Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century, its opening line perhaps more recognisable than any other. Like most great works of literature, it began quite differently from its published version, undergoing many revisions both great and small. That is no secret, for although the author often stressed the importance of a Kerouacian typewriter session of spontaneous providence, he also acknowledged it had been extensively drafted before its 1956 publication.

As one of the most important poems of the modern era, “Howl” has been subject to a tremendous amount of scholarship and even its own author has assisted in tracing its composition and development, perhaps most notably with the release of the cumbersomely titled Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts, and Bibliography, put together by Ginsberg and Barry Miles in 1986. In that text, Ginsberg thoroughly annotated his poem and Miles assembled five distinct drafts, showing the changes the poem underwent between the writing of its first line and its publication in 1956. However, as I was re-reading this book for another project, I couldn’t help noticing that there are problems, questions, and inconsistencies with how we generally perceive the writing of this poem. These have led me to write this essay, which aims to:

  1. Correct slight problems in how we have previously dated the writing of “Howl.”
  2. Question whether or not the “first draft” of “Howl” was indeed the first draft.
  3. Suggest that Ginsberg may have overstated the element of spontaneity in the poem’s composition.
  4. Demonstrate the extent to which Ginsberg revised “Howl” over a period of more than one year.

Before beginning, I would like to state that the book sources I cite here as having gotten something wrong are all texts that I enjoy and respect and their authors are people I greatly admire and whose contributions to Beat Studies are significant. My questioning of or correcting of their work is not intended to call into question the quality of the work as a whole. These are merely minor issues in otherwise excellent works.

Likewise, Ginsberg himself was responsible for many of our present misunderstandings due to his misremembering of important details relating to his own life and work. This is a perfectly normal thing, especially when remembering events that took place decades earlier. I will cite several examples of him providing questionable accounts, including a famous one from Howl: Original Draft Facsimile. I hope my questioning of his autobiographical details is not seen as an attack of any sort. For a writer to divulge so much of the process behind a major work is of course rare and the effort that went into collecting and ordering the various drafts is impressive. However, Ginsberg’s memory was imperfect and the drafts do not give a complete picture of the process, so I would like to offer some thoughts in this essay about how “Howl” was composed and how that relates to the Beat concepts of spontaneous writing and “first thought, best thought.”  

Note: This essay will look at Part I of “Howl” only. This is the part of the poem about which there is much uncertainty and myth. As best I can tell, there is little doubt over the writing of Parts II and III and this is concisely covered in several books about Ginsberg, whereas those same books get Part I wrong.

How Howl Was Written: The Accepted Version

Let’s begin by looking at the widely accepted story of how “Howl” was written. I’ll then move on to the mysteries and questions surrounding the writing of this poem, and then later offer some solutions to these.

We know for sure that Ginsberg began writing “Howl” in the summer of 1955 and that it began with this line from one of his notebooks:

I saw the best mind angel-headed hipsters damned.[i]

Some have put this as the beginning of August but it is unclear when exactly it was written for Ginsberg did not date the entry.[1]

From this first line, Ginsberg went on to write much of Part I of his poem, beginning:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving, mystical, naked[ii]

He produced a typed version with a great many revisions, including a hand-written change from “mystical” to “hysterical,” and then sent this to Jack Kerouac, who was then in Mexico City.

1st draft of howl with corrections by allen ginsberg

Ginsberg said that “Howl” was written in Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” style, and supposedly he had “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” taped up above his typewriter as he wrote his poem.[2] He even told various people that “Howl” sounded like Kerouac’s poetry.

Decades later, he gave his version of the writing process:

I sat idly at my desk by the first-floor window facing Montgomery Street’s slope to gay Broadway—only a few blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookshop. I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth. As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies most intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of family, formal education, business and current literature. 

What I wrote that afternoon, printed here in facsimile, was not conceived as a poem to publish. It stands now as the first section of “Howl.” Later parts were written in San Francisco, and in a garden cottage in Berkeley over the next few months, with the idea of completing a poem.[iii]

Elsewhere, he explained:

I was about three weeks into my unemployment compensation, after five years working as an executive in market research, when I sat down at the typewriter and thought I would just write whatever I felt like writing, instead of writing a regular poem.[3] Something looser, like prose or something. […] I did not make any corrections till I was done typing. Later on I began x-ing things out and getting all tangled up and messed the thing up a bit.[iv]

In 1978, he repeated “I wrote ‘Howl’ on a typewriter” twice in the same interview and there are countless other examples of this line throughout his interviews and other memoirs.[v]

Many scholars and biographers seemed to have taken him at his word. Michael Schumacher, for example, writes in Dharma Lion:

“Howl,” written with Jack Kerouac’s method of spontaneous composition very much on Ginsberg’s mind, was written directly on a typewriter.[vi]

Barry Miles, in Ginsberg: A Biography, says:

One afternoon early in August, he sat at the typewriter in his large front room on Montgomery Street, with the intention of writing whatever came up. […] He began to write about his life, again using William Carlos Williams’s triadic verse form, only with the lines extending out to his own long breath line—each line a single breath, like blowing an extended cadenza on a saxophone.[vii]

