“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”

November 12, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates (who often writes about poetry) writes movingly about Allan Ginsburgs Howl and the effect it had on him as a writer.

I remember being profoundly disappointed by Howl. I had read the first line in a biography of William Burroughs and was wild for it. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” felt like a punch in the gut, or being struck by world made anew but lost. It was of the sublime. It was so economical and yet filled with vastness that I didn’t know if I would survive reading the whole thing.

So I got a copy.

Not so good for me. The poem is definitely not economical. Quite the contrary. It died for me on the very next words, “, starving hysterical naked, ” and then went on and on and on beating me with endless, clunkly, prolix description. Make no mistake! I am a fan of the extravagantly lyrical. Purple is one of my poetical colors and I wear it proudly. There are clearly some wonderful lines and phrases and I can imagine the sum being quite delightful.

But not for me. When I think of Howl I mourn that poem which exists only in the first line and haunted ellipsis. The poem that I long for, but will never read.

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