Allen Ginsberg's Poetry Summary and Analysis

"Howl," Part I, verses 1 - 76

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Summary

“Howl” was written by Ginsberg in 1955 and finished in 1956. It was Ginsberg’s first major work to be performed in public and published. The poem gained wide celebrity in the Beatnik culture of San Francisco after the “Six Gallery reading,” an event organized by Ginsberg and the place where he first read Part I. “Howl” is best known for its first and second parts, though Ginsberg wrote a third part and a fourth part entitled “Footnote to Howl.” This fourth part was separate from the first three and titled this because it was a variation on the structure and rhythm of the first three parts. The poem’s subtitle, “For Carl Solomon,” dedicates the poem to his friend whom Ginsberg met in a mental institution. Though Solomon was never a poet in the traditional sense (he did some minor writing), Ginsberg found real genius in his life and his insanity. Some of Part I documents Solomon’s struggle with insanity, while Part II is specifically dedicated to Solomon’s life and tragedy.

The title of Ginsberg's poem prepares the reader for what to expect.  This will not be a quiet poem.  It will not be a sonnet or an ode.  It will be a poem of noise and unsettling images and themes.  Ginsberg wanted “Howl” to express the pent up frustration, artistic energy, and self-destruction of his generation, a generation that he felt was being suppressed by a dominant American culture that valued conformity over artistic license and opportunity.  For a poet or the individual to howl, meant that that person was breaking from the habit of conformity to the virtues and ideals of American civilization and expressing a counter-cultural vision of free expression.

The title also expresses one of the major themes in the poem - that of madness.  To howl is usually associated with animals howling at the moon, an image that Ginsberg wanted to convey.  The artists of the Beat generation were like animals, instinctively wild and only allowed out at night into an underground scene of literature and jazz not accepted by more cultured members of society.  The moon is also a symbol associated with madness.  Medical opinions from the nineteenth century and before believed that persons who were mad or evil would naturally manifest these tendencies when the moon was full.  To howl at the moon in poetic and artistic terms, then, is to announce that madness has entered into society and will not be silently put away.  This is a theme that Ginsberg would return to throughout his career.

"Howl" does not keep the traditional meter or rhythm of a poem but is instead meant to be an extended diatribe or association and stream of consciousness writing.  Ginsberg uses a triadic verse form, the form used by his mentor William Carlos Williams, but he extends the lines out to his own long breath length.  Each line was meant to be spoken in a single breath.  Ginsberg was specifically trying to use Kerouac's prose and the way his own rhythms mirrored jazz music as inspiration.

One important thing to note about "Howl" is that it is a male-centric poem.  Ginsberg speaks from a male point of view, but it is a decidedly homosexual male point of view.  Like other Beat writers, Ginsberg's poem creates women that are simply ancillary characters to the male protagonists.  Women are there for sex, for children, and to be a kind of anchor for men to the "real world."  This role is not one that is ever glorified.  The male is the hero.  He is free to experiment in life; with drugs, with sex, with art. 

Ginsberg begins "Howl" by describing his subjects.  This is arguably the most famous line in all of Ginsberg's poetry: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...." These "best minds" are Ginsberg's friends, literary associates, and acquaintances - all of those that would become associated with the Beat generation, and they are collectively the protagonists of the story that “Howl” attempts to tell in a broken, stream of consciousness style. To call “Howl” a “story” is not really accurate. While there are traces of narrative within the poem as it moves from location to location, it is meant to be more of a snapshot of Beatnik life. It is the fractured stories of the fractured lives of the “best minds.” Ginsberg uses the "who" to start many of the lines and to designate these “best minds” as the character for the poem.

It is worth reflecting on why Ginsberg believed these people to be the “best minds” of his generation. Of course, there were several individuals in Ginsberg’s circle of friends that went on to become known as some of the greatest figures in twentieth century literature, including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. But there were just as many who never gained literary or artistic fame or who were not even interested in creating their own art or literature or original thought. These were still the “best minds” for Ginsberg because they were outside of the group think that characterized the domestic, militaristic, unthinking patriotism of the time. Their minds were not captured by America’s hegemonic culture. They were able to think outside of these restraints and were, therefore, in Ginsberg’s mind, the best of citizens in a wayward republic.

Analysis

Lines 1 - 26

"Howl" is partly a reflection on what American culture and society of the 1940's and 50's had done to those that would not line up in conformity to American culture and politics.  Madness is a central theme.  The militaristic, dominant culture of the time had "destroyed" this generation, driven them into "madness," and left them vulnerable and "hysterical." (1-2).  This desperation has left them "angry" and in "poverty" and disconnected from the spiritual realities of life (3-5).  But these people are also scared of the authority that has abused them and left them as outcasts.  This is both a physical hardship that has left them poor and unable to honestly earn a living because of their political beliefs and artistic calling, and it is a mental hardship.  Ginsberg describes this as "...listening to the Terror through the wall" (17).