Bill Morgan, in I Celebrate Myself, writes:

On August 25, 1955, Allen sat at his typewriter on Montgomery Street alone and isolated and composed the original draft of what would become the first section of Howl, his most famous poem.[viii]

Neither Ginsberg nor his biographers denied that he rewrote the first section of his poem extensively over the next year. Indeed, it is well known that he added and removed lines, moved others about, and he changed many important words. However, Ginsberg and those writing about his life seem eager to stress the importance of spontaneous composition in the creation of this poem, perhaps due to it being such a big part of Beat literature, and whenever he spoke about the process, Ginsberg typically talked about select words he changed rather than the extensive redrafting he did. In one of the above quotes, he even says he “messed the thing up” by making certain changes.

Whatever the precise details, Ginsberg began writing “Howl” in the summer of 1955, and it was published as Howl and Other Poems by City Lights in October 1956. Between August 1955 and May 1956 (when the book was sent to the printer), he worked on his poem and wrote others that would be added to the collection, often revising his work based upon how audiences reacted to his live readings.

How Howl Was Written: Mysteries, Questions, and Uncertainties

When I was researching the year 1955 for another project, I needed to revisit the various sources concerning Ginsberg’s writing of “Howl” and noticed a few problems. I’ll briefly outline them here and then discuss them at length in the next section.

  1. We do not know exactly when he wrote the first line (“I saw the best mind angel-headed hipsters damned”).
  2. It is unclear how and when he developed this first line into the bulk of Part I.
  3. No one yet seems to have tied this line to an earlier poem of which it was clearly intended to be a part.
  4. Ginsberg claimed to have taken this line and spontaneously riffed on it, writing Part I in a single afternoon and directly on a typewriter, but this seems quite unlikely for reasons I will get into below.

Let’s now examine the evidence, bringing together many sources and accounts, in order to answer these questions as best we can. I will also highlight some of the ways that the poem changed over the period between his writing the first line and its being published in order to show the poet’s own uncertainty over what he was writing and the fact that he made an incredible number of changes. He always talked about the importance of spontaneity in writing “Howl,” and certainly that may have helped him with the first draft, but ultimately this was a poem composed not unlike earlier works, which is to say with a great deal of revision.

How Howl Was Written: A Revised Account

Writing the First Draft

In 1955, Allen Ginsberg was living in San Francisco, having ended up there largely by accident after a long voyage through Cuba and Mexico ended with him being kicked out of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s home in San Jose. He was making friends and surrounded by a number of interesting, artistic people, but he was nonetheless in the grips of a particularly bleak depression. Earlier periods of depression had yielded minor poetic breakthroughs and he hoped this one would, too, but he found himself struggling. He had been working for some months in market research and it was sapping his energies, so he connived to have his employment terminated, reasoning that he could scrape by on unemployment benefits and devote himself to poetry.

On May 1, Ginsberg left his job and began spending ten hours each day revising poems he had written over the past two years, but he became increasingly frustrated as he made little progress. (It seems to me that his main problem was that he was stranded in a period between perspectives and styles, having outgrown earlier poetic modes and not yet discovered or mastered his next one.) There were numerous complex personal factors that also contributed to his depressive state, including the incarceration of Carl Solomon and a turbulent and frustrating relationship with Peter Orlovsky.

On June 8, he was sleeping next to John Allen Ryan (poet, painter, boyfriend of Jack Spicer, founding member of the 6 Gallery, and later a bartender at The Place) when he had a dream about Joan Burroughs, whom William Burroughs had shot dead four years earlier. When he wrote about this dream in his journal (something he often did), it led him to ponder the nature of death. He was obsessed by death during much of this period of his life, only moving towards an acceptance of it in India almost a decade later. His journal entry read:

I dreamed this during a drunken night in my house when I brought home John [Allen Ryan] and we lay peacefully at a late hour in each other’s arms asleep: I [..] saw Joan Burroughs who has been dead now five [sic] years—she sat in a chair in a garden with the smile on her face: restored to its former beauty, the sweetness of intelligence which I eternalized in my imagination, that had been lost thru years of Tequila in Mexico City […][ix]

Following his usual method of poetic composition, Ginsberg later returned to his journal to mine it for ideas and phrases, and this entry became “Dream Record: June 9, 1955.”[4] It begins:

A drunken night in my house with a

boy, San Francisco : I lay asleep :


  I went back to Mexico City

and saw Joan Burroughs leaning

forward in a garden-chair, arms

on her knees.[x]

He was proud of it and showed various people. Kenneth Rexroth was unimpressed, calling it “stilted & somewhat academic,”[xi] but William Burroughs believed it to be an excellent effort. He wrote: “Baudelaire remarked on this when he spoke of poetry as a form of ritual or incantation, magic words to evoke an image or series of images in the reader’s psyche.”[xii] Ginsberg had far more respect for Burroughs than Rexroth and the feedback gave him confidence.

