Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" was first introduced to the public at a poetry reading on October 13, 1955 (some sources say October 7), at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg's passionate performance of the poem established him as an important figure in the antiestablishment Beat movement. The Beats were a group of American writers who came to prominence in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. They rebelled against conventional post-World War II morality, materialism, consumerism, and war, and embraced spontaneous expression, sexual freedom, alternative lifestyles, spiritual search, and experimentation with drugs. "Howl" was published in the 1956 collection Howl, and Other Poems. In 1957, the poem became the target of a landmark obscenity trial.
The poem is an outcry of anguish against all that Ginsberg felt was unjust, repressive, and harmful to the individual in American society: consumerism, mechanization, and intellectual conformity. At the same time, it is a celebration of the emerging counterculture and an expression of sympathy for its pioneers. It is written in the long-line style of Walt Whitman, a nineteenth-century American poet who was an important influence on Ginsberg. "Howl" has a strong autobiographical aspect and also contains sociopolitical critique, as well as some sexual imagery. Over fifty years after its initial publication, the poem retains its power to shock and stands as one of the most influential poems of the modern era.
"Howl" is now available in Ginsberg's Collected Poems, 1947-1997 (2006). This edition also contains the poet William Carlos Williams's famous introduction to the poem.
Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His mother, Naomi, was a Russian émigré. She supported the Communist Party in her adopted country of the United States and took the young Ginsberg and his older brother Eugene to meetings. She suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was periodically institutionalized in the Greystone State Mental Hospital. Ginsberg's father, Louis, was a poet and teacher.
Ginsberg's adolescence was troubled and complicated by a growing awareness of his homosexuality. He attended Paterson High School and in 1943 enrolled at Columbia University, in New York City. His literary influences there included his teachers Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren and his fellow students Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady, and Ginsberg would later form the core of the Beat movement of writers. In 1945 Ginsberg was suspended from the university in the aftermath of a murder committed by his friend Lucien Carr. The immediate causes for Ginsberg's suspension were his writing obscenities on a window and his being discovered in bed in his university hall of residence with Jack Kerouac, who no longer attended the university. Although the university authorities may have believed that there was a homosexual aspect to this incident, Kerouac had apparently spent a chaste night with Ginsberg because he had visited to talk and stayed too late to go home. In 1948 Ginsberg resumed his studies at Columbia and graduated the same year.
From 1948 to 1949 Ginsberg had a series of mystical visions of the eighteenth-century English poet William Blake, one of his poetic influences. Ginsberg heard Blake's voice speaking to him. Barry Miles, in Ginsberg: A Biography, cites Ginsberg as saying, "The peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son." These experiences prompted Ginsberg to experiment with psychoactive drugs.
In 1949 Ginsberg was arrested after some acquaintances used his apartment to store goods stolen in a robbery. Lionel Trilling and other staff at Columbia University, together with Ginsberg's father, persuaded Ginsberg to commit himself voluntarily to Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute in New York as a way of avoiding prison. Ginsberg agreed, convinced that he had become insane like his mother. He remained there for eight months while doctors attempted to make him conform to their idea of normality. There he met fellow patient Carl Solomon, who provided inspiration for "Howl"; Ginsberg dedicated the poem to him.
Ginsberg did various jobs in New York City until 1954, when he moved to San Francisco and met Peter Orlovsky, who became his lover and lifelong companion. San Francisco was the center of the countercultural Beat movement, led by such poets as Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On the advice of his therapist, Ginsberg gave up his job as a market research analyst to focus on writing poetry full time. He first came to public notice in October 1955 at what has come to be known as an iconic poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, hosted by Kenneth Rexroth. Also reading their work were the now-famous poets Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Ginsberg read "Howl," which was published the following year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, through his City Lights imprint, in Howl, and Other Poems (1956).
In 1962 Ginsberg traveled to India, where he was introduced to yoga and meditation. He became convinced that these spiritual techniques were superior to drugs in raising consciousness; the trip marked the beginning of a lifetime's study of Eastern religions. Ginsberg was particularly interested in mantras, mystical sounds used for certain effects. He incorporated mantras into some of his poems, and often began poetry readings by chanting a mantra. In the early 1970s Ginsberg took classes in Buddhist thought and practice at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, which was founded by the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk from Tibet. In 1972 Ginsberg took vows formally committing himself to Buddhism.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Ginsberg became an iconic figure of political dissidence, addressing in his poetry such themes as the McCarthy red hunts and union struggles. He became associated with the antiwar movement that opposed American military involvement in Vietnam and with the philosophy of peace and love promoted by the hippie movement. He was also active in antinuclear protest. Though Ginsberg was a critic of capitalism, he did not consider himself a Communist. He did, however, speak of his admiration for certain Communist and labor leaders in the United States, especially those who were active during the McCarthy red hunt years.
Ginsberg's next important poem after "Howl" was "Kaddish" (published by City Lights Books in 1961 in Kaddish, and Other Poems), an elegy to his mother, who died in a mental hospital in 1956. A Kaddish is a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. Ginsberg's next major work was The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1972), which takes the reader on a cross-country journey, with stops in various places to comment on the spiritual decline of the United States. The collection won the National Book Award in 1974. The poems collected in Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972-1977 (1977) reflect Ginsberg's interest in meditation and spirituality. Ginsberg's last poems, including those written after he learned he had liver cancer, appear in Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997 (1999).
In the spring of 1997, Ginsberg, who already suffered from diabetes and hepatitis, was diagnosed with liver cancer. He continued to write during his final illness, composing his last poem, "Things I'll Not Do (Nostalgias)," on March 30. He died of a heart attack brought on by complications of liver cancer on April 5, 1997, in New York City.
Ginsberg has received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1965), a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1966), a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1969), membership in the American Institute of Arts and Letters (1974), a National Arts Club Gold Medal (1979), a Poetry Society of America Gold Medal (1986), a Golden Wreath from Yugoslavia's Struga Poetry Festival (1986), a Before Columbus Foundation Award for Lifetime Achievement (1990), a Harriet Monroe Poetry Award from the University of Chicago (1991), an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellowship (1992), and a medal of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government (1993).
In his essay "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl"’ (in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995), Ginsberg describes part I as "a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamblike youths." Jesus Christ is known as the Lamb of God; the name connotes innocence and mercy.
"Howl" opens with Ginsberg's affirmation that he has seen the greatest talents of his generation ruined by madness. He paints a picture of these people and their lives, drawn from his own experiences and those of artists, writers, intellectuals, musicians, and psychiatric patients whom he encountered. The poem shows them as outcasts from conventional society and details the abuses they have suffered.
Desperate, the people he has seen stagger along the city streets looking for drugs in an attempt to use them to make a connection to a spiritual reality. They are starving both materially and spiritually. Poor and exhausted, they live in apartments lacking hot running water. They are described as hipsters, a Beat term for people who felt alienated from conventional society and who were "hip," or in tune with the latest ideas and fashions. Terms opposite to hip included straight and square, which were used by Beats to describe those people who supported conventional society and all that it stood for: the military-industrial complex, mechanization, consumerism, and moral repression.
The El mentioned in line 5 is the elevated railway in Manhattan. The reference to Mohammed connects the Muslim prophet Mohammed's spiritual status to the people of the counterculture. The hipsters seek understanding by studying in the universities, which, however, are populated by scholars of war. In an annotation to a later edition of "Howl," Ginsberg writes that while he was at Columbia University, Columbia scientists helped to make the atom bombs that the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The allusion to Blake refers to the eighteenth-century English visionary poet William Blake, who was an important influence on Ginsberg. The hipster students are expelled from academe for wild behavior and obscene writings (as Ginsberg was). The Terror in line 8 implies a threatening world beyond these people's rooms. Hipsters have been caught running marijuana from Mexico into the United States.
- Howls, Raps & Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance (1993), produced by Fantasy, is a boxed set of four audio CDs of some of the best-known poets of the Beat movement reading their own work. The compilation includes a recording of Ginsberg reading "Howl."
- Howl, and Other Poems (1998), produced by Fantasy, is an audio CD of Ginsberg reading "Howl" and "Footnote to ‘Howl"’ as well as other well-known works.
- "Howl" and "Footnote to ‘Howl"’ (1997) are available as MP3 downloadable recordings of Ginsberg reading his poems.
Lines 12 to 15 describe enhanced perceptions experienced under the influence of peyote, Benzedrine (amphetamine), and alcohol. The allusion to hydrogen refers to the hydrogen bomb, a nuclear bomb even more destructive than the atomic bomb.
In their wanderings around New York, the hipsters talk of hospitals, jails, and wars, the destructive institutions of straight society. Line 20 refers to post-college career failures who suffer the tortures of drug withdrawal.
The post-college career failures stow away in the boxcars of trains on nighttime journeys to their families' farms. Inspired by spiritual experience, they study mystical authors and psychic phenomena and set out on vision quests to resolve their crises. Lines 27 to 33 describe the fates of people in Ginsberg's circle: some, hungry and lonely, wander through Houston, seeking jazz, sex, or mere sustenance. Others vanish in the wilds of Mexico or, driven by pacifist convictions, launch investigations into the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which they consider to be a tool of repression.
Some hipsters distribute Communist leaflets. Los Alamos is the U.S. government laboratory in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed. Protestors (line 32) are pursued by police who are trying to suppress their antiwar activities. The reference to naked victims implies that protestors are interrogated and tortured by a repressive state.
Line 34 describes protestors who are arrested but fight back by attacking police. Ginsberg insists that these hipsters have committed no crimes but indulgence in homosexual and drug-related adventures. Line 40 laments the loss of homosexual lovers to conventional heterosexual relationships, married respectability, and mainstream careers. These fates are seen as hostile to creativity.
This section describes people walking all night to reach an opium den. Others make suicide attempts on the banks of the Hudson River. Lines 48 to 52 salute the homeless and dispossessed people who sit in boxes under a bridge, suffer from tuberculosis in Harlem apartments, and adapt crates as furniture. One person, desperate for food, plunges under a meat truck in pursuit of an egg.
Hipsters throw their watches off the roof as an act of protest against the straight world of time constraints: they ally themselves with timelessness and eternity. These actions are futile, however, as they are condemned to be woken by an alarm clock each day, presumably to get to a job forced upon them by straight society.
