Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” first published in 1956, is one of the most widely read and translated poems of the twentieth century. Many critics consider it a breakthrough in contemporary poetry and a literary masterpiece. Donald Allen, in his introduction to the landmark volume New American Poetry, published in 1960, described it as “The Waste Land for our age.” The poem was also the subject of an obscenity trial when it was first published, based on some of its language and imagery, but after testimony from numerous literary scholars it was deemed “an important work of art,” and not obscene. The trial received a great deal of publicity, and made “Howl” and Ginsberg famous. Although the poem includes many personal references, it is also an indictment of social attitudes and strictures. It is this intersection of public and private that so resonated with readers at the time, and continues to do so in the present. The poem’s account of down-and-out mad geniuses in New York City’s Harlem, including drug-taking, graphic sexual encounters, visions, insanity, ecstasy and desperation, poverty, and violent death, tore through the decade’s placid, proper veneer in the same way that rock and roll was erupting on the music scene and that—more quietly, but no less forcefully—Martin Luther King was emerging as a civil rights leader. Response to the poem in literary circles ranged from praise and admiration to bafflement to contempt, but “Howl” opened up a wide new range of possibilities in poetry for both form and content, including the “confessional” poetry of the 1960s.
When Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” in public for the first time, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 13, 1955, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the president of the United States and Nikita Krushchev led the Soviet Union. Just a year earlier, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s vendetta against those he believed to be communists had finally been brought to a halt and censured by the U. S. Senate. For the most part, American society was still shaped by World War II and its aftermath. Following the war’s four years of disruption and anxiety, Americans had been eager to get on with their daily lives: they wanted steady jobs, marriage and family, a home in the new suburbs, peace and quiet. Ginsberg’s “Howl” erupted into this world that at least on the surface was tidy, well-mannered, and well behaved—polite society. Men and women wore hats, and women wore white gloves and stockings with straight seams down the back. When Lucille Ball was pregnant, the writers of her television show couldn’t use that word to describe her “condition.”
Much of the poetry of the 1950s shared in this placid propriety. These poets were writing in the daunting shadow of the great Modernists—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore–who began publishing in the 1910s and ‘20s. The modernists had had large ambitions for poetry—their subject matter included mythology, history, art, culture, economics, philosophy, and other related topics, rather than the details of ordinary life. They rejected the Romanticism of Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, which focused on the individual personality, and instead of shaping the poem as the speech of one person, presumably the poet, they used personae, or masks, and techniques from collage, cubism, and drama. Poetry of the 1940s and 1950s retained some of the dense allusiveness of modernist poetry, but it contented itself with smaller ambitions. The poems often seemed tightly controlled, dry, and lacking in any genuine emotion, let alone passion. The poetry is sometimes described as “academic” because much of it was produced and read on university campuses, and was often written more to lend itself to literary analysis than to express feelings or explore open-ended questions.
Because Howl and Other Poems was Ginsberg’s first book of to be published, many people assume it was his earliest writing. But by the time he finished “Howl,” Ginsberg had already been writing poetry for more than ten years and had written two volumes of poetry that were still unpublished. He had he enrolled at Columbia University in New York City in 1943, when he was just seventeen, planning to become a labor lawyer. But he soon met and fell in with a loose a group of people who saw themselves as thinkers and experimenters far from the mainstream of American life. One was Jack Kerouac, who was trying to develop a fiction writing style that would capture on the page something of the speed and spontaneity of impressions as they run through the mind. Kerouac was four years older than Ginsberg, intelligent, hard working, and devoted to his writing; Ginsberg looked to him as a friend and a model, and began to apply Kerouac’s theories about writing fiction to his own poetry. A few years later Ginsberg met Neal Cassady when he came to New York, and those three formed the heart of what came to be known as the Beat Generation. The group also included John Clellon Holmes (whose novel Go was based on some of the same people and events Kerouac wrote about in On the Road), William Burroughs (later the author of Naked Lunch, Junky, and other books), who was fascinated by drugs and crime in addition to philosophy and literature.
Ginsberg, Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes pursued what they referred to as the New Vision in their writing, as they tried to create a style that would help them reveal their view of a world forever changed by the events of World War II, especially the Holocaust and the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They believed that if society and governments could act so inhumanely—even insanely—then they were to be distrusted rather than blindly followed, and that true wisdom was more likely to be found among individuals. Kerouac, who published his novel On the Road a year after Ginsberg published Howl, first used the word “beat” to describe those in the postwar generation who were weary of the pressures to conform. He later associated it with “beatific,” or blessed, following in the Romantic tradition of considering outsiders, the poor, and the suffering to be recipients of grace and sources of wisdom. John Clellon Holmes first used the phrase Beat Generation in a New York Times article: “A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wages the sum of his resources on a single number.”