The poem was not only strong enough to lift Ginsberg out of his brief writer’s block, marking the start of a creatively fertile period during which he would write many important works, but it may even have been the real beginnings of “Howl.” Again, it is unclear precisely when he wrote this poem because although it is dated June 8, this was the day he had dreamed of Joan, not when the poem was written. (Even his journal entry sounds as though it was written a few days later.) This was a common practice for Ginsberg, who explained later:

My own method is that I keep a journal and anything that goes into the journal is anything that goes into the journal. Then a couple months or years later I’ll go through it and pick out the things that look like poems. Things that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and are in separate lines rather than paragraphs, and seem to have some kind of poem theme. Those I’ll separate out and type up and sometimes present them without any change. Sometimes I don’t realize that they are poems until they are typed up.[xiii]

We know from their correspondence that Burroughs—who was in Tangiers—had read the poem by August 1, so clearly the poem was written before then. This does not narrow the range of possibilities to a huge degree, but it means that Ginsberg had written it before the end of July.[5] The way he talks about his June 8 dream in his journal and the fact that he discussed the poem in his journal suggests that a not insignificant amount of time elapsed between the dream and the writing of the poem, so it was probably in the latter half of June or sometime in July that he wrote it.

The journal he kept at this time was filled with his thoughts on poetry as he attempted to figure out what he wanted to say and how, and he wrote—at yet another unknown point that summer—the following message for himself:

Note for Joan Dream: What consciousness in oblivion?[xiv]

The fact he is writing himself this note shows it predates the writing of the poem, whose theme is arguably whether or not consciousness exists after death. Ginsberg does not use those words exactly, instead asking, “what kind of knowledge have the dead?” His journal entry (from which he took ideas and language for the poem) is similar but wordier.

Some days later (again, frustratingly undated), Ginsberg expanded this:

I saw the best mind angel-headed hipsters damned.

What consciousness in oblivion, Joan?[xv]

It is interesting that in all the books about Ginsberg that have made reference to the first version of the first line of “Howl,” none have included the part about Joan. The first line, which is so obviously recognisable as the seed of “Howl,” sits isolated in all his biographies and other accounts, furthering the myth of spontaneous composition. It seems to be omitted to simplify his poetic development of that summer—from mining his journals for pre-made poems and then slightly modifying them to taking a single line and spontaneously composing his most famous work.

In most books that address the writing of “Howl,” we learn that he took this line and then sat at his typewriter to write the first part of his poem.[6] Like Kerouac’s marathon typewriter sessions, it was one long blast of a musical instrument, emotional and spontaneous, the rhythms of jazz spurring him on. (“You might think of [the lines] as a bop refrain, building chorus after chorus after chorus, the ideal being say Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938,” Ginsberg told an audience in February 1956.[xvi])

However, it seems to me unlikely that this writing session ever took place, at least in the sense that Ginsberg and others have suggested. To highlight that, I will look at the document called “draft 1” by Barry Miles in Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, some letters Ginsberg wrote, and other comments he has made to highlight some contradictions.

Ginsberg sent this document—the first typed version of “Howl”—to Jack Kerouac in the first half of August 1955. (I will discuss dates in the next section of this essay.) He said:

I enclose first draft scribble notes of a poem I was writing, nearer in your style than anything.[xvii]

When Kerouac received “Howl,” he did not believe it to be a work of spontaneous composition, writing:

Your Howl For Carl Solomon is very powerful, but I don’t want it arbitrarily negated by secondary emendations made in time’s reconsidering backstep. I want your lingual spontaneity or nothing, that goes for you and Gregory Corso, I won’t read hackled handicapped poetry manuscripts.[xviii]

Ginsberg responded:  

The pages I sent you of Howl (right title)[7] are the first pages put down, as is. I recopied them and sent you the 100% original draft. There is no pre existent version, I typed it up as I went along, that’s why it’s so messy. What I have here is all copies cleaned and extended. What you have is what you want.

I realize how right you are, that was the first time I sat down to blow, it came out in your method, sounding like you, an imitation practically. How far advanced you are on this. I don’t know what I’m doing with poetry. I need years of isolation and constant everyday writing to attain your volume and freedom and knowledge of the form.[xix]

When coupled with later accounts of spontaneously writing “Howl” in a single session, this does give the impression that he typed his poem in one go. The line “that was the first time I sat down to blow” could well be interpreted this way. However, he contradicts himself here:

There is no pre existent version, I typed it up as I went along, that’s why it’s so messy.

He is both saying that this is the first and unedited version of “Howl,” yet it is also a copy of another version.  

Cambridge definition.

These lines suggest that Ginsberg did not magically produce the first typed draft of “Howl” in a single burst of creativity at his typewriter and that there was in fact a pre-existing handwritten manuscript or perhaps pages covered in numerous possible lines from which he selected as he typed. They indicate that he most likely wrote his poem by hand and then periodically typed parts, which is different to the single-session claim and the idea of spontaneous composition.

