Allen Ginsbergs Poetry
American Dystopia; American Spaces and Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’
In his 1956 poem ‘Howl’ Allen Ginsberg portrays a vision of America that is simultaneously both apocalyptic and somewhat hopeful of the future. Ginsberg, one of the primary figures of the counterculture of Beat Writers during the 1940s and 50s, presents America as a land in the grip of a capitalistic conglomerate which smothers the individual spiritually, artistically and economically. For Ginsberg, the spaces of America are ones full of disillusion, malcontent and dystopian ideals. There is, however, a sense, that Ginsberg provides, that this could change under the right conditions and thus deliver America into a state far kinder and sympathetic than the one it is in currently.
The poem, separated into three sections and a footnote, mixes autobiography with philosophy and an illusion of prophetic insight. The first section, for example, acts as a form of record of the exploits of Ginsberg and his friends, mostly other Beat Writers, in New York during the early post-war years. These personal descriptions, often deeply sensitive and at times even going as far as confessing to criminality, are a contrast to the highly apocalyptic and prophetic second section where Ginsberg attempts to explore the level of capitalistic greed and oppression within America. The third section once again moves towards the confessional and it is in this section that Ginsberg provides some form of deliverance from the apocalyptic vision of America. This makes the spaces of America, though nearly always far from professing a positive ideal, always full of meaning for Ginsberg. This is essential to reading the poem as one realizes that every action, person, and space described has some form of importance. This provides the sense that Ginsberg can find philosophic value in the most mundane of activities or places. A subway ride, for example, from Battery Park to the Bronx becomes an individual having “chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx”. A subway ride becomes to Ginsberg’s imagination a symbol of the “endless” cycle of capitalist oppression, even going as far as to compare the cycle to slavery, much in the same way that Henry David Thoreau does in Walden. The Bronx, however, is described as “holy”, alluding to the fascination that Ginsberg and the other Beats found in the culture of African-Americans. Space, for Ginsberg, is therefore something which is full of meaning and significance.
One of the key reasons that the spaces of America are presented in ‘Howl’ as anything but utopian is that they played a key part in the repression and annihilation of individuality for Ginsberg’s circle of friends and, as a whole, the people of America. The first two lines of ‘Howl’ are:
“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”. [Lines 1 -2]
These “best minds” could be interpreted as other Beat Writers, such as Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs, that Ginsberg held in great esteem, or, quite simply, a praising outlook on the general population of America. By presenting the destruction of these “great minds” within the past tense Ginsberg immediately delivers a tone of despair and mourning, the “starving hysterical naked” even inducing pity. Allusions to black culture are once again made in the “negro streets”, referring to many of the Beats living in areas such as Harlem and the Bronx. It is these pitiful forward-thinking “great minds” that are the central focus of the first section of the poem, the word “who” [Line 4], a reference to these “great minds”, is repeated at the beginning every line from line 4 onwards in Section I. By keeping the focus on the “who” in Section I, the largest and most expansive section of the poem, Ginsberg keeps a constant relation between space and the individual, therefore making every line significant for the people who inhabit the space of America.
By keeping the focus of the poem on the individual and mixing prophecy with autobiography Ginsberg allows himself a far closer subjective reading of American space and its post-war dystopian ideals. Instances such as witnessing the “horrors of Third Avenue iron dreams & stumbled to unemployment offices” [Line 44] and throwing “their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade”. [Ginsberg, Line 54] This presentation of being victimized by the capitalist system is, as Ginsberg writes in his essay ‘Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl’, “a lament for the Lamb in America”. This idea that America has sacrificed itself to the capitalist system is further emphasised by the segments in Section I where references outside of American borders are made. The sexual freedom outside of repressive American society, for example, is mentioned in the line “who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love”. [Line 37] This is shows how, outside of America, the “best minds” are able to fulfill their potential as, Ann Charters states, “spokesmen for people rejected by the mainstream, whether drug addicts, homosexuals, the emotionally dispossessed, or the mentally ill.” It is America itself, Ginsberg suggests, and all spaces encompassed under its banner that can be viewed as modern dystopias.
If Section I is, as Ginsberg describes it, the lamb, Part II is “the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb”. In this section the focus switches from the anaphoric use of “who” to the Canaanite demi-god “Moloch”. [Line 80] Moloch, in the Old Testament, is a demi-god who traditionally is worshiped through the sacrifice of children through fire, but is used in this section of the poem it is a representation of the capitalist system or, rather, America as a whole. Ginsberg used this figure following taking the hallucinogenic peyote in San Francisco in 1954 and witnessing Moloch in the form of a hotel. Bill Morgan describes this moment, in his book The Typewriter is Holy, as “a horrible, terrifying vision, but one that gave Ginsberg a new insight into the greed of man”. I believe that it is in Section II that Ginsberg makes the starkest and hardest hitting impression on the reader with this vision of America being the one farthest from a utopia. Ginsberg epitomizes Moloch as the Twentieth Century American city in the line:
“Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!” [Line 84]
This image of an American city, suggested to be New York, presents Moloch, the capitalist system, as something of a religious deity. Skyscrapers become signs of his glory and power while the people of America live their lives behind “a thousand blind windows”, ignoring the cycle that they are a part of. The image of the city being crowned with smokestack and antennae shows the power Moloch has over America, thus encompassing the roles of church, state and economy. This idea that capitalism has become a religion to the disillusioned people of America is carried on in the line “They broke their back lifting Moloch to heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! Lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” [Line 89] The people of America have followed the example of many ancient civilizations, furthering references to the Biblical figure of Moloch, by building great idols and temples, in the form of office buildings and skyscrapers, in the name of capitalism. Deluding themselves, Ginsberg believes, with the idea that they have created a heavenly utopia, the people of America have become blind to the apathetic and shallow world in which they live.
The blindness towards the level of capitalistic worship, Ginsberg suggests, is in spite of the overt horror and suffering that the system forces on the individual. The line ending with “Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” [Line 80] shows the evolution of the male individual under the rule of Moloch. The “screaming under stairways” is an allusion to sheltering from bombs, while both “sobbing in armies” and “weeping in the parks” could be said to represent the psychological trauma induced from taking part in conflict. Blind worship towards capitalism, Ginsberg believes, is directly linked with an involvement with warfare. “Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels!” [Line 86] further emphasizes the desolation, seclusion and lack of genuine spirituality within a capitalist society. The relation that this individual repression has with space is that it solidifies the purpose and effects of the capitalist cycle. If these are the people of America, Ginsberg asks, what is America like?
In Section III Ginsberg once again utilizes anaphora, this time using the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland”, an allusion to the time Ginsberg spent with Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated to, in a psychiatric center, mental illness also being a key motif in the poem. Through the poem being directed at Solomon, with the first line of Section III reading “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland”, [Line 94] the reader becomes one with Solomon as the same figure. Solomon, for Ginsberg, symbolizes the individual defeated by the overbearing hand of the capitalist bourgeois American ideal and thus can also be seen as a representation of the common American individual. It is in this section that Ginsberg provides the greatest sense of hope and salvation from his dystopian vision of America. Through the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” Ginsberg presents a feeling of unity and empathy with the reader, Rockland coming to signify a more personal version of what Moloch represented earlier. This sense of unity and togetherness is further emphasized by the references Ginsberg makes to Marxist ideology, a dangerous thing to do in America during the height of McCarthyism. “I’m with you in Rockland where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha” [Line 107] suggests a sense of rebellion, using religious references to further emphasize these ideas. The juxtaposition of socialism and fascism is, for Ginsberg, a standoff between his ideas of what good and evil are, while the contrast of Judaism and Christianity represents not an idea of religious superiority but rather simply personal faith and belief, with Ginsberg and Solomon both coming from Jewish backgrounds. The reference to Hebraism does, however, provide a sense of Exodus, emphasizing the idea of being freed from slavery. The use of the word Golgotha also adds to the idea that capitalism has become something of a religious deity for America. Ginsberg, by providing parallels to the American norm, gives the reader hope that deliverance from the grasp of Moloch is coming soon, thus ending the cycle of capitalist repression and the dystopian state American space has found itself in.
