As I read more and more about what it meant to be a gay man in any decade of the 20th century, I become immersed in a language. Sometimes that means just picking up enough in context, or inferring enough from the slang of our own era, to know what someone means when he talks to another man in a bar, using words the undercover cops wouldn’t know. Sometimes I see someone give me a funny look in conversation, and I realize I’ve used a turn of phrase natural in the 1950s but completely anachronistic—and perhaps offensive—in our time. And sometimes—as happened just yesterday—it’s not so much basic comprehension that I gain, but a sense of what greater significance simple words had to someone living in a different time and place and social context.
I’ve read, or listened to a recording of, Ginsberg’s “Howl” more times than I can count. My iTunes says I’ve listened to my favorite recording of Ginsberg reading “Howl” (yes, I have more than one) 19 times, but I’m sure that’s not accurate. It doesn’t count the number of times I’ve listened to just Part I, my favorite part, and stopped before I reached the end of the track. It doesn’t count the times I listened to one of the other versions instead, for a change (though I find the other versions jarring, because I’m so used to Ginsberg’s cadences in the first version). And it doesn’t count the times that I’ve opened one edition or another and stared at the pages, passing my eyes over words obscene and sublime, or perhaps sublimely obscene; the times I’ve typed those words out on an electric typewriter, or quoted them in conversation, or added them as epigrams at the start or finish of my essays as they happen to take on temporarily a significance that informs what I’m trying to get across.
Last night I was listening to Part I of “Howl” again, trying to fall asleep, as I do at least a few nights a week. I tune out a bit, usually, when I do this—sometimes I murmur along with my favorite parts, but usually I just let Ginsberg’s voice lull me. I tuned back in for this part:
who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,
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 and the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blonde & 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 one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom,
This passage is preceded by a section about young political radicals, and alludes to their naïveté without condemning it; it is followed by a hymn to the heterosexual essence of Neal Cassady, Ginsberg’s great unrequited love. And in looking for details about the political movements or characters that made up the Beat Generation, I’ve never really paid much attention to that above passage. Despite its prurient nature, it never struck me as particularly interesting.
But all it takes is some conversance in stereotypes of gay culture (not to put a negative connotation on “stereotype”; it’s just what they are), and you realize how exciting it is that Ginsberg is including all these things. He puts a humorous, light-hearted, camp spin on being arrested in a police raid. He applies the same sense of joie de vivre to bikers and sailors, and to sex in parks and bathhouses—marred only by that sob in the “Turkish Bath.” And then, of course, the poem turns to the essentially pathetic (in the sense of pathos, though maybe I’m not using that word correctly) underbelly of this whole situation; it invokes loss and traitorousness and all that other stuff Ginsberg must be feeling as he goes on to sing to “N. C., secret hero of these poems.” This was 1956. Ginsberg hadn’t yet morphed into the Great Icon of Homosexuality he would become. His journals from both the period in which he was writing and the period he was writing about reek of that tortured self-psychoanalysis that characterizes how a lot of gay men in the ’40s and ’50s tried to make sense of their lives. But still. Still there is this sense of what fun, what larks, what silliness can be had if you giggle your way through the maneuverings of your tortured soul. And still he was not afraid—even in 1956—to share that bubbling of joy.
On the live recording I have, there’s a ripple of laughter in the background when Ginsberg, then in his mid-60s, solemnly intones lines like “scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,” and in the past when I heard that laughter I thought they were giggling because he said “semen.” I thought they were behaving the way most people do when a prurient subject is raised. But knowing what I know now, being conversant in some tropes, I’m not so sure of that. This time the laughter sounded entirely different: it sounded relieved, this outburst of held-in breath that is thrilled this sagacious, bearded man proposes to “scream with joy” when engaging in a bout of anal sex; that in 1975 (whence the recording dates), it is finally possible to publicly agree on delight in bikers and sailors. It’s almost as if they’re screaming with joy with him.
I read books where anonymous interviewees talk about holding papers over their faces in police raids of New York bars. I read accounts of gay life at mid-century written in the 1990s, where the participants are still afraid to reveal themselves. I watch old movies filled with references so coded they got through the Hollywood censors; I read the letters and diaries of famous figures, some of whom were closeted until they died and those letters and diaries were revealed. And I follow the news religiously and sometimes despair that America will ever change, that gay public figures will ever have any civil rights, much less be able to admit that they have sex lives like straight public figures do.
But 52 years ago, when he published “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg launched himself onto the national scene with an obscenity trial about what continued for the rest of his life, and long after, to be his most famous work. He stood in a witness box and defended his right to “scream with joy.” He read “Howl” again and again, and in my recording he reads for a group of students, decades before homosexuality was decriminalized in this country. And yet he asserted his right to “scream with joy” and the students laughed—not at him, as I’d once thought, but perhaps with him.
That, to this cynical blogger and proto-historian, is incredible. It’s been nearly three years now, my relationship with Ginsberg and with “Howl,” and I’m so glad that after all that time the tools that I gather, and the codes that I learn, continue to dig up more things inside the head and the life of that wonderful man.