Perhaps he meant “I typed it as I went along” rather than “I typed it up,” the difference between verb and phrasal verb having a quite significant difference here. So let’s look for more evidence…

First of all, there is a major inconsistency in how Ginsberg has referred back to the writing of “Howl.” He has two contradictory claims:

  1. He wrote the poem spontaneously on his typewriter one day with no intention of writing a poem, simply putting his thoughts to paper.
  2. He deliberately sat down to write a poem using certain poetic methods he had recently learned and which he wanted to apply in a major work.

He never seemed to see the contradiction between these ideas, perhaps because both had some truth to them and because one was a story he had created but thoroughly internalised. I don’t want to be unfair in calling into question his memory after several decades, but I do think it’s important to question his accounts. For example, in a lecture he said:

Kerouac shamed me into doing spontaneous writing by about 1953. I didn’t really get it on until I wrote “Howl,” though, that was the first time I accepted his message and worked on it. “Howl,” “Sunflower Sutra,” that whole period was a breakthrough for me where I finally abandoned any prior idea I had of writing poetry and just wrote. I decided that I wasn’t going to write poetry, because whatever I wrote was going to be whatever I wrote and it didn’t have to have a name [like] poetry or prose or scribbling or anything.[xx]

However, in that same lecture series he had spoken of deliberately copying Christopher Smart’s poem, “Jubilate Agno,” which after two opening lines returns to a fixed base of “Let” (later switching to “For”):

Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.

Let Noah and his company approach the throne of Grace, and do homage to the Ark of their Salvation.

Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.

Let Isaac, the Bridegroom, kneel with his Camels, and bless the hope of his pilgrimage.[xxi]

“The form is exactly the same as ‘Howl’’s form,”[xxii] Ginsberg told a group of students. Ginsberg’s account of this is that he had initially tried to write a poem inspired by William Carlos Williams’ method of “triadic stepping-stones down along the page”[xxiii] (as Ginsberg explained in another lecture). However, this did not work and so he copied Smart’s anaphoric referencing method as a means of creating a sustainable rhythm, allowing him to say precisely what he wanted without being limited by form.

This raises a few issues:

  1. Ginsberg often said he had not planned on writing a poem but rather spontaneously wrote, turning his consciousness loose on the paper, just seeing what happened when he wrote freely at the typewriter. However, it was obvious from his notes at the time and what he recalled later that he was deliberately experimenting with different forms.
  2. He seems to be suggesting that the first typed draft of “Howl” was based on Williams and later ones were based on Smart. Indeed, there is a notable change in form that supports this but the anaphoric referencing base was clearly there in the first draft, so he was certainly copying Smart to some extent when he wrote this. It is quite likely that he had been noting lines in pencil for days or weeks before typing them, based upon a deliberate attempt at using Smart for a new direction in his poetry, with the typewriter session merely a process of bringing that all together.

He also spoke often about the deliberate juxtaposing of contrasting images as a means of creating thought-provoking ideas and more interesting language. It was a concept he borrowed from Smart and also Yeats. On this subject, he told an audience:

I began figuring that the more opposite the words, the more amazing the flash in the mind. The mind will create a flash just like a lightning flash between two poles. If you set up a positive and negative pole in the mind, the wider apart they are the bigger the flash will be. The more contradictory the two poles, the more explosive and inclusive the mental flash to bind them together. That was the basic principle I was operating under when I sat down to write “Howl.”[xxiv]

The final line here is interesting. If he really sat down at his typewriter with absolutely no preconceptions about poetry, with no intention of writing a poem but rather to spontaneously spill his innermost thoughts onto the page for his own private consumption, then how did he also sit down with the intention of putting into practice several new poetic ideas?

Again, this suggests an inconsistency in his account of writing “Howl” and for me it indicates that Ginsberg had been—perhaps over a long period of time—noting down ideas for inclusion, and that the typewriter session was merely an inspired day or afternoon of editing and assembling these lines.

Another minor inconsistency concerns a quote cited earlier in this essay. Talking about writing “Howl,” Ginsberg said:

I did not make any corrections till I was done typing.

This is not entirely true, as can be seen from the draft he sent Kerouac:

corrections to first draft of "howl"

He was both correcting himself as he typed and after. The nature of the changes (mostly single words) suggests that he had captured the ideas he wanted but with a lot of very small lexical issues. Again, this supports the idea that he had probably worked out the content of Part I prior to his typewriter session. Perhaps he did most of it that day… Maybe he wrote “Howl” largely by hand and then transcribed it with his typewriter, making this all part of one big writing session, with the typewriter used more as a means of collecting the best lines of his manuscript… 

If this were true, then Ginsberg would still have been drawing from an earlier manuscript than “draft 1” and thus the typescript was in essence already a revised and edited version and not a spontaneous composition. But it seems highly likely that Ginsberg had been writing his “strophes” (as he called the long lines used in “Howl”) for several weeks prior to his typewriter session and so not only was the first typescript not typed immediately after the handwritten draft but it was probably a means of collecting various lines from a much earlier and looser draft.

