Jun. 3, 2012

Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters

by Allen Ginsberg

Today's poem is available in audio form only.

"Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters" by Allen Ginsberg, from Collected Poems 1947-1997. © Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Allen Ginsberg (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1926). When he was 17, his freshman year at Columbia University, Ginsberg was introduced to Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac and Burroughs were older, no longer in school, experimenting with drugs, and trying to write. Ginsberg later said they encouraged him to think for himself and to worry less about conforming. When he was 28, he moved to San Francisco, where he was introduced to the poetry scene by Kenneth Rexroth, and he began working on a poem that would later be called "Howl," a poem in which the length of a line was based on how much he could say in one breath. Today it is one of the most recognized poems in literature and has sold nearly one million copies.

Ginsberg read a draft of "Howl" at the now-famous Six Gallery, on an October night in 1955. Another poet who was there that night said the crowd left "standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America ..." The next day, Ginsberg received a telegram from the Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Press, who'd attended the reading: "Please send manuscript," it said.

Howl and Other Poems was published the following year (1956); one year later, the publisher and the manager of a bookstore who sold the collection to a couple of undercover cops stood trial for obscenity. Most of the country had never heard of Allen Ginsberg, but the huge sensation the trial caused — including a story in Life magazine— ensured that they would. Other poets, critics, and scholars testified on the poem's behalf, explaining for the judge how and why the work was significant. The judge returned a landmark ruling, noting that although he himself was a "God-fearing Sunday school teacher," he recognized that the poem had redeeming social importance. He wrote: "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?"

"Howl" begins with the famous 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

It's the birthday of Larry McMurtry (books by this author), born just outside of Wichita Falls, Texas (1936), and raised in the nearby town of Archer City. He came from three generations of ranchers. "It's [...] such a strong landscape for me," he once said of his grandfather's ranch outside Archer City. "Whatever place I'm writing about, I'm still describing this same hill."

McMurtry wrote historical novels, like Lonesome Dove (1985), although he strongly resists romanticizing the Old West and doesn't hold a very high opinion of cowboys in general.

Still, through all his success as a writer — including some fame when many of his books, like Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show, became popular movies — McMurtry began to see writing as his vocation and hunting for rare and valuable books as his real passion. He opened a used bookstore in Washington D.C., which he tended for 36 years. And then, nearly 40 years after he'd left, he returned to Archer City determined to make it into a book-lover's destination. "It's kind of a normal pattern," he said. "You go out into the world and then bring what you want of the world back home with you." The store he opened — Booked Up — spread half a million books throughout four separate buildings. But this August, the store will host an enormous public auction of 350,000 books, and downsize to just one building. "I nowadays have a feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics," McMurtry wrote in his Books: A Memoir (2009), "but even the act they support — reading — is an eccentricity now, if a mild one."

It's the birthday of the writer who put sex in the romance novel: Kathleen Woodiwiss (books by this author), born Kathleen Erin Hogg in Alexandria, Louisiana (1939). She submitted her first novel to eight publishers and was rejected by them all — until an editor at Avon picked her manuscript up off the slush pile and couldn't put it down. Although romance novels had existed since the 1700s, and historical romance novels had been around since the 1920s, Woodiwiss became famous for following her characters into the bedroom. Romances until then had relied mostly on chaste kisses or sly euphemisms, but Woodiwiss wrote explicit descriptions of sex. She also featured strong willed women that went against the damsel-in-distress prototype. The success of her 500-page book, The Flame and the Flower (1972) transformed the genre and was the first romance novel to be published first in paperback rather than hardcover.

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