Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I'm with you in Rockland, where you're madder than I am...

It's National Poetry month. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but here it is, nevertheless.

There was a book published recently celebrating the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. It's a lot of reflection on the poem and its social impact. So, I thought I'd offer up my own reflection on the poem here. Because it's my blog, and it's April, and I can.

I can remember specific circumstances surrounding my discovery of lots of literature. I remember stealing a copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy from my father. I don't recall where I was when I started reading Catcher in the Rye, but I remember the classroom I was sitting in when I finished it. For some reason, every Vonnegut book has a particular smell my brain has associated with the first time I read them. Whenever I re-read Slaughterhouse Five, I smell oatmeal. Cat's Cradle is sunscreen. There are others, but I won't bore you.

However, I don't have any particular recollection of the first time I read Howl. I wish I did, but it's not to be. I don't even remember what prompted me to pick it up in the first place. It was probably my father talking about the poem. Or talking about Ginsberg himself. They ran in some of the same circles in San Francisco back in the day. No doubt that was the initial inspiration. I also can't remember when I first read it. It was before I turned 16 certainly, but it could have been any time before that. I was always a precocious reader. I do remember the first time I went to City Lights in San Francisco and spoke to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. To commemorate that, I bought a t-shirt there that had an image of the classic cover of Howl on the front, and the words "starving hysterical naked" on the back. Later that year, I wore the shirt to school and was nearly forced to turn it inside-out when someone narked on me for having a shirt that said "naked" on it. Thankfully, I was able to make the math teacher in question feel stupid for not knowing the poem, and she let it go. Another time, I was wearing the shirt in a music store, and an artsy looking guitar player saw it and quoted the first two lines to me. I fell instantly and completely in love with him. And stayed there for nearly a whole ten minutes.

But, as a result of not remembering when or why I first read the poem, it feels like it's just always been a part of me. I can recite the first 4 or 5 paragraphs as easily as breathing. It's been a while, but I can probably still pull out the first 2 or 3 pages with just a little more effort. It's comforting. It hits me every once in a while, and my inner voice rattles away with 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....

Then I stop at angelheaded hipsters for a while. I love that phrase. I love to say it, I love to hear it, I love to read it, I love to write it. Angelheaded hipsters. It's perfect. There's no other way to describe the way those words make me feel, other than to say they thrill me. I get an actual physical reaction to it. Once that wears off it's back to 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 the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...

Contemplating jazz is another phrase that makes me indescribably happy to be alive and literate and capable of hearing and seeing and smelling and tasting and feeling and speaking.

And the whole damn poem is full of treasures like that for me. What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Reading or hearing Howl (if you haven't heard a recording of Ginsberg reading Howl himself, you're not a complete person yet) makes me feel the same way you might feel when you see human chromosomes under a serious microscope, or look at a masterpiece up close, or when you watch someone or something take their first breath, or their last. Like it's not all just a coincidence. I'm sure that makes me sound flaky. But I don't much care. Some things are more important to me than looking flaky.

It also makes me wonder what the poem would be like if Ginsberg were in my generation. Madness has gone severely out of style. We're way more into over-medicating.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by apathy, britney, cougars, depilatories, ego, flame, greed, hurricanes, Intel, jenga, kegs, listerine, magazines, nite clubs, Ohio, players, QVC, righteousness, salvation, tranquilizers, uniforms, velcro, worry, X, Yanni,* take your pick. I'd give my left arm for a little bit of madness.

*zoos and zippers have done no wrong here. move along.


Blogger Ian McGibboney said...

Overmedication itself is madness. But I defintely agree that we could use some intesresting madness at least.

April 05, 2006 8:47 PM  
Blogger Flamingo Jones said...

It may be madness, but it's not poetic.

April 05, 2006 10:09 PM  
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While reading most of the James Patterson books back-to-back in high school, I was also listening to the Beatles obsessively so each book is closely associated with a particular CD. Listening to any song from Magical Mystery Tour brings back memories of Kiss the Girls, etc. It's freaky, but I like it.

April 09, 2006 7:16 PM  

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