This section salutes those innocents who have been destroyed by the prevailing poor taste in literature and the demands of consumerism. A would-be suicide jumps off Brooklyn Bridge but miraculously lives to walk away into the oblivion of Chinatown. Lines 58 through 62 chronicle wild, drunken escapades, including dancing barefoot on broken wineglasses and driving cross-country to talk to a friend about a vision of eternity. Hipsters pray for each other's souls in cathedrals, but the cathedrals seem devoid of hope, suggesting the spiritual bankruptcy of organized religion.
Line 63 describes jail visits, perhaps to Ginsberg's Acquaintances who were imprisoned for drug offenses, robberies, or homosexual acts. Line 64 refers to William Burroughs, who (according to Ginsberg's annotation to the facsimile edition of "Howl") retired to Mexico and to Tangiers, Morocco. There is also a reference to Jack Kerouac, who retired to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and who followed Buddhist teachings. The hypnotic power of the radio in line 65 alludes to Naomi Ginsberg's paranoid belief that doctors had implanted radio receivers in her body through which she received messages. The mention of sanity trials is possibly an oblique satirical comment on obscenity trials, which were a tool of the political establishment against rebels such as the Beats. Obscenity trials, Ginsberg suggests, should be abandoned in favor of sanity trials in which the establishment would stand accused of insanity.
Line 66 (according to Ginsberg's annotated edition) refers to an incident in which Carl Solomon threw potato salad at a college lecturer as a Dadaist statement. (Dadaism is a branch of the artistic movement of surrealism.) Solomon subsequently turned up at a psychiatric institution requesting a lobotomy.
Ginsberg describes Carl Solomon being given psychiatric therapies, including electric shock treatment, and overturning a Ping-Pong table in protest. Rockland refers to Rockland State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Orangeburg, New York, where Solomon spent time as a patient. The poet's sympathy with Solomon is expressed in line 72.
Lines 73 and 74 focus on the poet as inspired visionary. The Latin reference translates as "Father Omnipotent Eternal God": the implication is that poetry gives a person the sense of being close to God. Line 75 portrays the poet as shamed and rejected by society, conforming only to the force of creativity. Line 76 links images of an insane tramp and an angel, suggesting that they are both aspects of the same poet, outcast yet divinely inspired. Ginsberg states that poetry deals with eternal values that outlive any individual. The subject of line 77 may be the spirit of poetry, reincarnate in the modern jazz music that expresses the suffering of an America in which love is denied. He likens the saxophone's lament to Christ's words on the cross, which translate as "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Collecting together in line 78 the heroes of "Howl," Ginsberg sees their lives as poems, which are, however, cut brutally from their bodies, suggesting that the poets are sacrificed by a cruel society. The sacrificial imagery foreshadows the figure of Moloch in part II. Nevertheless, long after they themselves are gone, the life-poems of the poets and artists live on to sustain others.
In his essay "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,"’ Ginsberg writes that part II "names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb." He identifies this monster as Moloch, who was the sun god of the Canaanites. Between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E., the Israelites living near Jerusalem sacrificed their firstborn children to him. Representations of the god showed him eating the children. The inspiration for part II came to Ginsberg after he had taken peyote. He "saw an image of the robot skullface of Moloch in the upper stories of a big hotel glaring into my window" ("Notes").Moloch is thus symbolically identified with a mechanized, dehumanized society that denies sexuality, creativity, and life itself.
This section opens with Ginsberg asking which monster consumed the minds and creativity of the poets and artists commemorated in part I. The monster is made of hard, industrially produced aluminum and cement, linking him with a mechanized, dehumanized society. Ginsberg answers his own question: the monster is Moloch. Moloch is identified with loneliness, the futile pursuit of wealth that underlies capitalism, and human suffering. He is the harsh judge of men, the maker of prisons and of wars. Ginsberg sees the very buildings (perhaps among them, the skyscraper that carried the vision of Moloch) as an expression of Moloch's judgmental nature. This is a reference to William Blake's character of the warlike, repressive, and harshly judgmental Jehovah figure Urizen, who was (according to Ginsberg in his annotated edition) the lawgiver as well as the "creator of spiritual disorder and political chaos." Urizen was portrayed with the calipers of the architect of creation, which, Ginsberg notes, "limit the infinite universe to his egoic horizon" and "oppress physical body, feelings and imagination."
The windows in line 6 are unseeing because they do not see humanity's suffering. Again, the skyscrapers are identified with a harsh, judgmental god, this time the Jehovah or God of the Old Testament, on whom Blake modeled his Urizen. Moloch has engendered the dehumanizing factories of the industrialized society and the radio antennae through which this society broadcasts its version of reality. In line 7, Moloch is identified as a lover of oil, which drives the American economy. Moloch sees artistic genius as mere poverty. The conclusion of his aspirations is the hydrogen bomb. The destruction that such bombs would wreak would purify the world of the peculiarities chronicled in part I, but at the price of extinguishing life. The poet emphasizes that Moloch is merely a mental construct to which man has sacrificed his soul.
The poet blames Moloch for his current lonely and insane state and for denying him the joy of the body. He asserts that he will abandon Moloch, and he has a vision of light streaming from the sky.
At line 10, the poet lists the products of Moloch: dehumanized apartments, insane asylums, and bombs. The people sacrifice themselves in service of Moloch, while spiritual values have vanished from America. The inspirations and passions that form the basis of a truly human society are gone. The poet imagines the souls of suicides who jumped into the river. Now that their souls are in eternity, they see from a detached point of view the grim progress of Moloch's world, and so they are laughing.
In his essay "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,"’ Ginsberg writes that part III is "a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory." The poet addresses Carl Solomon directly and makes a recurring statement of solidarity with Solomon in this section. In line 3, Ginsberg states that Solomon reminds him of his mother, who was also institutionalized for mental illness. Line 8 may refer to the dehumanizing treatments given to Solomon, which close down his formerly acute senses. The spinsters whose breasts produce tea may represent a conventional respectability divorced from the natural female body, which would generate nourishing milk. Solomon's nurses are identified with harpies, winged death-spirits in Greek mythology.
Line 12 links the psychiatric hospital with the insanity of the militarized United States at the time of the cold war with Communist Russia. Ginsberg notes that the soul is pure and should not die in a place such as this, divorced from divine grace. In line 13, Ginsberg criticizes the electric shock treatment given to patients such as Solomon and implies that the treatment has separated his soul from his body. He links Solomon with Christ through the image of the cross, thus giving Solomon (and, by extension, his fellow hipsters) the status of a martyr. In line 14, Solomon, who is considered by straight society to be the mad one, rebels by accusing his doctors of insanity and plotting political revolution. Golgotha is the biblical name for the place where Christ was crucified. The poet predicts that Solomon will rise again from this spiritual death, as Christ did.
The poet imagines himself, Solomon, and insane comrades singing the "Internationale," the international socialist and Communist anthem. He envisages himself and Solomon caressing a pure version of their homeland, the United States, surreptitiously, under the bedsheets. This image connotes illicit, secret love. This United States is at the same time likened to a sick person who has not given up on life and who keeps them awake with coughing. Symbolically, the coughing can be construed as reminders to their conscience that their nation is in a critical state.
The climax of the poem is an image of the poet and his companions awakening out of their coma (induced in them by a brutalizing society) to the sound of their own souls, which are likened to airplanes dropping angelic bombs on the hospital. The building is lit up, and the imprisoning walls, the figments of man's perverted mind, collapse. The patients run outside to greet the new world. Line 18 unites the "star-spangled banner" that is the American flag with the mercy of the Lamb of God. The eternal war is the divine counterpart of the dehumanizing manmade wars that the poet has criticized earlier in the poem; it can be seen as the war waged by the light against darkness and ignorance. Now, the poet and his fellows can forget their underwear (line 18), as in this new freedom there is no longer any need to feel shame at their nakedness. Ginsberg ends part III with a vision of Solomon as a modern version of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, walking along dripping water, as if from an epic sea journey, and arriving at Ginsberg's cottage.
Footnote to "Howl"
The "Footnote to ‘Howl"’ is generally considered to be part of the poem. It is a reply to the abuses chronicled in the earlier parts of the poem, an antithesis to part II, and an affirmation of the sacredness of all life. This includes the humblest parts of the human body that, in Ginsberg's view, have been wrongly shamed by conventional morality and antihomosexual attitudes. These are hailed as being as holy as the angels. Line 5 affirms the holiness of the poetic process. Line 6 names several of Ginsberg's circle and declares them holy: Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg himself, Carl Solomon, Lucien Carr (a key figure in the Beat movement), Jack Kerouac, Herbert Huncke (a subculture icon and writer who was openly homosexual), William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. Ginsberg includes in his affirmation those people who are rejected by conventional society.
In line 7 Ginsberg affirms the holiness of his insane mother. Line 8 hails the modern jazz music (including the form known as bebop). The image in the second phrase of this line, according to Ginsberg's annotated edition, refers to the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras's statement, "When the mode of the music changes the walls of the city shake." The idea is that a change in musical fashion not only reflects but also can cause a societal change.
Even skyscrapers, accused in part II of being creations of Moloch, are welcomed into Ginsberg's fold of sacredness (line 9). A juggernaut (line 10) is any unstoppable force; Ginsberg explains in his annotations that the word refers to the growing military-industrial complex. The places named in line 11 are significant to Ginsberg and the Beats. Moscow is the capital of Russia, which was projected as America's enemy during the cold war. Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, is probably introduced as a cosmopolitan city in contrast to what the Beats saw as the white Anglo-Saxon isolationism of mainstream America. Ginsberg embraces all these places, from the straightest to the hippest, as equally holy.
Line 5 refers to the International Workingmen's Association, which first met in London in 1864, under the leadership of the founders of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. When Ginsberg wrote "Howl," four meetings of the association had taken place, and he is putting forward the notion that it is time for the fifth.
Lines 13 and 14 unite products of industrialization (the railroad and the locomotive) with spiritual qualities: Ginsberg affirms that all are sacred. The conclusion to the footnote hails the inherent kindness of the soul as sacred; it alone can resolve the suffering catalogued in "Howl."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the work of any three Beat writers. Identify the similarities in ideas, themes, and stylistic elements that you find. Then identify any differences between the writers: What makes them unique or gives them their own distinctive voices? Write an essay on your findings.
- Trace the development of the Beat movement in music, literature, visual art, and philosophy from its beginnings to the present day. Make a CD or write an essay detailing your findings. You may use illustrations as appropriate.
