On Oct. 12, English Professor Jeffrey Skoblow and History Professor Dr. Eric Ruckh performed their annual public reading of the landmark contemporary poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. The reading was performed on a grassy hill on the quad at SIUE’s campus to celebrate the 57 years since the poem was first read aloud publicly on October 7th, 1955, by Ginsberg.
Skoblow and Ruckh have been reading the poem aloud since 2007, and besides for the October anniversary, they have been asked to perform the reading by other English and Black Studies faculty practically since they’ve known each other. Skoblow and Ruckh each have a shared mutual interest in poetry, although from different academic perspectives.
“The space where literature and history intersect with each other is something that’s important to both of us from our disciplinary perspectives,” says Skoblow.
The two professors have also done public readings of other works by American, French, British, Japanese, and Korean poets together. Skoblow says that they are not “just doing famous and landmark work,” but the significance and sheer power of “Howl” make this reading a regular and a favorite occasion between the two.
As a literary scholar, Skoblow enjoys the vibrance of the work and says that because it was initially read aloud, it’s “life on the page.” He also adds that the poem is “just unspeakably fun to read aloud.”
Ruckh admires “Howl” as a historian and finds interest in the fact that the poem is “a product of its age.”
“‘Howl’ is very much a product…of the post-1945 era in America, concerned with mechanization, industrialization, bureaucratization, the atomic age, and atomic destruction,” says Ruckh. “It is a ‘howl’ against all of those things…and the madness of reason.”
Ruckh also resonates with the poem because of its being a “howl of gay liberation.”
“It’s the howl of a man who found himself constrained and in a box in a variety of ways, and the howl is to break out of that box,” says Ruckh. “As a gay man, it first brought me to the poem when I was a teenager and then has always returned me to it as a crucial statement about what it’s like to live as a gay man in a society that, then certainly and still now, doesn’t quite recognize or have equal space for gay men and gay women.”
Skoblow also finds deep resonance with the poem in its portrayal of the general oppressions of humanity.
“It’s a howl against oppressions of all kinds,” he says, “sexual repressions, very primarily, but also repression of free expression, political repression, religious repression, religiously motivated repression and repression of spiritual experience. It’s a very broad based attack and ecstatic advocacy of freedoms.”
Many students, faculty, and staff come to the reading of the poem every October. Whatever their own view of oppression, whatever experiences they bring with them when listening to the reading, those who listen to the poem get a sense of a message that resonates with them.
“It has an effect,” says Ruckh. “People walk by, and some people who did not plan on stopping stop. It captures people…for all sorts of reasons. The language, the fact that poetry is just being read on a campus…it creates a visible effect.”
Skoblow believes that the reading of the poem outdoors in the middle of the University’s busiest area is an especially powerful way to not only gain students’ attention but to make a statement regarding how humans communicate, or cease to communicate, to one another.
“The public space that we are blessed with here is not often enough used for acts of communications [and] certainly not for poetry that addresses in a powerful, human way these serious and beautiful issues, so I think that draws people, too,” says Skoblow.
The “Howl” reading may be over for this year, but Ruckh and Skoblow will dedicatedly read this poem to honor Ginsberg again next October at the same place in an effort to capture the attention of new students, faculty, and staff and welcome those who always come to listen.
For a look at Ginsberg’s famous poem, you can find free text of the poem online.