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In writing Howl, Allen Ginsberg was following poetic tradition rather than establishing it. Yet no one has ever done anything quite like it

By Sam Leith   181

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving mystical naked/ Who dragged themselves thru the angry streets at dawn looking for a negro fix…” Sounds nearly familiar, doesn’t it?

Allen Ginsberg used to repeat the dictum “first thought, best thought,” but the lines above were his actual first thought, according to the draft facsimile of Howl. He was too good a poet not to recognise that “negro” and “angry” were better transposed, that “hysterical” has a rhythmic spring “mystical” lacks, and that “who dragged” fouls up the whole thing.

The other night I went to see…

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