Culture Trips

Howl: illuminating draft of Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem found | Poetry

A draft of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl has been found, giving rare insight into the mind of the Beat poet as he composed the seminal poem.

The carbon copy was discovered by a family member in the papers of the arts patron Annie Ruff, who hosted poets and other artists, including Ginsberg, in her home over the years. The family member, believing they may have found an early version of Howl, contacted rare book dealer and Beats specialist Brian Cassidy to authenticate it, with Cassidy identifying the draft as a carbon copy struck on Ginsberg’s own typewriter in late January or early February 1956.

Ginsberg famously read aloud from Howl for the first time in October 1955 – “the night of the birth of the San Francisco poetry renaissance”, according to Jack Kerouac.

But the poem, a cry of rage against society which laments how the poet “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”, was not published until the autumn of 1956. Lawrence Ferlinghetti would be arrested and charged, unsuccessfully, with obscenity for publishing it, a trial that launched Ginsberg’s career into the stratosphere.

The 11-page early draft is for sale at Type Punch Matrix, for $425,000 (£308,000). Cassidy said: “This draft is an important step in the evolution of the poem. Because it is the carbon copy (and not the top copy), you can see many of the original choices made by Ginsberg before he revised them. These are changes that would otherwise be lost.”

Even more significantly, he said, the carbon is the only extant draft version of one complete page of the poem which Ginsberg discarded entirely, with the poet rewriting and revising the whole page. The text of that page had only been known from the first recorded reading of Howl by Ginsberg at Reed College in 1956.

“This typescript allows a look into the mind of the poet while composing what is arguably the most important 20th-century American poem,” said Cassidy. “For a draft of a major work of literature like this to go unknown for so long is extraordinarily unusual … As I’ve joked with some of my colleagues, my career is all downhill from here.”

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