Allen Ginsberg's Poetry

Allen Ginsberg's Poetry Summary and Analysis of "Howl," Part III


Part III of “Howl” is the poem’s most direct address to Carl Solomon, the person to whom the poem is dedicated. Ginsberg met Solomon during a brief stay in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute in 1949. In the poem, Ginsberg names the mental institution Rockland, and the refrain of the third part of the poem is Ginsberg crying to Solomon that: “I’m with you in Rockland!”

The third part of the poem slowly builds to a crescendo in lines 43-48, before subsiding somewhat in the last four lines of poem, 49-52. Ginsberg noted that the verse in Part III was supposed to build upon each previous verse. Additionally, the progression of the third part is meant to take the reader on a journey into Carl Solomon’s madness, much as Solomon took Ginsberg into his madness during their friendship in New York.

The first half of the poem utilizes a vantage point of the author, empathizing with Solomon’s condition. The pronoun “you” is used to distinguish the author from Solomon. This then moves into a perspective from within “Rockland,” the mental institution, and the reader begins to understand some of the conditions that might drive a person crazy. The last third of the poem comes from the perspective of Solomon’s own insanity. Ginsberg moves from the “you” pronoun to a “we,” meaning that both the writer and reader have entered into a state of altered mind. The last three lines of the poem give the intimation of an extraction from the insanity. Solomon’s immanent presence is no longer assumed and Solomon becomes more of a dream-like figure.

While Parts II and III seem quite different from each other and, in turn, both have differences in theme, tone, and structure from Part I, both of these final parts of the poem play a complimentary role. Part I had been a kind of documentary of the madness and destruction that had characterized the lives of Ginsberg’s “best minds.” Part II had then named the cause of this destruction: Moloch, a symbol for everything that Ginsberg saw as wrong in American culture. Part III, then, names a savior: Carl Solomon. Yet, Solomon is also a tragic savior and, in the end, not able to offer much salvation either for himself or for anyone else. He has been the one chiefly broken by the Molochs of the world. While there is a holiness in Solomon’s madness, this holiness goes hand in hand with his tragedy.


Lines 1-24

While Part II of “Howl” named the poem’s antagonist, Part III begins with a cry for the poem’s hero and savior, Carl Solomon. Ginsberg wants Solomon to know that he is “with you in Rockland!” This was the literal case for a time, when Ginsberg was voluntarily admitted to the institution where Solomon lived, but it is meant here as more of a symbolic gesture. It is not just me that is with you, Ginsberg is trying to say, but all of those that have been unfairly and unjustly destroyed and driven mad by the strictures and conformity of a society and government concerned with nothing but its own survival and profit.

Line six offers an intriguing look into Ginsberg’s own life and history. Ginsberg would later write that he felt a strong attraction towards Solomon not only because Solomon was an aspiring writer and artist, but also because Ginsberg saw much of his mother’s own struggles with insanity in Solomon’s life. In line six, Ginsberg cursorily admits that he sees a “shade of my mother” in Solomon. Ginsberg’s mother had been institutionalized for a variety of psychological disorders, events that marred Ginsberg’s own childhood. Naomi Ginsberg’s tragic story was the chief cause for the breakup of Ginsberg’s family and her continued struggle with insanity psychologically impacted Ginsberg through his entire life.

The first lines of the poem move back and forth from attempts at bonding and finding similarity, to distinguishing Solomon from the rest of the “sane” world. Ginsberg writes that Solomon is “madder than I am” (2) and that “we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter” (12). Yet he also admits that Solomon has been truly driven from a normal life. His “faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses” (16-17). He laughs at “invisible humor” (10) and he cries to the nurses and doctors that he is “losing the game of / the actual pingpong of the abyss” (23-24).

Lines 25-51

One of Ginsberg’s major themes in “Howl,” as well as in other poems, is the unjustness and inhumanity of the United States’ mental institutions. This is a theme he returns to again in Part III. He writes, speaking of Carl Solomon, that “the soul is innocent and / immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse” (26-27). Insanity, in Ginsberg’s view, is actually genius and a system that seeks to lock up such genius is inhuman. To let Solomon’s “soul” die in an “armed madhouse” is to lose one of the world’s “best minds.”

The treatment of the insane is also inhuman, and not just in abstract forms. Ginsberg writes of the shock treatment administered to Solomon in lines 29-31. Shock treatment, or shock therapy, is a kind of medical treatment for mental disorders that uses aversion therapy to try and get the patient to adopt new patters of thinking or lifestyle. In Solomon’s case, the insane patient would be administered an electric shock when insane thoughts or attitudes were displayed. It was an attempt to get the patient to act in a more sane manner. This was pure torture in Ginsberg’s view and, in fact, did more to drive Solomon insane then it did to cure him.

Beginning with line 30, Ginsberg begins to use religious imagery to describe Solomon and the reader begins to understand that Solomon is the hero and savior in Ginsberg’s poem. While Neal Cassady had been the hero in Part I, Solomon turns out to be the ultimate savior, a person on whom all of the sins and insanity of the world can be placed in order to redeem the rest of the “best minds.”

Ginsberg writes that the shock therapy had taken Solomon to “a cross in the void,” (30) meaning a place of sacrifice within the realm of insanity. Ginsberg says that Solomon planned and plotted a “Hebrew / socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha” (32-33). This is a kind of retelling of Christ’s crucifixion narrative. Jesus, a Jew who some historians and theologians have associated with a socialist or communist meaning, was crucified by Roman authorities, who some of associated with fascism, on a hill named Golgotha. In Ginsberg’s retelling, it is Solomon who takes on the form of Jesus, this time plotting against the fascist national government of the United States, represented by Golgotha.

Lines 35 and 36 complete this vision, though it takes a Nietzschean turn. Ginsberg writes that Solomon will “split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your / living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb”. Here, Solomon is directly correlated with a risen Christ who has come back to rule the world. Ginsberg uses the term “superhuman,” which was also a term used in Frederick Nietzsche’s writing in the nineteenth century to denote the secular epitome of human psychological, spiritual, and physical dominance. Solomon, thus, is both a religious and secular figure of salvation and triumph.

The final lines of Part III return to a political motif. Ginsberg is now united with Solomon in his insanity. They have a difficult relationship with their country. They “hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets” yet this is the same country that “coughs all night and won’t let us sleep” (41-42). The crescendo of the poem in lines 44-48 imagines the United States coming to bomb the mental institution, an event of both great terror and great freedom. The United States, its humanity epitomized in the way it treats its mentally ill, is a “starry-spangled shock of mercy” yet it has also brought “the eternal / war” (47-48). This parody of “The Star Spangled Banner” is meant to mock the violence that government afflicts upon its own people and the people of the world.

The final three lines of the poem return Ginsberg and the reader to a modicum of reality. The reader realizes that the refrain, “I’m with you in Rockland” is meant as a symbolic cry. Ginsberg is actually in his “cottage in the Western / night” (51-52) and Carl Solomon’s appearance in the poem has been a part of his dreams. The reader is left to wonder, then, if any of what Ginsberg has written in “Howl” has been reality or, in fact, if it is really just Ginsberg’s literary dream of a generation broken by a society that refuses to accept its deviance.