‘Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes’: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and his year in Berkeley

Allen Ginsberg stands on his rooftop in New York City in the 1950s.
Allen Ginsberg LLC/Courtesy

“I have been seeing big Berkeley professors,” wrote Allen Ginsberg in a 1955 letter to friend and fellow beatnik Jack Kerouac, “but I am anonymous nobody and can impress no one with nothing.”

When this letter was sent, Ginsberg was writing the second and third parts of what would become not only a quintessential Beat Generation work but a centerpiece in American literature: “Howl,” also known as “Howl for Carl Solomon.”

That the Beat Generation belongs to the Bay Area more than any other region is an accepted truth, with the cohort having gained fame as a result of the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s. These post-war artists that took “Frisco” by storm were characterized by restless transience, but San Francisco managed to ensnare them long enough for history to be made.

Their time in the Bay Area is cemented within San Francisco’s most famous beatnik landmark: City Lights Books, which doubles as the publishing house that released Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956. Founded by poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, this literary meeting place since 1953 has remained a significant aspect of the city.

Ginsberg’s stay in San Francisco set the course for his imminent success. In 1954, he arrived in the city and met Peter Orlovsky, the man who became his life partner. Early the next year, he and Orlovsky moved into a humble apartment on 1010 Montgomery St.

That Montgomery apartment was the birthplace of “Howl,” although Ginsberg had toyed around with the beginning concepts as early as 1954. He finished the first part while in San Francisco, sending his rough drafts to Kerouac for review.

It was Berkeley, however, that decided the poem’s fate, and influenced his most famous work. He enjoyed a fruitful career, publishing many more collections after “Howl and Other Poems,” but they weren’t as notorious as his debut publication.

“Howl” was still just a manuscript in August of 1955 when Ginsberg relocated to Berkeley, enrolling at the university as a graduate student in the English department. That decision put the pieces in place for what ultimately became the finished piece.

San Francisco had the Beat Generation, but Berkeley had Ginsberg.

Before the West Coast became Ginsberg’s muse, the East Coast claimed his talents. He was born and raised in New Jersey, eventually becoming a student at Columbia University in 1943. Though he was a gifted student with nearly perfect grades, his time there was turbulent. In 1945, he was expelled for writing obscene comments on his dorm window about then-President of Columbia University.

By the time he returned to complete his degree in 1948, he had cemented himself into the literary circle that would come to be known as the Beat Generation. It was made up of Kerouac and Neal Cassady, along with Lucien Carr, William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, who gave the circle its name.

On the cusp of graduation, Ginsberg faced expulsion again when he was caught allowing Huncke to keep stolen goods in his apartment. As a compromise, he was instead admitted to New York State Psychiatric Institute for eight months. The seeds for “Howl” were planted there when he met Carl Solomon, a fellow writer and patient.

Later years prompted Ginsberg to clarify Solomon’s role in the poem, noting that he wrote the poem in “relative literary obscurity” and didn’t think there would be any consequences for using his friend’s real name despite his function as a “poetic metaphor” rather than an actual person.

That wouldn’t happen until the 1986 anniversary edition of “Howl” was released. Eight years after meeting Solomon, Ginsberg unleashed his poem — and Solomon’s name — unto San Francisco.

The history books started to pay attention.

First, however, was the literary obscurity — that, and the cottage. In “A Supermarket in California,” a 1955 poem that Ginsberg wrote during his time in Berkeley, he delivers a monologue to the ghost of Walt Whitman.

“Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love,” he asks, a signature air of nostalgia embedded in his words, “past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?”

Ginsberg’s time in Berkeley was centered around the aforementioned “silent cottage.” He called it home for just a year, but the echoes of his presence are still here — just as Whitman’s ghost romped around in Ginsberg’s fantasies, Ginsberg’s ghost continues to roam in Berkeley.

It just takes a bit of looking to find him.

Half a century ago, Ginsberg — along with Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and at times Kerouac — lived at 1624 Milvia Street, not just as a home, but as a place to meditate and create art. Standing in its place now is an apartment complex lacking the yard where Kerouac used to stargaze.

The location was immortalized in one of the poems published alongside “Howl.” Its title is self-explanatory: “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.”

