Howl by Allen Ginsberg Study Guide
Howl was originally written to be played on stage at The Six Gallery Reading in 1955. The popularity of the event piqued the interest of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Publishing, who offered to publish the poem. However, an issue arose upon its initial publication in 1957. Ferlinghetti was hauled to court because the poem was deemed vulgar.
The use of vulgar language and the topic of the poem itself were two major elements that led to Howl being labelled as obscene material. The poem depicts what are regarded as types of social deviance in American society: drug misuse, homosexuality, and other behaviours and utterances deemed unsuitable for public consumption. As a result, Howl and Other Poems was ordered to be removed from the market (Raskin, 2004:211).
Despite the improper content of the book, the trial judge, Clayton W. Horn, concluded that Howl is not obscene material after hearing from nine expert witnesses, including famous writers and scholars such as Mark Schorer and Kenneth Rexroth. Instead, the poem is thought to have literary as well as social merit. In fact, the obscenity trial increased the popularity of Howl and Ginsberg. (Raskin, 2004:211)
Summary of Howl
The first part of “Howl” is an outpouring of wrath at the speaker’s friends and peers’ plight because society does not respect, ignores, or openly mocks their art. The speaker narrates their decline into insanity, poverty, and the tenements and “cold-water flats” in which they reside, if they can find any shelter at all. He also discusses what occurs when people do not have anyplace to go, such as living beneath bridges, living in boxes, and hiding out in train yard boxcars.
The speaker tells stories about his companions’ quest for joy and transcendence despite their outsider status. He describes their drug trips, which include a variety of narcotics, as well as their sexual adventures and spiritual connection to jazz music. Throughout this portion, there are graphic depictions of sex practises as well as a travelogue relating the poet’s globe search for a visionary experience and a deeper connection with universal forces. By the end of the part, the speaker confronts American writer Carl Solomon, for whom Ginsberg composed the poem, informing him that he is in the same situation, not safe, because he writes and acts directly from his soul, without any filter. (Ginsberg and Solomon met while both were patients at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute in 1949.)
The second part of “Howl” is a diatribe against Moloch, a figure who represents everything that is wrong with the world, according to the speaker. Moloch is obsessed with money, war, and oppression, and he is made of concrete, metal, dirt, and despair. The speaker also discusses his loneliness, sexuality, and visions of angels, for which he is labelled as insane. People in this section let Moloch to take over their souls, building Moloch up only to be crushed by what they have created. They experience visions and fantasies of pleasure and joy, but the reality around them is one of isolation, ignorance, suppression, and, eventually, their own deaths.
The third part of “Howl” is a chant of compassion by the poet. Carl Solomon, a friend and fellow writer, is addressed by the speaker regarding Carl’s experience in Rockland, a psychiatric institution. He wants Carl to understand that he is not alone in his pain. He describes the visions and actions that led to Carl’s hospitalisation. He also discusses Carl’s battle with his doctors and nurses, as well as the shock treatments and the resulting mental damage. The speaker tries to console Carl with a vision of dropping “angelic bombs” to free Carl, and he dreams of coming to the speaker’s cottage to escape his “sea-journey” of madness and mistreatment.
Analysis of Howl
Howl was composed between 1955 and 1966, although the most renowned First Part was completed in just one night, before the well-known reading at the Six Gallery. It is divided into three parts and a fourth, Footnote to Howl, which is distinct from the rest of the poem in terms of rhythm and structure.
The poem’s subtitle, “For Carl Solomon,” already gives a hint of what is to follow. It refers to Ginsberg’s close friend and mentor, whom he met in a mental facility. It is a remarkable example of how the author discovered that a part may portray a more vivid sense of the total, making it appear more foreboding, and how he used it in his poetry. Despite being an individual, Solomon represents a complete group of people, an example of a generation, a manifestation of insanity. He will make an appearance later in Part III.
This poem’s title establishes a certain environment that will be explored throughout the composition. The title is the initial point of contact we have with any piece of literature, its presentation to the reading audience; it establishes the foundation for something that will be built up more extensively and profoundly later on. So, what is the deal with “Howl”? A howl is something to be heard; it is loud, wild, animal-like, and hence partially instinctive, emanating from the very nature of the person who yells it. When Ginsberg declares that the entire poem is a howl, he is metaphorically placing himself in a defined position in which he is shouting aloud something that originates from deep inside him, raw and unaltered, rough, unrefined, and virtually unconscious. He is not shouting, yelling, sobbing, or screaming, which may imply a more human meaning: he decided to howl, with all the visceral and animal connotations that the word implies, and he ripped this howl from a realm beyond time and space, from the living intestines of Moloch himself, to show the world:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, /dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.
