No matter how often I’m told the poem Howl is a profound Beat equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, it isn’t. I’ve heard them paired before, in the smokeless midnight air of alt-coffee urban pop-ups, listening for free as a mumbling hipster reads them aloud, back-to-back, in the same reverent cadence and double bass rhythm and nobody listening to the words. But reading a laundry list to that background would get the same polite applause of approval by the end.
The similarity in both excellent pieces isn’t in the poetry but the authors: T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg punching above their weight, inspired and goaded by recent close contact with greater art. Eliot would have been flying high on French inspiration and accidental carousing excess, drunk on the authentic thing (for once) in company of Modernist scamps and Parisian literati Jean Genet would fuck in and out of prison twenty years later. Ginsberg, young and graduated and full of lust for Catholic Jack Kerouac; mind first, body a close second, the order reversed, no doubt once Benzedrine came out to play.
Connections and circumstances count. The Anglo Saxon Eliot charmed the middle class English fame-makers and found comfort in London society. Ginsberg was a New York Wandering Jew, practical Eastern mysticism his adult beat – light on clothes, heavy on tactility, attractive to youth and boys and the kindly pretentious. Neither were the greatest or most original creative genius of their times. Ironic that their archetypes – the respectable high of average – would come to represent all that remains of the high watermark Anglophone creativity, some fifty years further down the road. Life imitates art indeed!