Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem "Howl" is immediately recognizable to readers the world over. Emblematic of San Francisco, it's a poem for the ages and deserves all the hoopla. But honestly, sometimes I'm over it. Having heard about Ginsberg's brilliance more times than I care to remember, and having always been respectful in the past, I must say it now: It's time to move beyond this one poem. This comes from someone who owns two separate editions of Ginsberg's collected works, whose dear friends have written meaningful, critical biographies of him, who saw him read several times, and who ultimately adores him. But "Howl" is for reading aloud to your coterie, in semiprivate. Publicly, we need to be pointing in some other direction.
Unbelievably, all my conflicted reactions -- and I'm far from alone with them, I think -- find outlet at "Howl Redux," the inaugural event at the massive litfest known far and wide as Litquake. Here we have a ridiculously talented group of writers, come together to praise Ginsberg, not to bury him. Inspired by the Beats and including at least one (Michael McClure), the event finds modern writers reading from the work of their antecedents, all more or less Bay Area products. Daniel Handler takes an obscure passage of Gertrude Stein's; Armistead Maupin reads Mark Twain; together, Sean San José and Randy Shilts menace AIDS; and causing me to urinate in anticipation is Cintra Wilson and a man she and only she has the right to read, Ambrose Bierce. Another treat: the batshit-crazy genius always in Ginz's shadow, Bob Kaufman, channeled by devorah major.
It's been a cool 50 years since he first read it, and Friday night, he does it again, whether I want him to or not: Allen Ginsberg performs his own poem, in a six-minute film excerpt from "Howl"'s Part 1, shot in 1992. And who am I kidding? I can't wait.