This is the first line in Ginsberg’s poem Howl, and it is one of the most well-known lines in twentieth-century American poetry. It establishes the tempo and theme for the rest of the poem, as well as a very distinct subject that will reoccur throughout this section: “the best minds of my generation.” Who are the minds that the poetic voice is referring to? It does not relate to the most famous, prolific, or well-known poets, nor does it apply to those who remain in the circles of poetic academia. Quite the opposite, in fact. Those “best minds” are those who have been rejected by society because to their refusal to adapt to its rigid institutions and beliefs, such as Ginsberg and his bohemian, outcast companions. By referring to the bohemian underground of outcasts, outlaws, rebels, mystics, sexual deviants, junkies, and other misfits as “the best minds of my generation,” Ginsberg emphasises their search for cosmic enlightenment, because as angry and hysterical as these individuals are as a result of the culture that oppresses them, he also suggests that they represent a certain kind of salvation for the rest of America, though this salvation has yet He refers to these people as “angelheaded hipsters,” implying that they are “burning for the ancient heavenly connection with the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” that is, they yearn for a contact with the spiritual, a moment of vision represented by the starry sky. It is, as the author describes it, a “lament for the Lamb in America with examples of remarkable lamb-like youths.”
The young people in this town are “burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue.” The advertising, fashion, and book industries, in Ginsberg’s opinion, are at the heart of the inferno. They rule the ninth ring of this metropolitan nightmare. 43 It is a fairly Blakean definition of the poem’s themes, but unlike the Blakean children in Songs of Innocence, the author argues that the lamb-like youths in Howl are not just innocent victims. They have led themselves to slaughter in the same way that they have “chained themselves to subways for the never-ending ride from Battery to Bronx.” Indeed, as Ginsberg maintained, the “best minds” in Howl are victims of their own civilization. For him, society was to fault for mental illness. Innocent angels were driven insane by an unsympathetic system in which they also participated.
There is a deep spiritual dimension to the angelheaded hipsters in this poem, as well as to many of the Beat literature. However, it is unclear to which type of belief system this spirituality is tied, or where the key to the truth is located. Many religious traditions are referenced throughout the poem: these “best minds” “bared their brains to Heaven under the El,” which is a Jewish name for God used in the Hebrew Bible by Jews; they saw “Mohammedan angels” in their vision, a clear allusion to Islam; and later in the poem, there is a mention of the Seven Words “eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani” (“My God, my God, why hast 47), which are part of the New Testament canon and hence part of Christian tradition; and there are further references to mythology such as Buddhism, among others.
The context for these “best minds” is likewise provided at the start of Howl. As readers, we see an urban milieu in which there is a strong emphasis on the frenzy and movement that normally characterises metropolitan landscapes rather than natural environments. Ginsberg will continue with this sense of grey, urban motion throughout the first part of Howl since it serves as a crucial thematic backdrop for the piece. We should remember that the twentieth century completely altered the American environment, and the new urban industrial culture constituted a watershed moment in population distribution. For the first time in history, cities had more inhabitants than rural areas, and so the majority of poetic and cultural activity, including the revolution of all these “best minds,” took place in urban environs, the majority of which nurtured flourishing art, music, and literary scenes. San Francisco was the best illustration of this.
This poem places a heavy emphasis on geography, not only in the previously noted contradiction of “rural versus urban environment,” but also in the presence and reference of specific cities and regions. This emphasis on setting has a lot to do with the sense of motion and speed that pervades Howl, because, as previously indicated, those “best minds” are constantly on the move, hurrying from one location to another. In response to the quasi-religious language and verses that appear to praise or pray, localities become mythological places with distinct personalities, symbolist sites that become essential in linking these individuals across the country, and even pilgrimage sites. Among these are Arkansas (line 16), Laredo, New York (line 25), Canada and Patterson (line 33), New Jersey (line 63), and Oklahoma (line 83). It is a portrait of the continent based on its cities, and the part is used as an expressive element once more to convey a more vivid feeling of the total. It is also a portrayal of the first generation of Americans who were able to travel widely with relative ease, which is exactly what the Beats did, as Kerouac detailed in his masterpiece On the Road. In reality, one of the key themes of Beat literature was the opportunity to go to different locations, see and experience different areas of the country, and observe a form of national life.
