I saw the best minds of my generations destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry / fix
This is perhaps the most famous line in all of Ginsberg's poetry. From his poem "Howl," it first describes the subject of the poem - the "best minds" - figures who have been rejected by society for their unwillingness to conform to its institutions and ideals. It says that these individuals have been destroyed by madness for this reason, though their madness is also a result of their inability to live outside of the world they find themselves in.
This world is represented by the harsh city and urban environment. The "negro streets" represent the poverty and depravity that characterized the hidden neighborhoods of New York City - the places where these "best minds" had been vanished. This context had left them nothing to hope for except one more "angry fix" of drugs or alcohol, anything to numb their pain and anger and insanity.
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the / starry dynamo in the machinery of night
This line from "Howl" from takes up several themes of Ginsberg's work. The first is the depiction of Ginsberg's "best minds" in a light of sacredness or holiness. These individuals have been made holy simply by their refusal to be a part of the mundane aspects of modern society. The word sacred, in Latin, means "to set apart." These individuals have literally been set apart from modernity, thus bestowing a holy nature to their acts of anarchy and depravity.
The reason that these individuals have been set apart is because of their rejection of the values of the modern world and their acceptance of a natural order. These two things are represented by the "machinery of night" and the "starry dynamo." The "machinery of night," depicted here as something that exists in the dark, is the industrial progress of America that has left its citizens with nothing but a materialistic greed and a propensity for destroying the natural resources and original values of the country. The "starry dynamo" represents the mystery of the natural world - it is the possibility of divinity in the world, a possibility that only these "best minds" can truly comprehend.
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Chil- / dren screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
In Ginsberg's "Howl," Moloch was a character who represented the sacrifice that America called on all its citizens to make. It was a sacrifice to unthinking patriotism, to unrestrained greed, to war and to industrial blight. This quote from "Howl" demonstrates all of those things. In Ginsberg's mind, this sacrifice created the solitude of man, not just from each other, but from the natural world. It created filth and ugliness and pollution. People sacrificed their time and love for an unobtainable wealth they would never truly have. Children and old men would suffer in the poverty created by industry's power and grab for natural resources. Young men would die "sobbing" in foreign wars initiated for unjust reasons.
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked / down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking / at the full moon. / In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon / fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
Ginsberg's poem, "A Supermarket in California," deals with the idea of economic commodification that strips all natural things of their contextual and historical elements. Ginsberg saw Walt Whitman as a hero, and a forebear in this quest of the natural world. This line presents the reader with Ginsberg's context first: he is in an urban setting, walking down sidestreets under trees. But the trees are not so think that they do not block out light. Ginsberg first sees the natural light of the moon, but that light is soon overshadowed by the harsh neon light coming from the grocery store. He enters that place, knowing there is a modicum of nature inside, fruits and vegetables and the like. He is following a ghost of Whitman towards the commoditized things that create the modern society that both Whitman and Ginsberg would rail against in their poetry.
found a good coffeepot in the vines by the porch, rolled a big tire out / of the scarlet bushes, hid my marijuana; / wet the flowers, playing the sunlit water each to each, returning for / godly extra drops for the stringbeans and daisies;
This is the turning point of Ginsberg's poem "A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley." The "New Cottage," the reader finds, is actually quite old and the things that surround should be broken down and rusted - they should be trash. Yet, Ginsberg finds a coffee pot and a tire, both in reasonable condition. These things, surrounding the house, represent the intrusion of modern life into the bucolic life he had hoped for. Yet, even with the trash around the house, Ginsberg finds beauty in his yard - with the help of hallucinogenic drugs. He finds beauty in the water that drips on the flowers and the food plants in his yard. The water represents the purity of nature and the flowers represent beauty. Most importantly, the beans represent the ability of nature to provide all things. Ginsberg understands that he does not need coffeepots or tires, but can subsist on the food - both spiritual and physical - of the natural world.
Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland / where you're madder than I am / I'm with you in Rockland / where you must feel very strange / I'm with you in Rockland / where you imitate the shade of my mother
Carl Solomon was the savior hero of the poem "Howl," a man that Ginsberg met during a brief stay in a mental institution, a place that Ginsberg names "Rockland" in the poem. Solomon represented the theme of insanity that was so pervasive in "Howl" and was an actual pervasive theme throughout Ginsberg's life. Ginsberg compares his own madness to Solomon's and notes that Solomon must feel strange in a place that confines his madness and restricts not just his intellectual and artistic freedom, but also his physical freedom.