Yet, for as angry and hysterical as these individuals are because of the culture that suppresses them, Ginsberg also suggests that they also represent a certain kind of salvation for the rest of America, though it is a salvation that has yet to be achieved.  He calls these individuals "angelheaded hipsters" and suggests that they are "burning" for a relationship with spiritual things, represented by the starry sky (Lines 5-6).  He says that these individuals "bared their brains" to these spiritual things.  While there was a strong spiritual dimension to almost all of the Beat writings, Ginsberg does not single out a particular belief system as holding the key to truth.  The "best minds" opened themselves up to "El," which is a name for God used in the Hebrew Bible by the Jews, and they witnessed "Mohammedan angels" in their hallucination, a nod towards Islam. 

Lines 12 - 15 put these "best minds" in conflict with the established literary and intellectual culture and they refer to Ginsberg's own difficulty within these more refined cultures.  Ginsberg talks of how the "best minds" went to the most distinguished universities, though he notes that they only "passed through," denoting that they did not stay or make any kind of significant academic or intellectual impact on these institutions.  This is because, Ginsberg insinuates, the artistic visions that the "best minds" produced would never be accepted by such institutions.  Ginsberg uses the derisive term "scholars of war" to symbolize how academic culture had ceded their power to the political and military power of the day.  He then notes how these "best minds" were expelled from their universities for the kinds of work they published.  Ginsberg himself had much of his earliest work, including a draft of a novel, rejected by professors and administration who found his subject to be unappealing and not worthy of serious thought.  Allen had a run-in with the President of Columbia after he wrote an obscene message on his dorm room window, an incident which echoes in the line "Obscene odes on the windows of the skull..." (14-15). 

The opening of "Howl" also begins by describing the context of these "best minds."  This is an urban context, bustling cities with frenetic energy.  It must be remembered that the mid-twentieth century marked a turning point in population and geography in America.  For the first time, more people were living in cities than in rural areas.  Many came because of the rise of corporate and industrial culture that brought jobs and wealth and created the American middle class, but these urban areas also fostered vibrant art, music, and literary scenes.  The energy of these movements were what attracted the Beats to cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Ginsberg describes this urban context in a myriad of ways.  He calls them "negro streets," an allusion to the Beat's fascination with African American culture, especially jazz music.  Much of the Beat's writing, including "Howl", is modeled on jazz rhythms and expressions.  Ginsberg sees these urban contexts as both environments of freedom but also as prisons that can entrap the mind and ultimately destroy the individual.  In one minute, the artist can see "angels staggering on the tenement roofs" (10-11) while on the high of drugs and drunkenness.  The city allows the poet to contemplate things like jazz, poetry, and art with a community of people that see the world in the same way.  Yet, the city is also a destructive force full of injustice.  Ginsberg and his friends repeatedly saw instances of such injustice as police and authorities kept close watch on their activities and used any instance possible to make arrests or charge them with crimes.  Being unfairly targeted, Ginsberg suggests, is what ultimately drove the Beat poets and artists underground, into a world of drugs and violence and sex.  These oppressed young men lived in "waking nightmares" of "drugs...alcohol and cock and endless balls, / incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud..." (22-24).  It is not these licentious acts of drug use and homosexuality that themselves destroy these young men, but it is instead the way in which they are forced to hide and suppress these acts and the way in which they are persecuted for them that ultimately cause this urban context to be a context of destruction and injustice.

Lines 27-46

Location begins to become an important theme in "Howl."  The poem now starts to move through different locales all over the United States.  This movement of place is characteristic of Beat literature.  The post World War II generation that the Beat's were a part of was the first American generation that had the ability to travel widely with relative ease.  Automobiles had become easily available to middle and lower class families.  Systems of state and national highways connected distant locales and, later, the interstate system which began being built in the 1950's, would connect the entire country with high speed roads.  This ability to travel to different places, to see and experience different parts of the country, and to observe a kind of national life was a central theme to Beat literature.  Though "Howl" is not as interested in describing America, its people, or its places, the poem is demonstrative of the Beat impulse to move and to travel.

These lines use New York City as the setting for the continued description of the "best minds."  New York was a meeting place for many of the Beat writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs.  These figures became central to connecting other members of the Beat movement from all across the country.  Lines 27 - 31 paint a picture of a Brooklyn, New York scene.  The scene plays off of the image of idealistic scenes of nature and civilization contrasted with the psychedelic experiences and harsh living conditions for these "best minds."  "Backyard green tree" is contrasted with "cemetery dawns;" "storefront boroughs" are contrasted with "teahead (a slang term for a habitual user of marijuana) joyride neon blinking traffic light;" "sun and moon and tree vibrations" are contrasted with "winter dusks...."  The theme here is that the New York City of the "best minds" is not the New York City that others might see and experience.

