Some people have a favorite poem. Not me. I have a least favorite — and I remember precisely the moment when I knew that it was utter rubbish. It happened while I was reading The New Criterion, whose 25th anniversary is now upon us — about which more in a moment.
The poem is “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg — and oh, gentle reader, how it reeks to high heaven. Although it’s vulgar and verseless — or perhaps because it’s vulgar and verseless — “Howl” is routinely hailed as one of the finest accomplishments of the so-called Beat Generation. Earlier this year, it was the subject of adoring book, The Poem That Changed America. Yet I’d rather spend an entire lunar cycle listening to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog bark at the moon than read this pathetic poem again.
I first encountered “Howl” in an English class at the University of Michigan. It was a survey course on poetry and our text was one of those thick anthologies full of small print and cheap paper. We covered a lot of ground that semester — Shakespeare’s sonnets (all of them), the metaphysical poets, the British romantics, Matthew Arnold (about whose “Dover Beach” I wrote a paper), the modernists, and so on.
Then came “Howl.” It blew me away with its sheer awfulness. Consider a couple of characteristically wretched lines, which apparently describe Ginsberg’s circle of friends and acquaintances:
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 manu-
There’s a lot more where this came from, unfortunately — including a notorious line, which I won’t reproduce here, that led to an obscenity trial in which the poem’s publisher was acquitted. (A brief account may be found here – the rub is that the trial proved the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, because it turned Ginsberg into a free-speech hero and encouraged people who should have known better to sing his praises.)
When I read “Howl,” toward the end of the term and in the wake of so much genuinely good poetry, I was confused. My professor was a sensible guy. He had exposed us to the classics and seemed to appreciate them. So why did his syllabus carve out a place for this abomination?
My first response was to question my own judgment: Was I missing something? My second response was to go to the library and learn what I could about “Howl” and its author.
That’s how I discovered The New Criterion, the monthly journal of art and culture. Technically, what I discovered was a book: The New Criterion Reader, a compilation of the best that had been thought and said (to coin a phrase) on its pages during its first five years. And specifically, what I discovered was an article by Bruce Bawer, on page 350: “The phenomenon of Allen Ginsberg.”
It was a revelation to me. I wasn’t alone! Here was an acid-tinged review of Ginsberg and his career:
Since “Howl,” he has published (and read from a thousand platforms) over a dozen books of poetry, and the recipe has remained pretty much the same throughout: take one part anti-Establishment rhetoric, one part sexual indelicacy, one part scatology and general grubbiness, and mix rather sloppily. Voila — a book of poetry.
There was plenty more, including a dazzling, two-paragraph conclusion that explained why critics honored Ginsberg and why their love for him and his work has done real damage to our culture. The poem that changed America? Yeah, for the worse! I wished that Bruce Bawer was my poetry professor. Either he would have given a great lecture on “Howl,” or he would have had the good sense to skip the poem entirely.
From this experience, I developed a real fondness for The New Criterion, which is now embarking on its 25th year of publication. It was founded by Hilton Kramer and Samuel Lipman, a pair of New Yorkers who had become distressed at the state of cultural criticism. “Almost everywhere [criticism has] degenerated into one or another form of ideology or publicity or some pernicious combination of the two,” they wrote in the first issue. Since then, The New Criterion has come out ten times a year to fight the culture wars, issuing broadsides of common sense as it struggles against the likes of Ginsberg and those who take him seriously.
In its first 25 years, The New Criterion has published a ton of smart writing. And it hasn’t merely criticized the bad, as important as that chore is. It has also performed “the task of battling cultural amnesia,” as an editorial comment in the double-sized September 2006 issue says. “From our first issue nearly a quarter century ago, we have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization.” In terms of people, The New Criterion has propelled the careers of Kramer (now easing into retirement) and Lipman (who died in 1994), it helped launched those of Erich Eichman (now an editor at the Wall Street Journal), Roger Kimball (who is currently The New Criterion’s co-editor, with Kramer), and Heather Mac Donald (who did some of her first professional writing on its pages). (I tell the story of The New Criterion in a little more detail in A Gift of Freedom.)
We at NR have many ties to The New Criterion — its editors and writers often appear on our pages and our people often appear there. NR’s managing editor Jay Nordlinger is The New Criterion’s music critic. (One of the best essays he’s written, anywhere, was on the state of classical music, and it ran in The New Criterion.) John Derbyshire also writes frequently for Kimball & co.–and a few years ago, Derb penned a very nice tribute to them here. The current issue features not only these two but also pieces by NR regulars Andrew C. McCarthy and David Pryce-Jones.
I’ve contributed a couple of pieces to The New Criterion as well, when my inner lit major has needed a special outlet: I’ve written on the classic Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the ancient epic of Gilgamesh. I don’t expect either of these short essays to make it into a 500-page, 25th anniversary anthology that Ivan R. Dee plans to publish in the spring. But I do hope that in the not-too-distant future, a college student, searching for signs of intelligent life on campus, will pull it off a library shelf and discover what I did nearly 20 years ago.
– John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.