- Read William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In what ways does "Howl" expand on and comment on Blake's work? What similarities and differences are there between the social critique of these two works? Write an essay on your findings.
- In his introduction to "Howl," the poet William Carlos Williams remarks that the poem is a trip into hell. In what way does "Howl" portray the United States as a hell? Lead a class debate on the topic.
- Research the political and social climate of the United States in the 1950s, when Ginsberg wrote "Howl." Identify some of the factors that influenced the poem, taking into consideration both the established "straight" society and the emerging "hip" counterculture. Write a report on your findings.
The Birth of the Beat Movement
The overriding theme of "Howl" is the emergence of the Beat movement and the conflict between its values and the values of conformist or "straight" American society. Part I captures the essence of the Beat movement by chronicling events from the lives of some of its key figures, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon, and Ginsberg himself. These events are characterized by spontaneous expression, sexual freedom, rebellion against convention, experimental drug use, and spiritual search. These people make up the counterculture of hipsters, those at the forefront of change in the direction of freedom and spirituality. They are implicitly contrasted with their opposites, known in Beat parlance as "squares." Square culture was considered to be founded on conformism, materialism, consumerism, moral repression, fear, war, and divisiveness. The deity of the otherwise godless square culture in the poem is Moloch, who symbolizes all that is repressive and destructive to the spirit.
When it first gained colloquial usage in 1948 the term beat meant beaten down by conventional society and derelict. Later, Jack Kerouac gave the term the additional meanings of upbeat, beatific, and on the beat musically—and Kerouac and his companions, as well as the hipster culture they inspired, became known as the Beat generation. Both meanings are expressed in "Howl," in which Ginsberg and his friends are presented as dragging themselves through dark streets naked, starving, and abused by society, but also as divinely inspired, angelic, and Christlike figures. Thus, the first part of the poem is both a lament for and a celebration of the lives of the Beat figures. These people put into practice William Blake's aphorism from the "Proverbs of Hell," in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1794), to the effect that the pursuit of excess leads to wisdom. They tried to follow their desires for love, freedom, and spiritual experience. In their rebellion against conventional authority and their determination to maintain the integrity of their souls whatever the price, they reflect another aphorism from the "Proverbs of Hell," which states that the spontaneous passion of wrath contains more wisdom than the voice of reasoned authority.
Part of the Beats' rebellion against conventional 1950s morality was their enthusiastic pursuit of two taboo activities, sexual freedom and experimental drug taking. The former included homosexuality. In the United States in the 1950s, sexual acts between men were illegal in most states under sodomy laws. However, in "Howl," Ginsberg celebrates homosexuality. In reality, Ginsberg is arguing for the freedom of an individual to be as he or she is, and not to be defined or constrained by social conventions.
The theme of madness permeates the poem and reflects its prominence in Ginsberg's own life: his mother spent years in a psychiatric institution, and Ginsberg himself was institutionalized for eight months. Part III of the poem describes Ginsberg's experience of being institutionalized for mental illness along with Carl Solomon. The poet's attitude is one of sympathy with Solomon. In an ironic reversal in line 14, Solomon accuses his doctors of insanity.
Ginsberg treats his own madness, and that of Carl Solomon, as a badge of honor in an insane world dominated by fear, the cold war, government secrecy, anti-Communist scares, and the ever-present threat of annihilation by the atomic or hydrogen bomb. The poem asks the question, in an insane world such as this, who is truly mad? Ginsberg suggests that those branded as mad are, in fact, the sane ones. Thus, images of madness are connected with images of divinity and Christlike martyrdom.
There are many references to nakedness and bareness in the poem in the descriptions of Ginsberg and his fellow Beats. Examples are part I, lines 1, 5, 8, and 33. In line 1, nakedness connotes madness, poverty, and vulnerability. In line 5, the notion of baring the brain to heaven connotes a direct connection with the divine. In line 33, the vulnerability of nakedness is taken to extreme lengths in an image suggestive of a torture chamber. Generally in the poem, nakedness and bareness suggest honesty and directness on the part of the Beats as set against the hypocrisy and secrecy of mainstream society. Newborn babies come into the world naked, so nakedness suggests innocence and guilelessness.
There is also a suggestion of the prelapsarian (before the Fall) state of man in the biblical Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve are first created, they are at one with God and do his will. At this point, they are naked and unashamed. But they lose their innocence through giving into Satan's temptation to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, they feel ashamed of their nakedness and cover themselves with clothes. When God sees this, he knows that they have disobeyed him; they have fallen from divine grace. Thus, clothes are a symbol of loss of innocence, of shame about the body, and of division from the divine. Ginsberg's naked and bareheaded Beats are shown as being close to God and as holy prophets.
In "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,’" (in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995), Ginsberg explains that when he sat down to write the poem, he intended it to mark a new phase in his poetic development, characterized by complete freedom of expression. He writes:
I thought I wouldn't write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind—sum up my life—something I wouldn't be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul's ear and a few other golden ears.
The poem, Ginsberg continues, was, "typed out madly in one afternoon, a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images." The resulting stream-of-consciousness style may indicate that in much of the poem it is futile to look for intentionally logical connections of ideas. The very title of the poem suggests that it is a howl of anguish and other spontaneous feelings.
Transcendentalist Poetry and Philosophy
Ginsberg considered himself the poetic heir to the nineteenth-century American transcendentalist poets and writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, in particular, Walt Whitman. The transcendentalists posited the existence of a pure state of spirituality that transcends the material world and that is outside of time. They believed that this state could be accessed through direct mystical experience rather than by following the doctrines of established religions. The transcendentalists shared with Ginsberg and the Beat movement a rejection of materialism and external authority as well as a conviction of the vital importance of the subjective experience of reality.
"Howl" has strong elements of confessional poetry, the poetry of the self. This genre emerged in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the work of such poets as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton. It is characterized by the poet's revelations of raw, intimate, and often unflattering information about himself or herself. While Ginsberg's "Howl" fits this definition, it rises above the genre in its humor about the excesses of his hipsters and in its transcendence of the personal through its rare combination of social critique and prophetic vision.
"Howl" is written in an extremely condensed style. For example, in part I, lines 2 and 15, Ginsberg abandoned normal syntax and the rules of grammar in order to achieve a close juxtaposition of evocative images. Often these images can be unraveled to reveal a number of possible associations and resonances. In other cases, the meaning is enigmatic or ambiguous. This style, which defies grammatical convention, perfectly reflects the rebellious attitude expressed in the poem.
The antithesis of the Beat movement is symbolically represented in the poem by the demonic and robotic figure of Moloch, which represents the evil that grips American society and the fallen state of mind of the individuals that make up that society. The psychiatric institution featured in the poem has a real-life correlate and literal significance, but it also has symbolic significance, representing attempts by conformist society to repress rebels like Solomon, Ginsberg, and (to some degree) Naomi Ginsberg.
There are many ironic reversals in the poem. Conventional society is portrayed as pathologically insane, while people who have been institutionalized as mentally ill are portrayed as sane, wise, and divinely inspired. Criminals are shown as angelic (part I, line 63), and the homosexual acts that are stigmatized by conventional society are celebrated as holy (perhaps because Ginsberg sees all forms of sex as a part of love).
In part I, line 30, Ginsberg refers to hipster heroes investigating the Federal Bureau of Investigation—an ironic reversal of the expected roles, as Ginsberg and many of his associates were investigated by the bureau for alleged Communist sympathies and drug offenses. Ginsberg's reversal suggests that morally, he believes that the authorities are the ones who deserve to be investigated for crimes.
Ginsberg also points out the ironies and inconsistencies of capitalism, which is described as a narcotic haze. Although the capitalist system of the United States has criminalized the use of many narcotic drugs favored by the Beat generation, it has encouraged addiction to the narcotic drug tobacco, from which tobacco companies make huge profits, as Ginsberg points out in his annotated edition.
Further levels of irony can be found. Ginsberg is saying that capitalism is itself a drug. This may be (in Ginsberg's view) because of the dependence on money and consumerism that capitalism causes members of a society to develop. This dependence may be described as a narcotic or sleep-inducing haze because it can be argued that capitalism must keep people in an unawakened, trancelike state in order to persuade them to consume more and maximize the profits that drive the economy. There is an additional ironic and self-deprecatingly humorous twist in the fact that many of the hipsters who are protesting the capitalist abuses of the tobacco industry are themselves addicted to cigarettes.
Images of tortured, suffering, endangered, and wounded bodies abound in the poem, for example, in part I, lines 9, 10, 45, 53, 58, and 69, and part III, line 11. This imagery reinforces the notion that the hipsters are persecuted by conventional society, lending them the aura of martyrs. More specifically, some of the images of suffering link the hipsters to Christ. Examples include the images at part I, line 77, and part III, line 13. The effect of invoking Christ is to lend the hipsters his spiritual authority and status as persecuted innocent. It is important to recall that in his "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,"’ Ginsberg describes part I as "a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamblike youths," with the Lamb referring to Christ's mercy and innocence.
The Beat Movement
Jack Kerouac is thought to have introduced the term "Beat generation" around 1948. The term is generally understood to describe a group of American writers who reached prominence from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. Kerouac introduced the term to John Clellon Holmes, who published a novel about the Beat Generation, Go, in 1952 and a manifesto in the New York Times Magazine titled "This Is the Beat Generation" (published November 16, 1952).
The adjective beat is believed to have been first used by Herbert Huncke to describe someone living roughly without money or prospects. In its early usage, beat came to mean beaten down by conformist society, but Kerouac later insisted that it had the positive connotations of upbeat, beatific, and on the beat musically.
The Beats rejected post-World War II conventional social values and embraced Eastern philosophy and religion, drug use, free love, interracial relationships, and nontraditional literary and artistic forms. They were critics of materialism, consumerism, militarism, the cold war, industrialization, mechanization, dehumanizing institutions such as prisons, hospitals and psychiatric institutions, repressive morality, and racial prejudice.
The Beat movement was a twentieth-century expression of romanticism, being antiestablishment and pro-self. Like earlier romantics, the Beats emphasized the spontaneous expression of the individual's vital energies and the validity of subjective experience in the search for truth. They turned their backs on literary convention, using experimental forms and informal styles based on spontaneous speech or streams of consciousness. In subject matter, too, they were rebels, drawing on their own adventurous lives and the lives of people of the counterculture. It could be argued that "Howl" was the first work to bring Beat culture and values to the notice of the general public. With its form based on spontaneous (if extraordinarily voluble) speech patterns, its references to sexuality and drugs, and its passionate and rebellious authorial stance, the poem itself became a manifesto of the Beat movement.