Ginsberg then moves to the Bronx in lines 32-38, another borough of New York City.  Again, contrast is the literary tool Ginsberg uses here.  It is the idea of domesticity that is contrasted with drug abuse and drinking.  The "best minds" travel to the Bronx near the Bronx zoo.  They are high on benzedrine and they are confronted with "the noise of wheels and children...."  This noise of domesticity is not just a symbol of "normal" life; for the "best minds" this example of domestic life leaves them "mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance...."  Ginsberg suggests that a "best mind" cannot live such a domestic life and retain their artistic and poetic gifts.  This is a theme that Ginsberg will return to, incorporating women into the picture, during later lines.  Ginsberg then sees the "best minds" return to a more natural habitat: a Bickford's (a popular short order diner in New York during the mid-twentieth century) and an empty Fugazzi's (a bar) where they drink stale beer and listen to "the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...;" an allusion to the hydrogen bomb and nuclear war, a stark reality at the end of World War II. This is a reference to Ginsberg’s own life when, poor and alone in New York City, he took a job at a Bickford’s sweeping the floors.

The tour of New York continues. In lines 39-40, Ginsberg writes that the “best minds” “talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue / to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge.” Talking “continuously seventy hours” is a reference to the Beat’s prolific use of Benzedrine, a stimulant drug easily available in over the counter cold remedies. The drug was used widely by the Beats to help them keep the stream of consciousness style, a frenetic pace of words and thoughts, that is characteristic of their writing. Ginsberg wrote a great deal of his poetry while on Benzedrine, including “Kaddish,” which Ginsberg wrote in a prolific forty hour session. It was this drug that drove the random metaphysical conversations that are woven throughout “Howl.” But the drug also caused erratic behavior and sometimes personal injury. Ginsberg describes these harsh effects of the drug in lines 43 and 44: “...screaming vomiting whispering... / ...eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars....”

Lines 27-46

Location begins to become an important theme in "Howl."  The poem now starts to move through different locales all over the United States.  This movement of place is characteristic of Beat literature.  The post World War II generation that the Beat's were a part of was the first American generation that had the ability to travel widely with relative ease.  Automobiles had become easily available to middle and lower class families.  Systems of state and national highways connected distant locales and, later, the interstate system which began being built in the 1950's, would connect the entire country with high speed roads.  This ability to travel to different places, to see and experience different parts of the country, and to observe a kind of national life was a central theme to Beat literature.  Though "Howl" is not as interested in describing America, its people, or its places, the poem is demonstrative of the Beat impulse to move and to travel.

These lines use New York City as the setting for the continued description of the "best minds."  New York was a meeting place for many of the Beat writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs.  These figures became central to connecting other members of the Beat movement from all across the country.  Lines 27 - 31 paint a picture of a Brooklyn, New York scene.  The scene plays off of the image of idealistic scenes of nature and civilization contrasted with the psychedelic experiences and harsh living conditions for these "best minds."  "Backyard green tree" is contrasted with "cemetary dawns;" "storefront boroughs" are contrasted with "teahead (a slang term for a habitual user of marijuana) joyride neon blinking traffic light;" "sun and moon and tree vibrations" are contrasted with "winter dusks...."  The theme here is that the New York City of the "best minds" is not the New York City that others might see and experience.

Ginsberg then moves to the Bronx in lines 32-38, another borough of New York City.  Again, contrast is the literary tool Ginsberg uses here.  It is the idea of domesticity that is contrasted with drug abuse and drinking.  The "best minds" travel to the Bronx near the Bronx zoo.  They are high on benzedrine and they are confronted with "the noise of wheels and children...."  This noise of domesticity is not just a symbol of "normal" life; for the "best minds" this example of domestic life leaves them "mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance...."  Ginsberg suggests that a "best mind" cannot live such a domestic life and retain their artistic and poetic gifts.  This is a theme that Ginsberg will return to, incorporating women into the picture, during later lines.  Ginsberg then sees the "best minds" return to a more natural habitat: a Bickford's (a popular short order diner in New York during the mid-twentieth century) and an empty Fugazzi's (a bar) where they drink stale beer and listen to "the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...;" an allusion to the hydrogen bomb and nuclear war, a stark reality at the end of World War II. This is a reference to Ginsberg’s own life when, poor and alone in New York City, he took a job at a Bickford’s sweeping the floors.

The tour of New York continues. In lines 39-40, Ginsberg writes that the “best minds” “talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue / to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge.” Talking “continuously seventy hours” is a reference to the Beat’s prolific use of Benzedrine, a stimulant drug easily available in over the counter cold remedies. The drug was used widely by the Beats to help them keep the stream of consciousness style, a frenetic pace of words and thoughts, that is characteristic of their writing. Ginsberg wrote a great deal of his poetry while on Benzedrine, including “Kaddish,” which Ginsberg wrote in a prolific forty hour session. It was this drug that drove the random metaphysical conversations that are woven throughout “Howl.” But the drug also caused erratic behavior and sometimes personal injury. Ginsberg describes these harsh effects of the drug in lines 43 and 44: “...screaming vomiting whispering... / ...eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars....”

