Allen Ginsberg's Poetry Summary and Analysis
"Howl," Part I, verses 77-222
The second half of Part I continues with many of the themes of the earlier lives. It is a documentary style of poetry, taking scenes and snippets from Ginsberg's own life and interweaving them with incidents of insanity and anarchy from the lives of his friends.
The use of African-American culture, especially jazz music, is a crucial point of "Howl." Ginsberg references it in the first lines of the Part I, writing of the "Negro" streets. Here, writing of some of the crazy and debauched acts of his friend Neal Cassady, Ginsberg tells the reader that Cassady "leaped on negroes." The line works in two ways because it tells of an actual event in Cassady's life, but it also represents the way in which the Beat poets leaped into African-American culture of the day.
It was a culture that was not accepted by white mainstream America. African-Americans were not accepted into the institutions of society - schools, government, or business. In many places there were treated as second class citizens. Though the Beats could never fully participate in the suffering of racism because almost all the Beats were white and from that middle or working class that they rejected, they also felt rejected by the same society that rejected African-Americans.
Jazz music as it was played in the backroom clubs in seedy and unruly parts of San Francisco thus became a kind of beat that Ginsberg and his friends would try and emulate in their work. This is exactly where the term "Beat poets" came from. They rejected standard form and rhythm and embraced the syncopated rhythms and improvisational styles of jazz. "Howl" exemplifies this technique with the absence of formed stanza's and lines. Ginsberg later said that "Howl" came from a deep place of consciousness and that he only wanted to write what came naturally from his mind.
Lines 77 - 112
Lines 79-81 remind the reader of the resistance to authority that the “best minds” exhibited. Ginsberg claims that they were violent in their resistance, attacking the police and resisting arrest. He claims that the “best minds” did nothing wrong, but it is only that they did nothing wrong in their own minds. They were arrested, he says, for “pederasty (a sexual relationship between a boy and an older man) and intoxication....” Ginsberg is not necessarily saying here that they did nothing wrong, only that he does not believe what they did were worthy of criminal punishment.
Ginsberg continues documenting the madness, now focusing on the sex lives of these “best minds.” Pederasty has already been mentioned - a reference to Ginsberg’s own sexual relationships with several older members of the Beats - but now he claims that they “howled on their knees in the subway,” a coy reference to felatio (82) which he also describes in line 86. He claimed that they were carried “off the roof / waving genitals and manuscripts,” proof of how tied together work and sex were for these individuals. Ginsberg then claims that they “let themselves be fucked in the ass,” an upfront and graphic expression of homosexuality. This expression flew in the face of the sexual conformity demanded by the dominant straight culture of the times. Ginsberg makes no apologies for sex. It was not shameful or perverted; in fact, he says, it was quite pleasurable. They “screamed with joy...” (85). But their sexual lives were not just pleasure, he writes. They also contained the pain of loneliness and lost love. Lines 88-90 explore the damage that these unaccepted forms of sex and love exacted upon the “best minds.” They “balled in the morning in the evenings” in the secret places they performed their sexual acts. It was pain not only because they were not accepted by mainstream society, but also because they could not find peace within their sexual exploits as well.
Ginsberg’s language and descriptions continue to coarsen. In line 94 - 105, Ginsberg explores the Beat’s relationship with women. There are few female characters in most of Beat literature, and in almost none of the writing does a woman play a role that is not inextricably tied to a male character. Women are often characterized as there to only serve the desires of men. When a woman’s needs, or the needs of his family, begin to become too demanding, it is an excuse or a reason for the man to leave, to loose the chains of domestic society that keeps him from fully expressing his true and artistic self.
In line 94, Ginsberg writes that the “best minds” “...lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate....” Ginsberg is probably speaking of himself here. Ginsberg was often second to the wives of other Beat writers. Kerouac and Neal Cassady were both Ginsberg’s lover while they also had marriages and children. The first “shrew” that Ginsberg writes of is “the heterosexual dollar...” (95). This represents the conflict that these “best minds” felt when they married and had families. They were expected to settle down and provide through steady employment, yet all felt nothing could be more antithetical to the Beatnik style of life. The second “shrew” is the one that “winks out of the womb....” This shrew is the children that these men are obligated to provide for. The final “shrew” “...does nothing but sit on her ass / and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom....” (96-97). These lines, of course, represent the wives and the inner hostility that these men felt for being trapped in a home life.
This hostility towards domesticity is contrasted in the next lines, however, when Ginsberg describes in lewd detail the voracious sexual appetites of these men. Wives and children would not stop these “best minds” from seeking as many sexual partners as possible. These men were searching for “ultimate cunt” (101) and so they “sweetened the snatches of a million girls...” (103).