A strong emphasis is placed on New York City as the primary backdrop for the description of the poem’s contents. New York was a meeting site for many of them, and Ginsberg describes it in quite different terms. References to locations in the city are scattered throughout the poem, making the reader feel as if they are on a subway ride around the city, following them: Paradise Lane (line 27),
Bickford’s (lines 39-40), Battery and Bronx (lines 42), Zoo (line 46), (line 47),
“From park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,” says Fugazzi’s (line 49). (lines 51-52). There are romanticised visions of nature and the metropolis in the mention and description of all these places, which starkly contrast with the hard realities endured by these “best minds” there, with their alternative way of life in the slums, toying with drugs and other questionable actions. We can see two sides of New York City: the one that everyone sees, with its everyday common life, “solidities of halls” (line 35) and storefront boroughs (line 37), and the much darker one that the Beats live and experience, “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (line 30). We can practically see them rushing from one location to another, high on Benzedrine, when the sounds of reality (“the noise of wheels and children,” line 43) “bring them down,” leaving them “battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance” (line 45).
Ginsberg caught the mood and atmosphere of New York — its genuine and unreal weather – in Howl. The poem contains nearly no dates and only a few connections to historical events. Only references to “wars,” “wartime,” and “the scholars of war,” but Ginsberg does not specify which. It is an Orwellian society of perpetual and never-ending battle. This tour of New York, as well as the subsequent stories of the Beats’ journeys across America (lines 63-105) are peppered with examples from Ginsberg’s own life. The mention of Benzedrine could be a reference to the writing of Howl. The poem’s typical frantic rhythm and seeming stream-of-consciousness style, random linkages and intertwining of conversations, infinite beat and uninterrupted talking are all effects of this substance, which Ginsberg was well aware of.
The following lines are inspired by Allen’s trips and stories, as well as those of many of his friends and acquaintances. They are parallel to, and best exemplified by, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The incorporation of all of these life events contributes to the moving rhythm of the poem by creating an image of the reality of life on the road. Ginsberg is both awed and jealous that these people were able to leave their homes with no attachments attached or guilt, “leaving no broken hearts” (line 71). The presence of a very strong symbolic line that reflects the railroad world is quite remarkable. Trains were one of the most efficient modes of transportation, especially for persons with limited financial resources who would hop from one to the next hoping not to be caught in order to travel across the country for free. They were known as hobos, and they became one of the most iconic figures in twentieth-century American culture; their behaviours and outfits featured (slightly romanticised) in On the Road. Line 72 of Howl mimics the cadence of those passing trains: “boxcars, boxcars, boxcars racketing through snow,” and the evident alliteration reminds of their sound travelling down the rails, most likely headed West. Because, once again, in Howl, as well as On the Road, Leaves of Grass, and other works by Jack London, the West becomes the mythical destination at the conclusion of the journey, demonstrating that it is the journey, not the destination, that is significant. As Wallace Stegner puts it,
It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.
In an account of the author’s own life and the creation of the Beat Generation around the Bay Area, these minds “reappeared” (line 95) on the West Coast. They were, however, punished by the law because to their alternative lifestyle and rejection of the system. They demonstrated “against the capitalist tobacco haze” and “distributed supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square” (lines 99-102). During the 1950s, politicians like Joseph McCarthy saw portions of Beat philosophy as Communist and a threat to national security.
Aside from the American West, there is a fascination with exotic and distant locations that comes to life in this poem. There are references to the East and Africa:
“who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love” (lines 66-68) and “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love” (lines 17-19). Many of these minds’ thoughts and fantasies are in these foreign locations, and, in fact, Eastern religion, philosophy, and mystical thought were major inspirations on the Beats’ works. Other significant inspirations referenced in this poem are “Blake-like tragedy” (line 16), “platonic tragedy” (line 17), and “platonic tragedy” (line 18).
“Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross” (line 54), and “Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross” (line 55). (line 75).
