A 1956 letter from Lionel Trilling to Allen Ginsberg, responding to the manuscript of “Howl”:
I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull, for to say of a work which undertakes to be violent and shocking that it is dull is, I am aware, a well known and all too easy device. But perhaps you will believe that I am being sincere when I say they are dull. They are not like Whitman—they are all prose, all rhetoric, without any music. What I used to like in your poems, whether I thought they were good or bad, was the voice I heard in them, true and natural and interesting. There is no real voice here. As for the doctrinal element of the poems, apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago, and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.
Other fun facts to do with Trilling and Ginsberg that I discovered from the annotated edition of Howl edited by Barry Miles: Ginsberg took Trilling’s on Romantic literature and wrote a paper comparing Rimbaud and Keats; Ginsberg wrote in a letter to Richard Eberhart in 1956 that “I suffered too much under Professor Trilling, whom I love, but who is a poor mental fanatic after all and not a free soul”; in 1958 he told John Hollander that Trilling had a “tin ear” for poetry. Gasp!
I am struck by how young Ginsberg seems as he mails “Howl” manuscripts off to famous poets and professors, and then I remember that when he began to write “Howl,” he was only 28. I wonder if when I am 28 I will have already begun work on what people will consider my magnum opus, and I wonder if when I am 28 I will speak with such a naïve tone of self-assurance.