Ginsberg notes that Solomon imitates his mother. Naomi Ginsberg was a figure always lurking behind the scenes in Ginsberg's early poetry. Ginsberg noted that he had not dealt with his mother's insanity and institutionalization when writing "Howl" and that she is credit for much of the content of craziness and mental instability.
I'm saying...that the police can't come in with guns or arms and take me to jail for speaking. I'm speaking of old constitutional free speech. Or that the state should not be intruding on discourse in public, public discourse.... And I've experienced it in my own work. ...We're experiencing it now, the octopus of the state intruding on our language consciousness.
In 1968, at the height of his political activities, Ginsberg sat down to an interview with the conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. on his program, Firing Line. Ginsberg made most of the interview about free speech and the way in which America's "police state" restricted the rights of people to think freely, speak freely, and express themselves from a place of deep consciousness. Buckley challenged Ginsberg on many of these points, and the interview is considered to be a classic example of two sparring intellectuals from extreme sides of the political spectrum.
This quote illustrates the censorship that Ginsberg felt he had been subjected to as a writer and an artist. His work, "Howl," had been banned by local San Francisco authorities when it was first published, because of the fowl language and depictions of sexual acts contained within the poem. One of the major themes of "Howl" was the intrusion of authority into the private lives of Ginsberg's friends and acquaintances, a fact that drove some of them literally mad.
America this is quite serious. / America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set. / America is this correct? / I'd better get right down to the job. / It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts / factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway. / America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Ginsberg's "America" recreates a conversation that Ginsberg has with a personified country, its people, and its values. While parts of the poem had been silly and Ginsberg had used his wit to try and outsmart the country, he now turns "serious" to indict America for its racial and social injustice. Ginsberg makes the point that he is looking "in" the television, not at it. Media and news, Ginsberg states in the poem, do not reflect reality but shape the reality that America experiences. Ginsberg then makes becomes decisive on putting his "queer shoulder to the wheel," meaning that he will work hard to change the country he lives in, though the use of the word "queer" represents the way in which he will be denied a place in society and will be shunned for his work. This is precisely because of the work he will not do. He will not be in the Army, he will not add to the country's industrial production. His artistic insanity would keep him from such jobs anyway, but by not even trying to participate in these patriotic activities, he is making his own statement on the condition of America.
America when will we end the human war? / Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb. / I don't feel good don't bother me. / I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind. / American when will you be angelic?
Ginsberg indictment of America in his poem by the same name centers on the country's industrialized and militarized society that inflicts injustice and poverty on its people. This is represented by the contrasting themes of the "human war" and the "atom bomb." The bomb represented the technological advances that made America so great. It created an industrial and scientific state that could create a thing that could destroy the world. This made America the most powerful nation in the world. Yet, the same things that created such "progress" were the same things that impoverished America's people, both spiritually, morally, and physically. Such "progress" disgusts Ginsberg. He wants to be left alone and he feels he can't complete his thoughts because the whole situation that he chronicles in the poem has driven him to insanity. Yet, there are glimpses of hope for the country. Ginsberg suggests that at one time the country had been "angelic" and that it could perhaps be that way again. The angelic times that Ginsberg cites are the original ideals of freedom and opportunity that America offered to all of those that came to the country. That could comes again, but America must repent of its social wrongs before freedom could once again be a value for everyone.
-We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread bleak dusty imageless / locomotive, we're all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own / seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black / formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the / shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan / evening sitdown vision.
Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra" is poem that compares the industrial, polluted landscape that he and Jack Kerouac witness while sitting on a hill overlooking San Francisco. The blight is represented by a locomotive, but a sunflower comes to represent the hope of a different kind of world - a world where the natural world is celebrated and accepted as the chief goal of society.
The sunflower also represents the vision of the Romantic poets, which Ginsberg believed himself to be a descendant of. This romanticism inspired these lines of hope, that humanity is not just industrial and social pollution but instead holds a hope inside of them that things can be fixed and things can be better. Within people there is a "seed" of accomplishment that can either grow into "mad black" sunflowers, or can flower to produce beauty.
Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.