Ginsberg wrote the “Footnote to Howl” as a fourth part to the poem that was meant to riff and experiment with the forms of long line he had used in previous sections. The key to understanding the rhythm and structure of “Footnote” is to hear the poem as if it is being read in a jazz styling. Just as a trumpet might blow a long succession of one note, using a staccato pacing to give the musical piece a particular meaning, so too does Ginsberg begin with a single word, “Holy,” said in succession fifteen times.
Like Part III, the word “Holy” is meant to ground the rhythm of the poem just as the phrase “I’m with you in Rockland” grounded Part III with a steady beat of words. But it is also meant to be a variation. Holy does not start every line, and it is scattered throughout the poem, between words after certain phrases and before certain others.
The theme of “Footnote” is the sacred and it is meant to offer a competing vision to the one of destruction that was presented in Part II. While Moloch is a force that destroys the world, there is a holiness in mankind - exemplified by Ginsberg and the Beat poets - that offers the hope of salvation. This is a kind of hidden world that no one else sees. Ginsberg probably even means to suggest that no one in their right mind - meaning, no one who remains a part of “normal” society - can even understand the true beauty and holiness that exists in the world.
In Parts I and III, Ginsberg attributed holy and Christlike attributes to the two heroes of the poem, Neal Cassady and Carl Solomon. In “Footnote,” he attributes these qualities to all of the Beat poets. The end of the poem glorifies their own sacrifices of sanity, status, or wealth as being the path towards social salvation. While Part I of “Howl” documented the true wretchedness of the lives of these “best minds,” the “Footnote” finds the holiness that lies behind such insanity. “Howl” becomes not just an artistic, social, or political statement but now a religious statement as well. It is the religion of the Beat generation.
The “Footnote to Howl” begins with fifteen iterations of the word “Holy” in the first two lines. The meaning of this repetition is best understood by listening to the poem, rather than simply reading it. The words come in a rapid fire succession, imitating a frenzied religious chant whose purpose is to dislocate the listener from their environment and to set a new environment of sacredness. Ginsberg uses the rest of the “Footnote” to explain exactly what is “Holy.”
Holiness and holy things, such as angels, had played a role in previous sections of “Howl.” The fifth line of the first part describes the “best minds” as “angelheaded hipsters,” bestowing them with a certain kind of sacred quality, though it is a sacredness that seems contrary to the way the rest of society would understand that word. Other characters in “Howl,” including Carl Solomon, for whom the poem is dedicated, and Neal Cassady are also given this sacred mantle of holiness.
The first ten lines of “Footnote” seek to create a new kind of holy order. Ginsberg begins to name all that is holy, and some of the things he sees as sacred are the exact things that the rest of the rest of the world would see as disgusting or lewd: “The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The / tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” The rhythm of these lines are meant to copy the patterns of a religious chant or hymn. But Ginsberg uses crude sexual imagery to change the entire idea of holiness.
Ginsberg is also using a motif of prophetic literature here. In the Hebrew Bible, prophets would often use poetics with religious imagery to help the Israelites re-frame their lives around holy things. Ginsberg is turning this prophetic tradition on its head, however. The things that society says is holy - and Ginsberg names these in previous parts of “Howl,” especially in Part II - are not what is really holy. Those things, in fact, are just a mirage of holiness. There is a whole world, Ginsberg says, of holiness that modern society would consider disgusting: “The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are / holy!” (7-8).
Ginsberg then becomes even more specific with his cries of holiness. These holy men, he says, are actually his friends and acquaintances. William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady - these are some of the holy men that Ginsberg calls by name. He calls them all “the hideous human angels!” (13). He then names the more personal and familial - his mother who died in an insane asylum, the “cocks of the grandfathers / of Kansas!” (14-15).
The second half of “Footnote” seeks to name the entire underworld of holiness. The point here is to offer contrast to the destruction and devastation that Ginsberg envisioned in the Moloch section of Part II of “Howl.” In that section, Moloch represented the extreme sacrifice through which humanity was forced to give up either its soul to the powers of capitalism or war, or it was forced to give up its sanity. The “best minds,” Ginsberg wrote, were the ones that went insane when the realized they could not live outside of the destruction of modern society no matter how hard they tried.
This underworld of holiness is represented by many things, and Ginsberg seeks to create a whole universe of holiness that lies underneath the false sacredness of the modern world. Jazz is one of the holy things, a style of music rejected by white middle class society (16-17). Cities are sacred and holy; Ginsberg names New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Paris, and Tangiers as just some of the places that allow the insanity of the “best minds” to live and work and breathe. Not every place would allow such an underlife, and so these places are given a more distinct kind of holiness.
As the poem reaches its crescendo, Ginsberg begins to name, in rapid fire succession, everything that might be considered holy. There is even an “Angel” in Moloch, and so Ginsberg can find holiness in the tools of industrial society: “holy the railroad holy the locomotive...holy / the abyss!” (28-30). Such things can be holy because the “best minds” and “angelheaded hipsters” have made them holy.
Ginsberg ends the poem with a celebration of humanity. When all is stripped from the human soul - the strictures of society, the desire for money or power, the quest for celebrity - then that is what makes something truly holy. Ginsberg returns to the core of the prophetic tradition, turning the world back to its right state. “Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! mag- / nanimity!” (31-32). These are the things that are truly holy and the key to becoming holy is finding these things in the “intelligent kindness of the soul!” (33). Thus, “Howl” began with devastation and destruction and ends with a vision of salvation.