Ginsberg was drawn to these friends and others in part because he had identified from early on with those on the fringe, and because their emotional intensity reflected something of his own mother’s mental illness. Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born in on June 3 , 1926, five years after his brother Eugene, to Louis and Naomi Livergant Ginsberg, both from Russian Jewish backgrounds. Louis’s grandfather had immigrated to the United States, and Naomi’s family had come to this country when she was a child, bringing with them beliefs in communism and social activism. Louis became a teacher and a lyric poet whose work appeared in the New York Times and other publications. Naomi took care of the household and her two sons until she was gradually disabled by psychiatric problems that had first appeared before her marriage. She was in and out of mental hospitals, subjected to a variety of treatments for paranoid schizophrenia, and in later years given a lobotomy. From his childhood on, Ginsberg was drawn to literature, social causes, and the wisdom of those outside the mainstream.
When Ginsberg began studying poetry his favorites included Blake, Shelley, and Keats, some of the same Romantics the modernists had rejected, and his own early efforts, written in meter and rhyme, were heavily influenced by their techniques. His professors included the literary critic Lionel Trilling and the poet and critic Mark Van Doren, both of whom encouraged his early efforts. He wrote steadily, but struggled to mesh the forms he was using with his own emotions and his longing to express the visionary. Ginsberg and others in his group distrusted appearances and longed for visions that would reveal what was otherwise hidden or invisible. To this end they drank, used various drugs, went days without sleeping, wandered the city, and immersed themselves in visionary writers. One of the central experiences in Ginsberg’s life was a vision in which he heard what he took to be the voice of Blake himself reciting his poems. Ginsberg had been studying intensely, and was alone in his apartment when it began. As he listened to Blake’s voice, he said later, he suddenly understood that poetry was eternal, and that poets separated by centuries could share the same consciousness. He spent the next fifteen years trying—mostly by taking hallucinogenic drugs—to return to that state.
After a series of small clashes with university officials that culminated when Ginsberg and several acquaintances were arrested for possession of stolen property following a car crash, Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia before his senior year. He was sentenced to psychiatric treatment and spent several months in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, where he met and immediately hit it off with Carl Solomon, the man to whom “Howl” is dedicated. Solomon introduced Ginsberg to the work of French poet Antonin Artaud , who had lamented the fate of those driven to suicide by society’s failure to understand their search for the visionary. Ginsberg also continued to correspond with Trilling and Van Doren during this suspension, and returned to the university after he was released. Following his graduation, he began a friendship with William Carlos Williams, who had recently published the first parts of a long poem called Paterson, set in the New Jersey town in which they had both grown up, and who was a poet Ginsberg saw as following in the footsteps of Blake and Whitman.
He also continued to steep himself in the local art scene that included the painters DeKooning and Pollock, dancer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, experimental theater, and jazz musicians Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and many others. He looked constantly for techniques of bridging the modern and the traditional that he could draw on for his own poems. He and and his friends often gathered at a Greenwich Village bar, the San Remo, to share their latest breakthroughs and discoveries. Ginsberg finally left New York in 1953 to travel in the United States and Mexico, visiting Burroughs and other friends. He spent several months living in Mexico before he made his way to San Francisco, where he soon met Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others who were part of a lively literary and arts scene known as the San Francisco Renaiassance.
Several months after he arrived in San Francisco, Ginsberg met and fell in love with Peter Orlovsky, the man who would be his companion for the next thirty years. Not long after that he quit his job and lived on unemployment so that he could devote himself fulltime to his writing. He was experimenting with form, trying to find something that would combine the consciousness he had achieved in his Blake vision with details of everyday life. He had steeped himself in the work of Whitman, Pound, Willliams, Céline, Rimbaud, Baudelaire,Yeats, Joyce, Hart Crane, and many others who seemed to share his determination to “make it new.” He was especially interested in techniques of spontaneity, including surrealism’s automatic writing, that allow artists to capture uncensored thoughts and feelings. At Williams’ suggestion, he began to turn some of his journal entries into poems, and to his surprise discovered that they were often effective, and had the spontaneity and detail he had been unable to incorporate in his poems. He continued to work on this project, poems which would eventually be collected into his book Empty Mirror, and to work at the same time on the poems in a more traditional vein that would become Gates of Wrath. (When Ginsberg published his Collected Poems 1947-1980, he put the poems in chronological—or as he said, autobiographical—order, to make clear he had been working in both styles at the same time.)
Then Ginsberg received word that Carl Solomon, who had been working as an editor in New York, had had to return to the psychiatric hospital. He said later that “Howl” was “occasioned by unexpected news of Carl Solomon’s removal to Pilgrim State.” The news served as a catalyst, as a lightning bolt that brought together and fused what had been many disparate elements. Not long afterward Ginsberg wrote the first draft of what became parts I and III of “Howl” in a single sitting. He sat down at his typewriter not to work on a formal poem, he said, but to state his “imaginative sympathies.” The fact that he didn’t think of what he was writing as something for publication left him freer to say whatever came to him without censoring it, and he tried to capture the spontaneity of Kerouac’s fiction-writing technique. He wasn’t attempting to capture speech, as Wordsworth and Williams had, but “the melody of actual thought.” When he stopped, he had six single-spaced pages of what was to become part I of the poem (it would go through extensive revisions over the next several months) and all of part III. Not long afterward, a peyote-induced vision in which he saw the Sir Francis Drake hotel as the face of a robotic monster triggered the poem’s famous second, or “Moloch” section. Later still, he began the fourth, or “Holy” section as he pondered the poem while he was riding a bus.