The Cold War
The cold war was a period of tension and rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union from the end of World War II in 1945 until the early 1990s, when the Communist Soviet Union collapsed. The period was characterized by massive military spending, the involvement of both superpowers in proxy wars around the globe, and a nuclear and conventional arms race. No direct military action occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, which is why the conflict was called the cold war. Nevertheless, many people in the United States and Europe lived in fear of annihilation or devastation by a nuclear bomb, and the period saw the rapid rise of antinuclear "ban the bomb" demonstrations.
A reference to the nuclear issue occurs in "Howl" in part I, line 15. The militarization of the United States is referenced in part I, line 56, where it is linked with atrocities wreaked upon the innocent, consumerism, and the prevailing bad taste in literature. Part I, line 6, critiques the involvement of Columbia University scholars in the research and development of atomic bombs.
The cold war spread across the world as the United States sought to contain Communism and enlisted other countries as its allies. One of the best-known examples of this spread was the Vietnam War (1959-1975), in which the United States supported the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), which was Communist. Many American writers, artists, and intellectuals, including Ginsberg, opposed their country's involvement in the Vietnam War.
McCarthyism is a term describing a period of American history from the late 1940s to the late 1950s characterized by intense anti-Communist suspicion. The period is sometimes called the Second Red Scare (the first being immediately after the birth of the Soviet Union in 1917). Fears of Communist influence on American institutions and of Soviet espionage abounded. McCarthyism took its name from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who between 1947 and 1957 investigated a large number of politicians, artists, writers, actors, intellectuals, government employees, and other Americans for alleged Communist sympathies. The term McCarthyism later came to refer more generally to any aggressive anti-Communist activities, whoever pursued them. Ginsberg refers to the Communist sympathies of hipsters in part I, line 32, of "Howl."
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: In the United States, sexual acts between men are illegal in most states under sodomy laws. Homosexuals are stigmatized as threats to national security and are often viewed as diseased.
Today: While stigmatization continues in some regions, antihomosexual laws are invalidated. In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives approves the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, outlawing discrimination against employees because of sexual orientation.
- 1950s: In 1955, Ginsberg's public reading of "Howl" brings the cultural phenomenon of the Beats to public notice. Two years later the work becomes the target of an obscenity trial.
Today: In 2007, fifty years after a court ruled that the poem is not obscene, the New York radio station WBAI decides not to broadcast the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission would judge it obscene and fine the station.
- 1950s: Beats and other cultural rebels oppose escalation of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. They also demonstrate against the ongoing development of atomic and hydrogen bombs.
Today: The Socialist Worker reports that according to the French political scientist Dominique Reynié, about 36 million people took part in protests around the world against the war in Iraq between January 3 and April 12, 2003.
The Sexual Revolution
The United States in the 1950s was characterized by a morality that disapproved of sex outside marriage, interracial sex, and homosexuality. Homosexual men were persecuted and were in danger of losing their jobs if their sexual orientation was revealed. (Lesbians largely escaped such attention because of a relative lack of awareness of their existence.) From 1947 to 1957, Senator Joseph McCarthy used accusations of homosexuality as a smear tactic in his anti-Communist crusade, combining the Red
Scare against alleged Communists with the so-called Lavender Scare against homosexuals.
Many states had in place sodomy laws that made homosexual acts illegal. Most of these laws were only repealed during the last half of the twentieth century, from the 1960s onward. All remaining antihomosexual laws were invalidated by the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas.
In the 1960s, the so-called sexual revolution overturned many hitherto accepted conventions. Sex outside of marriage, between people of different races, and between same-sex couples became more widely accepted. Ginsberg was ahead of his time in challenging these taboos; as William S. Burroughs remarked after his death (as cited in Wilborn Hampton's obituary for Ginsberg in the New York Times), "He stood for freedom of expression and for coming out of all the closets long before others did." This is, of course, reflected in "Howl."
"Howl" first came to public notice in October 1955, when Ginsberg gave an impassioned performance of the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco to a rapturous and cheering audience. Among the audience was a drunken Jack Kerouac, who (as cited in Barry Miles's Ginsberg: A Biography) shouted "Go!" at the end of some of the lines. The event established Ginsberg as an important, unconventional poet and as a pioneer of the Beat movement.
As was perhaps predictable, when the poem was first published in Howl, and Other Poems in 1956, mainstream or "straight" society did not share the Six Gallery audience's enthusiasm. Shock and disapproval was widespread. In 1957, U.S. customs seized 520 copies of the volume arriving in the United States from the printer in England, citing the poem's obscene content. The intervention of the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in a temporary reprieve for "Howl." However, two months later, San Francisco police officers bought a copy of Howl, and Other Poems in the City Lights bookstore owned by Ginsberg's publisher and fellow Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They returned to arrest Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges. The authorities objected to the poem's references to sex.
At the ensuing obscenity trial, in a landmark decision for literary freedom, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the poem was not obscene. In the Evergreen Review, Lawrence Ferlinghetti makes a comment on the case showing the schism between "hip" and "straight" society: "It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene. The great obscene wastes of ‘Howl’ are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms." The trial helped put Ferlinghetti's City Lights publishing company and bookstore at the center of San Francisco's poetry renaissance of the 1950s and made "Howl" a manifesto for the Beat movement. Since then, the poem has become part of the canon of American literature.
That is not to say, however, that Ginsberg's poem has lost its ability to shock. In 2007, fifty years after Judge Horn's ruling that the poem was not obscene, the New York radio station WBAI decided not to broadcast a recording of "Howl," fearing that the Federal Communications Commission would judge it obscene and fine the station $325,000 for each word deemed offensive.
From the late 1970s, Ginsberg's own status has risen from young outsider of the Beat generation to major American poet, and "Howl" has increasingly been considered one of the most influential and innovative poems of the modern era. Part I has been included in its uncensored form in the Norton Anthology of American Literature since 1979.
Nevertheless, critics are divided in their estimation of "Howl" and of Ginsberg. Some accuse Ginsberg of having achieved fame by virtue of his charismatic persona and political activism, as opposed to his poetic talent. John Hollander, in his 1957 review of Howl, and Other Poems in the Partisan Review (reprinted in the facsimile edition of the poem) is contemptuous of the "utter lack of decorum of any kind in [Ginsberg's] dreadful little volume," which the poet and critic terms "very tiresome." He adds that "Howl" "[sponges] on one's toleration, for pages and pages." Nevertheless, Hollander concedes that Ginsberg has "a real talent and a marvelous ear."
Paul Zweig, on the other hand, writing well after the onset of the Beat phenomenon in a 1969 Nation article, recognizes the breakthrough achieved by the poem's frankness: "What Ginsberg forced us to understand in ‘Howl’ … was that nothing is safe from poetry." Calling Ginsberg a "shaman" (in tribal culture, a person who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds), Zweig says that Ginsberg has learned, in his psychic journeys, the "demanding truth" expressed by the sixteenth-century French writer Michel de Montaigne: "I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me."
Related to Ginsberg's humane inclusiveness, perhaps, is that quality of "kindness, or lovingkindness," identified in his poetry, as well as in his character, by the poet and critic Alicia Ostriker in her American Poetry Review essay titled "‘Howl’ Revisited: The Poet as Jew." (Notably, Ginsberg was raised in a secular Jewish family.) Ostriker points out in her essay that this quality of "lovingkindness," known as chesed in Hebrew, is one of the thirteen features of God according to the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Indeed, at the end of the "Footnote to ‘Howl,"’ Ginsberg hails the kindness of the soul as the quality that redeems humanity from the hell imposed by Moloch. Ostriker further argues in her essay that the power and virtue of the dispossessed and injured are the great themes both of Yiddish literature and of "Howl."
When Ginsberg died in 1997, Wilborn Hampton noted in his New York Times obituary that the poet "provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental." Hampton cites J. D. McClatchy, a poet and the editor of the Yale Review as saying of Ginsberg that he was "as much a social force as a literary phenomenon." Likening Ginsberg to Walt Whitman, McClatchy says, "He was a bard in the old manner—outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant. His work is finally a history of our era's psyche, with all its contradictory urges."
Robinson has an MA in English. She is a teacher of English literature and creative writing and a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Robinson explores how Ginsberg's "Howl" embodies spiritual values.
Allen Ginsberg wrote in the tradition of nineteenth-century American transcendentalist poets and writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Transcendentalism began as a protest against the rationalism and materialism that dominated the universities and mainstream society of the day and against the doctrines of organized religion. At the center of transcendentalist philosophy was a pure state of spirituality that transcends the material world and that is accessible only through the direct mystical experience of the individual, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. The movement had much in common with the Beat movement, including rebellion against conventional society and a conviction regarding the centrality of personal spiritual experience.
Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855) was a major influence on "Howl," both in its long-line, free-verse form and in its uninhibited joy in the senses at a time when such frankness was considered immoral. Whitman's poetry praises nature and the human body as part of nature but equally emphasizes the role of the mind and spirit, elevating the human body to the level of the spirit. "Howl" is similarly suffused with spiritual values. Ginsberg begins the poem with the claim of having seen a reality beyond that which is immediately visible to the earthly eye. He speaks from the privileged point of view of the prophet and the messianic bard, as a witness to the lives of his hipsters from their most humble and human aspects to their highest spiritual aspects. He frequently uses antithetical (contrasting) imagery to reinforce this godlike vision. For example, in part I, line 49, the same tramp-like figure that sits in boxes in the darkness under bridges rises up to build harpsichords in lofts. This line contrasts lowness (under bridges) with height (lofts), darkness with light, the stygian with the angelic; but the same hipster encompasses both aspects. In the eyes of conventional society, he could sink no lower, but in Ginsberg's bardic vision, he is a blessed angel—with a dirty face, but an angel nonetheless.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Ginsberg's poem "Sunflower Sutra" (written in 1955 and published in Howl, and Other Poems in 1956) is closely related thematically to "Howl," in that it explores the redemption of fallen aspects of earthly existence through the poet's transformative vision.
- John Clellon Holmes's New York Times Magazine article "This Is the Beat Generation" (November 16, 1952) is available online. It is an excellent introduction to Beat philosophy and the response to the Beat movement by mainstream society.
