Presentation copy of Howl to poet and scholar Richard Eberhart – inscribed “For Richard Eberhart in gratitude for his original vision of Nature both in his poetry and in his early sympathy for mine, Allen Ginsberg Dartmouth, October 17, 1960
Allen Ginsberg wrote drafts of the poem Howl in mid-1954 to 1955, purportedly at a coffeehouse known today as the Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley, California. Many factors went into the creation of the poem. A short time before the composition of Howl, Ginsberg’s therapist, Dr. Philip Hicks, encouraged him to quit his job and pursue poetry full-time. He experimented with a syntactic subversion of meaning called parataxis in the poem Dream Record: June 8, 1955 about the death of Joan Vollmer, a technique that would become central in Howl.
Ginsberg would experiment with this breath-length form in many later poems. The first draft contained what would later become Part I and Part III. It is noted for relating stories and experiences of Ginsberg’s friends and contemporaries, its tumbling, hallucinatory style, and the frank address of sexuality, specifically homosexuality, which subsequently provoked an obscenity trial. Although Ginsberg referred to many of his friends and acquaintances (including Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, Lucien Carr, and Herbert Huncke), the primary emotional drive was his sympathy for Carl Solomon, to whom it was dedicated; he met Solomon in a mental institution and became friends with him.
Ginsberg admitted later this sympathy for Solomon was connected to bottled-up guilt and sympathy for his mother’s schizophrenia (she had been lobotomized), an issue he was not yet ready to address directly. In 2008, Peter Orlovsky told the co-directors of the film Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010) that a short moonlit walk—during which Orlovsky sang a rendition of the Hank Williams song Howlin’ At the Moon–may have been the encouragement for the title of Ginsberg’s poem. “I never asked him, and he never offered,” Orlovsky told them, “but there were things he would pick up on and use in his verse form some way or another. Poets do it all the time.” The Dedication by Ginsberg states he took the title from Kerouac.