Establishing a New Timeline

As I’ve made clear, we do not know exactly when Ginsberg wrote “Howl.” We know that a typed draft was produced in August 1955 and that this stemmed from a line in his journal written earlier that summer. That could have been any time from mid-June to early August. Let’s examine the available evidence to provide a slightly clearer timeline than is currently available, fixing a few misunderstandings and building upon this timeline in order to see how much “Howl” changed in those first days and weeks. To untangle this messy chronology and start looking at the changes Ginsberg made to “Howl,” I am going to draw upon a number of letters sent or received during August and early September.

The first reference to “Howl” in Ginsberg’s letters comes from the first half of August. In an undated letter to Jack Kerouac, he wrote:

I enclose first draft scribble notes of a poem I was writing, nearer in your style than anything. My book has fifty pages complete and another fifty to go still I think. It won’t be finished by summer end.[xxv]

Bill Morgan, in Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, dates it as “before Aug. 15, 1955.” Indeed, Ginsberg got a reply from Kerouac that was dated August 19. Given that Allen was in San Francisco and Kerouac was in Mexico City, with there being approximately a three-day delivery time between these locations at that time, it seems that Ginsberg would have sent his letter on August 13 at the latest, and thus he had written “Howl” before this point (but given his excitement presumably not very long before writing the letter). Ginsberg’s letter also references one Kerouac had sent him on August 7, so if that took three days to reach Allen, then likely he received it on August 10, so logically he wrote his reply between August 10 and 13.

Keep in mind that in this letter Ginsberg wrote:

What I have here is all copies cleaned and extended.

In other words, not only had he typed “Howl” prior to one of these days (August 10, 11, 12, or 13) but he had copied it and then written at least one expanded version. Ginsberg also said to Kerouac “I enclose first draft scribble notes of a poem I was writing” (my italics), which although ambiguous suggests that the manuscript was finished before receiving Kerouac’s letter. Thus, from each of those days on which he may have written Kerouac (August 10, 11, 12, or 13), we could realistically subtract several days to estimate when the typescript was produced, giving us a date range of something like August 7 to August 12 for the “Howl” typewriter session.

Although my estimates there are based on various factors and are obviously just an educated guess, I believe it is quite realistic and if they are wrong then it would likely mean “Howl” was written another day or two before that. Now consider how this impacts prior estimates. Barry Miles says Ginsberg typed “Howl” on August 24 and Bill Morgan says it August 25, yet one thing we know for certain is that Kerouac had read the typed draft by August 19. We can now push those estimates back by about a fortnight.  

That covers the first typescript, so let’s look a little more at how it developed with subsequent drafts…

In Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, we can compare the typescripts Miles has identified as drafts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. It is fascinating to compare these versions and see how Ginsberg changed his poem, but frustratingly we do not know when any of these was written (except for my above estimate regarding draft 1). What they do show is the extent to which the poet revised his poem, adding and removing lines as well as constantly moving them about within the larger framework of the poem, as well as tinkering with individual word choice and sometimes spelling.

This becomes even more interesting when we consider that Ginsberg not only sent a version of his poem to Kerouac but also sent parts of it to his brother, Eugene, and his painter friend Robert LaVigne. Unfortunately, he only sent excerpts. Eugene received ten lines and LaVigne was sent twelve. These differ a lot from draft 1 and also from draft 2. However, they appear to show progression between the two versions of the in-progress poem, so we could view them as being parts of “Howl” drafts 1.1 and 1.2.

We will look at how certain lines evolved in the next section, but here it is worth noting that the most obvious change was in the order of lines. These vary a lot between draft 1 and draft 2, and in the two letters they appear almost chosen at random. Was this Ginsberg copying lines he liked from his poem to show his brother and his friend? If so, why did he order them this way?

It is tantalising to think of there being other quite different drafts of “Howl.” Given the big changes that took place between drafts 1 and 2, it would be fascinating to see what drafts 1.2 and 1.3 looked like. For one thing, Ginsberg said his manuscript was now 5 pages, but the Kerouac manuscript was 7. Draft 2 was only 2 pages due to a formatting change, but the poem had grown longer by then, so what did those 5-page drafts look like? What other lines had been added? We can see a few lines in these letter excerpts that appeared nowhere else, so were there more? Were the lines plucked from the trove of pencilled strophes I have suggested existed? Or were they merely additions that were later deleted?

We do not have those intermediary drafts (all we have are quoted lines in two letters) but we can gain a clearer picture of what Ginsberg was doing with his poem by establishing more of the timeline. Although we do not have exact dates for two of these letters, we can approximately say they were sent:

  1. Kerouac – August 10, 11, 12, or 13
  2. Eugene – August 16
  3. LaVigne – August 29, 30, or 31[8]

Draft 2 of the manuscript was sent to Burroughs in Tangiers and I would like to speculate on when that was written. In the Howl: Original Draft Facsimile book, we have only the manuscript known as draft 2, but on that original manuscript—cropped out for the book—there is a short note from Ginsberg to Burroughs. It says little and was crossed out, with Ginsberg apparently writing a separate letter. (Burroughs burned his correspondence from this period, so it no longer exists.) The lines give clues about when it was written. They say Peter Orlovsky had returned from the East Coast with his brother Lafcadio, which helps us to date the letter. Likewise, they subtly hint that Ginsberg was still living with them, something strongly suggested by Burroughs reply in September. Textual evidence (see the next section of this essay) also helps us date this draft, with my guess being that the letter was sent at the very end of August, with the manuscript written not long before that. Whether it was sent before or after the letter to LaVigne is unclear but will be discussed more in the next section.