Ginsberg sent early versions of his new poem to Kerouac and Burroughs, who both praised it—though Kerouac urged him not to revise, to remember that the first thought is the best thought—and to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who said he would publish it as a chapbook. The poem’s public debut came at a now famous reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October of 1955. Others on the program that night included Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder. Kenneth Rexroth provided the introductions. Jack Kerouac declined to read his work in public, but supplied wine for the readers and the audience, and urged Ginsberg on with rhythmic clapping. The entire event was a great success, and the next day Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram that borrowed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” and went on to ask, “When do I get the manuscript?”
Though “Howl” became famous—and notorious—for its subject matter, its attacks on the establishment, and its obscenities, much of Ginsberg’s focus as he wrote and rewrote it was on finding the form that would enable that content to emerge as powerfully as possible. He began by using William’s three-part line or three-line stanza:
I saw the best lines of my generation
generation destroyed by madness
starving, mystical, naked…
But he found, in the midst of a particularly long phrase, that the form broke down. He then turned to a longer line similar to the one used by Whitman, and by the eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart, which had the necessary muscularity to let the poem’s true prophetic voice emerge fully:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
But they are looking for more than that; for these “angelheaded hipsters” the fix is a means to a much larger end, they are “burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” a spiritual, mystical tie between themselves and the universe. They are looking, as the poem says several lines later, for “the motionless world of Time between” Canada and Paterson, or any two poles on actual earth, they are looking for “kind king light of mind” to reveal eternal truths that can’t be seen in the “drear light of [the Bronx] Zoo.”
Ginsberg’s opening line echoes the beginning of William Carlos Williams’ poem, “To Elsie”: “The pure products of America/ go crazy,” but Ginsberg’s poem goes on to reveal depths Williams hadn’t imagined. As Williams puts it in concluding his introduction to the first edition of Howl and other poems, “Hold back the edges of your gown, Ladies, we are going through Hell.” This trip through hell differs from the best known literary version, the one in Dante’s Inferno, in a number of ways beyond the specifics. For one thing, Dante had the earlier poet Virgil as guide and protector; Ginsberg acts as the reader’s guide, but he has no protector, and means to shock rather than protect those who hear what he says. For another, Dante’s vision of hell was hierarchical and systematic, with punishments specifically designed to fit alleged sins, while Ginsberg’s hell is chaotic and the sufferings result from society’s failure to value its “best minds” rather than from any conscious, deliberate punishment. Yet another difference is that all of the souls Dante enounters are those of people who have already died, and though some of those whose lives are recounted in “Howl” were dead by the time Ginsberg wrote the poem, the miseries he describes all belong to the living—or living dead, those so at odds with the society they live in they can’t function as part of it.
The first draft had read “starving mystical naked,” and Ginsberg considered the change to “hysterical” an important one for setting the tone he wanted, one that was hard-edged and unsentimental. He also switched the two adjectives in the second sentence from their first pairings: “angry streets” and “negro fix.” The revised noun-adjective pairings reflect Ginsberg’s wish to capture the effect of Cézanne’s surprising juxtapositions of blocks of color, which he had come to refer to as “eyeball kicks,” a technique designed to jolt viewers out of their usual ways of seeing the world that is used throughout the poem. These phrases appear thoroughout: “angelheaded hipsters,” “hydrogen jukebox,” “bop kabbalah,” “nitroglycerin shrieks,” “hot-rod Golgotha jail-solitude watch.”
The final version of this section is one sentence, seventy-eight lines—or verses, as Ginsberg referred to the variable length phrases—long. All of its details come from the lives of people Ginsberg knew—friends, acquaintances, his mother—but have been revised and rearranged as necessary for the poem’s rhythm and power. Though he says “I” only twice in this section, it is clear that the speaker’s sympathies lie with those he describes, that he is not looking at them from a cool distance. The poem is as at least as much a howl of sorrow for their suffering as it is of anger at the society that fails to understand and support them.
By the fourth line, a phrasing emerges that will anchor most of the lines throughout this section:
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan
angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating
Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene
odes on the windows of the skull….
This technique of repeating the opening word of a line, or anaphora, was one Whitman, Smart, and others had used extensively, and of course it can also be found in the King James version of the Bible. It is often used to structure poetry without relying on meter and rhyme. These lines could describe a number of the people Ginsberg knew in New York, living in cheap apartments with no hot water, rattled by the noise of subway trains passing on their elevated tracks. The person with “radiant cool eyes” is Ginsberg himself; “Arkansas” was originally “anarchy,” which Ginsberg decided was too abstract. The next lines refer to what he considered the most ridiculous of the reasons cited for his suspension from Columbia, that he had written obscenities in the steam on his dorm room window.
