Before he was a famous poet, Allen Ginsberg was a market researcher. He stopped only when he managed to persuade his employer to automate his job out of existence (using one of the commercial computers that had first become available four years earlier); the resultant unemployment benefits enabled him to write “Howl.” This article reconsiders this iconic text of the nascent US counterculture as a product of the postwar structures of informatics, automation, and precarity that are sometimes now referred to as surveillance capitalism. But it also asks what relation those structures had and have to poetry, and why poetic technique—specifically, a repertoire of techniques inherited from an earlier generation in Europe—became so crucial to how Ginsberg’s generation responded to the emergent surveillance-capitalist terrain. The period of unemployment when Ginsberg wrote “Howl” also marked his first significant encounter with the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who would become a key formal and imaginative model, and the coincidence makes visible a strange parallel between modernist poetry and market research. The paranoid aesthetics of information management that “Howl” puts into motion, it is shown, had been contained as a potential within modernist poetics all along.
Standard Forms: Modernism, Market Research, and “Howl”
Conrad Steel is an associate lecturer at the University of York. His first book, on the problem of scale in American poetry, is forthcoming. His current research examines the development of poetry writing as a participatory practice since World War II.
Conrad Steel; Standard Forms: Modernism, Market Research, and “Howl”. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 September 2023; 69 (3): 245–270. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-10814800
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