Howl continues to document the holy madness of these “best minds of my generation” from this point forward. Line 115 is significant in the progression of the catalogue of lunacy because it introduces a new focus on sex, which takes over the poem from this point on. Given Ginsberg’s sexual orientation and tendencies, it is no surprise that sexual practises will once again become a revolution against the system, and that the Beats’ sex lives were, of course, anything but traditional. Their existence in Howl posed a significant challenge at an era when homosexuality was still illegal and even sexual intimacy within marriage was rigorously limited by law. And the references to sex in Howl are neither prudish nor delicate, nor are they reserved for seclusion. They come out boldly and defiantly. Ginsberg depicts anal sex, oral intercourse, and what middle-class Americans in 1955 would undoubtedly have called promiscuous sex in Howl, using terminology that expands the lexicon of poetry. In the same manner that he transformed Carl Solomon into a mythological maniac yelling and raving behind the asylum’s bars, he transformed Neal Cassady into a symbol of the never-ending desire for ultimate freedom through sex. Cassady is Howl’s sexual hero, the “Adonis of Denver” (line 147).
Ginsberg took the language of drug users, homosexuals, and sexual criminals and transplanted it into the pages of American poetry, where it had rarely, if ever, been heard before. When it comes to sex, there is a general sense of hopelessness and desperation. Ginsberg’s heroes yearn for sex just as much as they yearn for food and wine, jazz, and spirituality. Americans, he felt, were insatiably hungry, always striving to fill the void inside with goods, pictures, and their own inflated conceptions of themselves.
There is also a lot of sorrow in this poem, and this suffering is in some ways related to the idea of spirituality that the heroes in Howl seek. They were suffering as a result of their incapacity to adapt, and Ginsberg saw holiness in their pain as well. He transforms his heroes, the “best minds,” into modern-day martyrs, who are punished and even killed for defending their cause, most of the time by self-destruction. Suicide was a common occurrence in Ginsberg’s life, as it was in the lives of many of his friends and acquaintances. By 1955, he knew at least a dozen people who had attempted or committed suicide, had spent years listening to Kerouac talk about it, and had observed Burroughs’ self-destruction. He had suicide thoughts, and American society as a whole was self-destructive. This enabled him to approach suicide in Howl with sarcasm and a sense of humour: the characters in Howl stage “big suicidal dramas” (line 164), “jump off the Brooklyn Bridge” (line 201), and “cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” (lines 190-191). No one ends up with any kind of dignity, and yet Ginsberg treats them all with tenderness. We saw the “lament for the Lamb in America with examples of remarkable lamb-like youths” once more. A lament for all the souls who “wept at the romance of the streets” (line 171), “sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge” (line 172), “cooked rotten animals” (line 182), “threw their watches off the roof” (line 187) and went forgotten outside of “Absolute Reality” (line 200).
When Ginsberg was accepted as a patient to the New York State Psychiatric Institute in 1949, the notion that he was about to enter a mental institution did not appear to bother him. It actually provided him a sense of validation, because being a poet appeared to imply a certain level of insanity. There was a long lineage of mad poets that dated back to the Greeks and achieved its apogee in the 19th century Romantics and many 20th century writers (such as Sylvia Plath or Ezra Pound), and Ginsberg was pleased to be a part of it. Again, insanity and the insane asylum had a significant impact on Allen’s life. They were very present to him in the figure of his mother from a very young age, and he later seemed to be drawn to unstable individuals like William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Carl Solomon.
Ginsberg had been thinking and writing about madhouses, madmen, and lunacy for years. For the first time, he was aware of those ideas, and that awareness brought him closer to Howl, in which lunacy is, of course, a prominent theme. He used his stay at the New York State Psychiatric Institute to build his own character as a mad poet and to establish the lunacy mythology that pervades Howl. Howl’s anonymous heroes, those “best minds,” have been “destroyed by madness.” “madman bum and angel Beat in time,” they are typical madmen (line 289). In Howl, America is also described as a “armed madhouse.” It is a land of “madtowns” (line 254), “visible madman doom” (lines 152-153), and “invincible madhouses” (lines 152-153). (part II, line 338).
Ginsberg makes the first mention to himself in line 270, and this remark marks a temporary transition in the poem. Lines 270-273 are completely conversational, in contrast to the disconnected narrative recording the lives and activities of the Beats that dominates the rest of the poem. The attention shifts to Carl Solomon, the poem’s dedicatee: “ah, Carl, while you are not safe, I am not safe” (line 270). Solomon serves as a light for the rest of the “best minds” in this scene. He is the most mad of all, but also the most clever. As long as his intellect, like the minds of the other heroes in the poem, is not recognised for its brilliance, he, Ginsberg, and the others will perish. The definition of insanity is called into question here: are these people truly insane, as opposed to the ostensibly “sane” conformist society?