Ginsberg was finally able to accomplish something he had been trying to do for years in his poems, and that was to intermingle the visionary with daily—or nightly—life: “who drank fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley” (an apartment house in Harlem), and “incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind.” These “angelheaded hipsters” are trying in any way they can think of, from peyote to maijuana to Benzedrine to booze to nonstop talking, to experience the visionary, They are looking for the news not found in newspapers, the news Williams had said men were dying every day for the lack of. But they are also living in abysmal conditions because the rest of the society doesn’t value what they are looking for, has no use for it or for them. They spend their nights in cafeterias like Bickfords or jazz clubs like Fugazzi’s, or walking from mental hospitals to museums to bridges. They soldier on, but as “a lost batallion” society fails to sympathize with, let alone honor. When they leave New York and go “on the road” in search of their visions, they take their torments with them to Paterson, Tangiers, China, Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Chicago, the west coast. This is followed by a blizzard of images that seem to be glimpsed from a speeding train: “platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon/ yacketayakking…who intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and seven nights,” “meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,” “nowhere Zen New Jersey,” Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migrains of China”—and then the train appears: “boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night.” The frantic travelers are studying mysticism in any form they can think of, desperately looking for something that will reveal the order of the universe to them. They are hungry for jazz, for soup, for sex, but also for visions, for something they can’t find in daily life.
Specific enemies begin to appear: the FBI, capitalism, the atomic scientists at Los Alamos, the police. At this point the poem begins an extended riff on sex and sexuality, which includes some of the passages cited at the obscenity trial. Sex represented a number of things to Ginsberg: the body, which he considered the home of the soul, and which therefore needed to be brought into poetry (though he struggled for years to accept this truth himself); a potential doorway to altered consciousness; and a source of intense emotions ranging from pleasure to power to shame. The passage begins with a a slight ironic distance, and with a sense of the ridiculous, of how absurd the struggles he and his friends were engaged in might look to the world: “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.” Ginsberg cited Charlie Chaplin’s movies as an important influence on his work, and made the humor in his poems audible in his live readings. He saw himself as a Trickster figure, a jester, a sacred fool who could get away with telling the truth if he made people laugh. But the next line couldn’t be more direct: “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists and screamed with joy.” The most important word in this line for Ginsberg was “joy,” he said, because he thought most people would assume that the person was screaming in pain. Ginsberg had recognized his homosexual impulses since childhood, and had had affairs with a number of men, but he also went through a period when he he slept and lived with women and hoped he could live a heterosexual life. By the time he wrote “Howl,” he had accepted his homosexuality, but hadn’t spoken to his father about it and certainly hadn’t written about it in anything he expected to publish. He said later that writing this passage completely freed him from any expectation of publishing the poem and made it possible to say whatever seemed true and necessary. Only after he became aware of the poem’s power did he begin to revise it for publication.
The passage continues in a mixture of joy intermixed with sadness, as loves are lost to “the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads.” But the sex continues, an orgiastic flood of images and a figure who ends “fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness,” and then with references to Neal Cassady, “secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards.” The poem’s music and pacing are distinctly audible here, controlled by the length of the verse-lines and by the images. The frenetic activity subsides, apparently into the harsh light of day, to the reality of stumbling from “basements hungover with heartless Tokay” to “unemployment offices.” Then a surreal reality intrudes, a vision of those “who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open….” They’re waiting not for a door that will open and swallow them in death, but for one that will “open to a room full of steam-heat and opium.” The image is based on Herbert Huncke, a sometime writer, junkie, and petty thief Ginsberg had befriended, who showed up at Ginsberg’s apartment one night when he had nowhere else to stay. The image, one of the most memorable in the poem, is a perfect example of Ginsberg’s wish to fuse the ordinary with the visionary, It also makes clear that while the speaker walks through the same hell as the others, he is someone who can–as least sometimes, at least temporarily–rescue them from it. The speaker is deeply sympathetic to those whose minds have been destroyed by madness, but he is not one of them—if he were, he wouldn’t be capable of writing the poem.
Some of the characters in the poem are so poor they live in boxes under bridges or walk the streets with pushcarts, eating the “lamb stew of the imagination” “the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of Bowery,” or “rotten animals lung heart feet tail borsht & tortillas dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom.” It is absurd that people are living this way who are capable of building harpsichords, studying theology, “scribbling all night.” It is both absurd that they do it, and absurd that society fails to care about them and their talents, and what follows is the poem’s most Chaplinesque passage:
who plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg,
who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity
outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads for the next decade,
who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and
were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were
growing old and cried,
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue
amid blasts of leaden verse…or were run down by the drunken taxi-
cabs of Absolute Reality….
Even here, some details are based on specific incidents Ginsberg remembered or had heard about, including the poet Louis Simpson asking for a friend’s watch, throwing it out the window, then commenting, “We don’t need time when we’re already in eternity.” In the next line the speaker earnestly insists, in describing someone who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge and lived to tell about it, “this actually happened,” as if this story might be too outrageous to be true. But indeed it did happen, to Tuli Kupferberg, founder of the 1960s band the Fugs. When someone fails at a suicide attempt, it becomes a funny, bitter story of one more failure. The reference in the very next line to someone who “fell out of a subway window” isn’t funny, but it does describe an absurdly silly death: another friend, William Cannastra, was killed when he tried to leap out a train window as it left the station. This rapid shift between emotional extremes mimic the state of mind of most of the characters who appear in the poem, and makes clear what fine lines separate those emotions from each other, life from death, the saved from the damned. The beautiful “European 1930s German jazz” is inevitably entangled with the ugly: those who smashed the phonograph records that held that music, who “finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears….”