- The Portable Beat Reader (2003), edited by Ann Charters, is a thorough study of the Beat movement. The volume includes essays on the major prose and poetry writers of the movement, including Allen Ginsberg.
- The Beat writer William S. Burroughs is best known for his experimental novel Naked Lunch (1959). The novel was the target of a 1966 obscenity trial and effectively brought about the demise of America's obscenity laws. The novel is primarily known today for its biting satire of the United States.
- The Cold War (2001), by Mike Sewell, examines many aspects of the cold war, including its origins, its spread across the world through events in Europe and Asia, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and its conclusion in the 1980s. This accessible book offers an ideal overview for students.
- Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (1998), by John D'Emilio, explores the history of homosexual culture from its repressed state in 1940 to its emergence as a widely accepted phenomenon by 1970. Among the topics covered is the persecution of homosexuals during the McCarthy era.
For all the grimy details of the hipsters' everyday lives—the bloody toilets, the slashed wrists, the cigarette-burned arms—they are angelic figures, in touch with a divine level of truth. They tread barefoot on broken wineglasses (part I, line 58), but they dance as they do so, recalling the Hindu portrayal of the god Shiva, treading out the dance of creation on the body of a demon. In part III, Carl Solomon appears in a banal light, banging on an old typewriter or a piano, but also as a Christlike figure who suffers torture in the psychiatric institution. In part I, line 77, Ginsberg portrays the jazz musicians of the Beat culture as expressing Christ's suffering through the notes of the saxophone. On the wider canvas, Ginsberg sees the delusion that grips America in a spiritual form, personified in the child-eating malevolent god Moloch. It is a cliché of politicians that children are a society's future, but Ginsberg brings the cliché to life in this shocking symbol of innocent children willfully sacrificed in exchange for power.
These elements, as well as fitting into the transcendentalist tradition, are also characteristic of visionary poetry in the tradition of Ginsberg's spiritual mentor William Blake. Visionary poetry expresses spiritual landscapes discovered through inner journeys undertaken through intuition, meditation, dreams, and psychedelic drugs.
The hipsters' vision of reality is differentiated from the "straight" vision of reality in part by attitudes toward time. The theme of time permeates all parts of the poem, simultaneously pointing to the importance of the theme and lending this disparate poem some unity. The poem implies that straight society is governed by time constraints represented by material clocks and watches. This time is seen as antithetical to spiritual values. The hipsters obey only eternal time, the clocks in space of the "Footnote" (line 12). Thus in part I, line 54, they throw their watches off the roof to cast their vote for eternity, which exists outside of time. The gesture is heroic yet futile, as alarm clocks fall on their heads every day for the next ten years, implying, perhaps, that the hipsters are forced to conform and get conventional jobs in order to survive. At this point in the poem, Moloch is winning the battle between the sacred and the profane, yet the hipsters continue to hurl themselves headlong into the fray, sustained by their knowledge of the rightness of their passion.
The spiritual content of Ginsberg's poem is reflected in its form. It does not have rhyme or regular meter but is arranged in long lines in the style of Walt Whitman. In "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,"’ Ginsberg calls his lines "bardic breath." Both elements in this phrase—bard and breath—can be analyzed in order to throw light on "Howl."
A bard is a reciter of poetry from the ancient oral traditions in which poetry was not written down but passed down through the generations from bard to bard. "Howl" is certainly a poem that demands to be read aloud, and it is fitting that its first public appearance was not as a written publication but as a reading. The experience of hearing these long lines read aloud is of a cascade of words and phrases tumbling over one another in an outpouring of passion, as befits spontaneous expression. This effect is reinforced by the fact that the whole of part I of the poem is one 78-line sentence. The poem is given a unity and coherence by the repetition of the word who at the beginning of most of these lines.
Ginsberg explains in his "Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl"’ that he intends each line of the poem to be spoken as a single breath unit. This mode of organizing his verse may stem from his interest in Eastern religions, which emphasize control over the breath as a way of quieting the mind and increasing subjective awareness of the individual's eternal nature that exists beyond time and change. Later in life, Ginsberg was to practice shamatha, a form of Buddhist breath meditation that he learned from his Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Ginsberg's book Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972-1977 (1977), dedicated to Trungpa, contains poems written with the help of shamatha meditation.
Ginsberg's repetition of the word "who" at the beginning of his lines in part I and his repetition of the word "holy" in the "Footnote" are examples of a rhetorical device known as anaphora. Anaphora is a literary device whereby certain words are emphasized through their repetition at the beginnings of clauses or lines. In this poem, the repetitions reflect the use of a mantra in meditation. The mantra is a sound that is repeated in order to quiet the mind in a similar way to the breath control in shamatha meditation. In the case of the word holy, the meaning of the word reflects the intended spiritual effects of the mantra-style repetition. Ginsberg's use of repeated words in a mantra-like way combines with his use of the single-line breath unit to lend his poem an incantatory spiritual power that is calculated to alter the awareness of the poet-bard and the listener alike. This appears to have happened at the first reading of "Howl," when, according to Barry Miles's Ginsberg: A Biography, "Allen was completely transported," while the audience was "cheering him wildly at every line."
In choosing the word holy for his anaphoric pattern, Ginsberg is consciously echoing the final line of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the section "A Song of Liberty," after castigating religious hypocrites for claiming that the failure to act on their desires is a virtuous virginity, Blake concludes with the statement that every living thing is holy. Ginsberg, in the "Footnote," makes the same point through imagery. He closely juxtaposes the lowly and (in conventional morality) the profane with the divine, all under the umbrella of holiness. The tramp is elevated to the same level as the angels; the rhythms of bebop are equated in their transformative power with the apocalypse, the end of creation itself. Perhaps, Ginsberg seems to suggest, the new Beat culture will mark the end of Moloch's creation.
Part II and the "Footnote" have a parallel anaphoric structure, in that each part mirrors the other with the repetition of a key word, respectively, "Moloch" and "holy." These two concepts are antithetical, or in opposition, to each other. Ginsberg subverts this antithesis when the same skyscrapers that are condemned as the machinery of Moloch in part II, are carried over to the "Footnote," where they are declared holy. Because the "Footnote" has the last word, the poem ends in an ecstatic redemption achieved not by any change in external circumstances but by the poet's transformative vision.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on "Howl," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following essay, Ginsberg biographer Schumacher traces Ginsberg's growth as a poet and his journey toward writing "Howl."
Twenty-five years ago, while explaining his method of spontaneous composition, Allen Ginsberg stated that "it [was] possible to get in a state of inspiration while improvising." He often improvised during poetry readings, using an already published poem such as "America" as the framework for lengthy new improvisations, similar to the way jazz musicians used a song as the framework for extended solos. It was much more difficult, Ginsberg allowed, to accomplish this when he was actually writing. Longer works such as "Howl" or Kaddish, two masterworks generally acknowledged as towering examples of Ginsberg's skills in spontaneous composition, required a lot of ingredients coming together at once.
"You have to be inspired to write something like that," he said. "It's not something you can very easily do just by pressing a button. You have to have the right historical and physical combination, the right mental formation, the right courage, the right sense of prophecy, and the right information, intentions, and ambition."
A handful of recently published books, released to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the writing and publishing of "Howl," provide fresh and welcome insight into this crucial combination of factors behind one of the great achievements of American literature. The story of the writing of "Howl" has been told and retold by Ginsberg, most notably in his recently reissued annotated edition of "Howl," but all too often a very important fact is lost in the telling: while Ginsberg did indeed sit down at his typewriter and, in a single extended work session, compose the massive main body of one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, he did not do so by simply pressing a button and unleashing what his friend and mentor William S. Burroughs called a "word horde." Ginsberg was twenty-nine in 1955 when he wrote "Howl," and every one of those twenty-nine years seems to have acted as an unwritten preamble to the poem.
The author of "Howl" was not the same Allen Ginsberg that the public came to know later in his life after he'd reached his iconic level of fame. He wasn't the confident, long-haired, politically-charged and savvy figure depicted in Fred McDarrah's famous "Uncle Sam top hat" photo, or the suited, professorial Ginsberg captured by Robert Frank for later book jackets. The youthful Ginsberg was a holy mess of psychological, intellectual, and artistic characteristics and ambitions, often in conflict yet always seeking the correct (as opposed to proper) form of expression.
"I'm writing to satisfy my egotism," he wrote in 194l, shortly before his fifteenth birthday. "If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is. I'll be a genius of some kind of other, probably in literature, I really believe it. (Not naively, as whoever reads this is thinking.) I have a fair degree of confidence in myself. Either I'm a genius, I'm egocentric, or I'm slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two."
Not surprisingly, this and similar entries embarrassed the adult Ginsberg to such a degree that he refused to allow his youthful journals to be published until after his death. Bill Morgan and Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton started compiling and editing Ginsberg's The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice nearly two decades ago, and these journals, along with Morgan's excellent new biography, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, ultimately serve as guides to the long, painstaking, and often painful journey leading to the composition of "Howl."
Ginsberg's childhood and adolescence, recalled in excruciating detail in Kaddish other later poems, and recounted in Morgan's biography, caused William Carlos Williams to marvel that Ginsberg had survived long enough to write "Howl." As a boy, Ginsberg watched his mother, Naomi, a Russian immigrant, drop deeper and deeper into an abyss of paranoid schizophrenia; she would be in and out of mental institutions for much of her adult life, and even today it's hard to tell which was more difficult on her youngest son. His father, Louis Ginsberg, a teacher and moderately successful poet, labored to raise a family on a modest salary while trying to fulfill his own poetic aspirations. It wasn't easy, to say the least. It grew even more difficult for the young Allen Ginsberg when he became aware of his homosexuality and suffered the psychological penalties for trying to hide it from an intolerant society. When he enrolled at Columbia, Ginsberg had just turned seventeen, and while he might have been intellectually capable of taking on formal university studies, he was emotionally lagging behind his peers. He desperately needed love, but he didn't dare pursue it. He wanted to write poetry, but he couldn't even discuss it with his own father, since Louis Ginsberg had always joked that poets weren't normal.
Three Columbia professors—Lionel Trilling, Mark Van Doren, and Raymond Weaver—recognized Ginsberg's potential and offered encouragement, albeit in the traditional academic sense. More important, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, each bright but unconventional thinkers, each filling his head with attitudes and ideas completely alien to anything he had witnessed or experienced while growing up in Paterson, New Jersey.
