I like Howl, at least for its frenetic lyrical energy (“angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” – I’d say there is some kinetic spirit in that). But yes, if you line it up for my “Brooklyn Bridge Poetic Jump Test”, it loses: Ginsberg:
who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually hap-
pened and walked away unknown and forgotten
into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley
ways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,
Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
Leaving critical concerns aside, Howl seems at least notable as the last poem of any popular American consequence. Quick, does anyone remember the first lines of any poem since? Yes, obscenity trials are invaluable for cultural reification, and we’ve had rather a dearth of those lately, but still, nothing’s held quite the same stature since. It’s definitely proven something of consequence in popular culture; quality perhaps, or yes, popular madness.
Howl’s very popularity and influence may indeed help to explain this; whatever Ginsberg’s accomplishments, his formlessness is not a path that has seemed to provide a ground for poetry’s subsequent popular relevance. Most Ginsberg-inflected modern poets are far from “starving hysterical naked” and instead well-clad and fed in academic ghettos of University Writing departments, where their works tend to be read only by… university writing majors. Doty? Codrescu? Haven’t heard of ’em. But should we really regret this? Do we want his work wielding influence?