committed to my mad-cap feeling of destiny. People began to graduate, people stopped writing, people stopped reading, and I was left, seemingly, the only one still buying into the hype.
I watched so many talented people leave college and abandon their craft. What I didn’t see, however, was that many people still managed to find happiness, but at the time I couldn’t see that. To me, I had watched the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”
Conformity is, by itself, not a vice in any true sense. It’s only ever something malevolent when it’s used against another human being. As I’ve grown, and seen so many of my friends flourish in their new professions my original idealism has softened significantly. It doesn’t matter if a poet sells insurance if he’s happy and living a life of his own choosing, and likewise, it doesn’t matter if a novelist is pursuing a degree in nursing instead of pursuing her Ph.D. The purpose of HOWL was not simply to call to attention to the woes of artists and philosophers, it was designed more to address the conflict of the human spirit.
The 1950s is often heralded as a time of simplicity, prosperity, and greatness in terms of American ideals. It’s a time that is far often romanticized by the people who lived during that time, or more accurately, the middle class to rich white people of that time. Beneath the veneer of American prosperity however, there was a real conflict because if you were not privileged and white life could be horrifying and crushing. It was a period marked by its racial bigotry towards African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Women lived lives of quiet desperation for something more. Homosexuality was considered a vice, often equated with pederasty, and could even land someone in a mental institution where they could be tortured or even lobotomized. On top of all of this, there was also the Anti-Communist scare run largely by Senator Joseph McCarthy which ruined the lives and careers of countless Americans. This is not to say that the whole of the 1950s was an endless period of suffering, there were plenty of people legitimately concerned about all of these atrocities, but what cannot be denied was that, leading up to the publication of HOWL, the United States was a nation dominated by the need to confirm. Those who did not, tended to suffer.
The history of the poem was important to me, but as I recently read it again for I believe the seventh or eighth time I really dug into the fact that HOWL is really gay.
One of my favorite passages, and also the passage that tends to be the most quoted by prudent observers and censors, just lays Ginsberg’s desire bare and stands as one of the first truly open demonstrations of same-sex desire in American Literature:
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,
who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the oneeyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom,
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness,
who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake, (13-14)
I really wish I could remember the first time I read this line because it was one of the first times I’d ever heard a writer frankly describe anal sex between men. “Gettingfucked in the ass” is an expression I’d hear in comedies or dramas, but no writer before had ever described it as something enjoyable, or beautiful, or even as a facet of identity. Yet here was Ginsberg talking about men who found other men sexually attractive and fucking each other in the ass and he wasn’t using it to be shocking, or at least only shocking, it was a simple statement of identity.
And the reader may immediately interrupt and ask so what? Who cares that Ginsberg talked about guys fucking, we’re living in a period where you can google “guys fuck” and get literally millions of images, videos, and short stories, and novels, and even now major films about just that topic. There’s nothing revolutionary about talking about men having sex with each other.
My response to my contester is, yes there’s nothing revolutionary about that sentence by today’s standards. In this age when homoeroticism between men is not something shocking, but simply part of culture and society, and when there are literally millions of images and videos of men having sex available for free on the internet, this statement is just that, a statement. It’s hard to be inspired by something that is now seemingly everywhere. But I’d ask my contester to consider what I’ve said already about conformity.
In Douglas Sadownick’s book Sex Between Men he discusses the complexities of eroticism between men, and how men have thought of sex with other men during the latter half of the twentieth century. Focusing on the 1950s he observes very simply what acknowledgment could mean for men:
Gays were so oppressed that they dared not acknowledge the oppression. To admit to self-hatred was to be overwhelmed by it. To admit to dick-lust was to be a slave to it. If they had sex, they felt “loose.” If they didn’t have sex, they felt “uptight.” (70).
As for Ginsberg himself, sexuality was not always an easy path to tread. For while he established a cultural and sexual foundation for acknowledgment of desire, he often floundered as Sadownick puts it:
Throughout the 1950s, Ginsberg became a nerdy gay, Athropos, a Primal Gay Man who was also a Primal Doormat for the straight male god. With the mixing and matching of drugs, sex, cosmic thinking, and homo eros, he both foreshadowed the ‘60s and conjured them. Of course, the time —the straight Stanley Kowalski-football types for whom he fell—didn’t allow him easy revelry He was not always fulfilled. “If you want to know my true nature,” he wrote to Kerouac, “I am at the moment one of those people who goes around showing his cock to juvenile delinquents.” (71).