Ginsberg's formal and informal educations clashed. He didn't dress (or care to dress) like his well-outfitted Ivy League classmates; he hung out with all the wrong people. Kerouac was persona non grata at Columbia, and when Ginsberg was caught housing him overnight in his dorm room, Columbia officials suspected the worst and drummed him off the campus. Ginsberg and Carr had tried to come up with what they called a "new vision" for literature—a form that, in an apocalyptic world, addressed real people in real situations in real language, literary models of the day be damned—but all Ginsberg knew, from his father and his studies, were existing literary models. His early poems, now published for the first time in Martyrdom and Artifice, indicated an undeveloped poet with great command of form, but with only the vaguest clue as to how to marry it to content. Ginsberg loved Whitman, but since Whitman was out of favor in the poetry establishment, he chose to imitate Marvell and Donne. It didn't work.
His life became still more complicated when he met Neal Cassady, the street-smart, self-educated, hyperkinetic, sexually supercharged "Western hero" who so enthralled Kerouac that he eventually devoted two major novels to him. Ginsberg saw him in a different light. He fell in love with the man first and the mind later, and, as would be the case throughout Ginsberg's sexually confused life, the man he was intensely drawn to happened to be (mostly) heterosexual.
Ginsberg's pursuit of Cassady, presented at great length in Martyrdom and Artifice, was both pathethic and heartbreaking. Here was a young man, pining like a teenage kid over his newfound love, hoping against all that he knew to be true that he would actually be able to find some miraculous solution to his homosexual yearnings. After arranging meetings under the guise of writing lessons, Ginsberg would sit alone in his room waiting for Cassady to arrive, only to learn that Cassady was jumping from woman to woman while he was keeping his lonely vigil. By the time Ginsberg was capable of accepting the truth, he was so psychologically and emotionally depleted that he had lost almost all of his self-respect—and he wasn't all that far from losing his mind as well.
His friends and mentors weren't faring well, either. Lucien Carr was behind bars, imprisoned for murdering David Kammerer, another Ginsberg acquaintance, who had been stalking Carr with the hopes of forcing him into a relationship. Kerouac, who had helped Carr dispose of evidence, had avoided a jail sentence by marrying and moving to Michigan. Burroughs, fed up with the New York scene, had relocated to Texas. And if all that wasn't taxing enough on Ginsberg's frail state of mind, his parents had split up and Naomi Ginsberg was gradually sliding into such a mental decline that Allen would eventually be asked to sign papers authorizing his mother's lobotomy.
Ginsberg teetered at the edge of his limits. He continued to write poetry with remarkable self-discipline, even as his daily existence crumbled and he himself began to question his sanity. His friends began to wonder as well, especially when, in 1948, Ginsberg announced to anyone who would listen that he'd had a series of "visions" rooted in William Blake's poetry, visions that convinced him that he had a sacred vocation to pursue poetry and pass along the minute particulars of his life and experiences to future generations, just as Blake's voice had been handed down through the ages.
At this point, a feature in Morgan's biography becomes especially useful. HarperCollins has recently published a massive, 1,189-page, updated edition of Ginsberg's Collected Poems, encompassing all of Ginsberg's published poetry, and Morgan has included, in the margins of his biography, the titles of poems and their page numbers in Collected Poems corresponding with the events of Ginsberg's life. Ginsberg always insisted that his poetry was a "graph" of his mind, and this feature in Morgan's biography shows just how precisely this was so. The poems written immediately following Ginsberg's "Blake visions" ("The Eye Altering Alters All," "On Reading William Blake's ‘The Sick Rose,"’ "Vision 1948") are two wrapped up in Ginsberg's efforts to reproduce and analyze his visions to be effective as poems, whereas, a decade later, in "The Lion for Real," he managed to be much more successful when he was not so self-conscious.
Ginsberg's artistic development accelerated as his personal life dipped into a purgatory that would supply him with the grist for an epic poem. He was arrested after he allowed a group of petty thieves to use his apartment as a storehouse for stolen goods, and in a plea bargain with prosecutors, he chose time in a sanitarium [sic] over time in jail. While undergoing psychiatric evaluation, Ginsberg met Carl Solomon, the brilliant yet pathologically unconventional figure to whom "Howl" is dedicated. He also met and was befriended by William Carlos Williams, an acclaimed local poet well connected with the publishing world and much more suited to act as a Ginsberg tutor than anyone at Columbia. Williams encouraged Ginsberg to use American language and idiom in his poetry, and Ginsberg took the advice to heart.
The poetry written shortly after Ginsberg's introduction to Williams, eventually published in 1961 in a volume of early poems, Empty Mirror, now published along with additional, previously unpublished poems in Martyrdom and Artifice, represent nothing less than a chrysalis between the derivative young Ginsberg and the fully realized poet he would become. Some of the work is still too self-consciously clever to represent anything other than an interesting exercise, but there are diamonds to be found as well, intimations that, for Ginsberg, content and form were finally coming together. The discovery was purely accidental. When Ginsberg tried to impress Williams by breaking lines from his journals into short poems similar to those written by Williams, the elder poet responded enthusiastically. He praised the work and promised to see it published. Ginsberg, like any eager young pupil beaming from his teacher's praise, proceeded to break his journals down into a hefty volume's worth of poems.
During this same period, Ginsberg's spiritual growth took an unexpected turn when Jack Kerouac "discovered" Buddhism and suggested that his friend look into it. Ginsberg would always credit Kerouac for being the force behind his lifelong devotion to and study of Buddhism, but in reality Kerouac was far too preoccupied with his travels and writing for an in-depth study. Ginsberg, true to character, took a more scholarly approach, and while two decades would pass before Ginsberg would meet the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa and formally dedicate himself to Trungpa's teachings, the initial studies proved significant, especially when he moved to San Francisco and met Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, two poets who used Buddhism and Eastern thought as anchors in their work.
Ginsberg fled New York and an unsatisfactory attempt at a relationship with William Burroughs in 1953, and after spending nearly half a year in Mexico, exploring the Mayan ruins and writing Siesta in Xbalba (his first successful long poem) he returned to the States with the intention of reuniting with Neal Cassady, who had married and moved to San José. The reunion was short-lived. After Carolyn Cassady walked in on the two men in the midst of a sexual encounter, she loaded Ginsberg into the family car and dumped him off in San Francisco.
The city and its poetry community, as it turned out, were the final crucial ingredients necessary for the composition of "Howl."
Beat generation historians tend to employ a kind of shorthand in delineating Ginsberg's early days in San Francisco: Ginsberg arrives in town; meets a psychologist who recommends that he give up his day job for poetry; begins a lifelong relationship with Peter Orlovsky; writes "Howl" and reads it at the legendary Six Gallery reading; and rockets to the forefront of a new generation of poets. As Morgan shows, it wasn't really a quick, simple path from one point to the next. In fact, "Howl" might not have been written at all if Ginsberg hadn't again backed himself into a corner. After Carolyn Cassady dropped him off in San Francisco, Ginsberg made a halfhearted attempt at living a "normal" life, taking up with a girlfriend and working a job, with predictable results. He was encouraged by a psychiatrist to drop the job and live an openly gay lifestyle if that would ease his mind, but it didn't—not at first, at least. Peter Orlovsky, like Neil Cassady, was essentially heterosexual, and while he and Ginsberg agreed to maintain a mutually exclusive gay relationship, there were all kinds of troubles on the horizon.
Unhappy with the direction his life with Ginsberg was taking, Orlovsky left Ginsberg in the summer of 1955. Emotionally distraught, uncertain where his life was going, geographically removed from his closest friends and family, and discouraged by his own inability to get his work published, Ginsberg was again at a personal crossroads. Rather than lapse into another extended period of self-pity, he pondered the plights of those he knew to be in similar or worse condition—"best minds" that had been beaten down by society and circumstance, friends who had died (or, worse, were walking dead); friends who had suffered, people scarred by the marks of woe, as Blake would have it.
His life had led him to this moment. The long lines of the poem, which he initially entitled "Stropes" but then renamed "Howl," were torrential outpourings, one leading easily to the next, devoted to actual events in his and his friends' lives. Since he had no intention of ever publishing the work—it was too personal, as well as being far too sexually explicit for the times—he improvised as he went along, becoming more inspired with each line. Instead of writing something bathetic, as he might have done just a few years earlier, he chose to celebrate the lives he was depicting in the poem. The tone of his new work, oratorical and angry at first glance, was actually cathartic, almost ecstatic—proof that sympathy could unburden the spirit.
"I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness …" He was thinking of all the others. He was thinking of his former self.
Source: Michael Schumacher, "Prelude to a Poem," in Tricycle, Vol. 16, No. 3, Spring 2007, pp. 96-103.
In the following article, Gornick reflects on the resemblances between Ginsberg's poetry and poetry by Walt Whitman.
In 1947 Saul Bellow published a novel called The Victim, in which a derelict character named Kirby Allbee haunts another named Asa Leventhal, claiming that Leventhal is responsible for his downfall. Kirby, one of Bellow's fabled fast talkers—all feverish self-abasement and joking insult—repeatedly baits Leventhal, and at one point, when Leventhal murmurs something about Walt Whitman, says to him, "Whitman? You people like Whitman? What does Whitman mean to you people?" Who could ever have dreamed that less than a decade after the publication of The Victim not only would "you people" be announcing out loud that they liked Whitman but it would appear that they themselves had reincarnated him. The day after Allen Ginsberg's celebrated 1955 reading of "Howl" in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram that read, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career"—the sentence Emerson had used writing to Whitman upon the publication, exactly a hundred years earlier, of Leaves of Grass.
Fifty years later, I think it can safely be agreed that Allen Ginsberg is the poet who, within living memory, most legitimately resembles Whitman. He, like Whitman, wrote an emblematic American poem that became world famous; was experienced preeminently as a poet of the people, at home among the democratic masses; developed a public persona to match the one in his writing—hugely free-spirited and self-promoting, an open-hearted exhibitionist. And he, again like Whitman, is remembered as a man in possession of an extraordinary sweetness that, throughout his life, welled up repeatedly to astonish the hearts of all who encountered him.