That is about as much as I can add in terms of clarifying (or confusing!) the timeline of “Howl.” From then on, the various books about Ginsberg and about “Howl” pretty much have it covered. I would add though that it is hard to tell when drafts three and four were written, but draft 5 is very similar to what Ginsberg read aloud in recordings made in February and March 1956. There are, however, some changes, which implies a draft 6 but by then these were very small alterations.

Revisions, Revisions, Revisions

After Ginsberg showed him the first typescript of “Howl,” Kerouac said that he wanted “lingual spontaneity or nothing.” Ginsberg tried to explain that “Howl” was in fact the result of spontaneous composition, saying, “What you have is what you want,” yet even by the time he replied to Kerouac, he had changed his poem substantially, and he would change it more and more over the coming year.

I am going to now demonstrate how Ginsberg changed “Howl” because I think it’s important to understand the extent to which he did so, particularly in light of claims regarding a spontaneous writing session at the typewriter. Although the myth of Beat spontaneity is tantalising, I think it detracts from the genuine artistry that went into their poems and novels, and I want to highlight the fact that Ginsberg worked incredibly hard on this poem and that his changes drastically improved it.

Let’s take a line that appears in all known versions of “Howl” as an example of his writing and editing process. In the first typed version, Ginsberg wrote:

who copulated all weekend exstatic [sic] and insatiate

               with a bottle of beer, and fell off the bed,

               and continued along the floor and down the hall

                              and ended fainting on the wall,

                              with a vision of ultimate cunt and come

eluding the last of consciousness

By the second typed draft, this had become:

who copulated exstatic (sic) and insatiate with a package of cigarettes a sweetheart a bottle of beer and a candle, and fell off the bed and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall a vision of ultimate jazz eluding the last come of consciousness

We can see that many more words and ideas have been added, the single “bottle of beer” expanded to a three-item list and the “vision of ultimate cunt and come” expanded to one of “ultimate jazz eluding the last come of consciousness.” By this version, Ginsberg had also changed the indentations to a more simplified breath-based line. He was now using “strophes” to talk about this poem and seems to have temporarily titled it as such, as the manuscript is given that heading. As I previously explained, this also shows that he had started with some idea of borrowing from Williams but switched to Smart as a model.  

Typed draft three says:

who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweet heart a package of cigarettes a candle, and fell off the bed, continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness

The changes here are comparatively minor as Ginsberg had now gained a better grasp of lexis, rhythm, and concept, but he had made definite changes to word choice, spelling, word order, and punctuation.

Typed draft four is very similar:

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 along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness

This remained exactly the same in the fifth typed draft and this is how it was published in 1956 as part of Howl and Other Poems.

I mention this single line not only because it helps show just how much the poem changed, highlighting the effort and care Ginsberg devoted to the composition of this masterpiece, but because it helps contextualise the excerpts sent to friends and family, which in turn help us to understand the writing process. Although none of the drafts are dated, we know that he wrote the Kerouac version (the supposed first draft) in the first half of August. In this version, Ginsberg added only one physical item in what became a list (sans commas):

a bottle of beer

On August 16, when he wrote to his brother, this had expanded to several items:

a package of cigarettes a bottle of beer a chick or a candle

When he wrote to LaVigne at the very end of August, the list contained the same ideas but in different words and in a different order:

a cigarette a candle a bottle of beer and a lady

The development of this list is fascinating. Note the use of “chick” and then “lady,” which later became “sweetheart/sweet heart,” which was standardised from draft 2 onwards.

It is very hard to tell whether draft 2 is more similar to the Eugene or LaVigne letters, but it looks like it is closer to the Eugene one, suggesting then that he wrote draft 2 before writing to LaVigne. There are small differences that hint at this. For one thing, he says “a package of cigarettes” to Eugene but later “a cigarette” to LaVigne, before returning to “a package of cigarettes” in draft 2. Likewise, in the Eugene letter and draft 2 he talks about “the last come of consciousness,” whereas to LaVigne he wrote “the last hop of consciousness.” Even so, it is impossible to say for certain. The list order, as we can see above, suggests that he wrote the LaVigne letter before draft 2.

Another line that appears in all versions is written in draft 1 as:

who howled with delight in the police cars for committing

               no crime but their own wild cooking

               pederasty & intoxication

By his August 16 letter to Eugene, that read:

who bit detectives in the neck and howled with delight in police cars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication

In other words, he had added “who bit detectives.” This vanished for his letter to LaVigne:

who howled with delight in police cars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication

Then, in draft 2 he returned to the Eugene form of his line:

who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication

The use of “who bit detectives” suggests a reversion to an earlier form, but the use of “shrieked” complicates matters because this is the verb here used in subsequent versions.