Despite this provision of hope Ginsberg concludes, in the final line of the poem, that this deliverance is, if not an impossibility, something that is far from being achieved. “I’m with you in Rockland in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”. [Line 112] This line shatters the illusion of Ginsberg providing salvation by revealing to the reader that he is not “with you in Rockland” but rather the connection between him and Solomon, and thus also the reader, is simply something of a dream and therefore beyond reality. This presents Ginsberg’s conclusion that the capitalist systems of American space are something that cannot be overcome besides than in the imagination. He does, however, present a last chance of hope in the use of the “Western night”. Ginsberg, who throughout the poem suggests himself as beyond the grasp of Moloch and the cycles eating away at America, presents the West of America as the countries last hope. This aura of safety surrounding the West Coast is also due to a personal attachment that Ginsberg and the other East Coast Beats had with cities such as San Francisco and Berkley. The first reading of ‘Howl’, for example, was in San Francisco. It could be said, therefore, that the exodus suggested through “the Hebrew socialist revolution” could be followed westward towards California. Ginsberg is providing the allusion that American space is home to a spectrum with the East Coast, specifically New York, being far more dystopian than the freer West Coast.
In his introduction to ‘Howl’ William Carlos Williams, something of a mentor to the young Ginsberg, wrote “This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it.” This idea that Ginsberg “contains” the horrors he describes in ‘Howl’ can be seen as one concerning the personal space of Ginsberg as the poet. In ‘Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl’ Ginsberg writes that “Ideally each line of Howl is a single breath unit.” By limiting the lines of his poems to the space of a single breath Ginsberg creates a rhythm that restricts the amount of space that the “horrors” of his poem take up. Ginsberg, therefore, presents himself as a martyr of sorts towards ending the besiegement of America and her spaces.
The spaces presented in ‘Howl’ are, quite possibly, some of the farthest from a utopian ideal in American poetry. Ginsberg presents America as under the complete control of a cyclical capitalist system that has reached the level of nearly religious proportions. Not only does he put forward an image of America that is under the influence of a demonic and dystopian state but he also suggests that, at the current time, there is no hope that salvation is possible. Ginsberg does not, however, do this to scare his readership or for the sake of being rebellious. He does so with a sincere belief that by describing and containing this version of America in a poem he is contributing to some form of resistance in the hope of delivering his country to a better place. He also, however, does provide a sense that he realizes his efforts are made in vain and that he may be too late to save America from this dystopia. Instead, then, ‘Howl’ can be read simply as a record of the failures American society made after World War II and how the demons of the Twentieth Century can drastically alter the spaces of a great country for the worst.
Pound, Ginsberg and Olson: Techniques of Modern and Postmodern Poetry
With the advent of both modernism and post-modernism, the twentieth century was a time in which poetic expression was extremely diverse. Especially in the aftermath of World War Two, poets sought to widen the scope of their craft; they experimented with minimalism, for example, and strove to accentuate the realism which poetry was capable of conveying. Later, with the post-modernist movement, the struggle to represent things in entirely new ways emerged in ideas as diverse as Expressionism, which placed heavy emphasis on emotion and subjectivity, and Imagism, the focus of which was crisp language and the objective presentation of images. This panoply of ideas produced a veritable spectrum of poetry, and there are three poets in particular who can be considered to be among the most influential: Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Olson. In this essay, their work will be analysed and their poems’ voices compared and contrasted.
It is perhaps prudent to begin with Ezra Pound, as he is credited with developing Imagism, a poetic movement which focused on the economical use of language and conveying a clear and sharp picture. This movement played a massive part in the development of poetry in its entirety, and Pound’s influence was a dominant one for many years. A good example of Pound’s Imagism is his poem “In A Station of the Metro”; it is only fourteen words long, and yet is often considered as thought-provoking as any longer work. The poetic voice contained therein is extremely taciturn, but conveys a number of different things with few words. Generally, the first task when analysing the poetic voice of a piece is finding the speaker and addressee, which is not easy in Pound’s poem. Rather than being deliberately either subjective or objective (for example, by using pronouns), the speaker is not made explicitly clear; viewed in isolation from its title, the poem conveys only a brief image. Taking the title into account, however, opens up the poem to interpretation by establishing the location – a station of the Metro – which invites the reader to view the speaker as a person within the station itself. The addressee is another tricky matter, as again the poem avoids any concrete specifics which might help the reader define it, and even the title does not help. It can be argued, then, that “In A Station of the Metro” represents a speaker inside the crowd, having a fleeting visionary experience which is described in extremely economical language. Understanding this stripped-down style is important for becoming cognizant of the purpose of the poem, and by extension the rest of Pound’s work. He himself commented on his intent in an essay titled “Vorticism”, published in Fortnightly Review in September 1914: upon seeing picturesque people in the Paris Metro, he attempted to describe the feeling he had and wrote of trying to find “words that seemed… worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion” (Chilton & Gilbertson, 1990, p. 228). The poem exemplifies Imagism in that it is extremely dense, describes a very clear and precise image (the “wet, black bough”) and has no wasted words. In fact, the speaker’s use of the word “apparition” significantly widens the interpretive scope, as it allows the faces themselves to be, possibly, imaginary. In addition, “the apparition” seems to act as the subject of the sentence, to which the subsequent post-semicolon metaphor can apply. In short, the speaker of this poem uses deliberate ambiguity to disguise the ‘true’ meaning, allowing for significant variation in interpretation, and a lot of it is prompted simply by the use of a single word.
“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” a later poem by Pound, is quite different in terms of length and style. The speaker in this poem is a contentious issue, as not all of the different stanzas of the poem are contiguous and some can be considered to be spoken by different voices than the bulk; as such, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is as much a collection of poems as it is a single long poem. For example, in Poem IV of Part Two, the speaker modulates from third-person into first-person (albeit written as represented speech). In Part One, the poem establishes itself as a narrative poem, describing the difficulties Mauberley has in producing new, exciting poetry in a world which demands mass production and reproducibility – as evidenced by the lines “The age demanded an image/ Of its accelerated grimace” (21/22) and “The age demanded chiefly a mould in plaster/ Made with no loss of time” (29/30). Mauberley’s work is characterised as “wringing lilies from the acorn” (7). This is a potent metaphor, as acorns can symbolise life and potential (the potential to become a giant oak tree, which can live for hundreds of years), and lilies – although beautiful flowers – are short-lived. Thus, Mauberley is not only attempting to wring beauty out of that which is not beautiful, but also sacrificing potential for immediate beauty. Perhaps surprisingly for modernist poetry, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is teeming with classical references, which were used liberally from the Renaissance onwards; this has a number of effects on the reader, including underscoring the speaker’s assertion that Mauberley was “out of key with his time” (1), and succinctly adding layers of meaning. For example, the speaker simply uses the word “Capaneus” (8), and in doing so conveys the arrogance and hubris of the Greek mythological warrior. This is entirely consistent with Pound’s earlier work, and the general ethos of saying more with fewer words. The truly interesting thing about “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is that the speaker is often considered to be a proxy for Pound himself; in “The Modulating Voice of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” William V. Spanos states that “Ezra Pound [is] the speaker of the entire sequence and, by equating him throughout with Mauberley, read the poem as Pound’s confession of artistic failure” (Spanos, 1965, p.73). There also exists in the poem a stylistic technique in which the speaker repeats an earlier line, but enclosed in inverted commas, something which is described aptly by Spanos as “an ironic reductive implication” (Spanos, 1965, p.88). Two examples are the repetition of the phrase ‘the age demanded’, and the similar treatment of the line “His true Penelope was Flaubert” (13), repeated in part two, line 5. This technique has the effect of mocking, or trivialising, the previous line, and is another example of making profound statements with as few words as possible.