Lines 47-76

Ginsberg then begins to document the travel of the “best minds.” These travel narratives are best exemplified in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the story of Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s cross country trips from New York to San Francisco to Mexico City. Ginsberg adds on to this travel mythology by incorporating the stories of other Beat writers and artists. These lines in the poem are based on the travels and stories many of Ginsberg’s friends and acquaintances. They are meant not to document any one example of Beat life but instead are meant to build a tapestry of experience while on the road. Together, Ginsberg is saying, these represent the kind of Beatnik life that was the norm for these “best minds.”

The first location of travel is New Jersey, not too far away from Ginsberg’s home base of New York City and his original home state. Ginsberg describes New Jersey as “nowhere Zen” (47) and “ambiguous” (48) and “bleak” (50), meaning that he saw nothing special in the place, though he would later memorialize his family’s opportunity in New Jersey in his poem “Kaddish.” Being in New Jersey, Ginsberg writes, only makes him pine for the far off places that his friends have left for. Ginsberg seems both awed and jealous that these persons have been able to leave their home with no strings or guilt, “leaving no broken hearts....” (52). They have left in many ways, and Ginsberg writes that some have left as stow aways on freight trains bound for the West. Line 53 emulates the rhythm of these trains, as if his own verse is making the click clack sound of trains moving down tracks: “in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow....”

While many of the “best minds” stayed within the bounds of American soil, their thoughts and dreams were often in far off places. Ginsberg is especially eager to visit the Far East. He calls his eagerness “Eastern sweats....” (49). For the Beats there was a fascination with Eastern religion, philosophy, and mystical thought. Ginsberg writes that the “best minds” studied “Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah....” (55). These figures represent some of the best minds and best ideas from previous periods of history and they fascinated Ginsberg and other Beat writers. Plotinus was an ancient Greek philosopher who was considered the father of neoplatonism, a school of philosophy that believed in a singular transcendent being. Poe referes to Edgar Allen Poe, a poet and writer from the 19th century. Though Poe, chiefly known for his horror fiction and poetry, might seem out of place in this list of great minds, Ginsberg had a particular fascination with the writer. Poe was receiving renewed interest during the middle of the twentieth century with the publication of his complete works. Ginsberg saw Poe as a unique American mind. Poe wrote about many of the same themes that Ginsberg himself engaged: violence, political turmoil, and sexuality. For Ginsberg, Poe was a “best mind” before his time. He was an artist that Ginsberg felt would have fit very well into the Beatnik lifestyle of the twentieth century.

Ginsberg also notes the influence of St. John of the Cross, a Saint from the middle ages who was chiefly known for his mystical visions. Finally, Ginsberg cites telepathy, a pseudo-science, and “bop kabbalah,” which he here means to be a kind of pop culture incarnation of the Jewish mystical tradition.

Ginsberg then continues to document the travels of the “best minds.” They searched for “visionary indian angels” in Idaho (57); they were “mad” in Baltimore when they glimpsed the gleaming city (59); they hung around with “Chinamen” and other foreigners in Oklahoma (61); and they roamed the streets of Houston “seeking jazz or sex of / soup....” (63-64). These were the Beat’s American travels, yet Ginsberg says that this was not enough for the “best minds.” They took the time to “converse about America / and Eternity...” but Ginsberg calls this a “hopeless task....” Their hopelessness would send them to farther away places like Africa, a reference to William S. Burrough’s exile to Tangiers, Morocco (64-65). Their foreign travels also took them Mexico, Ginsberg tell us in line 66, a reference to his own travels to that country. Ginsberg then compares these “best minds” to a volcano, writing that their path from American to Mexico left behind nothing but “the lava and ash of poetry....” (67).

The poem then returns to the United States, just as Ginsberg did after his travels to Mexico. This time the setting is the West Coast. Ginsberg says that the “best minds” “reappeared” and came under scrutiny of the FBI because of their alternative lifestyle and political views. They drew the attention of the authorities because they protested the “narcotic tobacco haze / of Capitalism” and “distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square...” (74). Ginsberg both defends their protests and acknowledges the enormity of the things they were protesting. He notes that the “sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down...” (75) a reference to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the lab which was home to the “Manhattan Project,” the series of research and experiments that produced the atomic bomb. He also says that there was a wail “down Wall,” (76) a reference with double meaning, pointing towards the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the site of the remaining wall of the destroyed Jewish Temple where Jews pray in grief for the restoration of Israel, and it is a reference to Wall Street, the symbol and home of American capitalism.