Despite their intense internal worlds, these are characters for whom connection to others like them is—literally—a driving force:
who barreled down the highways of the past journeying to each other’s
hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch or Birmingham jazz incarnation,
who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision
or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity
The friends are never entirely apart, even when they’re in different places, because as they travel they pray for each other and in that gesture achieve the state they are all searching for: “the soul illuminated itself for a second.” At least as often, what they find is the darker side of of that ecstatic experience: “who crashed through their minds in jail….” The group disperses—physically, at least—to drugs, religion, bluecollar jobs, school, self-absorption, the cemetery, the madhouse. Those who take themselves or are taken to mental hospitals ask to be given a lobotomy exactly because they can’t bear the tormenting hallucinations that are the dark twin of visionary illumination. They are refused lobotomies, but given other treatments that presumably fail, and eventually released into the Reality they find it so difficult to cope with. Not surprisingly, they may return to the hospital “years later truly bald except for a wig of blood,” to a place where people’s bodies and minds are turned to stone (one real life hospital was Greystone, another Rockland.
This section of the poem climaxes in the next verse, the poem’s longest, when life has failed, treatments have failed, and there’s no place left to go:
with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the
tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 a.m. and the last
telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room
emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper
rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary,
nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination—
The asterisks are Ginsberg’s, not an editor’s, and though he said later they were there to introduce an “appropriate element of uncertainty,” the first draft of the poem reads “with mother finally fucked.” The last taboo has been broken, all communication has failed, the room is almost bare, and so is the mind—except for this paper rose, made more vivid by the darkness and emptiness around it—and even the rose exists only in the mind. There’s a tremendous sense of exhaustion after all the breathless listmaking and activity, after the quests and the visions, after the waves of anger, sorrow, giddy pleasure, ecstasy: it can all come to nothing.
Or almost nothing. The yellow rose gleams in the mind like a little flame, something “hopeful,” the possibility of beginning again. This is what Ginsberg wants to say to anyone in this state, but in this case he is addressing a particular other. After seventy-one verse lines the poem finally reveals what occasioned this great outpouring, this urgent, passionate, lapel-grabbing, private and public keening:
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in
the total animal soup of time—
Carl Solomon’s readmittance to a psychiatric hospital might have been the immediate catalyst for the poem, but Ginsberg’s mother’s illness, and his own ambivalence about it, were obviously driving forces, and a primary source of the intense emotions. Ginsberg is a survivor, and wants to rescue those who have been less fortunate. What is it that has saved him, and might save them? The answer turns out to be Art, in its various forms. When the speaker heard about Solomon, he
…therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of
the alchemy of the use of the ellipsis catalog a variable measure and
the vibrating plane,…
“Ellipsis” refers to the punctuation mark for something omitted, the series of dots, and Ginsberg has in mind the space between those dots. It is another way to describe “eyeball kicks,” or the juxtaposition of images—setting them side by side without explanatory linking phrases between them. He took the term from Céline’s use of dots to signal the jump-cuts in his prose, a marker of “the space between thoughts. “Catalog” is the listing technique used by Blake, Whitman, and other Ginsberg favorites to structure their poems. “Variable foot” is a phrase William Carlos Williams used to describe the rhythm he was striving for in his free verse lines, and Ginsberg built on Williams and then Whitman to arrive at his own long “breath” lines. The “vibrating planes” are Cézanne’s blocks of color. Ginsberg is after “incarnate gaps” across which sparks will leap in the reader’s mind, and this act of creating something out of nothing—the gap, the abyss—makes him feel like a kind of god (Cézanne used the phrase Ginsberg quotes here, Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus, all-powerful and eternal god, in a letter describing his own feelings about painting). Here the voice rises to a great crescendo as the speaker describes what he hopes to do:
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand
before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame,
rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of
thought in his naked and endless head,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down
here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldenhorn
shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind
for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that
shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own
bodies good to eat a thousand years.
The poet is searching for the form that will make it possible for him to “confess out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,” for the alchemy that will transform the lead of daily life into a “goldenhorn…saxophone cry” that will shiver the cities “down to the last radio.” The poet rises reborn, revitalized, reincarnate (new-blooded) to play this jazz made out of “the suffering of America’s naked mind for love,” out of the ultimate loneliness of those who feel forsaken even by god, as Jesus did on Golgotha. The visionary is a sacrificial redeemer, and the poem is made out of the flesh and blood of these sufferers: “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.” In this way, if in no other, their suffering is redeemed, comes to mean something, is not forgotten. The transformative power of art saves their lives by putting them in writing. The poet saves his own life by performing this ritual of creation and transformation. Out of flesh and blood and bone, he makes harrowing music.
Having described at length how the best minds of his generation were destroyed, Ginsberg turns next to the question of what it is that destroyed them. This section is much shorter than the first, and apparently much simpler, but it went through at least eighteen drafts (compared to five for the first section) before Ginsberg was satisfied with it.
