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Author Allen Ginsberg (1926– )
First Published 1956, in Howl and Other Poems
Type of Poem Elegy

The Poem

Allen Ginsberg’s own description of "Howl"—"A huge sad comedy of wild phrasing"—is an accurate summary of its largest structural outlines and predominant moods. Written in a version of open verse that employs as its fundamental unit a series of individual image clusters, it is divided into three parts, each marked by a specific rhythmic pattern. The first part, with its fervent declaration that "the best minds" of a generation have been driven to madness, immediately establishes the poet as an engaged witness, while the compelling claim that opens the poem, "I have seen …," is a conscious parallel to Walt Whitman’s active participation ("I was the man; I suffered; I was there") in the critical moments of his time.

Taking as his subject the "angelheaded hipsters" who represent an undiscovered underground community of artists, junkies, street people, mutants, and other outcasts, Ginsberg uses the first part of "Howl" to tell, in compressed form, the life highlights of people who have been damaged or destroyed by their inability to fit into American society during the Eisenhower years. Using the word "who" to begin each miniature biographical fragment, Ginsberg gradually develops a picture of an entire counterculture, the separate images building toward a mosaic of madness and desperation, but a mosaic which is informed by the manic energy of inspiration and excitement that made these people so distinct.

The motive behind the actions he describes is the achievement of a transcendent vision of existence, and the range of experience he covers is transnational, including urban jungles and open plains, academic settings and back alleys. His "angelheaded hipsters" use every available transformative agent, as well as their untapped mental capacity, to reclaim a world that has gone awry. Part 2 of the poem is an attempt to identify the reasons that society has become so hostile for these "remarkable lamblike youths," and after asking what "bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination," Ginsberg locates the core of corruption as a "monster of mental consciousness" that he designates "Moloch" after the Canaanite Fire God (in Leviticus) whose worship required human sacrifice.

The entire section is written as a composite of images that coalesce into the super-symbol of monstrosity which stands for every negative element in American life. Each long-breath line is set off by the word "Moloch," and the repetition of the word within the line as well generates a cascade of doom overwhelming the political realm ("Congress of sorrows"), the social ("Whose blood is running money"), the sexual ("Lacklove and manless in Moloch!"), and the personal ("who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!"). The inventory of ugliness culminates in a series of staccato statements, a chant of wrath—"demonic industries! spectral nations! in- vincible madhouses!"—that suggests a swirl of chaos in which people are engulfed, their lives governed by forces beyond their ken.

The third part of the poem is an attempt to set the spiritual strength of an artistic intelligence against the materialistic forces responsible for this spiritual desolation. This section is addressed to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met when they were both patients in Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and places the poet in a kind of solidarity with Solomon, who is being treated in Rockland Hospital. Solomon stands for all the "lambs" of part 1, and each line in this section begins with the affirmation "I’m with you in Rockland," which is modified by aspects of Solomon’s ingenious, creative, and anarchic method for spiritual survival. The poem concludes with a presentation of what Ginsberg called "the answer," followed by the last image, an extension of the community of love and brotherhood into a dreamlike future of promise and hope.

Forms and Devices

Before writing "Howl," Ginsberg had worked primarily on what he called "short&dh;line free verse" in the measures of American speech and in more traditional forms based on centuries-old British prototypes. Describing himself as "sick and tired" of what he was doing, and fearing that his work was not "expressionistic enough" because he could not "develop a powerful enough rhythm," he decided to follow his "romantic inspiration" and write without concern for precedents or conventions of any kind.

He thought that his subject ("queer content my parents shouldn’t see") would probably prohibit publication, so he felt free to compose without preconception or limitation. Guided by what he called his "Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath"—a version of Old Testament prophetic proclamation, modified by Herman Melville’s conversions of those rhythms into the syntax of American prose narrative—Ginsberg worked out an effective, original formal structure which was completely missed by most critics at the time of publication. Noting in a letter that none of the reviewers had "enough technical interests to notice" what he considered the "obvious construction of the poem," Ginsberg explained (or taught) the poem himself in his "Notes for Howl and Other Poems."

According to his account, after his initial declaration of his subject, the fate of the "best minds" (his narcotics-using bohemian community), Ginsberg depended on repetition of the word "who" to keep the beat, an approach influenced by Jack Kerouac’s ideas about improvisation akin to modern jazz. He then built "longer and shorter variations on a fixed base," elaborate images lifting off each basic measure that were written for their meaning as well as "the beauty of abstract poetry" and the latent energy found in "awkward combinations … disparate things put together." The repeated "who" operates as a ground beneath each "streak of invention," but even with this technique, Ginsberg worried that it would be difficult to sustain a long line in a long poem. To put "iron poetry back into the line," Ginsberg believed that his "concentration and compression of imagistic notations" such as "hydrogen jukebox" or "bop kaballa" would function like a haiku, in which juxtapositions encourage the brain to make a connection in a leap of energy, which he called "lightning in the mind." Ginsberg also likened this method to the "cubist phrasing" of Cezanne’s painting. In a further attempt to keep the line moving, he employed "primitive na´ve grammar," which condensed phrases by removing words not totally necessary, and eliminated what he thought were "prosey articles" that dulled the rhythm. The goal of his efforts was to "build up large organic structures," and he believed that all of his previous work as a poet was involved in balancing the lines to avoid any loose or dead areas that would leach energy out of the poem.