This modus operandi was not favoured by all poets in the 20th century, however; where Pound was testing the limits of terseness and reticence, others such as Allen Ginsberg were experimenting with stream-of-consciousness writing, which often favoured giving too much information. One classic example is Ginsberg’s Howl, a poem split into three parts (although this essay will focus entirely on part one). Even though it is told much more loquaciously than Pound’s work, their poetic voices share some characteristics: for example, they both use extremely densely packed, referential text. In Howl, however, the entire first section is a continuous sentence, containing only commas until the very end of the section, where there exists a full stop. The pace is extremely fast, and impels the reader to race through the text. In addition, Howl’s speaker constantly seems to employ loose word association, and speaks almost entirely in metaphor; one salient example would be “storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light” (23), and line six is similar, reading “poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high” (6). This adjective-heavy structure is repeated throughout the poem, and arguably it echoes how the brain works, creating connections and having these loosely associated things arise one after another. It also mirrors the way a strung-out drug addict might talk, adding another layer of meaning to the text. In addition, the narration is first-person – “I saw the best minds of my generation…” (1) – increasing the reader’s involvement and making it seem as if they themselves are having these thoughts. There is also an interesting disconnect here, between the speaker’s assertion that he saw the destruction of the best minds of his generation and the actual conduct of the people about whom he is speaking; a factor which goes some way towards defining the poem’s speaker. They are described as “angelheaded” (4), an unquestionably positive association, but also “cower[ing] in unshaven rooms in underwear” (14), “dragging themselves through the negro streets” (2) and getting “busted… with a belt of marijuana” (16). These are only three examples, but the poem contains many more references to actions and deeds which would have been unthinkable for the public at the time, such as homosexual sex and, of course, drug abuse. The effect of attributing these things to the “best minds” the speaker knows could have been to legitimise these practices; however, the description of hopeless addiction and empty sexual encounters contradicts this, leaving only one explanation: that the speaker overlooks these factors when deciding exactly whom to admire, possibly because the speaker has personally had these experiences. In the foreword to Howl and Other Poems, William Carlos Williams states that he believes this: “it is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from life in these pages” (Williams, 2006, p.8). In any case, this conclusion says a lot about the speaker, who clearly separates actions from thoughts, and the brutal, punishing honesty of the poem makes it seem more real, as if it is being spoken without an audience. This is one of the ways in which “Howl” is considered poetry, rather than prose; in Reading Poetry: An Introduction by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath, it is stated that “poetry is supposed to be the private meditation of the poet, produced spontaneously and with no consciousness of, or designs upon, a listener or reader” (Furniss & Bath, 2007, p.219). While this is, of course, not always true, it underlines and emphasises the honesty of the speaker, allowing the reader to trust them more implicitly.
One of the poems for which it is not true is “I, Maximus of Gloucester, To You” by Charles Olson. For the purposes of analysis, this poem will be treated as a long, continuous one, and each individual short poem referred to by number. Again, Furniss’s & Bath’s assertion that poetry has “no consciousness” of an audience is patently untrue for this poem; in fact, the poem presupposes an audience to the extent that the audience (“you”) is mentioned in the title. As such, it lacks the raw emotional honesty of Howl, tempering its veracity (somewhat) with politeness as the poet is not alone in the poetic space in which he writes (or speaks). The title specifies Maximus as the speaker of the poem, though does not identify an addressee. In Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde, Libbie Rifkin addresses this very point, saying that “from the outset, Maximus is defined by where he stands, and spatially if not rhetorically, this is indeterminate territory” (Rifkin, 2000, p.40). This point is in reference to the statement in the poem that Maximus speaks from “off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood” (1); the ambiguity of this line leaves the reader unsure of the speaker’s physical or metaphorical location. One has to search the poem extensively to find an addressee, and Olson’s use of parentheses muddies the waters, since he regularly opens them without closing them, or closes them much later in the poem than one would expect. In fact, there isn’t a single direct addressee in the text, despite the speaker being quite prone to apostrophe: in poem 1, he exclaims “o kylix” (6) and “o/ Antony of Padua” (6/7), and in poem 2, “o my lady of good voyage” (11). None of these, however, occur outside parentheses and thus are not the addressee. This focus on the addressee is important, as both the lack of one and the speaker’s bracketed asides serve to separate him from them, and by extension, from everything. The repeated references to birds – such as the “nest” (8) and “the bird” (8) in poem 1 – also contribute to this effect, as the phrase “the mast! flight/ (of the bird” (9/10) strongly implies the idea of a crow’s nest, a looking point from which to view surroundings, rather than to be a part of the scene. Overall, the poem gives the sense of a man separated from his society, which he refers to as a “pejorocracy” (78), a community which decides things based on inferiority. The speaker often repeats form in each poem; for example, in poem 4, “of a bone of a fish/ of a straw, or will/ of a color, of a bell”. The speaker’s statement that “love is form” (20) seems to play out in the writing, which arguably is as much about how it is laid out on the page as it is about the actual words being used.
Each different poet mentioned has their own distinct poetic voice, and certain characteristics are shared among them, while others are not. For example, the repetitive structure of many of Olson’s lines is similar to Ginsberg using “Moloch” to ground his writing. Pound’s arrangement of the words on the page is very deliberate, also, as shown in Pound’s “’Metro’ Hokku”: The Evolution of an Image, in which it is stated that “In A Station of the Metro” “is notable in its typography, broken into blocks of words and punctuation marks divided by unusually wide spaces” (Chilton & Gilbertson, 1990, p.225). This is similar to the arrangement of words used by Olson, in which the typography often reinforces or adds layers to the text, such as the word “forwarding” (34), aligned on the right hand of the page rather than the left; it both says, and embodies, forwarding. All of these techniques, however disparate, represent the rebirth of creativity during the modern and postmodern ages; there was no aspect of the poem as an entity which could not be altered to increase meaning, whether it was the spelling, the syntax, the typography, or any other formal feature. So it can be argued that these are the poets who shaped the poem as it exists now – as a pure expression of emotion, using any variable which can be changed, to convey all that it can.
Chilton, Randolph & Gilbertson, Carol 1990. Pound’s “‘Metro’ Hokku”: The Evolution of an Image, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 2. New York, Hofstra University.
Furniss, Tom and Michael Bath 1996. Reading Poetry: An Introduction. London: Prentice Hall.
Ginsberg, Allen (Williams, William Carlos) 1959. Howl and Other Poems, The Pocket Poets Series. San Francisco, City Lights Books.
Rifkin, Libbie 2000. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-garde. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.
Spanos, William V. 1965. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.
Literary Value in Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Michael Runmaker argued that Ginsberg’s “Howl” espoused “hysterical language” and “non-exact vocal,” making this poem antithetical to qualities such as “resonance, historical associations, beauty, or rightness for the particular context” which give a piece literary value. While contentious in nature, Runmaker’s statement is arguably a consequence of the stigma at the time that surrounded Beat writers and their work. In retrospect, “Howl” can be seen as a heroic outcry against America’s politically conservative climate. Runmaker later on affirms that the piece is an “Unknown voice howling out loud. What I, and many others of the time, only mentioned in oblique and cynical whispers,” thus cementing the idea that “Howl” is a piece aberrant from others. Its contentiousness enables it to resonate not only with Beatniks and critics at the time, but throughout history, affirming its value in the literary field.