Ginsberg then reveals the source for these explicit stories: “N.C.,” or Neal Cassady. In fact, Cassady, Ginsberg writes, is the “secret here of these poems” and Ginsberg describes him as the “cocksman and Adonis of Denver...” (107). Adonis was a Greek mythological figure associated with male youth and beauty. Cassady’s exploits are described with a kind of awe and admiration by Ginsberg. His sexual exploits - with both men and women - are the things of myth, Ginsberg suggests. Indeed, Cassady often took on a larger than life persona in much of the Beat literature.
The scene suddenly shifts back to New York and Ginsberg begins to relate a series of events that actually happened to many of his friends during his time there. He writes of a close friend, Herbert Huncke, who “walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks...,” (117) a reference to a time when Huncke, just released from jail, went homeless for many days before he showed up at Ginsberg’s apartment with bloody feet. Many of these incidents reference suicide, a fate that befell on several of Ginsberg’s friends and associates. These were “suicidal dramas” (120), such as when one of the “best minds” “...jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge” but lived to tell the story (147). As if acknowledging that the reader will find this hard to believe, Ginsberg insists that “this actually happened...” (147). Another “best mind” attempted suicide by cutting his wrist, though he also failed in his attempt. Instead, he was “forced to open antique stores” and he grew in his despair over growing old (139-141). Ginsberg suggests here that perhaps ending one’s life in their prime is better than suffering the indignity of old age and irrelevance.
These lines of the poem also document a new movement for the “best minds.” This time, the movement is not from a specific place to place or to a specific city. Instead, the “best minds” find themselves being slowly displaced from their homes. Ginsberg says that they “wept at the romance of the street” (125), meaning that they idealized homeless life. They “sat in boxes in the darkness” (127) and they scoured for food on the streets (135). They intentionally set themselves outside of regular timekeeping (136-138) and became forgotten, outside of “Absolute Reality...” (146).
Ginsberg returns to Neal Cassady, whom he had called the poem’s hero in previous verses. He catalogues some of Cassady’s more daring stunts, like driving “crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision...” (158). Ginsberg gives Cassady a deity like persona in the poem and makes him a Christ-like figure. He says that this “best mind” “journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver / ...who watched over Denver... / ...and finally went away to find out the Time...” (160-162). Just as Christ died and rose again, Denver takes on the role of a holy city, and Cassady is its savior.
Ginsberg continues on the theme of religion and hints that there are times of regret and a need for forgiveness in these best minds. They “fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other’s salva- / tion and light and breasts...” (164-165). Religion, though, is hopeless and always tied up in sex.
Though he had been documenting and detailing the exploits of many of the best minds, lines 173-214 document some of the specific events in the life of Carl Solomon, the person whom Ginsberg dedicated the poem to. Solomon and Ginsberg became friends during a stint when both were committed to a mental institution and Ginsberg believed that, though Solomon was more mentally unstable than Ginsberg, he was a true genius and artist. In line 175, Ginsberg documents a famous incident in which Solomon “threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism....” This event was meant to be an artistic statement by Solomon. Yet, Solomon’s life was tragic, and the next lines also document that. Solomon later “presented (himself) on the granite steps of the madhouse... / ...demanding instanta- / neous lobotomy...” (176-178). Solomon, like the other “best minds,” was ultimately a tragic hero.
Line 201 sees Ginsberg make the first reference to himself, and this reference signifies a brief change in the poem. While the rest of the part one of “Howl” is a kind of disjointed narrative, documenting the life and times of the “best minds,” line 201-202 are conversational. It puts the focus, for just a brief second, on the man whom Ginsberg hopes to immortalize in the poem - Carl Solomon. Ginsberg writes “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe...,” meaning that it will never be safe for those that society deems mentally insane. Solomon is like a beacon for the “best minds.” He is the most mentally insane, yet in Ginsberg’s mind he is also the most brilliant. Ginsberg is saying that once this most insane mind is understood for its brilliance, it will then be safe for these other “best minds” to truly be themselves. Insanity, thus, is equated with brilliance and contrasted with the conformity of “sane” society.
To close Part I, Ginsberg returns to the more general narrative of the “best minds.” Here, Ginsberg seems to be making his closing statement. The “best minds,” he says, are truly the most holy and devout and cherished of the world. He says that “the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here / what might be left to say in time come after death...” (215-216). Ginsberg concedes that what the “best minds” are trying to say, trying to show to society through their life and their art, is something that might only be appreciated in a place like an afterlife.
But there are glimpses of their brilliance in the world, he says. Their lives and their words are found “in the ghostly clothes of jazz...” (117). Jazz, he says, is like the Beats in that it is a music of suffering. It is also a music that can move America’s own suffering into an expression of love. The power of jazz music is the same as the power of the testament of the “best minds.”
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- Summary and Analysis of "Howl," Part I, verses 77-222
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