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up
their brains and imagination?…
For his answer he takes the name of a Biblical god, Moloch (or Molech), the god of abominations, to whom mothers sacrificed their children—reaching through flames to put their infants in his arms. The Old Testament repeatedly warns against him. “Moloch” plays the same anchoring function in this section that “who”did in the first:
Moloch, whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running
money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast
is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
The image itself came to Ginsberg on a night when he had taken peyote and suddenly saw the Sir Frances Drake Hotel in San Francisco as a smoking, thousand-eyed monster, a “vegetable horror,” “dark tower,” “impassive robot,” “cannibal dynamo.” This vision was overlayered with scenes from Blake’s “London,” Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis, the “unreal city” of Eliot’s Waste Land, and other images of cities as mechanical, inhuman, uncaring. Moloch encompasses everything in human society that beats down and defeats whatever is individual: armies, war, “stunned governments,” skyscrapers, factories, the love of money and its evil twin, poverty, “robot apartments,” “invisible suburbs,” “demonic industries.” A society built on uniformity and conformity has no use for indvidual visions, or indeed anything that represents the life of the soul—dreams, illuminations, epiphanies. Society ignores those who have them, tries to silence them or drive them out, lets the real treasures slip through its fingers.
Some critics have attacked this section of the poem for taking the easy way out by proposing an external villain as the answer to the implied question of part I: how did this happen, who or what is to blame for all this suffering? But in fact Ginsberg makes clear throughout the section that Moloch is ultimately interior: “Mental Moloch!” “Moloch whose names is the Mind!” The societal face of Moloch emerges from the potential Moloch in each person, including the poet:
Moloch in whom I sit lonely!…Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch!
Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a conscious-
ness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural
ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light stream-
ing out of the sky!
Even if society can’t be changed, the individual can change his own attitudes, behavior, and relationship to it. He can go crazy, or find a way to live in the world, he can let society make him fearful and repressed, or he can stay true to his own visions. He can wake up and take responsibility for his own life, without being deterred by society’s response. He can abandon Moloch—as the speaker has by writing the poem.
Even as the speaker laments all the valuable possibilities that have been lost, his sense of humor flashes through: “Visions! omens! halllucinations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!” Some critics have turned the poem’s own words against it, saying that “the whole load of sensitive bullshit” is an apt description of the poem itself. But for Ginsberg this attitude, this ability to stand outside oneself, to see how ridiculous the whole enterprise must look from the outside—and to respond with humor, not bitterness—is central to waking up in Moloch, to freeing himself from the monster. When he does that the light streams in, and he sees the lost lives as something to celebrate, not just to mourn. When he says “Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!” the tone is almost triumphant, as is the section’s conclusion:
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy
yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude!
waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!
They are choosing their fates, and they seem ecstatic rather than dismayed. This time they aren’t waving “genitals and manuscripts,” but simply waving farewell. Ginsberg has escaped Moloch by blowing their pain out the saxophone notes of his poetry, and in doing so he has transformed his own vision of the world as well. He has had a great insight: their laughter is holy, their yells are holy. But while he lets this sink in, Ginsberg turns to address Carl Solomon directly.
The real-life Carl Solomon was never comfortable with his fame as the dedicatee of “Howl,” and took issue with a number of the poem’s details that seem to refer to his experiences. But the Carl Solomon in the poem is a created character, shaped by the poem’s needs as a work of art, even if he is based on the man Ginsberg had remained friends with since they met as fellow psychiatric patients. Solomon was a fellow intellectual, widely read, passionate, and opinionated. Both hoped to become writers, and they shared the same typewriter in the hospital. Solomon had returned to his work as an editor after his release, and Ginsberg went back to his classes at Columbia, graduated, lived at home in New Jersey, traveled cross country and lived in Mexico, and finally settled on the west coast. He had quit his job to write poetry full time, had finally accepted his homosexuality, and had met and fallen in love with Peter Orlovsky: he had a new life, far from the turmoil of his younger days in New York.
When Ginsberg heard that Carl Solomon had returned to a psychiatric hospital, Solomon became a sort of doppelganger for Ginsberg, an alter ego, an image of what his own fate might easily have been. Ginsberg begins to ask himself why he has survived when so many others did not. How was he able to wake up in Moloch and abandon Moloch when they could not? The speaker echoes Coleridge’s ancient mariner, Melville’s Ishmael, even Odysseus—all of whom returned alone to tell of what they had seen. In the post-World War II context, he also evokes images of Holocaust survivors describing their time in concentration camps. The poem’s first words bear witness: “I saw….” And he is the only one left to tell it (along with Kerouac, telling it in fiction). He has told, in past tense, what he saw, and he has created the figure of Moloch to stand for the source of suffering. Now he uses present tense to bridge the gap between himself and Solomon, even to deny that there is any gap:
Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you’re madder than I am…
I’m with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother….
“I’m with you” is the refrain here, as “who” was in the first section and “Moloch” in the second. Now the speaker bears witness by bringing the past to life in the present, by insisting that he hasn’t abandoned those he has apparently left behind. Ginsberg is with Solomon in his paranoid fantasies, his sense of the absurd, in the madness that traps him in his mind, cuts off from his own senses, with him playing pingpong and hammering an out of tune piano, with him as he gets electroshock therapy. The details are drawn from Ginsberg’s own time in the hospital, from stories Solomon told him, and from Ginsberg’s lifelong experiences with his mother’s paranoid schizophrenia. Ginsberg himself never received any treatments beyond psychiatric therapy. The section peaks with a burst of boyish giddiness and humor:
…we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes
roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hos-
pital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run
outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O
victory forget your underwear we’re free….