Where do I fall into HOWL, and why bother writing about it. Poetry, for me, is powerful not only when artists are able to play with the form and establish new tricks for future writers, it’s powerful when even after a hundred years, or a thousand, or even just 62 years the reader is able to say while they’re reading it, “Yeah, that feels right.” I remarked to a friend over coffee the other day, in one of my more pathetic-poetic insights that I’m a “cocksucker who can’t suck cock.” The major reason is marriage which I don’t regret for one minute, my wife has made me the man I am today, but beneath this sentiment was the far more important realization that I often feel contained.
I am not a fairy by any means. I don’t know the different types of fabrics, I don’t know the different types of furniture, and I never watch Ru-Pauls Drag Race, but I have, in the last few months begun to call myself more and more a “queen.” I’m finding myself more limp-limp-wristed when I talk, I always leave the house wearing my rainbow button, and I’ve taken the initiative to wear my rainbow glasses to work as often as I can. These are small demonstrations that are fun and satisfying because they feel like I’m being myself rather than just being what I think I “need to be” to be ignored and left alone. I’m recognizing, however, that as I age I spend far too much time wondering how “out” that I’m “allowed” to be. Part of this is just the nature of work; until I get hired by the Museum of Sexuality I have to be professional and wear a shirt and dress pants to work instead of glitter, tassels, and man-panties. But another part of it is living in East Texas for most of my life I have always felt hostility to anything, let’s call it fabulous.
My hometown is not an accommodating atmosphere for queer people, or at least my caliber of queer.
And so I find myself feeling always like I am confirming, being something else, being someone else, while my true self is howling away in my heart, desperate to be himself. And so reading HOWL again, I felt myself aware that I might even though I am living in a time where Queer men can be themselves, and live their sexuality without too much fear of social reprisal, I have lived a life defined by conformity denying my erotic truth. And I hate it.
Reading HOWL isn’t an opportunity though to be quashed by regrets. I have sat on my queerness often but writing more and more, and discussing it more and more with my friends, I’m ready to fight back. Or at least, I’m ready to own me and be me. The conformity which has often defined my existence is something that can’t be undone, but it doesn’t have to define the narrative. Nor does it have to define the reader’s narrative.
Every year, once a year, I let Allen Ginsburg fuck me in the ass with his words. And every year, once a year, I think about how far I’ve come. I’m no longer a closet-case terrified about the fact that I jerk off to pictures of men on the internet. Now I’m sort of person who brings a stuffed llama to Pride Parades and smiles at work when people compliment my rainbow glasses.
And returning briefly to Daniel Radcliffe. My wife makes fun of me for my crush on the man, but in my defense I think it’s a sign of maturity to finally acknowledge that, during puberty, I might have entertained a small fantasy in which both of us found ourselves in the “Room of Requirement” with a bed, a hot tub, and a pack of Trojans might have been just what we needed at that exact moment.
Childhood might be a long period of fantasy, but adulthood is at least acknowledging the fantasy was rooted at least somewhat in reality.
All quotes cited from HOWL were provided by the hardback Pocket Poet Series 40th Anniversary Edition. If the reader would like to read the entirety of the poem I have also provided a link to Poetry Foundation’s website below where the poem can be found and read:
I’ve included below a link to Allen Ginsberg reading HOWL in case the reader would care to listen to the man himself deliver his own poem. In my experience poets tend to be shitty readers, they always sound brain-dead or emotionless, but Ginsberg deserves your attention if only for ten minutes. There is no poem so incredible as HOWL.
I’ve included a few links to articles below that are about Howl and it’s influence. Please enjoy:
And here, of course, is Ginsberg himself reading his poem. Enjoy:
Just for the final Record, and I want this to be clear, Daniel Radcliffe is a very fine actor and a constant source of personal inspiration for making your life what it is. And I just wanted, before I became even more of a self-parody to my reader, to explain carefully that I am not erotically obsessed with the man. If I was going to get involved with anybody from the Harry Potter films, it would obviously be Matthew Lewis…unless they both had a free weekend, and one of them suggested we spend it at one of their beach houses. And maybe when we got there someone would suggest skinny dipping, and by that point everybody would be super drunk, and as the moonlight shined off of our bodies and we all felt the sheer sensual grace of the moment one thing might lead to another and three of us might…might…
Oh, excuse me, I was somewhere else.
My god, I’m such a ridiculous queen.