I met Ginsberg only twice, the first time at Jack Kerouac's funeral in 1969. I was there for The Village Voice. It was my very first assignment as a working journalist. Here is the scene as I remember it:
At the head of the viewing room stood the casket with Kerouac, hideously made up, lying in it. In the mourners' seats sat Kerouac's middle-class French-Canadian relatives—eyes narrowed, faces florid, arms crossed on their disapproving breasts. Around the casket—dipping, weaving, chanting Om—were Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso. Then there was Kerouac's final, caretaker wife, a woman old enough to be his mother, weeping bitterly and looking strangely isolated. I sat mesmerized, staring in all directions. Suddenly Ginsberg was sitting beside me. "And who are you?" he asked quietly. I told him who I was. He nodded and wondered if I was talking to people. Especially the wife. I must be sure to talk to her. "Oh, no," I said quickly. "I couldn't do that." Ginsberg nodded into space for a moment. "You must," he murmured. Then he looked directly into my eyes. "It's your job," he said softly. "You must do your job."
The second time we met, nearly twenty years later, was at an infamous meeting of the PEN board called to debate a letter (drafted by Ginsberg) that the Freedom-to-Write Committee had sent to Israel's premier, taking his government to task for censoring Palestinian and Israeli journalists. I sat in my seat, listening to Ginsberg read his letter aloud to a packed room. He was now in his sixties, his head bald, his beard trim, wearing an ill-fitting black suit, the voice as gentle as I remembered it and twice as dignified. Although the letter had been signed by Susan Sontag, William Styron, and Grace Paley among others, it was Ginsberg himself who drew fire from the opposition. In a communiqué that had been sent earlier to the committee, Cynthia Ozick had practically accused him of being an agent for the PLO; and now, the essence of the charge coming from the floor seemed to be "It's people like you who are destroying Israel." I remember Ginsberg standing there, his glasses shining, nodding in all directions, urging people toward compassionate reason. He never raised his voice, never spoke with heat or animosity, never stopped sounding thoughtful and judicious while all about him were losing their heads. When he stepped from the microphone and was making his way through the crowd, I pressed his hand as he passed me and thanked him for the excellence of the letter's prose. He stopped, closed his other hand over mine, and looking directly into my eyes, said softly, "I know you. Don't I know you? I know you."
Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926 to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg; the father was a published poet, a high school teacher, and a socialist; the mother, an enchanting free spirit, a passionate communist, and a woman who lost her mental stability in her thirties (ultimately, she was placed in an institution and lobotomized). Allen and his brother grew up inside a chaotic mixture of striving respectability, left-wing bohemianism, and certifiable madness in the living room. It all felt large to the complicated, oversensitive boy who, discovering that he lusted after boys, began to feel mad himself and, like his paranoid parents, threatened by, yet defiant of, the America beyond the front door.
None of this accounts for Allen Ginsberg; it only describes the raw material that, when the time was right, would convert into a poetic vision of mythic proportion that merged brilliantly with its moment: the complicated aftermath of the Second World War, characterized by anxiety about the atomic bomb, a manipulated terror of godless Communism, the strange pathos of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the subterranean currents of romanticized lawlessness into which the men and women ultimately known as the Beats would funnel an old American devotion to the idea of revolutionary individualism.
When Ginsberg entered Columbia University in 1942, he was already possessed of a presentation of self, shall we say, that would make it impossible for him to gain the love of the teachers he most admired, namely, Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. (Trilling memorialized Ginsberg in his short story "Of This Time, of That Place" as the brilliant student whom the narrating academic can experience only as mad.) Emulating these men would mean going into a kind of internal exile that Allen, even then, knew he could not sustain. His dilemma seemed profound. Then he met Jack Kerouac, also a student at Columbia. Through Kerouac he met William Burroughs; together they picked up a Times Square junkie poet named Herbert Huncke; and after that Neal Cassady, the wild man of all their dreams: a handsome, grown-up delinquent who drank, stole, read Nietzsche, fucked like a machine, and drove great distances at great speeds for the sake of movement itself. As Burroughs put it, "Wife and child may starve, friends exist only to exploit for gas money … Neal must move." (Cassady became Dean Moriarty in On the Road and the Adonis of Denver in "Howl.")
For Ginsberg, these friends came to constitute a sacred company of inspired madmen destined to convert the poisoned atmosphere of America's Cold War politics into one of restored beauty—through their writing. The conviction among them of literary destiny was powerful. And why not? People like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady are born every hour on the hour: how often do their lives intersect with a political moment that endows their timeless hungers with the echoing response of millions, thereby persuading them that they are, indeed, emissaries of social salvation? What is remarkable among this bunch—considering how much they drank, got stoned, and flung themselves across the country in search of heavenly despair—is how well they sustained one another throughout their faltering twenties, when life was all wordly rejection and self-dramatizing desperation.
In 1949, now twenty-three years old, depressed, and at loose ends, Ginsberg let Herbert Huncke—a true criminal—crash at his apartment, where Huncke proceeded to stash an ever-increasing amount of stolen goods. Inevitably, the police appeared at the door, and everyone was arrested. Rescued from a prison sentence by friends, family, and his Columbia teachers, Ginsberg was sent to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where he spent eight months that did, indeed, change his life. Here he met the man to whom he would dedicate "Howl."
Carl Solomon was Allen's double—a Bronx-born bisexual self-dramatizing left-wing intellectual. They saw themselves in each other almost immediately. Solomon held out his hand and said, "I'm Kirilov" (a character in Dostoevsky's The Possessed). Allen responded, "I'm Myshkin" (Dostoevsky's fabled idiot). There was, however, one important difference between them. Solomon had lived in Paris, was soaked in existentialist politics and literature; and here, at New York State Psychiatric, he introduced Allen to the work of Genet, Artaud, and Céline, the mad writers with whom he instantly felt at one. Ginsberg marveled at Solomon's melancholy brilliance and proceeded to mythicize it. If Carl was mad, it could only be that Amerika had driven him mad. When Ginsberg emerged from the institution, he had his metaphor in place:
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.
For the next few years he wandered, all over the country and halfway around the world, becoming a practicing Buddhist along the way. Arrived at last in San Francisco in 1954 (with Kerouac, Cassady, and Corso dancing about him), here and now, in the American city experienced as most open (that is, farthest from the seats of eastern power), he wrote his great poem, read it aloud one night in October 1955—and awoke to find himself famous.
While thousands of young people responded to "Howl" as though they'd been waiting years to hear this voice speaking these words, the literary establishment promptly vilified it. Lionel Trilling hated the poem, John Hollander hated it, James Dickey hated it, and Norman Podhoretz hated it. Podhoretz hated it so much that he wrote about it twice, once in The New Republic and then again in Partisan Review. By the time these pieces were being written, On the Road had been published, as well as Naked Lunch, and for Podhoretz the American sky was falling. The Beats, he said, were the barbarians at the gate, rabble-rousers who "embraced homosexuality, jazz, dope-addiction and vagrancy" (he got that part right), at one with "the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns." Jack Kerouac was cut to the quick and wrote to complain that the Beats were about beatitude, not criminalism; they were here to rescue America (from corporate death and atomic bomb politics), not destroy her.
In the summer of 1957, "Howl" was brought to trial in San Francisco on charges of obscenity, with a wealth of writers testifying on behalf of the poem's literary value. In retrospect, the trial can be seen as an opening shot in a culture war destined to throw long shadows across American life. And indeed, throughout the sixties, both the poem and its author were celebrated, the former as a manifesto of the counterculture, the latter as one of its emblematic figures.
Today, nearly fifty years after it was written, "Howl" is never out of print, is read all over the world (it's been translated into more than two dozen languages), and by most standards is considered a literary classic. Like Leaves of Grass, it is an ingenious experiment with the American language that did what Ezra Pound said a great poem should do: make the language new. Its staccato phrasing, its mad juxtapositions and compacted images, its remarkable combining of the vernacular with the formal—obscene, slangy, religious, transcendent, speaking now in the voice of the poet, now in that of the hipster—is simply an astonishment. The effect of all this on the reader? "Even today," as Jonah Raskin, one of Ginsberg's biographers, says, "reading the poem yields a feeling of intoxication. The words produce an electrical charge that is exhilarating."
That charge is actually the discharge of a man and a time well met. There is a feverish hunger for poetry and glory in Ginsberg as he moves through the late forties that is absolutely at one with his political and cultural moment. Prowling the streets of New York as if it were Dostoevsky's Petersburg; rising in an English class at Columbia to terrify students and teachers alike with some brilliant, unpunctuated rant; looking for sex in Times Square; seeing Blake in a vision in his own kitchen; nodding wordlessly when the cops ask him if he is a homosexual—we have a vivid figure standing squarely in the foreground of significant disconnect.
Yet, we also see why Ginsberg could survive his own youth to become an emblematic figure of growth and change while Kerouac and Cassady could not. Neal Cassady was a drifter through and through. To read his letters—although the ones to his writer friends are richly literate—is to see a man perpetually on the run from himself. It was all drugs, drink, women, and motion without a stop. He is forever in the car hurtling toward New York, Denver, or California. If he stops, it's to get one woman pregnant, marry a second, start an affair with a third, all in what feels like the space of a month; then it's back in the car, writing to each one, "I'll be home in a week, babe, ten days at the latest." Kerouac, except for the books, was not so very different. Neither of these men could inhabit the space he actually occupied at any given moment. Each had a leak somewhere in the middle of himself that made experience drain exhaustingly away (both were dead in their forties).
Ginsberg, by contrast, was remarkably heart-whole: it made all the difference. His experience nourished him, gave him the strength to complete the self-transformation he had been bent on from the beginning. I don't think it an exaggeration to say that when he died at seventy his life had given new meaning to the word "self-created." For the formal poets and critics of his own generation, Ginsberg would remain only an original: the gifted, problematic amateur (in 1963 Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop "the beats have blown away, the professionals have returned"). For the American culture, however, Ginsberg (indeed, like Walt Whitman) had become an inspirited incarnation: the authentic made-in-America holy fool.
Source: Vivian Gornick, "Wild at Heart," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 35, No. 2, March-April 2006, pp. 4-6.
David E. Pozen
In the following critique, Pozen examines the significance of Ping-Pong in "Howl."