Again, these insane “best minds” are, in Ginsberg’s opinion, the most sacred, devoted, and cherished people on the planet. He claims that his work “might be left to say in time come after death” (lines 290-291) and that their voices will “reincarnate in the ghostly quotes of jazz” and “blew in the suffering of America’s naked mind.” Their bodies, lives, or deaths will be proof of the “absolute heart of the poem of life” (line 297).
“Part I is a lament for the Lamb in America, with examples of remarkable lamblike youths; Part II names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb,” Ginsberg writes. As previously said, the Lamb represents the “best minds” of Part One, the alternative rebellious Beats, among whom Ginsberg was one. In Part II, the monster of mental consciousness is known as “Moloch.” Part II of Howl is mostly a long series of metaphors and symbols for all of the political and social elements that threaten the world’s sanctity and the highest qualities of human nature. It is a challenge to the status quo, political power, and institutions such as education, mental health, and public safety. In 1975, twenty years after completing Howl, the author believed that the poem’s “key phrase” was “Moloch whose name is the mind” (line 329). This expression comes from William Blake’s vision of “mind-forg’d manacles.” Ginsberg appeared to be implying here that the human mind was its own worst enemy.
Moloch got his name from the Canaanite God of fire, Molech, to whom children were sacrificed. From John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) through Blake’s drawings of On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity (1803-1815), it has been used figuratively in English literature to allude to a person or thing demanding or requiring a highly costly sacrifice. For numerous centuries, Israelite society occasionally practised human sacrifice, which it in theory condemned. Howl Part II tells us that America does the same thing. Moloch, by William Blake, portrays the passionate human sacrifice of war, particularly as it relates to perversely restrained libido. Ginsberg’s Moloch has this feature as well, and it is a figure for the oppressiveness of a modern industrial and military state, emanating from Reason; it is a God, but also an enemy, and so has the power to give to some while taking from others, like the monster capitalism it represents. Moloch, like a God, also becomes a judge: “Moloch, the heavy judger of men!” (Page 309)
Moloch represents the immoral power of government, which collects the people’s sorrows and inability to advance more than their hopes and ambitions, the soulless dominance of industry and corporate power, and Moloch’s soul is “pure machinery” (line 315), “electricity and banks” (line 326), symbols of industry and business. According to Ginsberg, American progress in the discarnate way that occurred over the twentieth century is a force that impoverishes the American spirit.
No one is immune to Moloch’s influence because it is a part of the people, and even a part of Ginsberg himself: “Moloch who entered my soul early!” (line 33) He seeks to demonstrate how we are all part of Moloch’s powers, and how, even if detached, we have been formed and defined by it since the minute we grew up in a Moloch-dominated culture. Moloch has infiltrated the thoughts of the people of America, and opposing him is futile. Returning to Part I, it is the process of attempting to free oneself from Moloch’s power that drives one insane.
All of the qualities that Moloch represents in Howl Part II, according to Ginsberg, are what led to America’s demise. However, other brains made a decision to reject the shade of Moloch in their life, but it was this decision that drove them insane. Their trip has both blessings and curses.
The Moloch portion of Howl was as dark and gloomy as anything Ginsberg had written, yet there was also a fresh note of joy. The children elevate the metropolis to “Heaven, which exists and is all around us” (line 345). Even in the midst of the abyss, bliss may be found.
Ginsberg’s anxieties of being insane were allayed by writing about Carl Solomon’s insanity, who appears briefly in Part I of Howl and then again as the main character in Part III. “Carl Solomon!” begins the first line of the final part of Howl. “I am in Rockland with you.” It is referred to as a “litany of affirmation.” His name was ideal for a poem about insanity and intelligence; Ginsberg’s Solomon, like the Solomon of the Old Testament, was a wise man. Ginsberg believed that the modern world’s “Solomons” were all insane, and that this was what was wrong with it. The third part of Howl depicts a man who is a specific representation of what the author perceives to be a general state.
The pattern is built on a statement-counterstatement form, and Ginsberg imagined it to be pyramidal, “with graduated longer response to the fixed base.” Ginsberg begins each breath unit with the words “I am with you in Rockland,” followed by “where…” and an explication of weird or unorthodox behaviour that has been termed “madness,” but that to the poet is truly a sort of creative divine sanity. The poem ends with a vision of Ginsberg and Solomon travelling across America together, transcending Moloch and lunacy and offering utopian prospects of love and “true mental regularity.”