Then it concludes with a sadder but hopeful image reminiscent of Herbert Huncke appearing at Ginsberg’s apartment door in New York City years earlier:
…in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway
across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.
The poem’s fourth section, or “Footnote to Howl,” was written a few months later, and Ginsberg saw it as balancing the second section. It returns to the insight at the end of the second section: “Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells!” This is the speaker’s great revelation: the antidote to Moloch’s poison is the realization that everything in the universe is holy. After opening with fifteen repetitions of that key word, the speaker lists specifics, including things some might consider unholy: the world, the soul, the skin, the tongue and cock and hand and asshole. “Everyman’s an angel! the bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy.” He goes on to name names: Peter, Allen, Solomon, Lucien, Kerouac, Huncke, Burroughs, Cassady, his mother: all holy. Things remote from the poet are holy: “the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas,” “the vast lamb of the middle class!” These realizations free him from “Moloch the heavy judger of men!” The world is not inevitably divided into degrees of good and evil: Moloch creates those categories, and people can abandon Moloch. Nothing that exists is despicable; everything is holy, and therefore worthy of love. “Holy the bop apocalypse,” the jazz version of the end of the world. From the mundane to the mysterious, “the cafeterias filled with millions” to “rivers of tears under the streets”: all holy. Those who love Los Angeles are what they behold: the angels. All of time and space are holy. The eye, and the abyss it sees, are holy. Traditional religious virtues are holy: forgiveness, mercy, charity, faith, generosity. And what, at the end of this great vision quest, is most holy of all?
Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the
Hard-won kindness, informed kindness, kindness in-spite-of-itself, in spite of everything, kindness in the face of Moloch. Ginsberg began the poem with a lament and an implied question: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness;” how and why did that happen? The second section rages at Moloch, everything in society that’s to blame for the loss of those minds—but it also, in the midst of its anger, acknowledges that Moloch is a state of mind. The speaker abandons Moloch and turns instead to his friend—with kindness, empathy, and love. In making that turn he accepts his own past, his own body, his failings and feelings. If the universe is holy, he too must be holy, and worthy of love. And if he is worthy of love, everything else in the world must be too. Ginsberg later offered the following summaries of the first three parts of “Howl”: “1. a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamblike youths; 2. the moster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb; 3. a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory.” Most of the images in “Howl” come from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but there are also suggestions of the Buddhism Kerouac had introduced him to, and to which Ginsberg would later turn more fully.
Impact and Aftermath
When Howl and OtherPoems was published in 1956, Ginsberg quoted Whitman in an epigraph on the title page: “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs!” He dedicated the book to Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr (who was dropped in later editions at his own request), Willilam Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, listing books each had written and concluding, “All these books are published in Heaven.” William Carlos Williams says, in the introduction, “…he proves to us…the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist.” In another poem in the volume, “A Supermarket in California,” the poet imagines wandering the store with his predecessor: “Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?” In “Sunflower Sutra” he sits with Jack Kerouac in the railroad yards and talks to a dust-covered sunflower, which eventually becomes an image of the soul. It’s the entire country he addresses in “America,” speaking as if it were a person. He asks it questions: “America when will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes?” “…why are your libraries full of tears”; and confesses to it: “America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry. I smoke marijuana every chance I get…I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.” The poem is good-humored in its criticisms, and the speaker is serious both about his love and about wanting to make changes: “It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precison parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway./ America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
Immediate responses to the book ranged from the seizure of its second printing by the San Francisco police to its successful defense as an important work of art at the subsequent obscenity trial. Literary reviews varied as widely, some describing it as “repugnant,” and “adolescent maunderings,” while others lauded it for “blasting open closed sexual an artistic doors.” The poet Richard Eberhart, praising “Howl” in the New York Times, described the poem as “…a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit, lays bare the nerves of suffering and spiritual struggle.” John Hollander attacked the work in Partisan Review: “It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume.” Ginsberg’s father Louis, to whom he had sent the poem before it was published, expressed a fellow poet’s great admiration for the craftsmanship, but was also troubled by the graphic images and wished the poem included more “glad affirmations.” To those who decried its violence, Kenneth Rexroth, the central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, responded that the violence in the poem is society’s, not the poem’s or the author’s. The poem that Ginsberg had begun as a private mediation immediately took on a large and complex public identity. It became one of the defining works of the Beat Generation and, based on its Moloch section, a touchstone for tens of thousands of disaffected young men and women during the 1960s. “Howl” is the best-known of Ginsberg’s poems, and has become a cultural icon that stands for an entire generation’s alienation, for its rage against the Establishment and conventional, mainstream mores.