It is debatable whether “Howl” is aesthetically pleasing due to the seeming vulgarity of its subject matter, yet it’s not true that a piece must bear beautiful language to have value. In fact, Ginsberg employs raw, emotive language, combined with descriptions of mental illness, to unveil the degradation of individuals repressed by political movements like McCarthyism. Arguably, the inclusion of such material makes “Howl” averse to beauty, yet the poem’s vehement language produces a beautifully candid depiction of 1950’s America. The description of citizens “cower[ing] in unshaven rooms in underwear” employs personification to encapsulate the confusion and deterioration of the sufferer, as it is he who is “unshaven.” Dressed in just his “underwear” and “unshaven,” the individual is depicted as unkempt and broken as a result of enduring the government’s pernicious capitalist and conformist policies. The poem is told in retrospect, employing an elegiac tone which portrays Ginsberg’s despondency for a lost life of spirituality while many have taken to “burning for a heavenly connection” to escape a mental deterioration imposed by society. The fierceness of “burning” shows the intensity of their craving for culture to cohere with their heavenly “angelheaded” minds, described as such to exalt the power of their creativity by likening it to mystical forces.
The central theme of the piece is Ginsberg’s plea for creativity, his advocacy of beauty, which would have resonated with Beat writers in particular, who were also seeking to achieve similar messages through the inclusion of themes such as sexual liberation and psychedelic drug use in their nonconformist work. To support this assertion, Ferlinghetti stated that “It is not the poet but what he observes which is obscene” in defense of “Howl” at its obscenity trial in 1957, suggesting how the poem paralleled societal defects like mass avaricious consumerism. Thus, the themes included are necessarily indecorous. While the language is not typically “beautiful,” “Howl” is a candid and emotional lament of the death of spirituality and mental freedom which draws an intense sympathetic response from its reader, thus giving it beauty and value. Some argue that “Howl”’s attempt to be non-conformist is in itself conformist, making it inappropriate for the context of its time. For a piece to be right for a particular context, it must produce something new and fruitful, perhaps a gesture against social norms.
Ginsberg embraces a seemingly liberated and exotic view of sexuality, with friends “who blew and were blown away by human seraphim,” using biblical references to liken homosexual libertine behavior to holiness and the sublime. Yet it is not Ginsberg but mass culture that has determined his ostensibly rebellious sexuality; Ginsberg exploits this fact in a quest to characterize himself as the queer and desirable transgressor, but he’s simply playing another unoriginal stereotype. Ginsberg presents himself as the perceptive hero through, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” making some attempt to encapsulate American identity, yet this desire ends with his containment by America, prescribed with the label of the “rugged underdog hero” rather than creating an authentic identity for himself. It may follow from this that the poem is not “right for the particular context,” and so “Howl”’s value is negated to some extent.
While this argument may be somewhat true, the claim that “Howl” is right for the particular context as a reaction against an America which brought its citizens “down shuddering mouth – wracked and battered bleak” holds more merit, giving the piece value. This reaction was necessarily right for the context of the time, with “Howl” and similar pieces setting groundwork for political reform and literary freedom. Thus, it is evident that the piece resonated strongly with a large number of American citizens due to its ability to influence social change. The reaction against conformity manifests itself through the theme of escapism, both physical and spiritual. Beatniks “purgatoried their torsos” with drugs to escape the mental torment imposed upon them by society. With reference to purgatory, Ginsberg brings forth ideas about religion and reflection which have been forsaken as result of the context at the time. The “greatest minds” also escape physically, by traveling and “wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts” with the short, sharp clauses bearing resemblance to the transient periods of time in which individuals would stay in one place. This idea may have resonated more with an audience at the time, as it mimicked that audience’s own restlessness; in fact, there was a consistent emphasis on The American Dream which is perhaps not so prevalent for today’s reader. For this reason, “Howl” is certainly right for the context of the time as it resonated with people then; as a consequence, then entire composition holds value.
Historical associations are ubiquitous in “Howl,” particularly the descriptions of post-WW2 urbanization and conformism, which Ginsberg uses as a device to juxtapose with spiritual yearning. After all, Ginsberg wrote the poem to be read as a performance piece, written in free verse to embody a free-voiced, unrestrained individual, made to oppose America’s “machinery of night.” The long lines are full of rich descriptions like the “narcotic tobacco haze of capitalism,” making it difficult for the speaker to finish each line, leaving Ginsberg’s audience physically and emotionally exhausted, perhaps to emulate the cumbersome way of life at the time. The metaphor used to describe capitalism as a “narcotic tobacco haze” is demonstrative of how drug use is intrinsically involved with and ensues from capitalism, thus demonizing the political system. This argument is strengthened through the use of allusion when labeling the American government. By encountering phrases such as the “crack of doom” and “the Terror through the wall,” the reader or audience senses Ginsberg’s fear. The use of allusion shows how he feels too insecure to address the system directly; instead, he must mask his message through metaphor. The capitalization of “Terror” could be a direct reference to the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, drawing parallels between the oppressiveness of the ‘revolutionist’ government that massacred civilians and the McCarthyism of the 1950’s. A similar interpretation to the same effect would be that it is capitalized to simply draw attention to how dreadful society truly was. Such descriptions are contrasted with depictions of the individual “floating across the tops of cities,” which dimensionally places them above society as a whole in regards to hierarchical significance. By exalting the individual, Ginsberg depicts the creative mind as aberrant from a society which was left afraid, obedient after the trauma and brutality of WW2. It is arguable that Ginsberg tried to emulate a war-like attitude in his quest against capitalist oppression. A “lost batallion of platonic conversationalists” espouses further historical war associations, referencing writers as a “lost battalion” is effective in explaining how art and literature were valued less in post-war America, as society showed less sensitivity to the sublime.
With its plethora of historical associations, “Howl” holds undeniable artistic value. Yet the main asset that gives the piece value is its contentiousness, which its various qualities strive to purposefully achieve. The poem’s provoking and often violent “historical associations” are conveyed through an artistic medium so that Ginsberg’s “Howl” can resonate with a wider audience. “Howl”’s position as a cornerstone in American literature is salient; it seeks to not only document the oppression at the time, but acts as a device which comments on the effects on the individual in any exploitative situation, therefore holding meaning and value for all.
The Invisible War of “Howl”
In interpretations of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” it is common to find the assertion that this wild three-part poem is a diatribe against the evils of capitalism, personified in the poem as the ancient, child-devouring god Moloch. Marjorie Perloff’s essay from The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later, argues that the violence and distress found in “Howl” cannot only be explained by resistance to capitalism, an “evil” which Perloff argues is equally as strong to this day yet has not inspired anything like “Howl” since (Perloff 16). Instead, she asserts that Ginsberg, like many of his contemporaries, was reacting to the horrors witnessed in World War II (Perloff 16). The world had been shocked by the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, by the realization of what governments and mankind were capable of. In the eyes of Ginsberg, in this post-war era another kind of war was necessary, one against the machinery of American society, one which the heroes of “Howl” fight valiantly, endlessly. In this sense, “Howl” can be seen as a battle cry, a war epic with its own villains, its own heroes, and its own triumph of good over evil.
It is easy to find the enemy of “Howl”, as he is named and raged against repeatedly in part II of the poem. The section opens with the question of who is preying on the valiant “angelheaded hipsters” (9) of part I, who “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination” (21)? The answer we are given is Moloch. Moloch can be seen as the “stunned government” (21) of post-war America. He can also easily be seen as capitalism, with his soul of “electricity and banks” (22). The mechanic, military imagery of capitalism is also seen in part I of the poem, with references to “the iron regiments of fashion” and the “nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising” (6). Yet the danger of Moloch is not simply capitalism or an inept government. Moloch is a demon whose “mind is pure machinery” and whose “eyes are a thousand blind windows” (Ginsberg21). The danger of Moloch is blindness, blindness to the evilness of corrupt governments and the soullessness of capitalism and its “demonic industries” (22). He is a monster that devours imagination and individuality, replacing it with a mechanic, unquestioning mind. In this one can see a reference to World War II, to the brainwashed public that blindly followed their leader to commit unspeakable acts. However, as Perloff mentions in her essay, “the violence of the war heroes was honored by the public; the violent acts of Ginsberg and his beat friends . . . were often ridiculed” (Perloff 17). This is because the evil “Howl”’s heroes are raging against is less overt, it is the evil of society that is so engrained in us, that “enter[s] [the] soul early” (22) so that many of the readers of “Howl” are blind to its existence. Those who are not blind to the evils of Moloch are called to fight against him.
