I wrote a letter to a cousin of mine ten years into serving a seventeen-year sentence in prison. I try not to dwell in sadness over my own condition for his sake, given his condition, nearly impossible for me to imagine, let alone endure. I loathe and despise my society’s appetite for imprisonment and detainment, yet writing this letter is one of the few things I’ve done to try to comfort a prisoner. “Better late than never?” asks the ego in hope of absolution as it lies on a couch reading about “Moloch the incomprehensible prison,” “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery.” Reading “A Supermarket in California,” one of the “other poems” in Howl & Other Poems, I hear Ginsberg evoking Walt Whitman as a Virgil, leading him through the neon-lit inferno of the American Century.
By referencing movements like Dadaism in his poem “Howl,” Ginsberg situates his actions and the actions of his circle of Beat contemporaries as an Americanized continuation of the radical political-aesthetic projects of the European avant-garde. Each of these figures — the “great minds” referenced in the poem’s first line — appears by the end of the poem’s first section as a Jesus, a savior or Messiah “destroyed” for living free, brains and imagination sacrificed to the bloodthirsty demiurge Moloch. The key to Moloch’s true identity appears midway through Section II when Ginsberg reveals its more common alias, “the Mind,” i.e. dead labor, A.I., the practico-inert: “consciousness without a body” (22).
Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.
Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.