Parts 2 and 3 follow a similar strategy. The framing question of the second part calls forth the series of images of Moloch, Ginsberg’s ultimate symbol of the evil and destructive forces of the modern world. Each line operates as a separate stanza, with the line itself broken into "exclamatory units" or "component short phrases"; the repeated use of the word "Moloch" acts as a "rhythmical punctuation." The whole section builds toward a climax in which the poet intones individual concepts as exclamations of mental fixity ("Dreams! Adorations! Illuminations!"), concluding part 2 in an explosion of psychic energy leading to a mood of ecstatic abandon developed by a chant designed to approximate or induce frenzy.

Part 3 is conceived as a "litany of affirmation" that restores the tranquillity which the Moloch passages have disrupted; Ginsberg based it to some extent on the model of Christopher Smart’s "Jubilate Agno" ("rejoice in the lamb"), just as the Moloch structure is partially based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Epipsychidion (1821). Smart’s use of statement-counterstatement lies behind Ginsberg’s repetition of a phrase base ("I’m with you in Rockland") as an anchor, with the response or extension that begins "Where …" "elongating itself slowly" to form a pyramidal structure. The individual units are often surrealistic, as Ginsberg attempts to convey the imaginative, often oblique sense of existence for which Solomon stands. The final unit in the pyramid is purposefully too long for one line, or one breath unit, and its textual density is developed to carry the full weight of Ginsberg’s last revelation ("where I open out and give the answer"). This final unit is open-ended, containing no rigid punctuation device, as if to suggest the beginning of a journey "in the Western night" that replaces the initial journey into nightmare that was introduced as the poem began with an image of "streets at dawn."

Themes and Meanings

During the 1950’s, American literature seemed to reflect the mood of life in the postwar world. The general ethos of caution, conformity, and complacency that marked the political and cultural climate was reinforced by mainstream writing cited by reviewers and celebrated by academicians. Yet an alternative tradition, as authentically American as the more prominent conservative one, was gaining energy and substance, and the landmark reading at the Six Gallery in 1955 signaled its emergence into public consciousness. The central feature of this event was Allen Ginsberg’s first public performance of "Howl," a moment recognized by most of those present as a turning point in American literary history.

What Ginsberg accomplished was the creation of a territory for writing that was radically different from the narrow, nearly exhausted modes of expression approved by the literary establishment. By example, he validated a literary possibility that ran counter to, or way beyond, the prevalent positions on form, style, and subject. The ardor of his voice—the overwhelming, unreserved expression of his commitment to a vision of enlightenment—stood in almost shocking contrast to the generally accepted modes of ironic distance, elevated diction, and formal argument. To the critics who reacted with dismay or derision, "Howl" seemed like a regression to a subliterary realm of vulgarity and excess. Ginsberg’s poem, which demanded an oral presentation to achieve its full effect, however, reclaimed the power of the poet’s singing voice from those who emphasized the appearance of the poem in print as its most important placement. He used chants to accumulate rhythmic power and modulated moods through schemes of sound, contributing to an audience involvement that compelled a participation beyond a measured critical evaluation. By devising a structure that was uniquely suited to this purpose, Ginsberg was also forcing a reconsideration of the whole idea of form, an agenda which he shared with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and others who agreed with Whitman’s idea that "Old forms, old poems … here in this land are exiles."

"Howl" not only captured the spirit of an underground culture but also conveyed it in a specifically American voice, employing not only a version of American vernacular speech but also elements of street slang, the argot of the junkie and the hipster, conversational modes, an amalgam of jazz cadences, and the tempo of several species of sermon. By demonstrating that poetry could include styles of language hitherto regarded as inappropriate for literary expression, Ginsberg drew informal, even "improper" speech into the poetic field. Concomitantly, his subject, "the remarkable lamblike youth" he describes in part 1, is part of a world ignored by "serious" writers circa 1950, and Ginsberg’s attention to radical activists, outrageous artists, sexual "deviants," and experimenters with forbidden substances prefigured the explosion of variance and defiance of the 1960’s. "Howl" presents this nascent counterculture and attempts to explain its meaning and importance, extoll its values, celebrate its moments of beauty, and defend its seemingly aberrant and rebellious behavior. The thrust of the poem is an insistence on the importance of plurality and tolerance as components of an ideal America—an America in which examples of individuality and eccentricity would be accepted so that a society built on greed and materialism might be transformed and redeemed.

Like Walt Whitman, Ginsberg has always written toward the restoration of a "lost America of love," and the style of "spiritual revelation and prophetic certainty" he devised for "Howl" was crucial to this goal. A poem begun as a celebration of creativity and subversion ends as an anthem of vision and enlightenment.