Have we ever discussed Howl? No? Awesome.
One of the things about being being 17-23, at least for me, was the sheer wonder of the greater world. In my case it mostly took the form of the literary--I guess for others it could have been paintings, music, food, business, the opposite sex, whatever. But for me, in wanting to write, it was the sheer notion of assembling words in ways that didn't always make literal sense but felt emotionally true.
I was a hip-hop head before I got into poetry, and so for me, it was, like, Mobb Deep saying, "Your crew is featherweight\My gunshots will make you levitate." I thought that was such a powerful, unexpected image. I loved the contrast in connotation--the idea of being shot, paired with something as mystical as levitation. Or Rakim constructing this entire fantasy world around the mythology of the warrior MC. And then of course Nas claiming to "wear chains that excite the feds." I used to listen to these guys playing with words and think, "Damn, you can do that??"
It was an incredible, incredible feeling--like discovering a new language, a new way to express the beauty of the world. And then I got to college and read Howl. It's cliche to write this, but I can only tell what's true of me. And being 19, and seeing lines like this:
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene
odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in
wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo
with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley,
death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman of Oklahoma on
the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain,
who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz
or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse
about America and Eternity, a hopeless task,
and so took ship to Africa,
who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame
under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology...
who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully,
gave up and were forced to open antique stores
where they thought they were growing old and cried,
Was almost religious. I just read all that and thought, "Windows of the skull? Purgatoried torsos? Turbercular sky? My God, You can do that???" I later found that there were a lot of people who think Howl isn't a very good poem, but I don't know how much I cared, or care now. I loved Howl because of what it did for my imagination.
This hit me, last night, when I was thumbing through my copy. When I wrote the memoir, I was trying hard to do something that evocative of the 80s, and Baltimore, and Divine Styler, and Ric Flair. I didn't much care whether people got it, because I really didn't get Howl when I read it. But I liked the "not getting it." I liked letting my imagination fill in what I couldn't understand.