The Sutra of Howl
By William W. Lyles
There stood two trees in the Garden. One was the Tree of Knowledge and the other was the Tree of life. Since I have been writing, no other body of work or instance of reading has transformed my personal writing into such a Garden of Eden, nor my senses into such a proverbial Shangri-La, nor my entire cosmic literary voice into such a Sutra quite like Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Written like a manuscript of adolescent behavior through contemporary, intellectual eyes, it stabs wildly at my concept that writing as a whole, should be a literary calculation of meter and rhyme, not the sum of the emotional sensory by which it’s actually written. In fact, I now stand in the contrary; it should be quite as sensory as any motion picture, Kama Sutra manual or family photo album of the most dysfunctional family. Yet how I arrived here in this lush Nirvana is a road not so easily chosen. Within Howl, there seeps a raw, edgy Americanism from it, paralleling the irresistible fruit dangling from the epicenter of that Holy of holiest Gardens. Armed with a handful of strange language, new vernacular and an intense aroma of salving imagery, I did stand by one of those Trees and I did take a bite. To know that moment, or more accurately, those moments, where I lay beneath the girth of that forbidden, and in this case, actually religion-seized and denominationally summonsed to court forbidden Tree, would lend as much spiritual credence as this humbled writer could muster. What was left was the Writer of this Sutra.
Ever since elementary grade levels, I had been shown to write within the lines and sweet guiding confines of the said perfect English structure. So I wrote in quatrains or couplets, amongst other formalities that my teachers were introducing me to. Fifth grade passed by, Sixth grade eroded out like a Midwestern gully in rain season, Seventh and so on until I reached my High School years, where I find Allen Ginsberg by happenstance. My hippie teacher, whom I shall not name, was sitting cross legged, before class, and propped up along the form fitting desk top in front of her. Her wildly unkempt hair tossed wispy against the light emanating from the far wall of tilt-out windows. I smirked and said my heeelooo with which she responded. She had to set down her book first, from which she peeked around the small cover to acknowledge me. I briefly caught the cover, but as it was uneventful, I moved on. When she had noticed that I had noticed it, she asked if I had ever read Ginzap, as she called him. She admitted it was not, nor may ever be a part of the daily curriculum but found it most intriguing. After my banter about who in the world was Ginzap, she allowed me a peek, as if I was looking at the opening pages of a nudie magazine. “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 machinery of the night” (Ginsberg, Howl lines 1-7). This was as far as I read before the toll of the clanging bell snapped me back to my senses. With those lines warm shot into my veins, I had had my first fix of Allen Ginsberg and the Garden just would never be the same. I incidentally, did not actually read any more of that book until my twenties, some years later, however I began to live my life with that essence of angelheaded hipsters and found it most liberating. In my twenties, I actually purchased the chapbook at a Seattle bookstore, forgotten to me until that instance. For $7.95 I picked it up, carried it everywhere, and researched its dedication and forward. I was transfixed like that starving writer, not knowing where my next meal would come. I came across an article recounting an “unconscious” writing style, written by Jack Kerouac, and how Allen Ginsberg had credited Kerouac as a catalyst to unlock his own inner voice. After several pints of my favorite frothy, I experimented with this form of writing. I wrote whatever came to my mind, God, bad or indifferent, and I meant to write “God”. Suffice it to say, it was a wide variety of mumbo-jumbo, however it did show me I was truly starving, unlived and inexperienced as a Writer and as a Human. That little, itty-bitty book filled my head with such erratic, fresh oxygen and Ionospheric levels of excitement, that I swore my head was going to separate from its shoulders. The result was a 45 page prose from my unconscious mind, one I never knew even existed and yet, it was filled with wild imagery, strange word pairings, and tantric new words. Somehow, in that foggy balloon, it was missing something else. Though the fruit of this Tree of Knowledge was delicious and enrapturing, I was still missing the key elements of something larger that I could not quite put my finger on. At least not right then.
As I read, I lived and as I lived, I gained more experience and so I wrote more. I wrote manuscripts of titanic force, with staggering images and arousingly cyclical in nature, much like some Writer’s Sutra. This was becoming my manual of how to “make love” to the keyboard with pages that were graphic in naked sentences wrapping themselves, and my world was eventually unfolding, one page at a time. That is when I realized a problem, not the problem just a problem. Living this life was meaning I was no longer being allowed to remain in the Garden with the original formalities. Sure, I could still write a couplet and the sonnets still has their uptight flare, but I always found myself writing them unconscious, or without thinking. I didn’t make a seating chart for every word and sentence, perfectly rhymed and matched to suit the tuxedo format of the Traditionals. Instead, I used my gut and wit to draw out the masquerade as I saw it play out. I had to wrench out my emotional status on every line, burn up countless kelvins of energy to feed this fire and frankly, this was an exhausting way to write. It had its place to be sure, however I needed to fine tune my emotions into quips that fit. I read of men“…who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (Ginsberg, Howl pg. 10, lines 6-10). Ginsberg never left me wanting for more emotion, even in small phrases like this one, which is one of my favorites of the piece. To me, it shows the depth of which he saw the world and the faces in it. How is this emotion? In the imagery we write, we can emote or at least demonstrate where we emote from with simple adjectives. Ginsberg wrote “ate fire”, “drank turpentine”, “purgatoried their torsos” and “endless balls”. These, to me, demonstrate his sense of emotion and how he felt as he saw this unravel, with sharp and brilliantly colored imagery. These perfectly chosen words, though the ideals may be unconscious, the words themselves were probably from revision somewhere, yet showed a varying degree by which something happened and he simply recorded it. This shows amazing intellect, which I knew I did not have; keen sense of perspective, which I also knew I did not have; and a flare for drama, which is something I had been well endowed with.