For reference, here are the variants on the previously discussed line/strophe. Due to the limitations of formatting inside tables, I will render the first version in plain text without indentations:  

DraftApprox. dateText
First typed draftBetween Aug 10-13who copulated all weekend exstatic (sic) and insatiate with a bottle of beer, and feel off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall, with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last of consciousness
Eugene versionAug 16who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a package of cigarettes a bottle of beer a chick or a candle and fell off the bed and continued on the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with an ultimate vision of cunt eluding the last come of consciousness
LaVigne versionBetween Aug 29-31who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a cigarette a candle a bottle of beer and a lady and fell off the bed and continued on the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of cunt and come eluding the last hop of consciousness
Typed version #2Unknown but likely late August who copulated exstatic (sic) and insatiate with a package of cigarettes a sweetheart a bottle of beer and a candle, and fell off the bed and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall a vision of ultimate jazz eluding the last come of consciousness
Typed version #3Unknownwho copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweet heart a package of cigarettes a candle, and fell off the bed, continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness
Typed versions #4 and #5, as well as published versionUnknownwho copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness

Not only did these lines change in terms of their content and phrasing, but we can also see by examining the letters and manuscript drafts that Ginsberg radically changed the order of his lines. The above line (“who copulated…”) may have remained internally unchanged from draft 4 onwards, but its placement within the poem shifted hugely from 4 to 5 and then again in the published version. This is true of a great many lines and Ginsberg kept making changes long after he had first read his poem in public and agreed to it being published. The line beginning “who loned it…” for example was in all August versions of the poem near the very beginning, yet it began to migrate towards the end of the poem, moving further back with subsequent drafts.

His changes were not all about additions and deletions; there were also reversions to earlier drafts. In the first three typed manuscripts and his letters to Eugene and LaVigne, Ginsberg wrote “who screamed on all fours in the subway…” He moved this around in the poem but basically kept the line the same until draft 4. Here, he scored out “screamed” and wrote “howled” in pencil. In draft 5, he typed “howled,” but in February he was recorded saying “screamed.” He reverted back to “howled” in March for an attempt to recreate the 6 Gallery reading of October 7, 1955, and indeed in the published version the line reads:

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts

Does this mean that draft 5 was written after February 1955? It is possible but seems unlikely to me given the page breaks, which align perfectly with his reading. Listening to his audio recording from that month and reading the drafts, it does seem as though he was working from a text slightly more advanced than draft 5. Perhaps then he was reading from draft 6… So did he say “screamed” because he was thinking about changing the line or did the word just come automatically because he had read an earlier version so many times? It is unclear, but in March 1956, when reading the above line “who copulated…,” Ginsberg said “illuminated” rather than “eluded.” Was this a verbal slip, an intended change, or a mistake due to a messy manuscript filled with notes and changes? It is uncertain but it shows that six and seven months after he began his poem, and not very long before its text was finalised, Ginsberg was still uncertain of particular words and even the order of lines.

There are many uncertainties surrounding this poem. Perhaps one of the biggest frustrations concerns the famed 6 Gallery reading of October 7, 1955.[9] There are no photos, no recordings, and the testimony of the attendees is shockingly inconsistent. I would love to know what version of “Howl” Ginsberg read that night. We know he only read “Part I” and we know it took about 12 or 14 minutes, which is consistent with other readings. But was he reading from one of the five known typed drafts or another that is lost somewhere? Certainly, he was not reading from draft 1. But was he still using draft 2 then or was he on draft 3 or 4? Had it gotten as far along as draft 4 or 5? In what order were his lines? What words changed between then and the poem’s publication? Certainly, there must have been many changes, but we will likely never know.

What we know, then, is that Allen Ginsberg kept on changing his poem, refining it until it was sent to the printer in May 1956. From an undated journal entry to a lost handwritten draft, onwards through a series of messy, shifting typed manuscripts and through a variety of emotional and/or raucous readings, “Howl” changed continually. Even draft 5, which is closest to versions Ginsberg read in 1956 prior to publication, is quite different from the final version of the poem. Testament to his work ethic, his self-belief, and his extraordinary vision, Ginsberg kept working on “Howl” until finally it found its form and became the best-known poem of the latter half of the 20th century.


There is no shortage of scholarship centred around “Howl” and with his 1986 annotated version, Ginsberg put the official seal on a version of the writing process that has essentially been taken for granted. Sadly, in Beat Studies, we too often take the Beat writers’ words at face value, yet seldom were these people entirely truthful. I don’t mean they were liars, but the frailties of human memory combined with the exuberance of youth and a penchant for storytelling have meant that much of what we think we know is exaggerated or simply incorrect.