Ginsberg himself became as large and symbolic a figure as his book, and he and Jack Kerouac came to embody the Beat Generation. Ginsberg was an articulate spokesman for his beliefs in numerous interviews and panel discussions, but Kerouac found the publicity and fame depressing and distracting. He felt that most people paid more attention to the sensationalism and social aspects of the movement than to its works of art, which they failed to understand. Neal Cassady, who had served as an inspiration to Ginsberg and Kerouac, and who was the basis for the Dean Moriarty character in On the Road, later served a prison term for drug possession, and eventually drove the bus for Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. He died in Mexico in 1968, apparently of alcohol combined with barbituates. Kerouac, who had by then withdrawn into bitterness and alcoholism, died in 1969 of cirrhosis. The popularity of the Beat movement itself, badly distorted by mainstream media with references to “beatniks” and bongo drums, lasted less than a decade. But Ginsberg, who was the most driven and disciplined of the group, and who thrived in the spotlight, continued his prolific writing and publishing, including poetry, journals, prose, and interviews, for the rest of his life, He was also a tireless supporter of the work of his friends, including Kerouac and Burroughs, and worked hard to see that it got into print and to defend it against censorship.
Many critics consider Kaddish, Ginsberg’s next book after Howl, his greatest work. It is a powerful, moving lament for his mother Naomi, based on the mourning ritual usually performed at Jewish funerals. Not enough people had been present when his mother was buried to hold it, so Ginsberg created his own version in poetry. It’s a poem that seems to leave nothing out, from his mother’s intelligence and humor to her attempts, in the depths of her madness, to seduce him. In Ginsberg’s best poems, the intensity of the content is balanced and barely contained by the poem’s formal elements. In those that are less successful, the form fails and what results is a kind of shapeless sprawl.
Ginsberg’s opennes paved the way for the so-called “confessional” poets, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and many others. His work gave other poets a kind of permission to put the self at the center of the work as Whitman and the Romantics had—something the Modernists had gone to great lengths to avoid, since they considered it egotistical and believed it favored emotion at the expense of intelligence. Following in the Romantic tradition, Ginsberg argued that the self is the center from which true knowledge originates. Critics of the work charge that this approach represents a kind of narcissim and adolsecent self-absorption, “navel-gazing” at the expense of the rest of the world. Ginsberg’s work was also misread by many critics and young writers, who failed to realize how much study and hard work he had devoted to developing his technique of capturing the inner workings of the mind on the page. A number of critics did come to realize the prodigious extent of Ginsberg’s reading and work habits as they read his interviews, essays, and poems over the years, and reconsidered some of their earlier negative opinions of his poetry. Others have held to the position that his work fails to merit the acclaim it has received. In recent years the Beat movement has also been attacked for its treatment of women, and it is true, and perhaps ironic, that while “Howl” condemns a long list of society’s failings, it seems entirely a part of its time and place in its obliviousness to the second-class status of women. Some writers have attributed this to the homosexuality of many of the group’s members, but the complaint applies equally well to the heterosexual gender roles of sixties protest groups, where for the most part men spoke in public and made the decisions while women made the coffee.
It is difficult to separate Ginsberg’s stature as a poet from his status as cult figure, cultural icon, and social activist. His celebrity following the publication of Howl gave him access to the media and to public figures, and he used that attention to become a vocal advocate for various political causes. He participated in endless social protests, including those against the Vietnam War, nuclear power, censorship, and many others. His interest in popular culture—and its interest in him—also led to his touring with Bob Dylan as part of Rolling Thunder Review and performing with the British band the Clash. He was a powerful reader of his own poems, and one of the best ways to encounter “Howl” for the first time is to listen to a recording of Ginsberg reading it. He also recorded Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience set to music. In later years Ginsberg and his father Louis gave a number of joint readings in which they read their very different poems to large audiences.
Ginsberg became increasingly interested in and involved with Buddhism, and that interest, combined with a trip to Japan, led to his renunciation of drug-taking as a means to experience visions, a shift described in his poem “The Change.” In 1970 Ginsberg and the poet Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Ginsberg taught there and at Brooklyn College in New York. He received the National Book Award in 1974 for his collection The Fall of America, published his Collected Poems in 1984 and his Selected Poems in 1995. He also published numerous volumes of interviews, essays, and journal entries.
Although most critics acknowledge Ginsberg’s poetic mastery, some lament what they consider his permissiveness, sloppiness, and refusal to edit, especially in later work—his refusal to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” Critic Normal Podhoretz and others attacked him repeatedly over the years for being a “self-promoter,” but though Ginsberg did like the spotlight, he always used his celebrity to bring attention to the work of others and to causes he considered important. He spent his entire life promoting free speech, for example, and fighting against censorship, but almost fifty years after “Howl” was officially ruled to be “not obscene,” it is still banned from some libraries and classrooms, and cannot be read in its entirety on most radio stations.
Though many other countries have a long tradition of honoring their artists and writers, it is extremely rare for an American poet to achieve the level of fame that Ginsberg did. Fewer than two thousand copies are sold of most poetry books published in this country, yet 250,000 copies of Howl had been sold by the end of the 1960s. Over the next decades, Ginsberg brought far more people than that into contact with poetry through his readings, recordings, lectures, and interviews. He was also unusual in being an extremely willing and articulate commentator on his own work, and was generous in discussing it with his readers. He continued his travels, teaching, studies, and writing until his death at age seventy on April 5, 1997, at his apartment in New York City.