October 07, 2011

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”


Three years after Jack Kerouac coined the term “The Beat Generation” a group of Beat poets gathered at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco for a poetry reading.

The date was October 7, 1955 and Kerouac was there. So were local Beat celebrities Gary Snyder, Phil Lamantia, Michael McClure and a then virtually unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg.

In his novel, The Dharma Bums (published in 1958), Kerouac called it “the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” He then described this memorable scene:

“Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem ‘Wail’ drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session).”

“Alvah Goldbook” was Kerouac’s humorous alias for the Ginsberg and “Wail” was the fictitious name he gave to Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” — which Ginsberg first read in public that October night.

“Howl” was a stylistically wild, groundbreaking poem that quickly became both famous and infamous.

The beginning of the long run-on sentence that makes up the first part of the poem is the most quoted bit:

“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 fix,
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..."

“Howl” was instantly revered by the Beat crowd and eventually gained worldwide fame. But it had a rocky start in printed form.

In the poem, Ginsberg writes graphically about heterosexual and homosexual sex and about the use of illegal drugs — forbidden subjects in the uptight society of the 1950s.

When “Howl” was printed by a British book publisher in 1955, copies were seized as “pornography” by Customs officials.

In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and a popular beat poet in his own right, published “Howl” in the U.S., in a small collection of Ginsberg’s poems titled Howl and Other Poems.

Copies of the book were soon seized by the San Francisco police and Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing and selling an “obscene and indecent” book.

At the trial, Ferlinghetti was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

During the course of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn listened to nine literary experts testify about the book’s literary merits. In October 1957, he issued a carefully thought out ruling.

Horn concluded that Howl and Other Poems met the current legal test of having redeeming social importance and was not “obscene.”

Thus, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty — and “Howl” and Ginsberg moved on to wider and everlasting fame.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 7:

• Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s infamous comment about blacks wanting “good sex, ‘loose shoes’ and ‘a warm place’ when they use the toilet” was published in the October 7, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

“Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God.” - You may not remember those words, but if you were watching the news in 2001 you remember when Osama Bin Laden delivered them. They were the opening words in the videotaped statement he released on October 7, 2001, gloating about Al-Quaeda’s September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia.

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