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.
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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” […]