Wordsworth and Coleridge and the American transcendentalists wrote about personal experience--nothing new there--and T.S. Eliot would follow, filling his "Lovesong" and The Wasteland with references not designed to be understood by casual readers, but this generation (Ginsberg and O'Hara in particular) embraces personal referents. I wonder if we're supposed to feel locked out.
Ginsberg's "Howl" has numerous footnotes to help us see the personal connection, very few of which he added himself. I imagine friends of his read this poem and immediately saw the faces he was alluding to and felt a pleasant glee at being insiders to the joke. On the other hand, without the notes, would readers even be aware of how many personal references there are here, and would they matter? Is it the anthology editor's notes, and not the poem itself, that gives the reader the sense s/he isn't privy to the poem's world.
I've long held the first line of "Howl" ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness") to be as true to my own generation as they are to Ginseberg's. After all, didn't we lose Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, and so many brilliant others to drugs and assorted madnesses? In short, with no footnotes to block me out--to remind me that "Howl" is about the beat generation and the beat generation alone--the poem was allowed to be personal to me as well as to Ginsberg.
I wonder, sometimes, if the editors do us a disservice by making sure we can see all the allusions. I suppose that as literary scholars, we need this information. If we were writing about Ginsberg, perhaps it would be important to know that Ginsberg was born in Patterson, NJ or that he had a mystical vision in East Harlem in 1948 while reading the poetry of William Blake (NB: Blake is always good for a mystical vision or two), but for students reading Ginsberg for the first time, does this hurt our experience of the poem?
Perhaps I'm a more than usually impatient reader. I tell myself to read the poem through first without stopping for notes, but when I try, they're impossible to ignore. I must look. And, what's more, I know I'm not alone in this.
4 years ago