FOOTNOTE TO HOWL
Footnote to Howl was written separately from the rest of the poem, because it differs from it in terms of structure and rhythm. The key to understanding the rhythm and structure of Footnote is to hear the poem as if it is being read in a jazz styling.
The word “holy” is meant to ground the rhythm of the poem just as the phrase
“I’m with you in Rockland” grounded Part III. Footnote to Howl is the compensation for all the negativity that predominates in the rest of the poem. It is an “affirmation”, meant to remind human beings of their own dignity.
When this manic Footnote to Howl announces the holiness of everything, it produces an absurd, irrational, extravagant inversion of Part I. This ecstatic revelation has its literary source in the “Holy, holy, holy” shout of the seraphim praising God in Isaiah 6.3, but as in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is one of Ginsberg’s most important models here, “everything that lives is holy”. Whitman, too, had claimed “Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from; the scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer”
Themes of Howl
The title alludes to one of the poem’s key themes, lunacy. Ginsberg howls here practically in the same way that wolves howl during a full moon; the moon itself is a summons to lunacy, hence the etymological root of the term “lunatic” (from Latin lunaticus, “moon-struck”). And in Howl, insanity is relative. The poem completely subverts the concept of sanity: it is a huge praise for all those insane people, and Ginsberg turns them into epic heroes in a similar, highly romanticised way that Kerouac did earlier in his famous lines from On the Road (and, not surprisingly, they are both talking about the same specific individuals):
The only people for me are the insane, the ones who are insane to live, insane to talk, insane to be saved, insane to want everything all at once, the ones who never yawn or talk about mundane things, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everyone goes ahh…
In a deeper sense, madness in its various forms (including drug-induced madness) is shown in Ginsberg’s writing as an elevated state of awareness that is intricately tied to the ability to “see beyond.” The “mad” people in the poem are the only ones who can recognise Moloch’s persecution and struggle against it; they are “holy,” “angelheaded.” This is directly related to Ginsberg’s own experiences with drug-induced visions, which are similar to William Blake’s and Rimbaud’s philosophy of poetry. In the words of the French poet:
“I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by an immense, long, deliberate derangement of all the senses.”
Every kind of love, every kind of sorrow, every kind of lunacy; he explores himself, swallows all the poisons in him, and keeps only their essences. This is an indescribable torment in which he must rely on his faith and superhuman strength, and in which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great cursed – and the great learned one! – among men. Because he has arrived to the unknown! Because he has nurtured his own soul – which was already rich – more than any other man! He enters the unknown, and even if he becomes mad and loses understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die rushing through those unutterable, unnameable things: more dreadful workers will arrive, beginning from the horizons where he has surrendered!
MACHINERY AND THE CITY: MOLOCH
In Howl, there are numerous descriptions of metropolitan environments. Ginsberg places a strong emphasis on New York City in particular, leading his readers through its streets as if they were in Dostoevsky’s Saint Petersburg. The sensation of movement and travel is consistent throughout the poem, and it is also a trait shared by most Beat compositions. Howl also introduces one of American literature’s most recurring themes: the fabled voyage to the West.
Urban surroundings are viewed as both liberating and confining, capable of enslaving the mind and finally destroying the individual. They represent freedom in the sense that they enable for the heroes of the poem’s self-realization in a variety of ways; but, it is also true that they are forced to carry out their activities in secret, that they are ostracised from society. The authorities in the city depict many forms of injustice, as well as the apocalyptic idea of destructive machinery, which emanates from the city as a whole, as the most accurate picture of the repercussions of crude Capitalism.
All of these unjust and harmful circumstances eventually pushed the Beat artists and poets underground, to mental instability, drug abuse, and violence. Moloch, the terrible force that threatens the holiness of all these brains, is somehow embodied in the city.
THE WORLD OF NATURE
Although Ginsberg has spent his entire life in the city and grew up in an urban environment, he considers himself to be part of a poetic tradition that dates back to the Romantic Age, a period of opposition between natural and urban environments in which awe of the natural world is the highest and holiest form of artistic and social expression. Ginsberg condemned human behaviours that endangered nature in his poems, and one of the most pertinent examples is the Nuclear Fear and his resistance to the nuclear bomb. There are references to this in Howl, such as the “hydrogen jukebox” image. Part I of Howl condemns the industrialised world for destroying nature and, ultimately, the soul of humanity.
