American poet Allen Ginsberg passed away in 1997, but the memory of his experimental and controversial work lives on every year at the Howl! Festival in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park. The event takes its name from Ginsberg’s three-part 1955–1956 poem “Howl”—a controlled chaos of proper nouns, repetition and run-on sentences that prompted an obscenity trial for its ample drug references and frank portrayals of homosexuality. Ginsberg and his publisher won that trial, and the poem went on to become a defining force of the Beat Generation.
The rhythms in “Howl,” which was conceived as a spoken-word performance piece, are thought to mimic the sounds of bebop. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” Ginsberg says in the first line of the poem, which details the experiences of fellow Beats—including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr, whom he met at Columbia University—throughout the country, especially in New York City. On September 10, at the festival’s “South Stage” at Avenue A and East 7th Street, listen for references to the Bronx, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry (Ginsberg often accompanied Kerouac for evening walks on and near its wharf) at the annual “Howl” reading that kicks off the three-day celebration of local arts and culture. Also mentioned in the poem is Bellevue Hospital, where Ginsberg was briefly committed in 1949 after police discovered stolen goods a drug-addict friend had been storing at his Morningside Heights apartment (treatment at the psychiatric facility allowed him to avoid being sent to prison). The poet ended up dedicating “Howl” to Carl Solomon, a fellow patient at Bellevue.
The “best minds,” according to the poem, were “yacketayakking” about “shocks of hospitals and jails and wars” not just at Bellevue but also at the bar. “Howl” directly mentions both Fugazzi’s and Bickford’s, two venues that no longer exist. Although not cited in the poem, you can still visit some of the Beats’ other preferred spots for guzzling “stale beer”: White Horse Tavern and the recently renovated Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street—the street that used to be home to fellow Beat hotspots Kettle of Fish (which has since relocated twice) and the now closed Gaslight Cafe.
If the “Howl” reading is a bit too racy for your little poets of tomorrow, they can still be involved in other aspects of the festival. Bring the kids to Tompkins Square Park on September 11 to see dancing and drumming performances, ride a pony and the solar-powered merry-go-round, and participate in a yoga demonstration class. Come back the next day for even more child-friendly entertainment, this time from bands, circus performers and more. There will be face painting, a photo booth and other fun activities over both days. Music fans can check out the presentations on September 12, including Hip Hop Howl, a live mixtape showcase featuring up-and-coming artists, and House of Howl, a show that combines dance, song, fashion and art. For more information on Howl!‘s events, visit howlfestival.com and eastvillagehowler.blogspot.com. And, of course, don’t forget to pay your beatnik respects at the Samuel Cox statue in the park, which looms above Kerouac’s head in a famous picture Ginsberg took of the On the Road author while the two were walking on East 7th Street in 1953.