The year 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of "Howl," the Allen Ginsberg poem that ignited the Beat movement when Lawrence Ferlingetti of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco published it. In the spring of 1957, U.S. Customs intercepted a shipment of a second edition of the book printed in England, declaring it obscene and arresting Ferlingetti and his clerk. They were cleared of charges but the incident put the Beats on the map. For the 30th anniversary of Howl in 1986, VIP Christopher Buckley and Paul Slansky published "Yowl" in the New Republic, parodying the poem and adding yuppie references. In 2000, Howl.com, another iteration, touched on internet technology. A 2010 film titled "Howl" cast James Franco as Ginsberg.
Most know the first two lines of "Howl":
saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
Dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix
it gets more interesting at line 3:
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
who got busted in their public beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York. . .
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn. . .
Ginsberg was inspired to write Part II of "Howl" when he saw a hotel as the biblical monster Moloch during a peyote vision, and much of the section itself was written while under the influence of peyote. According to his archivist Peter Hale, Ginsberg always meditated before ingesting the plant sacraments.
In November 1966 The Atlantic published Ginsberg's "The Great Marijuana Hoax: First Manifesto to End the Bringdown," the first half of which was composed while smoking marijuana. He wrote, "I must begin by explaining something that I have said in public for many years: that I occasionally use marijuana in preference to alcohol, and have for several decades." Ginsberg said he had spent as many hours high as he had at movie theatres, in the same type of frequency ("sometimes 3 hours a week, sometimes 12-20 or more, as at a film festival, with about the same degree of alteration of my normal awareness").
He continued, "[T]he marijuana consciousness is one that, ever so gently, shifts the center of attention from habitual shallow purely verbal guidelines and repetitive secondhand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute, engagement with sensing phenomena during the high moments or hours after one has smoked." He called it "a useful catalyst for specific optical and aural aesthetic perceptions" and described encountering paintings by Klee, Cezanne, Crivelli and Rembrandt "while walking around the Frick Museum high on pot." Rather than hallucinations, he called them deepened perceptions, such as those catalyzed by intense love or leaving a movie theater.
He had cutting words for the U.S. Treasury Department Narcotics Bureau, which he said had "a business interest in perpetuating the idea of a marijuana 'menace' less they lose their employment" and were responsible for the "violence and hysteria" of the antimarijuana propaganda and its tone of "moralist evangelism." In the year that psychedelics drugs were "officially monopolized" by the Food and Drug Administration, he warned of rumored involvement of the Chemical Warfare Division of the Pentagon.
Ginsberg attributes the paranoia a pot-smoker experiences to the illegal nature of the herb (as he calls it) and said he smoked it less in the US than he did in countries where it is legal because of a "traceable fear of being apprehended and treated as a deviant criminal and put thru the hassle of social disapproval, ignominious Kafkian tremblings in vast court buildings coming to be Judged, the helplessness of being overwhelmed by force or threat of deadly force and put in brick and iron cell." He added that he had written his Congressman to complain after being targeted and searched by US Customs upon entering the country, and being told by acquaintances that they had been asked by police to set him up for a pot bust.
He called for a NY Times ad quoting "authoritative medical evidence of the harmlessness of marijuana" signed by 1000 famous pot smokers, to break the "cultural ice"; and for a total dismantling of "the whole cancerous bureaucracy that has perpetrated this historic fuck-up on the United States." He added that "positive renumeration" is required for the poor citizens victimized by the drug laws, who "I would guess, are among the most sensitive citizens of the nation; and their social place and special honor of character should be rewarded by a society which urgently needs this kind of sensibility where it can be seen in public." Ginsberg concludes, "I believe that future generations will have to rely on new faculties of awareness. . .to cope with the increasing godlike complexity of our planetary civilization" and saw signs of this because "The airwaves are filled with songs of hitherto unhead-of frankness and beauty."
I saw Ginsberg perform at McCabe's guitar shop in LA in April, 1991. He told us that William Blake sang his poems in parlors and reconstructed a 19th-century sound for his reading of Blake's "The Tiger." His first topic was the war on drugs, which he called "a brainwash almost as bad as the Iraq war" before squeezeboxing a tune for an updated version of his CIA Dope Calypso: "You never heard Bush holler/When Noriega laundered lotsa cocaine dollar." For Jesse Helms, the "legalized dope peddler" he chanted and played sticks: "donŐt-smoke-don't-smoke-don't-smoke. . .the official dope. . . smoke any other drug, get busted by government thugs. . . don't don't don't don't don't don't smoke...".
There's a great photo by Benedict Fernandez of Ginsberg wearing a sign saying, "Pot is Fun," taken December 1963 at The Women's House of Detention in Manhattan. Another I've seen has a sign saying, "Pot is a Reality Kick."