As much as part II of “Howl” is an attack on the corruption of society, part I is a celebration and a praise of those brave heroes who fight it. These are the heroes who question the accepted, who seek an alternative to the norm, who look for a higher truth in the “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo” (9). They are the “lost battalion” (11) who have “chained themselves to subways” (10), sacrificing themselves in this war against Moloch. The self-sacrifice of these heroes is clear in the diction of Ginsberg. These soldiers have “bared their brains,” (9) they have “cut their wrists” (16) and “burned cigarette holes in their arms” (13). Society has “expelled” (9) them and “burned [them] alive” (16) yet they continue to fight. In these descriptions of immense torture and sacrifice we get an overwhelming sense of Ginsberg’s incredible respect for these unsung heroes. We also get a sense of solidarity in Ginsberg’s writing as he speaks to Carl Soloman, one such hero thrown into a mental institution for his valiant acts. Ginsberg assures him in part I that “while you are not safe I am not safe” (19) and repeatedly in part III that “I am with you in Rockland” (24). This solidarity provides hope and meaning to the actions of the heroes. They are not engaging in random, reckless behaviors but are instead a unified force, fighting the blind machinery of society in every way they can.
If one looks at the structure of “Howl” as mimicking a battle and the content as a metaphor of war, the footnote is the final triumphant blow. The anaphora present throughout parts I-III, with their faithful repetition of “who,” “Moloch,” and “I am with you in Rockland,” creates the steady drumbeat of war, the constant push forward. The epizeuxis that starts off the footnote to “Howl” sets up the scene for the final height of action in this war, the last bullets being fired and bombs being dropped. The weapon in this final battle is hope, the belief the “everything is holy” (27), that mankind can be saved from the demonic grips of Moloch. While in the throes of World War II the world was exposed to the terror of what man is capable of doing, we were also reminded that good can triumph evil. Ginsberg holds on to this hope and passes it on to the reader, leaving us certain that the angelheaded hipsters can and will defeat the machinery of Moloch.
With his creation of a nontraditional war epic in “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg depicts the invisible war of post-World War II America, one against blindness and uniformity, against capitalism and the facets of society that were at the same time the most corrupt and the most engrained within the minds of the people. For Ginsberg and his contemporaries, war did not end when America’s soldiers defeated the evil machinery of Hitler, for these soldiers returned home to a society that was a brain-bashing machinery of its own. With “Howl,” Ginsberg offers a celebration of the unsung heroes who fought in that second war, who may still be fighting, and who, as Ginsberg’s footnote suggests, will one day be triumphant.
Imagery in Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”
In “A Supermarket in California,” Allen Ginsberg uses the American supermarket as an extended metaphor for a poet’s mind and experiences. In this supermarket of the mind, the poet can select images and inspirations much as one would search for items on a grocery list. The free-verse form allows for the free association of ideas. The vocabulary and literary techniques, especially the lack of rhyme, are an excellent display of the freedom of the poetry that characterizes the Beat movement. The first half of this poem provides excellent fodder for interpretation and explication.The poem begins with the speaker, presumably Ginsberg as the writer, wandering the streets in frustration, searching for something. He stumbles into a supermarket and finds Walt Whitman, and follows him about, trying to use him for guidance in his own writing. The supermarket at night is the metaphorical location of the poem’s action; everything is happening in Ginsberg’s mind. Ginsberg is compelled to write this poem for several reasons. He is frustrated with his lack of inspiration and things to write about. He is looking to Whitman, as one of the most important figures in poetry, for guidance. Whitman’s presence in the poem speaks volumes. Ginsberg clearly sees him as a predecessor with much to give in terms of inspiration. Whitman was also a revolutionary of sorts, both in his writing and personal life. He is a muse because he wrote in free verse and was a homosexual, like Ginsberg. The speaker even sees another poet from whom to garner inspiration, Garcia Lorca, in his mental supermarket.“A Supermarket in California” falls under the “dramatic” category of poetry. It is written in free-verse, or open form. This allows for the free flow of ideas and words, without the need to adhere to a deliberately pre-structured form. Ginsberg uses this lack of structure to the poem’s advantage; it almost becomes stream of consciousness, with the speaker rambling on as he follows Whitman through the store. Since there is no set form and the poem is essentially a series of sentences, enjambment is constant throughout the poem. This technique enforces the theory that the poem reads as one large train of thought. The first half of the poem can be split into two stanzas, each composed of lines of varying length with no rhyme scheme. The meter is mostly iambic, with slight variations. The reason for the iambic meter is most likely because it is the meter closest to the way people actually speak. The lack of rhyming continues to go along with the open form often taken on by modern poets. It allows for the poem to be written unmodified by the need for words to fit into a certain pattern. As with most writing of the Beat movement, the poem does not follow a “traditional” structure or form. Since the poem is in open form with no rhyme scheme, vocabulary is the most important aspect of the poem. Ginsberg makes uncommon use of everyday words to convey a less ordinary meaning. The verbs “wandered,” (14) “walked,” (1) “looking,” (2) “shopping,” (3) and “dreaming” (5) all imply searching for something, which is exactly what the speaker is doing. The verbs “poking,” (10) “eyeing,” (11) and “asking,” (12) which are the verbs used for Whitman’s actions, all imply a sense of confusion, as though Whitman is lost in this modern world of poetry. In the first sentence of the poem, the tone is set by word choice. The word “headache” (2) denotes frustration, the fact that the speaker is “self-conscious” (2) shows that he is aware of his problem with his writing choices or lack thereof. The “full moon” (3) in the first sentence could have many meanings. It could be full and therefore completely bright, illuminating everything below and thus making it clear. This clarity could allow more free-flowing creativity, helping the speaker find the images he is searching for. The second line furthers the supermarket metaphor and the frustration revealed in the first line of the poem. “Hungry fatigue” (4) is one of the most carefully chosen phrases in the poem. The speaker is hungry for images, hungry for inspiration. He is fatigued because he has been searching for so long, stuck in a writing rut. The experience of shopping in a supermarket is a fairly modern concept. In Whitman’s time, for example, one would have to go to many different stores (i.e. bakery, butcher, etc.) to get all the items on a grocery list. The supermarket conveniently has everything neatly organized under one roof –making it easier to “shop” for images. The adjective “neon” (4) advances the modern, commercial environment of the supermarket.The easily observable literary techniques of alliteration, assonance, and consonance can first be seen in the second half of the first stanza. “Peaches” (6) and “penumbras” (6) both start with the letter “p,” which is a clear example of alliteration. Consonance is exemplified with the “v” sound in the words “wives” (7) and “avocados” (7). The latter word is also an example of assonance when paired with the word “tomatoes,” (8) since they both have an ending “os” sound. This section of the poem is perhaps the most euphonic. In addition to the aforementioned techniques used, the repeating “l” sounds, as found in the phrases “whole families” (6), “aisles full” (7), and “Lorca… watermelons” (8-9) add to the free-flowing tone of the poem, causing it to sound more like everyday speech while still retaining a poetic, almost romantic quality. Ginsberg also uses dissonance, which conflicts with the euphony, and keeps the poem more realistic. For example, the word “grubber” (10) used to describe Whitman is harsh in sound as well as in meaning. The beginning of the second stanza describes Walt Whitman and his activities in the supermarket. Once again, Ginsberg’s choice of words fits the tone of the poem perfectly. The fact that Whitman is described as “childless, lonely” (10) creates a mental image of an old man lacking any real joy in his face or his demeanor, perhaps feeling out of place in the supermarket full of families. When Whitman is “poking” (10) the meats and asking who killed the pork chops, he displays his age and old ways. Perhaps the reason for his seemingly absurd questioning in a supermarket is because in Whitman’s time, one would actually know who killed the pig that the meat is coming from, and one would be able to haggle the price of fruit with a vendor.Although “A Supermarket in California” does not provide much for analysis of form and rhyme, the lack of a formal structure makes it easier to analyze each individual word choice made by the author. One of the most interesting characteristics of this poem is the fact that Whitman is used as an inspiration and as a contrast to the modern American world from which Ginsberg draws his inspiration.