THE TRADITION OF PROPHECY
Kenneth Rexroth was the first individual (apart from Ginsberg himself in the act of writing) to ever make a connection between Howl and the prophetic tradition in his testimony following the release of Howl and Other Poems in 1956:
The simplest phrase for this type of writing is prophetic; it is easier to call it that than anything else because we have a big body of prophetic writing to draw from. There are the prophets of the Bible, to whom it is similar in goal, language, and subject matter… There is a condemnation of wickedness and, in a sense, a pointing out of the way. That is literary prophecy.
Indeed, Howl contains a prophetic quality that transcends any disaster. It is part of a long line of prophetic writing tradition that, in general, has a goal of denunciation and is founded on a clear defined opposition between good and evil, on which it acquires a radical position by condemning evil. One of Ginsberg’s goals in Howl is to lay out a case against the way that American culture and society were headed.
We might claim, using Rexroth’s words, that Howl belongs to the prophetic tradition in two ways. On the one hand, and in purely stylistic terms, the poem draws heavily on Judaic and other religious traditions, with a particular emphasis on the Hebrew Bible, as important sources of style. The presence of Biblical text is palpable, establishing a link between Howl and the Old Testament in the first place. Some of Ginsberg’s strategies for developing his own voice, unique approach, and distinctive breath lines, such as the use of repetition to build tension toward a climax, are directly inspired by the Holy Scriptures. With the long line, uninterrupted syntax, and obvious reiterations of words and structures, this feature is very clear in Howl PART I verses such as “who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & lonesome in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes.”
On the other hand, once we delve into more depth, the earlier superficial link is thematically reinforced. In a poem like Howl, Ginsberg assumes the role of the prophet, calling on America to repent for its reliance on greed and industry, its proclivity for war and political prosecution, and the hatred and rejection experienced by those who live outside the middle-class mainstream establishment. He also assumes the role of the “seer,” as the one who owns the universal truth of the world and has come to “free” those who are still blind but willing to listen. His own faith in his visionary abilities is what justifies him adopting such a preaching posture. The author is really paralleling the biblical prophet Ezekiel, who is sent by God to announce the fall of Jerusalem and to call the Jews to repentance in order to be rescued in the Hebrew Bible. Ginsberg and America share a prophetic voice that extracts a positive aspect from all of the ugliness that it appears to encompass. By speaking out against his own culture, the poet is also expressing hope for its redemption.
STYLE AND FORM
The invention of a new extremely original form that makes this poem genuinely dramatic is what made Howl a revolution in Ginsberg’s poetry and in American literature in general. It appears that Howl will hold a unique place not only because of its essential role in the formation of the Beat Generation and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, but also because of the poet’s own explosive vocabulary and inventive sense of form. Howl, like Leaves of Grass, was a language experiment. Ginsberg mingled the ordinary with the lexicon of holy men, mingled obscenities with sacred oaths, and linked modern slang with the rhetorical flourishes of the Republic’s founding fathers. He spoke the language of immigrants, natives, New Yorkers, hipsters, and transcendentalists; he borrowed from Latin and pioneered new linguistic territory. Ginsberg respected not only the dead poets’ language, but also the language of the living street. He grew intoxicated with words and the sounds of words while he penned Howl, and reading the poem still gives him that feeling.
As previously stated, the form of Howl contains a sequence of concurrent advances. The first is incantation: each of the poem’s three parts uses a repeated word or phrase as an anchor, giving a rhythmic and syntactical frame for its wild flights of imagination (“who”, “Moloch”, “I am with you in Rockland”). These repetitions provide the author with a fixed point to which he can return. He employs them to “eep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to, and take off again onto another streak of invention.” The poem’s increasing rhythms imitate a variety of things, from a spiritual trance to a sexual impersonation, and they lead the reader to the poem’s final moment of insight.
Second, within each stanza, there is a miraculously felicitous arrangement of seemingly unconnected words. Ginsberg’s sense of himself as a true inheritor of Modernism, as well as his connection with Williams, have a lot to do with his core poetic act of using visual perception to transfer apprehension of the phenomenal world from the ordinary to the supernatural. He inherited William Carlos Williams’ and Paul Cezanne’s poetics of gazing. And this, in turn, has a lot to do with Howl’s unconventional “image juxtaposition.” He understood the process of gazing as an active rather than passive experience as a result of Cezanne’s influence. Impressionist artists encourage that their viewers join in the process of reassembling the fragments into a more coherent whole by giving a subjective viewpoint. Ginsberg, like Williams, saw Cezanne’s balance of passive recording and active interpretation of form as a model for his poetics:
Cézanne does not utilise perspective lines to create space, but rather a contrast of cone colour against another hue […] so, I had the idea [of the] juxtaposition of one word against another, a gap between the two words – like the space gap in the canvas – there’d be a gap between the two words which the mind would fill in with the sensation of existence.
