Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Love-Hate Relationship With Allen Ginsberg and Strawberry Jell-O

Howl is possibly one of the greatest American poems. Even my husband, whose eyes seek shelter in the back of his head at the mere mention of Allen Ginsberg, will concede this. My senior year in high school, some friends and I recorded my voice reading Howl over the top of the soundtrack to the movie, Glory, with some occasional guitar riffs and bongo beats for our Audio Visual Technology class project. We were pretentious nitwits and giant geeks, but it still stands that the juxtaposition of Ginsberg's rambling poetic treatise on American life against the soaring orchestral pieces that formed the backdrop of a movie about racism and integration was pretty heady stuff.

Picture it, please.
Me: scrawny, bad perm, probably a large protuberance of a pimple somewhere completely unconscionable,  smattering of black eyeliner and a variety of ethnic clothing, perched on a stool in front of a giant sound board, with headphones and a microphone, bellowing. [Press play on this now.]

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up 
their brains and imagination? 
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Chil- 
dren screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old 
men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Mo- 
loch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! 
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jail- 
house and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judg-
ment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned govern- 
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running 
money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast
is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!  

Now imagine our school headmistress, a proper British schoolmarm if ever there was one, walking in amidst the bellowing - "Mo-loch!" - and feigning complete shock. "My ears are burning!" Good times. We got an A.

I didn't have the slightest idea what half of it meant. I still don't, honestly. But I loved it. I still love it. Back in the pretentious nitwit days, I wasn't even living in America. I was a sheltered little 3rd culture kid in a private school making broad statements about a place that, from a distance, seemed gritty and glamorous. Even when I did live in the States I had lived in a small town, far away from "the negro streets at dawn" and "the tenement roofs illuminated". But I wanted that. I wanted to feel it, to see it first hand, I wanted to meet the "angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of night." Howl was published in 1955, but I read it like a road map to a grand chaotic future just outside of high school. Like I said, nitwit.

I love it now for almost opposite reasons. I've gotten out, gotten around, lived a little, I have "sat up smoking in the / supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of / cities contemplating jazz" and it has lost its luster. I read Howl now from the other end. Rather than with excitement and soaring orchestras, it's more with a sad recognition of "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked". It's a cautionary tale, an elegy. 

Either way, the magic is in the music of the language. Not all of it makes sense. A lot of it is comprised of inside jokes and obscure references. But it crescendos and crashes and whispers and growls and paints a muddy picture of such vividness that I can't help but be moved by it - whether giddy at the prospect of self-destruction or shaking my head in sadness over wasted lives. It must be read aloud, it must be performed, it must be ingested. Probably not recorded over cheesy orchestral movie scores, but let us not speak of that again.

I keep Allen Ginsberg around for Howl. I like some of his other poems, but honestly, the man was so prolific that I don't know if I could ever read all of his poems if I wanted to. They all seem, to me, to be riffs on this same theme anyway. A lot of them march right into scatological, nonsensical or maudlin and are somewhat repellent. Taken individually, a lot of them seem tedious, but I noticed something the other day as I was skimming through his last book of poetry published before he died. The individual poems left me a little cold. They didn't fare that well as stand-alone pieces, but as I kept reading, one piled upon another to paint a picture - quite outside their lines - of a man confronting his own mortality and imminent death. That's his genius. The crescendo, the big picture that's larger than the words themselves. He seems to invite you magically and against your will into his insatiable appetite for everything and forces you to dwell there with him through every shaking breath.

I came across this recipe for Strawberry Pretzel Salad a while back and sent it to my friend with whom I have a long history of mocking foodstuffs. She wrote back: "It's actually kind of good in a gross sort of way."  It is complete sacrilege to call it a "salad", it involves strawberry Jell-O and frozen strawberries. The crust (yes, the "salad" has a crust) is made of crushed pretzels and butter and sugar pressed in a pan. There is Cool Whip in it. Looking at the ingredient list made me gag a little bit. I would never purposely eat any of those things on their own, but I know exactly what my friend was talking about when she said: "It's actually kind of good in a gross sort of way."

Sometimes a combination of things that are unappealing on their own can work together to create something that makes you uncomfortable, but keeps you coming back for more.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of 
cities contemplating jazz,

-opening lines from Howl, Allen Ginsberg 1955


  1. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving... because they only had strawberry pretzel salad to eat.

    I've had this 'salad', it's pretty good, but, then, I was brought up having jell-o pretty much every Sunday.

    1. Bwahahahaha! You are hilarious, Jewels. I think I might need to make this 'salad' just for the fun of it. I am terrified of Jell-O.

    2. Jewels, thanks for this snort-worthy comment. I was looking for an excuse to snort out loud this morning. ;)

  2. I think I'm terrified of all of it, but I loved reading it anyway :)

  3. I think I'm terrified of all of it, but I enjoyed reading this anyway. :)

  4. One of the drawbacks of being largely self-educated is the glaring holes in said education. Ginsberg is one of them. He was not taught in any of my public high school English classes. I have read OF him and, in a pinch (say playing Jeopardy! from my living room sofa), I can put him in the correct genre and the correctish time and place, but I had never actually read him. So, congratulations for being the one who introduced me to both Allen Ginsberg AND Strawberry Pretzel Saladish Stuff.

    1. I'm not sure most public high schools really teach Ginsberg. He's a little dicey for that, I suppose.
      My friends and I were obsessed with the Beats, so we moved from Kerouac to Cassady, to Ginsberg, to Ferlinghetti.
      Self-education is the best education, in my opinion. Even in high school and college, it's still self-education because you have to choose to groove on it or not.
      And really, the point of knowing all this stuff is to be able to answer the questions on Jeopardy, right?!


Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!