Allen Ginsberg’s poetry reflects both the era in which he began to write it and the psychedelia that allowed him to accept his own work as an expression of a higher truth. Usage of the word “psychedelia” refers not only to psychedelic drugs, such as peyote and marijuana, but to any purposeful outside attempt made to alter the workings of the mind. Ginsberg’s delving into Zen Buddhism, use of chanting to focus the intellect, and purposeful disregard for the standard rhythmical and metrical devices found in most poetry up until that time all contributed equally as much as his use of chemical substances to the uniqueness of his work. The beginning of Ginsberg’s poetic career comes at the beginning of his career at Columbia University, where despite his own preference for a career of a literary nature, he followed his father’s advice and began a curriculum of studies in a major as a labor lawyer. In December of 1943, however, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, who introduced him to William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, unwittingly creating the trio which would later give birth to the Beat movement in literature and social philosophy. After switching his major from law to literature, Ginsberg began meeting with Kerouac and Burroughs on a regular basis, and the three of them together realized a social idea which Kerouac termed the “New Vision.” It was during the year 1948 that the “Beat generation writers,” as they termed themselves, truly came together.To understand Ginsberg’s poetry, it is necessary to understand the circumstances of the era in which he produced most of it. Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat” for his group of friends and their social and literary ideas in the fall of 1948 during a conversation with novelist John Holmes, who later used the term in the heading for an article for the New York Times, “This is the Beat Generation.” The origins for the term “Beat” reflect a downtrodden, tired, world-weary individual, incapable of fitting in with “normal” American society, and without any particular wish to use huge effort to do so. Holmes himself said it best in his article: The origins of the word ‘beat’ are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.The Beat generation had grown up and begun maturing during first the Great Depression, and then the Second World War. Finding themselves lost when the war ended and without anchor in a world that was undergoing drastic changes, the college-age people that made up this generation turned to different things in order to fill that new, empty space. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and their friends, while perhaps more extreme than many others, did nothing more than take the eclecticisms of their age to their natural conclusions.The second half of the origin of the term “Beat,” just as important as the first, was Kerouac’s reference to the term “Beatific,” meaning holy and beautiful; this meaning is clearly applied in much of Ginsberg’s work — the third section of “Howl” proclaims that everything human is equally holy, equally worthy of praise. Of course, the idea that a homeless junkie on a New York street corner and a morose Catholic priest were equally holy struck many of those that were less devoted to the principles of the generation as preposterous, but it was this view of equality and holiness that provided the ideological basis for such works as “Howl,” “America,” and “Sunflower Sutra.”Ginsberg’s stint at Columbia included not only a switch of major, but a suspension from the school, during which he lived with Kerouac, Burroughs, and another friend, Herbert Huncke. The three of them promptly resumed Ginsberg’s education, exposing him to such authors as Kafka, Spengler, Blake, Yeats, Celine, Korzybski, and Rimbaud. He was readmitted to Columbia a year later, at which point the household of literary friends also began to break up, dispersing across the country. He remained at Columbia for only one semester, before setting out to travel and stay with his friends. It was at this point that Ginsberg began truly devoting himself to poetry, more so than he had done with his previous experimentations in the subject — most of which had been set in the style of early twentieth century poets of great fame, and none were at all reflective of his own personal style.Finding Kerouac distracted and Burroughs involved in the harvest and sale of his first crop of Texan marijuana, Ginsberg devoted himself instead to making money so as to be ready for the fall semester at Columbia and continued writing a series of poems which detailed his inner suffering, called “Doldrums,” by adding “Dakar Doldrums” at the self-appointed rate of one stanza a day. He shipped out from Galveston to Dakar, where he attempted to procure “restorative, Gide-like love in the form of a dashing and sympathetic African,” but he found himself unable to bridge the language gap and ended up instead in the home of a witch doctor, who attempted a magic cure for an “aching soul.” Ginsberg took the next tanker back to New York, and arrived back in the States in late summer. He found that the friends he had planned to meet up with had dispersed again, and wrote another “Doldrums.”Ginsberg’s last two years at Columbia were mostly uneventful. After his graduation, the school refused his application for a graduate fellowship and teaching job, and, unable to find the kind of work which a Columbia graduate was expected to secure, he spent his time “washing dishes at Bickford’s and having visions.” In the summer of 1948, just prior to his graduation, Ginsberg experienced a single vision which convinced him that he was meant to be a poet. While reading a copy of Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” he experienced a vision of Blake reading the poem, hearing out loud a deep, masculine voice which he later compared to hearing the voice of God descend upon him. The vision convinced him that he was destined to write poetry, and he spent the rest of his life following that destiny.Shortly after the vision of Blake, Ginsberg began a serious attempt to “go straight,” subjecting himself to psychoanalysis and ending his minimal experimentation with mind altering substances, which had at that time been restricted to marijuana and Benzedrine, a form of methamphetamine. The “straight” period eventually ended, and Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in 1953 to join the poetry movement that was centered there, especially around Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights. Once there, Ginsberg busied himself by getting acquainted with the local poets, and resumed his experimentation with psychedelia.The concept of Zen Buddhism, as expounded by its followers in Japan, is somewhat different than the Zen which Ginsberg and his fellow Beatniks experimented with. Their version of Zen involved what John Ciardi dubbed “the holiness of the impromptu”; Merrill expands, explaining that “the Truth resides within, and reason can only corrupt the purity of Truth’s first gush.” The seeming discontinuity in Ginsberg’s poetry, the lack of punctuation or formal meter is based completely upon both this idea of Zen and his belief that to impose reason on what his senses perceived was merely an attempt to mask the truth. Other Zen concepts are as easily found in his work. The second part of the poem “Howl,” ejaculating that everything is holy, gives contemporary life to the idea that every form of life is equally sacred. The Zen influence upon Ginsberg was not only a product of San Francisco — Ginsberg later spent four years traveling between India, Nepal, and Tibet. Much of his later lecturing and teaching included analyses based on Zen ideas of the nature of divinity. The search for divinity within that could be translated to divinity without became, as so many other things had, a focus for his poetry. Lines in “Sunflower Sutra” make the poetic aspect of this search for the divine painfully clear:corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken likea battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear, Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!The relationship displayed between a dying sunflower, battered and losing petals and seeds to the wind, and Ginsberg’s soul does not imply that Ginsberg found his own soul to be a dying, rotten thing. Rather, the connection made is that the dying sunflower is equally as divine as the human soul, and is therefore equally as worth of love. This Buddhist idea clashed mightily with contemporary American values, which not only emphasized the superiority of the human soul, but defined the necessities of its pureness in complete opposition with Ginsberg’s bisexual, experimental lifestyle.In order to focus mind and intellect — two very separate things according to Beat philosophy — Ginsberg used chanting. As understood by many Eastern cultures, the idea of chanting is simple. A mantra, usually a phrase with no specific meaning but which can be made to mean many things on a spiritual level, is repeated over and over with varying tone and emphasis, clearing the mind of all thoughts and allowing the release of tensions that might restrict artistic impulses. The work that Ginsberg produced after such sessions is most easily related to what is called “free association” writing — writing that is allowed to flow from mind to paper without the interference of thought analyzing what is being written. While later revisions on his part prevent much of his poetry from being analyzed on “free association” standards, the breath-by-breath flow of the lines of poetry create their own natural meter outside what is normally