Ginsberg and Berkeley found each other at exactly the right moment. Had he remained anywhere else, “Howl” might have never come into fruition the way it did.

Ginsberg described the place to Kerouac in a letter dated August 1955, when his friend was living in Mexico: “I found a cheap house … perfect place to retreat be quiet, which is my desire since I am more absorbed in writing than before.”

For Ginsberg, it was a period of frustration. Beyond working in literary obscurity, he was living with financial insecurity, and the resulting depression showed itself in his writing. Though Kerouac encouraged Ginsberg to become a proper academic at UC Berkeley, his prior history of dissatisfaction with academia reasserted itself, and he abandoned his master’s degree a year after starting it.

Even so, these circumstances resulted in a flurry of creativity. While he resided in Berkeley, Ginsberg wrote most of the poems later published in “Howl and Other Poems”: “A Supermarket in California”, “Transcription of Organ Music” and the famous “America.”

But “Howl”  was his ultimate catharsis — it was a proclamation to the world, a “heart’s trumpet call” in the midst of darkness. In Berkeley, Ginsberg found the inspiration he needed to invest himself fully into the finishing of a poem he felt desperate to write.

Toiling away in the Milvia cottage, Ginsberg completed and then edited “Howl,” unaware of what was to come.

In a 1986 edition of “Howl,” Ginsberg described his most iconic poem as “notorious at worst” and “illuminative at best.” These descriptors also go a long way towards describing the events following the publication of “Howl.” The offer for publication actually came in 1955, before the poem was finished. At the time, Ginsberg was only satisfied with the first part of “Howl.” When asked to do a poetry reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, he chose to present only the completed first portion.

“The most brilliant shock of the evening was the declamation of the now-famous rhapsody, ‘Howl’, by Allen Ginsberg,” wrote Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in a 1957 account of the historical evening.

In attendance was Ferlinghetti (who drove Ginsberg to the gallery). The two men were not strangers, but Ferlinghetti was unaware of Ginsberg’s talent. Moved by the reading, he penned a telegram immediately afterwards: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

“Howl and Other Poems,” No. 4 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, was released in 1956 after Ginsberg emerged from his Berkeley home with a finished manuscript in hand. The trouble started the following year.

Since the collection had been incredibly well-received, a second printing was ordered from England in March of 1957. When the copies arrived in San Francisco, they were confiscated by U.S. Customs and San Francisco police.

Following the seizure, Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao were arrested for publishing “obscene content.” In a matter of hours, the American Civil Liberties Union had gotten involved and posted bail for both of them. The organization became a fundamental ally during the trial, defending Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books free of expense.

It wasn’t until October that Ferlinghetti and Murao were acquitted and “Howl” was declared to be an exercise of free speech.

For the Beat Generation, the “Howl” trial was evidence that, through their art, they were fighting a corrupt system. The acquittal was a victory, a burst of inspiration. They could win.

And Ginsberg, with his history of unrest, finally had his voice heard.

Widely regarded as the most important poem of the 20th century, “Howl” only contests with T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Whether or not the full extent of its notoriety would have been attained without the high-profile legal trial is uncertain, but that “Howl” couldn’t have been completed without Berkeley is not. Ginsberg liked to move, but something about Berkeley called to him. Something about Berkeley inspired him. Something about Berkeley, for whatever reason, gave him the push he needed to release “Howl” from the nooks and crannies of his mind.

Today, Berkeley remembers Ginsberg the way he likely would have preferred: quietly. He, and his “Howl,” are something to take pride in but not flaunt.

While the cottage is gone, across the street from Ginsberg’s former residence rests the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Garden. Attached to the Berkeley Arts Magnet elementary school and adorned with poems written by the school’s young students, its humble existence is a meaningful nod to Ginsberg.

Ginsberg died just more than 20 years ago in New York, ultimately returning to his roots. At the time of his death, his year in Berkeley was half a lifetime away. He left Berkeley, but “Howl” and its legacy followed him for the rest of his life — a testament to the significance of the time he spent in this city.

“In publishing ‘Howl,’ ” wrote Ginsberg in 1986, “I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb.”

In Berkeley, and everywhere else, his emotional time bomb lives on.

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.