Leaves of Grass

Ginsberg’s Howl: A Barbaric Yawp College

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...

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