#238: Howlin' Wolf, "Howlin' Wolf" (1962)

When Allen Ginsberg’s polarizing poem “Howl” debuted in 1956, it was already part of a controversy—not just from the obscenity trials that would shortly ensnare it, but in the very manner of its publication: unlike most books of the time, Howl and Other Poems was printed in paperback. Prior to the “paperback revolution,” typically credited to Sir Allen Lane, most books were published with an expensive hardcover binding, and they were not widely distributed as they are today. Penguin’s line of inexpensive paperback “Pocket Books” had begun to change that, but change came slowly, as it so often does.

By choosing to print Howl cheaply, Ginsberg (and his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) asserted that poetry was not merely for the educated and well off. The wild, degraded, obscene subject of Ginsberg’s poem was also its intended audience. Picture an endless feedback loop: a generation howls into the void, and the void howls back. Unfettered expressions of pain always invite controversy.

Of course, wildlife conservationists already know that.

The grey wolf, author of the original howl, has been under the cruel thumb of the law for generations. Archetypal adversaries of all that is good and innocent, North American wolves have been brutalized by one initiative after another, first falling prey to the bite of musket balls, then to the tightening noose of congress. S.164, known to some as the “War on Wolves” act, threatens to endanger the animal further.

Section 1(a)(2) of the Senate bill states that the bill will reissue “the final rule entitled Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Removal of the Gray Wolf in Wyoming from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Removal of the Wyoming Wolf Population’s Status as an Experimental Population.” In other words, the bill would remove or lower the threshold for the endangered species designation, allowing wolves to be taken off the list of protected animals.

More chilling yet is Section 1(a)(2)(b), which asserts that the reissuance of the final rules “shall not be subject to judicial review”. The bill, which has two Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors, will be difficult to amend if passed.

Why, in the midst of such unrest at home and abroad, would policymakers spend time worrying about wolves? Bees kill more people each year, and “thinning” a pack of wolves actually increases the likelihood that the remaining wolves will prey on livestock, since a weakened herd is less able to pursue wild prey. What makes the grey wolf such an attractive target?

According to Wes Siler of Outside Magazine, wolf protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) “runs counter to the interests of industrial agricultural businesses and the oil and gas industry.” Because wolves conduct their business over broad swathes of land, the protection of wolves involves the protection of land—more of it than some people would like. Although wolves bring tourism money to the states they occupy, the land they roam cannot be processed for profit.

West Wing fans may recall press secretary C.J. Craig’s encounter with a conservationist group looking to gain funding for a “wolves-only highway” that would protect the land wolves need to travel through in order to prosper (for more information on wolf highways, check out “Lone Wolf,” Joe Donelly’s beautiful piece in Orion Magazine). Although C.J. laughs at the proposed price of such an endeavor, the cost of not acting to support wolves, and other endangered species, is far greater.

The presence of wolves in an ecosystem leads to what’s known as a “trophic cascade,” where predators restore limits to the populations of animals below them on the food chain, preventing overgrazing and creating a more resilient ecosystem, better able to withstand invasive species and other setbacks. That’s the scientific argument, anyway. The poetic argument is a little different, but no less true.

Ginsberg’s famous lament, “I saw the great minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” can just as easily describe the ravaged wildlife populations that, once chased from their habitats by urban encroachment and environmental degradation, must meet their deaths in the screaming grills of Peterbilts, or else from the poisoned crumbs of road salt and antifreeze. Driven mad by siren song and oil spill, the burnished flame of endless city light, the wildlife that captivated the imagination of generations of Americans will vanish into the gutter overnight.

Once, driving home in the first wet flurry of a Nor’easter, my mother and I spotted a deer passing through a gap in the woods. Robert Frost could not have been better pleased; the creature paused in perfect view through a frame of half-starved beeches and firs before threading into the thicket. In a moment, she was gone. But the scene was not over. Mom and I had not yet swallowed our first enchanted gasps before a coyote eased into the clearing. Snow knit itself into fine shapes just past his nose, as though hunger traveled ahead of him, silent as a ghost. Then he too was gone.

I do not have any stories about wolves, because I have never seen one; there are no wolf-only highways in the roads of my childhood, no place for such wildness to walk. I can only imagine what specters would have danced before a wolf, but they would not have been silent. In “A Man Among Wolves,” National Geographic photographer Ronan Donovan describes startling three black wolves after dark. He writes, “As I’m hiking out, the wolves are all howling to each other because it’s a social bonding thing. When they get scared or nervous, they come together and howl and it makes them feel better.”

Wolves howl. Poets howl.

Trans people howl as their lives are stolen; black people howl as their freedoms vanish; women howl as men look the other way; men howl against the bondage that constrains their hearts; Latino/a people howl and are not understood; children howl and are not heard. But we howl anyway.

We do it because it makes us feel better.

That is the real reason wolves will never be free. There is something undeniably powerful, something indescribably wild in a howl. No government could stand in opposition if one took hold of a nation. A howl says you are not alone. It says we will be free someday.

All it takes is a few deep breaths. Are you ready?

—Eve Strillacci



Donelly, Joe. “Lone Wolf.” Orion Magazine, 29 August 2013.         <https://orionmagazine.org/article/lone-wolf/>.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Poetry Foundation. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-    poets/poems/detail/49303>.

“Penguin Books at 80: A ‘paperback revolution’ that helped keep Britain’s radical conscience in        order.” The Independent, 10  October 2015. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/penguin-books-at-80-a-paperback-revolution-that-    helped-keep-britain-s-radical-conscience-in-order-a6689321.html>.

Rappaport, Nora. “A Man Among Wolves: Photographing Yellowstone’s Iconic Predators.” National Geographic, 4 Jan. 2017.     <http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/04/man-among-wolves-photographing-    yellowstones-iconic-predators/>.

Siler, Wes. “Trump’s Presidency Means the End of the American West.” Outside Magazine, 19 Jan. 2017. <https://www.outsideonline.com/2151411/trumps-presidency-means-end-    wolves-american-west>.

S.164, 115th Congress, 2017-2018. <https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/164>.