Discuss the context that served as inspiration for much of Ginsberg's poetry.
Ginsberg wrote much of his most influential poetry in the 1950's and 1960's, a time of great turmoil in American culture. The 1950's and 60's saw the rise of counter-cultural movements such as "The Beats" and "Flower Children" which represented a protest against political, social, and sexual conformity that American culture of this time demanded. Ginsberg's poetry sought to both narrate and categorize the experiences of these counter cultural movements - such as in "Howl" - as well as to join in the protest, such as in his poem "America."
How did Allen Ginsberg's political beliefs influence his poetry?
Ginsberg retained a lifelong commitment to leftist political ideals such as communism and socialism. Much of this was an early education in communist belief from his mother. Ginsberg's political beliefs are best seen in his descriptions of the oppression caused by conservative, industrial society. This is a society that creates poverty and stymies creativity and free thought. The hipsters and "best minds" of "Howl" were both figuratively and, in some cases, literally driven insane by their quest to release themselves from the holds of the political culture of the United States.
What kind of vision does Ginsberg see for modern society in "A Supermarket in California?"
"A Supermarket in California" is an example of Ginsberg's economic vision of modern society. In this vision, Ginsberg compares the commodification of the natural world with Walt Whitman's vision of the beauty of nature and the individuality of mankind. Ginsberg uses a picture of the mythological River Lethe to describe how modern society has detached the natural world from its history and original environment. A peach, when bought in a supermarket, no longer means the same thing that it did when it was picked from the tree by those that would eat it. Whitman, whose ferocity for all things natural, is a forgotten hero of a world that existed before the coming of industrialization.
According to "Howl," who are the "best minds" of Allen Ginsberg's generation?
Ginsberg's "best minds" were the fallen heroes of "Howl." They were, in Ginsberg's estimation, geniuses because they recognized modern society for what it really was: a manipulation of freedom that cast a false vision of conformity. The "best minds," however, could not help but be destroyed by their discovery, however, for modernity would never allow anyone to live outside of the rules and regulations that it prescribed. Instead, many of these "best minds" were driven to insanity or suicide by both their inability to live in the modern world and their inability to escape it.
Who is Moloch and what does he represent?
Moloch is traditionally a term associated with a Middle Eastern god of sacrifice. In modern language, the name is often given derisively to anything that demands a high price or sacrifice. In Ginsberg's poetry, Moloch represents the facets of modern society that demand the high sacrifice of freedom and expression. Moloch is the modern industrial state which exacts low wages for its workers so that others might have more luxury. Moloch is the model nuclear family which sacrifices sexual freedom and pleasure for a sense of normalcy. Moloch is the modern security state, which sacrifices freedom for increased security from outside threats.
Explain why Ginsberg saw an ultimate hope in humanity despite his generally bleak picture of the world.
Ginsberg, though his poems are filled with scenes of industrial wastelands and social injustice, saw a glimmer of hope in the constitutional and idealistic values that represented the American dream. This is best represented in his poem "Sunflower Sutra" where Ginsberg sees an ideal of in the earlier Romantic poets such as William Blake and Walt Whitman. These were poets who rejected the cold science of the Enlightenment and embraced an outlook of the miraculous natural world. Creation, thus, was perfection and it was humanity's goal to become as closely allied with that perfection as possible. This is what Ginsberg meant he suggested that America, through its values and hope, could become "angelic."
Discuss the images of plants and fruits in Ginsberg's poetry.
Images of plants, fruits, water, and other things of the natural world played a large part in several of Ginsberg's poems. These were the ideals of the natural world - the vision of the Romantic poets and the hope for a renewal in American and in the world.
Yet, there is also a dimmer understanding of such objects. In "A Supermarket in California," a peach becomes a sad object because it has been separated from its natural state. Because it now exists in a neon lit sight of consumerism and commercialism, the people that buy such fruit forget that it was once part of the natural world. It has become commodified and now contributes to the economic immorality of society.
How does jazz influence Ginsberg's "Howl?"
"Howl" was influenced by jazz music in two main ways. First, jazz represented an unaccepted form of music during the early and mid-twentieth century. It was an African-American style of music not listened to by the "respectable" white middle class. It represented grime and seedy clubs and behavior. But this was the exact context that Ginsberg's "best minds" were forced to inhabit because of their isolation and status as outcasts from that respectable society. However, the Beats were not there by force but by choice. They identified with African-American culture and the injustice heaped upon that community.
The second way jazz influenced "Howl" is in its rhythm and beat. Ginsberg used the "long line" to construct "Howl." This line was meant to flow with a jazz style beat and was built upon how each line could be spoken within that varying and improvisational rhythm.
How is Ginsberg's sexuality expressed in his poems and what message is conveyed in his use of lewd sexual description?
Ginsberg's sexuality is a chief example of the way in which the poet was censured and exiled from mainstream, respectable poetry, exemplified by the institutionalized academy. Ginsberg's homosexual lifestyle was a source of conflict early on. It played a part in his expulsion from Columbia and it created tension with his family. Ginsberg was, at first, afraid to publish "Howl" because he was worried that his father might read of his sexual life.
But the use of course words and and the vivid and shocking descriptions of both homosexual and heterosexual acts served to distinguish his poetry from the staid academic poetry. His poetry was a work of the streets. It came from Ginsberg's inner consciousness and no topic was off limits. In fact, Ginsberg inspired a generation of poets that became unafraid to write of and deal with the emotionally potent facts of their lives and their work.
Who were the insane in Ginsberg's poems and why had they become this way?
Ginsberg writes of madness in "Howl" and uses Carl Solomon as a chief example. Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while institutionalized for a brief time in an asylum, was driven mad because society had built structures and institutions that would keep him from expressing himself in art and speech. Solomon, in this way, came to represent all of the Beat generation who was forced to live underground and outside of the respectable world. In a way, Ginsberg suggests, Solomon's insanity is actually just a structure created by society and used to isolate and incarcerate those that do not think and act in a certain way.