It is not my intention to suggest that the story of how Ginsberg wrote “Howl” is entirely false but rather I wanted with this essay to show a more accurate version even if that means it is not as neat and appealing as people are used to hearing. I believe that Ginsberg started out by trying to impress Kerouac (a man he loved and respected perhaps more than any other) and then later boosted his own Beat credentials by playing up the degree of spontaneity in his writing of “Howl.” Later, with the fog of time blurring the reality of creation, he perhaps made a more convenient narrative for himself as well as those who asked him. (This also seems to be the case with other Beat stories from the 1950s.) It is a romantic, entertaining story that fits the Beat narrative, but as with so many of these stories, it didn’t really happen as we like to think. 

“Howl” was not written in a single magical blast of the typewriter, nor was it primarily written on the typewriter and later lightly edited. The poem almost certainly stemmed from that June 8 dream of Joan Vollmer, a few choice words serving as the beginnings of the poem itself, the next lines growing out of his various influences at that time, with this all happening in a handwritten manuscript of pencil scribbles, which he typed up to share with Kerouac, hoping for approval and feedback. The poet was proud of his work but uncertain about particular words, images, and more than anything the order of lines. However, the positive words he received from various people, including its eventual publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, encouraged him to keep going, revising his poem over almost a year.

All of this matters, I think, because “Howl” is not only an important poem, but the literary work that ultimately launched the Beat Generation, thereby changing the course of American culture. “Howl” gave Ginsberg the confidence to arrange the 6 Gallery reading of October 7, which in turn gave him the confidence to keep working on “Howl” and to start a number of other important works. The successful first reading of (Part I of) “Howl” pushed Ginsberg to do more public readings, which necessitated the rewriting of various parts in order to make the poem more effective when performed aloud. That first reading also pushed Ferlinghetti, who had thought of the poem as of minor interest at first, to publish it. That brought about an obscenity trial, helped create and shape various countercultural movements, and forever changed American literature.

[1] Those familiar with his journals and notebooks will be aware that he frequently jotted down ideas and interesting observations or phrases without dating them and oftentimes these were done in a semi-random order, so one cannot necessarily determine the date by looking at other pages in that book.

[2] Ginsberg had Kerouac’s list above his typewriter at the Marconi Hotel, where Robert Duncan saw it and was impressed, but he wrote the first part of “Howl” in his Montgomery Street apartment. Given how much he stressed the importance of Kerouac’s ideas, it seems highly likely that he kept these rules posted above his typewriter but it’s possible that he no longer had them there when he moved. A photo of his room shows only part of his desk and it is not possible to say what—if anything—was taped above it.

[3] I will mention as a means of showing that Ginsberg’s own testimony regarding this period of his life is not reliable that he was NOT three weeks into his unemployment period, he had NOT been working there for five years, and he was NEVER an executive at that marketing company. Although Ginsberg had a good memory for certain details, he got much wrong, especially about his own life.

[4] See Collected Poems, p.132.

[5] I have tried to find out how long it would take to send a letter to Tangiers in 1955, but I cannot. It was likely a few days—more than 2 and less than a week.

[6] Unless I have overlooked an account, Ginsberg himself does not address this and claims merely to have sat and written his poem from scratch. Again, this is likely a matter of memory or concisely putting forward a story.

[7] I will add for clarity and context that he has noted “right title” due to there being some confusion over the name of the poem. This is also beyond the scope of this essay but “Howl” seems to have undergone several changes in title.

[8] I base this estimate upon a letter LaVigne wrote to Ginsberg as a response to receiving a letter quoting lines from “Howl.” This letter appears to indicate Ginsberg had written him in the final few days of August.

[9] When it comes to the 6 Gallery reading of October 7, 1955, there are far more unanswered questions and a vast history of shoddy scholarship based upon flawed memories and self-mythologisation. This will be dealt with in a forthcoming essay (and later a full-length book).

[i] Journals: Mid-Fifties, p.159

[ii] Howl Facsimile, p.12

[iii] Howl Facsimile, p.xii

[iv] Best Minds, p.390

[v] Spontaneous Mind, p.370

[vi] Schumacher, Michael, Dharma Lion, p.200

[vii] Miles, Barry, Ginsberg: A Biography, p.187

[viii] Morgan, Bill, I Celebrate Myself, p.203

[ix] Journals: Mid-Fifties, p.136

[x] Collected Poems, p.124

[xi] Ginsberg paraphrasing Rexroth in Annotated Howl, p.xii

[xii] Qtd in Dharma Lion, p.198

[xiii] Best Minds, p.409

[xiv] Journals: Mid-Fifties, p.154

[xv] Journals: Mid-Fifties, p.159

[xvi] “Introduction” to Allen Ginsberg at Reed College, Omnivore Records

[xvii] Ginsberg to Kerouac, undated August, 1955

[xviii] Kerouac to Ginsberg, August 19, 1955

[xix] Ginsberg to Kerouac, August 25, 1955

[xx] Best Minds, p.408

[xxi] Best Minds, p.401

[xxii] Best Minds, p.401

[xxiii] Best Minds, p.359

[xxiv] Best Minds, p.391

[xxv] Ginsberg to Kerouac, undated August, 1955