These were emotions we were all feeling, timeless and now, no period of time needed or drawn from. This was American soul shown in the Rosse Buurt neon lit windows of the human soul. It was gritty and cheesy and smutty, yet somehow it knew me. It recognized my face from before I even knew me. So, I wrote more in this new found glorious rebellion of language and insight. I drew from childhood experiences and curiosities and threw in naughty words and felt unshackled by them. I wrote more of them. This result was burned nights, waking up in ditches with glitter on my face, calendars melting off walls in hung over stupor of youthful writing binges and smoking hashish until dawn. I had found a great piece of writing skill and people liked it and wanted more of it. In this Garden of the meek, I walked and preached and wrote and spat verses and ideals like an old time Gospel Hour. Yet in the hollow corners of this human brittle, I knew I was still missing something. I had the knack for writing, the wind for the words, enough brains to broaden my vernacular, a bravado and cockiness to the language I used and eons of life images to draw from, but what in the world was still making me so empty inside? I was on top of my game, living the Pomerium of the Garden, yet I was not fulfilled as a Writer, at least not yet.
I would not know this answer until I reread Howl with a clear and sober head. Those years of Blue Motorcycles and Red Headed Sluts in hazing oxidation were coming clean. That
William Lyles Jr.
unrelenting moment, when I could understand the words as much as I understood the images, would eventually come. It would not be until I could see what I was writing that would allow it to make sense to me. I began writing with a thesaurus close by, so that I could see new words or synonyms for words I already knew. I had both screens open simultaneously, pandering back and forth with words and images from my own past experiences. It was raw and pure emotion, crystal clear and brutal imagery and now more encompassing with selective, purposeful words. I reread Howl with the conviction of a freshly dubbed priest in the Garden. I ate when I was full, stuffing my starving belly with sideways vantages, burly unbridled words and cosmic spirituality. In Howl, Ginsberg writes [of men], “who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness” (Ginsburg, Howl page 14, lines 11-16). This was it. I was sitting in the front row of a synagogue of misunderstanding, praying for the sinner’s knowledge I knew I had to have somewhere yet could not find it. The candles pulled into light, and the hallway opened its dark black mouth to nighttime and I began to see that what I was missing was right with me all along. I hadn’t written in the language of Me. I hadn’t understood why the fuck I wanted to write.
I didn’t grasp the shadows of the back of my mind and ride them rodeo bareback into seven seconds. I didn’t ask or know to ask what a peach tastes like to someone else. I knew what it tasted like to me, yet I how could I write about how I see it tasting to them. So, like any good writer must do, I wrapped my strange new arms around my lover and made Howl love until the ceiling paint chipped, the candles had begun to frown at dawn and the body was spent “fell off the bed, and continued down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness”. I’m not sure how my lover felt; or rather I did except I was so soaked in that moment of reality, that I allowed her a certain reflection for herself. Apparently, this was a good thing because after fifteen minutes of cosmic clambering, we melted like those well spent candles into the sleeping hours of a tomorrow that would change me forever. Writing had become that Tree of Life in the Garden, not the Tree of Knowledge. I was awake and walked right the hell out the Garden on my own two feet.
There were two trees in the Garden, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. My brother Adam and his woman Eve for some reason chose the Tree of Knowledge and went their own course into the woods. I however, decided to choose the Tree of Life, to live it and to learn it. I chose to explore with my own two eyes, speak it with my own true voice, travel it with my own two feet and if need be, even crawl out of drunken ditches and glitter with my own two elbows but nonetheless, live… L I V E… verb not a noun. I began to write in a language of my words, using an eclectic mix of new words, which grew in my lexicon every day, as well as words I already had committed to memory. I found my experiences broader, like the side of a barn or the entire book of a Sutra manual, rather than making proverbial love from just a single page. I wrote monologues of voices I could hear and some I couldn’t. I wrote confessionals of faith and sex and about the rigors of being in my twenties. Writing is a cosmic level of interpretation, a religion of matter, a playground of experience, fenced in a frame we can revisit on the wall anytime we choose. We just have to choose. I just had to choose. There are two trees in the Garden. As for me, I thank Ginzap for helping me chose the one less lived.