“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
This is the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” and it thrills me every time I read it. “Howl” is about the “generation” Ginsberg refers to, the Beat Generation of the 1950s, and what they symbolize. They were the heralds of the most powerful, youth-based counterculture movement that America has seen, and the values of the Beats, and their successors in the 1960s and ’70s, have come to influence my own perspective on our world.
My high school has none of the youth activism that I read about in accounts of days gone by. It doesn’t have the underground newspaper my mother’s high school had, or the student protest my father took part in. I constantly find myself in the position of looking back 40 years to rediscover the questioning attitude that seemed to embody adolescence a generation ago.
It might seem like I’m living in a fantasy world. In the 21st century, young people often see “the ’60s” in a romanticized light: as a decade spent holding hands in a circle, singing “All You Need Is Love.” But Ginsberg, in writing “Howl,” left the “grit” in. The first line of the poem is its most striking, and yet it’s a line of desperation, of young people washed out by the repressive sameness of postwar culture. It’s this desperation that drives the rest of the poem, and indeed the next two decades.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’m desperate now: to strike out into new territory, to stand out from the mainstream, to pursue my myriad dreams and desires. I look at what developed from the desperation of Ginsberg’s generation as a promise that I can do something real with my tumult of adolescent emotions. “The best minds” of someone else’s generation have given me all the hope in the world for me and mine.