expected – there are not many poems reflecting an iambic pentameter, but there is a sense of rhythm that brings the words into poetic focus. While “Ecologue,” the most dramatic of this type of poetry, was written in 1970, the seeds for the style had been planted as early as 1955, when Ginsberg completed the first portion of “Howl.”During the 1960’s two important events occurred that produced great changes in Ginsberg’s poetry: his collection Kaddish and Other Poems, a reflection on his own mother’s insanity through his own experiences with ayahuasca in South America, was published; and Ginsberg was asked by Timothy Leary to participate in a series of studies involving psilocybin mushrooms and LSD. Ginsberg’s stay in South America and experiences with ayahuasca, which translates to “vine of the dead,” resulted in vivid imagery in his poetry based on the awareness-expanding properties of the drug. Ginsberg said of his third ayahuasca experience that:I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet on porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death — got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like the Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body. I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe — or a Jivaro in head-dress with fangs vomiting up in realization of the Murder of the Universe — my death to come — everyone’s death to come — all unready — I unready…While the loss of reality apparent in such hallucinations is profound in any situation, when applied to a working poet, it takes on an entirely new dimension. Ginsberg revised entire portions of “Kaddish” and several of the other poems to be published in the collection, which including such poems as “Laughing Gas,” written while Ginsberg was experiencing the effects of Nitrous Oxide, and “Lysergic Acid,” a record of Ginsberg’s first experience with LSD while participating in a study at Stanford’s mental research unit. Prior to these experiences, between 1954 and 1956, Ginsberg wrote the entire first section of “Howl” during and following experiencing hallucinations due to the effects of peyote, the button-like protuberance of certain Mexican and south-western American cacti. The first line of the poem (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”) is not merely a case of poetic license; indeed, Ginsberg saw, via peyote-induced visions, his poet friends staggering blindly through the streets beneath the window of his apartment, naked and emaciated. The profound effect of psychedelic drugs (particularly hallucinogens) upon the consciousness of Ginsberg is apparent here. In 1960, while attending the annual convention for the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry as one of the subjects to be studied, Ginsberg was told, in psychological terms, that his experimentation with psychedelic substances had allowed him to: [disintegrate] the ego structure, a descent into the id, and then a re-creation and integration of the ego structure, slightly changed.Ginsberg added his multiple experiences with psychedelic drugs onto his Buddhist philosophies, and continued on his search for a higher consciousness. His attempt to “turn people on” to “Acid” with Timothy Leary was partially successful, but later attempts to introduce positive legislation for LSD failed miserably, creating enormous hurdles which even legitimate scientific researchers found difficult to overcome.Ginsberg’s unique approach to writing poetry was shared in full by none of his fellow beatniks; this perhaps is a testament to the individualism that is so much a part of the Beat generation philosophies. The use of various psychedelia in order to expand consciousness and realize the divinity of the individual human soul as well as the divinity of the universe as a whole left a profound and inerasable mark on the poetic evolution of the United States. What some have termed narcissistic holiness, Ginsberg called “a search for higher truth,” and it is evident in both his poetry and his life that he took his own words to heart.
Ginsberg’s Howl: A Barbaric Yawp
It is not a surprise that Allen Ginsberg aligned himself with Walt Whitman in his poem “Howl,” as the title page to his book of the same name reads, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (Ginsberg 1). However, the use of these lines as a preface to his poetry opens up the question: is Ginsberg trying to contribute to the Transcendentalist movement that Whitman helped to define, or is he trying to challenge it? Although Ginsberg’s heavy narrative seems a stark contrast to Whitman’s mostly-joyous “Song of Myself,” his title is a dead giveaway of his intentions. One of the most famous lines of “Song of Myself” reads, “I too am not a bit tamed . . . . I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” (Whitman 87). When read through the lens of Transcendentalism, it becomes clear that Ginsberg’s “Howl” is actually Ginsberg’s ‘barbaric yawp.’
Structurally, Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s poem are very similar. Both rely on couplets with the second line nearly always indented, and intensity builds throughout the poems in moments where the structure is broken and the lines increase in size. They create settings in the poetry through seemingly endless lists of descriptions, using an often repetitive and parallel syntax. However, while emphasizing the similarities between the two works, the mirrored structures also function to highlight the differences. For example, on one hand Whitman admires the environment with stanzas like, “The smoke of my own breath, / Echos, ripples, and buzzed whispers . . . . loveroot, / silkthread, crotch and vine, / My respiration and inspiration . . . . the beating of my heart / . . . . the passing of blood and air through my lungs,” (Whitman 27). On the other hand, Ginsberg opens his poem up with descriptions that focus on tragedy and deterioration: “who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money / in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall, / who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo / with a belt of marijuana for New York,” (Ginsberg 9). While both intend to describe life as they see it, Ginsberg paints a much dimmer picture.
Ginsberg’s pessimism in relation to Whitman’s optimism does not entirely separate it from all Transcendentalist ideology, though. Despite the fact that Ginsberg is finding despair in mankind‒which Whitman finds beauty in‒he is not directly critiquing the human beings themselves, specifically those that he refers to as the “best minds” of his generation (Ginsberg 9). Instead, he is attacked the societal forces‒capitalism, mental institutions, disciplinary machinery‒that he believes destroy these people. In this way, Ginsberg’s ideas about life are not too far off from Whitman’s, or even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. In Emerson’s Transcendentalist manifesto, “The Poet,” he writes, “it is the dislocation and detachment from the life of God that makes things ugly,” (Emerson 245). Ginsberg’s poetry finds beauty in the “best minds,” those otherwise condemned by society as a whole, while pointing out the man-made forces that taint them, or turn them ‘ugly’ in Emerson’s words. Whitman acts similarly when he aligns himself with socially-villainized groups of people: “Through me many long dumb voices, / Voices of the interminable generations of slaves, / Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons, / Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and / dwarfs,” (Whitman 50). Neither poet blames man himself for his position as the Other, but rather the social mechanisms that allow this Othering and separation of people to happen.
Another theme of Whitman’s that Ginsberg employs in “Howl” is identification. The Beat poem is a dedication to Carl Solomon, and the relationship between Solomon and Ginsberg becomes the primary focus of section III of the poem. While Whitman uses his poetry to align himself with every possible person, Ginsberg speaks to just one. He tells Solomon, “I’m with you in Rockland / where you’re madder than I am / I’m with you in Rockland / where you must feel very strange / I’m with you in Rockland / where you imitate the shade of my mother” (Ginsberg 19). In this way, he differentiates himself with Whitman, while also using his basic methods.
With “Howl,” Ginsberg becomes the spitting image of the Transcendentalist movement’s Walt Whitman, but in the context of the Beat generation. In his poem, he is expressing his own ‘barbaric yawp’ (or his ‘howl’) of pain, of pleasure, of relief. Like Whitman, he travels all over the world, calling out all the indecencies he sees along his path (for Ginsberg, they are based in the treatment of the mentally ill, while for Whitman they are related to the Civil War and the treatment of the black man.) However, these lists of grievances do not come without glimpses of hope and release. Both men convey these moments through explicit references towards sex and sexuality (it was not by coincidence that Leaves of Grass was referenced multiple times throughout the infamous obscenity trial for Howl.) Perhaps the “Footnote to Howl” reads the most like a Whitman poem, as the entire section sounds like Ginsberg’s breath of relief. He ends the poem by reminding his audience, and himself, that there is something beautiful and “holy” (Ginsberg 21) to be found in every experience, whether or not it is visible to the eye.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. The Portable Emerson. New York, NY: Penguin,
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: And Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 2010. Print.
