Howl And Other Poems

Allen Ginsberg

Fantasy Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Having a member of "the Pepsi generation" try and explain poetry from one of the fathers of "the Beat Generation" is almost like having Andrew "Dice" Clay be the keynote speaker at the national convention for NOW. The generation gap between myself and the works of such poets as Jack Kerouac, William S. Borroughs and Allen Ginsberg might keep me from understanding exactly what the poet was trying to say. (Boy, had I said this in my high school English Literature classes, I would have flunked for sure.)

So when Fantasy Records sent me the first CD release of Ginsberg's classic album "Howl" And Other Poems, I have to admit I was hesitant about listening to it. It's not that I hate poetry - some of the best works I've heard have been in modern-day poetry "slams" held around Chicago. But I didn't know both what to expect from Ginsberg and how I should react to his works and words.

Truth is, you don't have to understand exactly what Ginsberg is trying to say - hell, you don't have to agree with a word of it. But "Howl" And Other Poems is a monument to the joy of the English language, the melody of its words - and the freedom of expression we so often take for granted.

A poem that found itself the center of a Supreme Court case deciding what defines obscene or pornographic work, "Howl" is an auditory landslide on your brain. Twenty-plus minutes of Ginsberg praising his generation's co-patriots while damning the system that was threatening to wreck havoc on society in general. The language contained herein could be seen as strong - but frankly, it's nothing compared to some of the shit that passes for "music" today. It's hardly titillating, even scandalous, in 1998, but in the mid-'50s, hearing words like "cock," "balls," "cunt" and "fuck" in poetry was a lead brick over the head of the literature snobs.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But those who cried "foul" over the language missed the point Ginsberg was trying to make. He was speaking in the vernacular of the beatniks, the ones who got the message the rest of us missed. That's too bad, 'cause the message of Ginsberg was delivered for all of us - his words were supposed to serve as a verbal alarm clock in the face of a happy facade about life we had built after World War II. His words were those of disenchantment, and a call to action - if only more people alive at that time had listened.

Make no mistake, "Howl" is a difficult (albeit quick) listen - and "Footnote To Howl" makes it a little more difficult, but is a logical progression for Ginsberg.

Of the remaining eight poems on "Howl" And Other Poems, probably the best-known are "Kaddish (Part 1)," a verbal tribute to all those we've loved and lost and the demons they faced in life, and "America," a scathing diatribe against the Cold War image of our country (as well as historical references to Russia and the early days of Communism).

The short poems (such as "In The Back Of The Real"), which clock in at under a minute each, don't seem to be effective tools for Ginsberg to deliver his messages. Others, like "Transcription Of Organ Music," are works which welcome you to sit back and just be taken into the world that Ginsberg pined for.

While I don't think that "Howl" And Other Poems is an album which is geared to race toward the top of the "Billboard" charts, it is a powerful portrait of the Beat Generation circa 1959. The recording quality of a few tracks (recorded in Chicago at the "Big Table Reading") is shaky, at best - and one volume drop almost makes you think that a certain word has been "bleeped". (It wasn't - I found a copy of "Howl" elsewhere on the Internet, and the word was indeed "king". The volume drop was just a coincidence.) The studio work is of incredible quality - one almost wonders if these pieces were indeed recorded in 1959 or right before Ginsberg's death.

"Howl" And Other Poems might have a limited audience, but it's worth investing the time and brain power to get through this disc - if only to experience Ginsberg's hypnotizing delivery for the very first time like I did. Any student who is studying "Howl" or Ginsberg would be wise to check this disc out - reading the words on paper is one thing, but hearing them from the author the way they were meant to be delivered is another.

Rating: B+

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Fantasy Records, and is used for informational purposes only.