“Join images as they are joined in the mind: only thus can two images connect like wires and spark,” he wrote in a notebook post titled “A Few Notes on Composition.” And, as William Carlos Williams had advised him years earlier, he told himself, “Do away with symbols and present the facts of experience.”
They will be able to speak for themselves.” The picture of the “hydrogen jukebox” (line 50) in Howl is the finest example of what he had in mind when he talked about producing “incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed” in Howl (lines 277-278). It encapsulates the pop exuberance and nuclear apprehension of the 1950s. Howl is plainly a poem about itself, a poem that refers to itself and talks with itself: an autotelic poem.
Returning to the lexicon, the poet, as the primary creator of the language, asserts his right to appropriately assign meanings to words, notwithstanding the State’s efforts.
This prompted him to use a quick sketching style in which he pushed images together, usually neglecting syntactical ties in the same way that Cézanne left “gaps” or white spaces between colours in canvases. Ginsberg argued that such gaps signified moments of keen perception — Cézanne’s petites sensations – and were legendary time experiences. The department will be in charge of controlling the conversation. Ginsberg, according to this, followed the Modernist ideal of returning visual focus to poetry through the use of concrete imagery in Howl.
Third, the poem exploits its long lines masterfully to surpass the natural rhythm of respiration. The poem’s verses are distinguished by extended draws of Ginsberg’s voice. He modified his speech to Howl as much as Howl adapted him, and this poem has an inherent oral character that virtually indicates it was written to be read aloud. Ginsberg’s readings of Howl became famous following the infamous reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco, which was the right ecstatic launch for the poem’s societal implications.
According to Ginsberg, this long-line formal organisation was an extension of Whitman’s style: “No attempts had been made to use it in the light of early twentieth century organisation of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures.” However, Ginsberg’s usage of the long line was influenced not only by Whitman, but also by the Surrealist aesthetic. According to André Breton, the “long rushing lines” of Surrealist poetry should be a “monologue spoken as quickly as possible without any interruption on the part of the cerebral faculties.” The effect is strongly tied to the Surrealist intention to make a visceral impression on the audience. Furthermore, according to Artaud, “true poetry is always Genesiacal and chaotic, with roots in Genesis and Chaos.” It is not poetry if it is not partly anarchic, if it lacks fire and incandescence or the magnetic whirlwind of worlds in formation.” Ginsberg accomplishes all of these in Howl.
The widespread use of anaphora, like in Whitman’s poetry, also contributes to the feeling of a never-ending line. Because of the non-periodic grammatical structure, it places the rhythmic focus at the beginning of the line and creates tension. The array of strange tropes further adds to the stress.
Ginsberg had the Whitmanesque ability, at the time of writing Howl, to be everyone and everything, himself and practically everyone else in the poem. It was his capacity to remain separate from Allen Ginsberg that allowed him to write the poem in part; he let his imagination lead him wherever it will. And when he came out of it, he used his critical powers to restructure and modify the poem. He removed himself from the work once more and examined it closely in order to improve it. As a result, the I in Howl is a highly vague and variable subject. At times, the “I” releases or is released into its rush of empathetic craziness, and Ginsberg, in Blakean terms, becomes what he sees, but the personal identities of others are transcended, and no “I” interrupts the utterance of ecstasy.
In the end, Howl’s success is due, in part, to its ability to fulfil Ezra Pound’s oft-repeated dictum, “make it new.” Ginsberg began to modify traditional poetic idea in Howl, shouting his barbarous yawp over the rooftops of the world, and over the years, continuously confirmed the centrality of human experience for contemporary poets. Furthermore, Ginsberg’s poem appears to meet the majority of T.S. Eliot’s criteria for a classic: it is “one in which the entire genius of a people will be latent,” and it “expresses the maximum possible of the entire range of feeling which represents the character of the people who speak that language.” When we read a classic, we do not remark, as Eliot observed, “this is a man of genius using language,” but rather “this realises the genius of language.” Despite being an experiment, Ginsberg recognised a great deal of the grandeur of the American idiom in Howl, much like Whitman did with Leaves of Grass.