What we can learn from Allen Ginsberg
Written by
susan imhoff bird
August 2015

I didn't name my own book.

It is a book about wolves—why they belong on the landscape—and about me, about my search for what is authentic and wild within myself. As I signed the publishing contract I gave up many rights, one of which was to my book's title. This was fine—I wasn’t attached to a particular title—and I was pleased by the choice, Howl: of Woman and Wolf.

When I first shared this title with friends, some asked, isn't there a poem called Howl? Allen Ginsberg?

Yes, there is. Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956. Shortly after its release, his publisher was taken to court when the city of San Francisco declared the book obscene. The publisher won, although Howl—which the Poetry Foundation calls an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society—shocked readers with its use of vulgarity, disquieting images, and sexual explicitness. It was Ginsberg’s truth.

My Howl is not an outcry of rage and despair. It is, however, an outcry against senseless censure of that which brings fear to those in power. Wolves. Women. Wildness. Other. I share with Ginsberg a deep frustration with our society’s disempowering conventions.

I also consider Ginsberg a guide.

Jewish, homosexual, a poet, born a generation and a half before me, all things that point to our differences, Ginsberg nonetheless exemplifies what is demanded of an author who writes about his or her life: self-dignity. His method of achieving dignity? By remaining loyal to himself, to his own life. In her treatise on privacy, Private Matters, Janna Malamud Smith states “Ginsberg’s dignity resides ultimately in his insistent fidelity to his own experience—in his own frank, unapologetic presentation of his life.”

Ginsberg’s Howl, through its shockingly vivid depiction of what it meant to live outside convention, emerged as a manifesto of the Beat literary movement. Ginsberg became widely known for his firm commitment to using his voice to speak his—which was ultimately society’s—truth. He, like the wolf, lived true to his nature.

Almost sixty years after publication of Ginsberg’s iconic collection, “convention” has loosened its borders, yet still stands firm in specific localities, in many governing offices, and in countless minds. Those in positions of power aren’t always receptive to the voices of those who aren’t. Wolves. Women. Wildness. Other.

Howl: of Woman and Wolf, speaks my truth. Not always pretty and proper, but accurate, truthful, and unabashedly human. And the greatest service we writers can do both our books and our society is to own our own experience, frankly and unapologetically.  

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