Though typically linked with such benign associations as rec-room leisure and adolescent camaraderie, the game of Ping-Pong takes on much deeper and darker meanings in Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl." At two key junctures in the poem, Ginsberg incorporates the image of a Ping-Pong game into descriptions of his lover Carl Solomon. In part 1, Ginsberg uses Ping-Pong to satirize the medical treatments administered to Solomon in a mental asylum and to dramatize the human struggle for self-expression. By evoking the repetitive, almost mindless nature of the game and its frivolity as a pastime, Ginsberg illuminates the moral and spiritual emptiness of Solomon's hospital experiences. Then, in part 3, he returns to the metaphor of Ping-Pong to explore the forces of love and death that operate on Solomon. At the end of "Howl," Ginsberg's destabilizing images of Ping-Pong have transformed the seemingly innocuous word into a round, complex symbol that speaks to his relationship with his lover, his project as a poet, and his notion of death; Ginsberg may be the game-playing type, but he makes Ping-Pong a very serious affair.
When he equates the modern treatment methods of mental hospitals with Ping-Pong, Ginsberg mocks the methods' effectiveness by implicitly reducing them to the level of a mere game. He writes, "and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia," when he first describes the "madhouse" that Carl Solomon inhabits in part 1. As Ginsberg goes down the line of treatments, they become increasingly more obscure and less physical, from intravenous drugs (insulin and Metrazol), to shock treatment (electricity hydrotherapy), to mental conditioning (psychotherapy and occupational therapy), and finally to Ping-Pong. Ironically, all of the zealous, invasive treatment methods of modern medicine resolve into the child's game of Ping-Pong, the stereotypical form of amusement allowed hospital patients. The unfeeling doctors may have victimized his lover Solomon and countless others at the mental ward, but Ginsberg turns the tables of power by denigrating their work in his poetry.
Although it ridicules the practices of the madhouse, Ping-Pong's inclusion in the list of treatments also extends Ginsberg's image of the "concrete void" at the heart of mental hospitals. Through his elision of the commas that would normally separate the different treatments in prose, Ginsberg casts them as a single entity, impossibly unified like "concrete" and "void." As a result, each item in the laundry list of treatments loses its individual meaning, just as each recipient of these treatments risks losing his individual personality. "Amnesia"—the ultimate detachment from and erasure of one's own self—awaits the mental patient at the end of the day. By not differentiating the items in his catalogue of treatments, Ginsberg thus personifies their dehumanizing effects. The banality of Ping-Pong (which one imagines most patients playing just to pass the time) and its apparent disjunction from the other items in the list further extend this sense of dehumanization, of meaninglessness. Ping-Pong may be a symbol for Ginsberg's power as a writer, but it also serves as a symbol for his helplessness to protect his lover Solomon from the tortures of the asylum.
Beyond its symbolic implications for Solomon's treatment and his personal plight, the repetitions that Ginsberg creates around "pingpong" also engage the image in a deeper, more abstract dialogue on the human condition. Entering the poem after three consecutive uses of "therapy," the word "pingpong" has its own internal rhyming quality. Though "Ping-Pong" is the correct spelling, Ginsberg marks the significance of the word and highlights its internal rhyme by omitting the dash. Embedded in the external repetitions of the catalogue of treatments, the internal repetition of sounds in "pingpong" places the word at the core of the concrete void, a point driven home by Solomon's decision in the next stanza to overturn "one symbolic pingpong table." Although the aggressive treatments of mental hospitals, such as forced drug injections and electric shocks tend to provoke the loudest public objections, Ginsberg locates the empty monotony of "pingpong" at the core of the concrete void's suffocating darkness.
As a result, when Carl overturns the Ping-Pong table, he not only protests his treatment at the asylum, but he also makes a profound statement about the human need to resist the concrete void. In line with its repetitive, childish name (note that Ginsberg could have used the more stately synonym "table tennis"), the game of Ping-Pong is itself a repetitive, rather childish endeavor, demanding little in the way of creativity. Along with his mentor Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg embraces spontaneity and improvisation as core values, both for living and for writing. Because Ping-Pong fundamentally conflicts with his value system, Ginsberg celebrates Solomon's overturning of the table as a positive act of self-actualization, not simply as a negative act against his oppression.
Yet like Ginsberg's writing, Solomon's act does not present a pure example of improvisation; "humorless protest" requires an element of premeditation. Ginsberg's choice of a Ping-Pong table—his second reference to "pingpong" in as many stanzas—for Solomon's object of protest reflects the tension Ginsberg feels between the goal of spontaneity and the human need for order (repetition being a defining element of order). Both Ginsberg and Solomon want to assert their individuality but can only do so within the context and restrictions of their environment. For Solomon in the asylum, those restrictions are quite literal; for Ginsberg, they are figurative: as a poet, he must frame his message with enough clarity and logic for readers to grasp it. Ginsberg challenges the strictures of classical, iamb-based poetry in "Howl" by taking liberties with line and meter (and, in the case of "pingpong," with spelling), but he cannot disregard the basic need for poetic order. In the very next stanza after Solomon overturns the Ping-Pong table, Ginsberg begins with a word other than "who" for the first time in the poem. Taking a cue from his friend in the asylum, Ginsberg the poet overturns his own symbolic Ping-Pong table and affirms his artistic independence.
When Ping-Pong returns in part 3 of the poem, Ginsberg further develops its symbolic reach by offering "pingpong" as a metaphor for both death and love. In Rockland, Solomon appears seriously ill, perhaps mortally ill, "losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss." Not surprisingly, the medical treatments he received in part 1 do not seem to have worked so well. Ping-Pong here comes to represent not the concrete void of the asylum but the ultimate concrete void for humankind—death. Above and beyond the monotony and triteness we struggle against in life, Ginsberg tells us that the "actual" Ping-Pong game exists at a cosmic level. As Solomon knows, to fight for one's individuality against the emptiness of ping-pong is to fight for one's soul.
Yet at the same time that he plays Ping-Pong with death, Solomon also plays ping-pong with Ginsberg's love in the poem. The structure of part 3 mirrors a Ping-Pong game: Ginsberg serves up an opening statement ("Carl Solomon!"), followed by a back-and-forth between Ginsberg the steady companion ("I'm with you in Rockland") and his descriptions of Solomon. Love appears as a game of call and response, the repetition possessing a unity unto itself. For a single person, the loss of individuality entailed by this repetition creates a sort of spiritual and emotional death; for a couple, the loss of individuality creates love as two fuse into one. Through the shared metaphor of Ping-Pong, Ginsberg expresses this essential entwinement of death and love, and he claims his place as Solomon's eternal partner in the transcendent game.
Source: David E. Pozen, "Ginsberg's Howl," in Explicator, Vol. 62, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 54-57.
Blake, William, "Proverbs of Hell," in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. xviii-xix.
———, "A Song of Liberty," in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Oxford University Press, 1975, p. xxviii.
Callinicos, Alex, "Anti-War Protests Do Make a Difference," in Socialist Worker, Vol. 1943, March 19, 2005.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence, "Horn on ‘Howl,"’ in Evergreen Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1957, pp. 145-58.
Garofoli, Joe, "‘Howl’ Too Hot to Hear: 50 Years after Poem Ruled Not Obscene, Radio Fears to Air It," in San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 2007, p. A-1.
Ginsberg, Allen, "Footnote to ‘Howl,"’ in Collected Poems, 1947-1997, HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 134-42.
———, "Howl," in Collected Poems, 1947-1997, HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 134-42.
———, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts, and Bibliography, edited by Barry Miles, HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 125-26, 129-31, 133-34, 139, 146.
———,"Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl,"’ in Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995, edited by Bill Morgan, HarperCollins, 2000, pp. 229-30.
Hampton, Wilborn, Obituary of Allen Ginsberg, in New York Times, April 6, 1997, pp. A1, A42.
Hollander, John, Review of Howl, and Other Poems, in Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts, and Bibliography, by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Barry Miles, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 161.
Holmes, John Clellon, "This Is the Beat Generation," in New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952, p. SM10.
Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-102.ZS.html (accessed July 30, 2007).
Merrill, Thomas F., Allen Ginsberg, Twayne, 1969. p. 89.
Miles, Barry, Ginsberg: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 99, 196.
Ostriker, Alicia, "‘Howl’ Revisited: The Poet as Jew," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 26, No. 4, July-August 1997, pp. 28-31.
Ower, John, "Allen Ginsberg," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, American Poets since World War II, First Series, edited by Donald J. Greiner, Gale Research, 1980, pp. 269-86.
Perlman, David, "How Captain Hanrahan Made ‘Howl’ a Best-Seller," in Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts, and Bibliography, by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Barry Miles, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 171.
Williams, William Carlos, Introduction to "Howl," in Collected Poems, 1947-1997, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 820.
Zweig, Paul, "A Music of Angels," in Nation, Vol. 208, No. 10, March 10, 1969, pp. 311-13.
Abele, Robert P., A User's Guide to the USA Patriot Act and Beyond, University Press of America, 2005.
This book examines the controversial Patriot Act, which passed into law six weeks after the events of September 11, 2001, and which some critics view as an attack on free speech and civil liberties comparable to the McCarthyism referenced in "Howl."
Fried, Albert, McCarthyism: The Great American Red Scare; A Documentary History, Oxford University Press, 1997.
This book draws upon contemporary documents to explore the period of McCarthyism, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. It describes the routine persecution of Americans on the grounds of their being allegedly unpatriotic or sympathetic to Communism.
Raskin, Jonah, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation, University of California Press, 2004.
Raskin investigates the cold war, the Beat movement, and those aspects of Ginsberg's life and ideas that led him to write "Howl."
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass, Dover Publications, 2007.
No study of "Howl" would be complete without a reading of at least some of the poetry of Whitman, one of Ginsberg's major influences. This collection, first published in 1855, is Whitman's great free-verse hymn of praise to the self, the body, the spirit, and nature.
howl / houl/ • n. a long, loud, doleful cry uttered by an animal such as a dog or wolf. ∎ a loud cry of pain, fear, anger, amusement, or derision: he let out a howl of anguish | fig. I got howls of protest from readers. ∎ [in sing.] a prolonged wailing noise such as that made by a strong wind: they listened to the howl of the gale. ∎ Electr. a wailing noise in a loudspeaker due to electrical or acoustic feedback. • v. [intr.] make a howling sound: he howled in agony | the wind howled around the house. ∎ weep and cry out loudly: a baby started to howl. ∎ [tr.] (howl someone down) shout in disapproval in order to prevent a speaker from being heard: they howled me down and called me a chauvinist.
Hence howl sb. XVI.