If James Wood or Daniel Mendelsohn Reviewed “Howl”

Once again, the Beatniks wish to tarnish the good name of realist literature — truly the only form of literature that’s good for you. The latest nonsense comes to us from a thirty-year-old whipper-snapper from San Francisco fond of reciting obscenities. It is rather childishly called “Howl.”

Let us examine this “poem”‘s first few lines:

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 machin-
ery 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,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-
ment roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the

And so on. Ginsberg cannot get to the point. He prefers nonsensical religious imagery like “angelheaded hipsters” and “Mohammedan angels.” He cannot put the adjective before “tenement roofs” like a proper writer.

If I were forced to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey after several shots of Stoli, I could easily identify this, without effort, as the kind of prose fashionable among the beret-wearing riff-raff who declare themselves “artists” or “poets” or “writers.” What does Ginsberg mean by ‘dragging themelves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix?’ Streets are not racial! How is a fix angry? One does not bare one’s brain to Heaven. There is no El in San Francisco last time I checked. Ginsberg can’t even decide on what one must hallucinate. Is it Arkansas or Blake-light tragedy?

I certainly cannot see any literary scholar taking such a preposterous poem seriously fifty years from now.


  1. Great. Fucking. Post.

    Wood deserves credit for being a serious mind and a great line reader, he can identify and break down sentences, paragraphs, with a clarity and precision that is truly informative and impressive. Too bad he’s a total douche, and wishes every novel were a ninteenth century pastoral piece.

    Oh wait, that’s not true. He reviewed The Savage Detectives for the cover of the NYTBR’s translation issue, and because Bolano was foreign and fairly obscure in this country and also dead, Wood jacked off all over himself aboutit. In that case it’s a novel that is definitely worth reading, but which also is without a doubt meandering, digressive, sloppy, and in need of about two hundred pruned pages. If a contemporary and renown author had written that book, no fucking way.

    He’s always worth reading, and worth arguing against. That’s as much as I can give him. But fair? Objective? Hell to the no.

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