When “Howl” was published in 1956, San Francisco was still caught up in the boom years, quickly transforming after World War II into one of the fastest-growing cities in the West.
One poem hastened that transition. Allen Ginsberg’s screeching, obscenity-laced tirade against the conformity and consumerism of the era, helped usher in a budding American counterculture, and its epicenter was in San Francisco.
The subsequent obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing the tome out of City Lights Bookstore unfolded into a national event, sparking a movement that saw writers, artists, musicians and others flock to San Francisco to see what the buzz was all about.
The ideas and art of the “beats” became part of an anthem that was about to be laced with sex, drugs and rock and roll — though not necessarily in that order.
“A good-chunk of Ginsberg’s peyote-induced rant against capitalism had its roots in San Francisco,” said D.A. Powell, an English professor at the University of San Francisco who interviewed “Howl’s” filmmakers for a story this week in Poetry magazine. “There were so many things going on in San Francisco around that time it was like a perfect storm. The city became a magnet.“
And it drew from all corners. Powell said Ginsberg’s personal revelations in “Howl” one of the first times any homoerotic material had been issued in a public forum and the poem became a “lightning rod” for gays and lesbians.
Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth and others became the face of the movement and launched a new society rooted in spontaneity, experimentation and social revolution.
In less than a decade it morphed naturally and in neon-color into the hippie movement, to flower power, fortified with psychedelic drugs and an accompanying soundtrack. Everyone wanted to see and hear the sights and sounds of San Francisco, to be part of the “be-ins,” light shows and concerts that had turned an emerging city into a global village.
If San Francisco had been a place known for its acceptance and diversity, the incubator that was “Howl” soon turned it into a cultural cauldron. If there was an “anti” involved, it soon had a place in San Francisco — anti-establishment, anti-war, anti-government. Drugs had always had a place in the Beat culture but that formula for change soon mushroomed — literally and figuratively — and became an eclectic, energized scene unto itself.
Ginsberg’s social network soon expanded to the Merry Pranksters, the fearless band of acid-advocates led by author Ken Kesey and underground celebrities like Neal Cassady, the real-life prototype of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s pioneering Beat novel “On the Road.”
That road would soon link them with other underground players, including the ultimate anti-establishment organization, the outlaw motorcycle gang “Hells Angels,” whom Ginsberg befriended, partied with, and came to call the “Angelic barbarians.“
It’s worth noting that the title of Ginsberg’s landmark ode was “Howl and other poems.” For San Francisco there was really only one poem and one poet paving the way for a spontaneous, dynamic literary revolution.
A brief history of the Beat movement
1952 John Clellon Holmes introduced the term “Beat generation” in an essay; later Jack Kerouac defined “Beat” as socially marginalized and exhausted (“beaten down”) and blessed (“beatific”).
1953 Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin create City Lights Bookstore.
1955 Allen Ginsberg organizes Six Gallery reading.
1956 “Howl and Other Poems” is published in City Light’s Pocket Poets Series No. 4.
1957 Ferlinghetti stands trial for publishing “Howl.”
1957 Kerouac’s “On the Road” is published, becoming known as the defining novel of the Beat Generation.