Whitman, Walt, and David S. Reynolds. Leaves of Grass. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: How Madness Is Portrayed in Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’
The trope of madness and the figure of the madman are notions that have for centuries fascinated, horrified, and perplexed Western culture. Considerations of madness have influenced myriad literary narratives, starting with the madness of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and moving through the ages, past Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Poe’s Usher, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and Camus’ Meursault. Yet the concept of madness has changed throughout the century influenced by the growth of the scientific and medical study of insanity. Increasingly from the nineteenth century, madness has been seen more as a social and medical problem, compared to the previous centuries when madness was regarded as the absence of reason, and therefore, evil. The trope of madness has been drawn on again by the writers of the Beat Generation; indeed, Beat writing thrives with examples of the mad genius, a character who moves across time and space to understand true meaning of the universe, showing an evident fascination with madness and its consequences. Madness is, in fact, one of the main themes of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Ginsberg tackles the theme of madness from two different points of view: on the one hand, he explores madness as a mental condition; on the other hand, he explores madness as a state of mind that can be induced by narcotic substances.
One of the most significant elements for the way Allen Ginsberg’s personality, and eventually Howl, took shape was his mother’s mental health. “Howl is about family, friends, lovers, nations that go mad, or die, or try to. Mother checked out, and so will everybody else” (Taylor 20). Ginsberg encountered this distinct form of madness from very early and very nearby on in his life, which permanently upset him. When Ginsberg was a child, his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, suffered from “mental paranoia” and had to spend her life in and out of asylum until she passed away (Ridwansyah 261). As a consequence, Ginsberg spent most of his life trying to show that madness, the mental condition that has deprived him of his mother, is a mental state caused by the unachievable standard imposed by the modern society. Indeed, in “Howl” Ginsberg claims that modern society has driven the most promising men of his generation mad, so that he opens his poem by admitting that he “saw the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness” (1). He then affirms that the society in which they live has made these “best minds” (1) both “crazy” (18) and “suicidal” (174). They are “hallucinating” (16) and suffering from “nightmares” (29) and “catatonia” (260). Ginsberg asserts that modern society wants to repress those who are different and special by making them feel as the strange one. They try to kill themselves because they are not able to cope with a reality that cannot accept their inability to conform. Madness, in his point of view, should not be regarded as an illness that ruin people’s mind, but as an added value that let people see behind the surface of reality. Yet the best minds themselves recognize that they are psychotic and that they are different from the rest of the society, because they “demanded sanity trials” (247) and they “presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse […] demanding instant lobotomy” (251-254).
Even though Howl can be easily read as a critique of the 1950s society, James Breslin suggests that the poem (particularly the first part) is a critique that Ginsberg moves towards his father. Indeed, “his father […] disapproved of anything out of the ordinary, ranging from hallucinations to homosexuality, and Howl is often seen as one big reaction against him” (Breslin 87). In the poem, Ginsberg is proving his mother right by showing her hallucinations as well as supporting her religious and communist ideas. Indeed, Ginsberg supports his mother’s political idea by recognizing that some of the “best minds” were communists and by praising their actions against the capitalistic system: who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed. (101-105) Breslin even goes as far as to say that Ginsberg took up “his father’s medium of communication (poetry) and, declaring it hollow and dead, transformed it by infusing it with the hallucinatory visions and human vulnerability of his mother” (95). However, in “Howl” Ginsberg could be easily referring both to his father and to the 1950s American society, critiquing a stereotyped model of life that he experimented in first person in his family. Ginsberg also experienced what it does mean to be considered mad in first person. In 1949, he spent eight months in an asylum.
Even though Ginsberg’s father sometimes questioned his mental health in his letters, Ginsberg did not suffer his mother’s destiny, but he faked insanity to escape prosecution. He was caught helping his friend Herbert Huncke hiding stolen goods in his college dorm room and chose asylum against a more severe punishment. He got away with it and was sent to a mental institution instead; he met Carl Solomon there, who provided him with stories that would later feature in Howl and to whom the poem was dedicated (McNally 119). In Solomon’s madness Ginsberg recognizes “shade of [his] mother[‘s]” madness (377) and the same potential he saw on his mother (and in himself). Indeed, Ginsberg writes that he and Solomon “are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter” (383-384). Madness is seen again not just as a mental condition but as a source of inspiration. The impact of psychosis on Ginsberg’s work and life did not stop with witnessing the mental conditions of his family and friends. Another kind of madness was a consequence of drug abuse, which he witnessed in his environment and participated in too. Ginsberg saw drugs as an escape from the ordinary life and as a source of inspirations. In his poem “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg praises the madness caused by the drugs by saying, Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel! The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy! The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy! (6-12) This ecstasy was a state of mind necessary for the poet to become this holy entity able of creating an even more holy literary product.
According to Bruce Hunsberger however, among Ginsberg’s private experiences with madness, the hallucination he had in the year 1948 was crucial. He claimed that, while he was reading William Blake’s poetry, he heard the voice of Blake reciting a couple of his poems. In an interview then transcribed in the book On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, he revealed that he “experienced “The Sick Rose” with the voice of Blake reading it, as something that applied to the whole universe, like hearing the doom of the whole universe, and at the same time the inevitable beauty of doom” (Ginsberg and Hyde 124). Together with his friends, he looked for similar experience by trying different kind of drugs, alcohol and other means of intoxication. As a consequence, drugs become a medium to free their consciousness and to get inspiration in the creative process. It is Ginsberg himself that admits that “drugs were obviously a technique for experimenting with consciousness, to get different areas and different levels and different similarities and different reverberations of the same vision” (Ginsberg and Hyde 126). Madness becomes for Ginsberg a vehicle to explore different realities all similar to the one he was living in; realities that can help him have a different understanding of the world.
At the same time, drugs are a medium to explore his inner self and to discover what the society made him repress while feeling a connection whit his closer friends who decided to share this experience with him. The use of drugs together with the time he spent into the asylum helped Ginsberg in projecting himself into Rockland with his friend Solomon. If it is true, as he admitted, that he used drugs to expand his vision of reality during his creative process, it could have been possible Ginsberg experienced firsthand the feelings he describes in the third part of “Howl.” As a matter of fact, the descriptions are so detailed that the reader is transported into the poem without even realizing it. When Ginsberg writes, I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls col- -lapse O skinny legions run outside O starry- spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free (425-433) the reader is carried in another world made of confused moving images. Thanks to the lack of punctuation, the reader can enter Ginsberg mind and explore with him the different realities that he was able to see.
Howl, therefore, represents the meeting between two different types of madness. On the one hand, there is the world of the mentally ill, a world that Ginsberg experienced very closely thanks to his mother and his friends, but which he never joined. The world that was regarded by the society as sick and wrong, but that was for Ginsberg fascinating and intriguing: the world that the society wanted to get rid of. On the other side, there is the world that Ginsberg has decided to create to escape the reality that oppressed him, to be able to feel closer to those he loved and to discover new aspects of himself. The world that he could reach whenever he wanted thanks to the use of drugs. Between the two worlds, there is his creative process that allowed Ginsberg to turn his experiences into words, doing what many writers tried to do before and him: explore the human nature in all its facets.
Breslin, James. “Allen Ginsberg: The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish.’” The Iowa Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 1977, pp. 82–108. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20158746. Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 2010. Ginsberg, Allen, and Lewis Hyde. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. University of Michigan Press, 1984. McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, And America. Da Capo Press, 2003. Google Book Search. Web. 14 July 2015. Ridwansyah, Randy. “Orality as the Representation of Madness in the Poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg.” Humaniora, journal.ugm.ac.id/jurnal-humaniora/article/view/3537. Taylor, Steven. “The Poem and I Are Fifty.” Howl for Now: A Celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Protest Poem. Route, 2005.