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From an Essay on "Howl" by James E. B. Breslin


Reprinted from the book, FROM MODERN TO CONTEMPORARY: AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1965 by James E. Breslin published by the University of Chicago Press, copyright 1983, 1994 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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James E. B. Breslin

"Twenty years is more or less a literary generation," Richard Eberhart remarks, "and Ginsberg's Howl ushered in a new generation." Many contemporary poets have testified to the liberating effect that Ginsberg's poem had on them in the late fifties, but "ushered in" is too tame a phrase to describe Ginsberg's historical impact. Ginsberg, for whom every poem begins, or ought to, with a frontal assault on established positions, thrust a battering ram against those protective enclosures, human and literary, so important to the young Wilbur and Rich. A "howl" is a prolonged animal cry and so an instinctive cry, and Ginsberg's poem still forcefully communicates the sense of a sudden, angry eruption of instincts long thwarted, of the release of excluded human and literary energies. Not irony but prophetic vision; not a created persona but "naked" confession; not the autotelic poem but wrathful social protest; not the decorums of high culture but the language and matter of the urban streets; not disciplined craftmanship but spontaneous utterance and indiscriminate inclusion--"Howl" violated all the current artistic canons and provoked a literary, social, and even legal scandal.

Yet the Ginsberg of the late fifties was an oddly contradictory figure. He was a strident revolutionary who, when not announcing his absolute newness, was busily tracing his genealogical links with underground traditions and neglected masters, especially Blake and Whitman. History was bunk, but the new consciousness Ginsberg proclaimed was empowered by a fairly familiar form of nineteenth-century Idealism, the basis for his admiration for Blake and Whitman. Ginsberg opened his poetry to sordid urban realities, and he packed "Howl" with things, with matter. Yet, as we shall see, immersion in what he calls "the total animal soup of time" was the first step in a painful ordeal which ended in the visionary’s flight out of time. Ginsberg’s poem reaches, nervously and ardently, after rest from urban frenzy, a resolution the poet can only find in a vertical transcendence. Ginsberg’s departure from the end-of-the-line modernism was a dramatic but hardly a new one; it took the form of a return to those very romantic models and attitudes that modernism tried to shun.

Ginsberg's subversion of the prevailing artistic norms was not achieved either quickly or easily. While poets like Wilbur and Lowell early built poetic styles and earned impressive critical recognition, Ginsberg's early career consisted of a series of false starts. "Howl"--contrary to popular impression--is not the work of an angry young man; the poem was not written until its author was thirty, and Howl and Other Poems was Ginsberg's first published but third written book. Nor was "Howl"--contrary to a popular impression created by its author--a sudden, spontaneous overflow of creative energy. The poem, started, dropped, then started again a few years later, was itself the product of a series of false starts. The visionary perspective of "Howl" had already been revealed to Ginsberg in a series of hallucinations he had experienced in the summer of 1948. The false starts were a part of Ginsberg's struggle to accept these visions and to find a literary form and language that would faithfully embody them. The letters, notebooks, and manuscripts in the Allen Ginsberg Archives at Columbia, along with Ginsberg's published autobiographical writings and interviews, allow us to document in ample detail the slow evolution, in the late forties and early fifties, of one dissenting poet.

[. . . .]

Ginsberg once described Howl and Other Poems as a series of experiments in what can be done with the long line since Whitman. In "Howl" itself Ginsberg stepped outside the formalism of the fifties, stepped away from even the modernism of Williams, and turned back to the then-obscure poet of Leaves of Grass, transforming Whitman’s bardic celebrations of the visionary yet tender self into a prophetic chant that is angry, agonized, fearful, funny, mystic, and affectionate—the prolonged and impassioned cry of Ginsberg’s hidden self which had survived. "Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies of living men": this is how Ginsberg, from "Howl" onward, perceives the literary past: haunting forms eager, like Moloch, to devour the present. Searching instead for a language that would incarnate the self, Ginsberg took the notion of form as discovery he had learned from Williams and pushed it in confessional and visionary directions alien to the older poet. Form was no longer self-protective, like "asbestos gloves," but a process of "compositional self-exploration," the activities of the notebooks turned into art. The Gates of Wrath had simultaneously produced an apotheosis and an elimination of the author's personality; the elevated formality of the language, by its vagueness, confronts us with a poet who may be a grandiose figure but is also nobody, and nowhere, in particular. In Empty Mirror, Ginsberg had tried to shed the eternal self and descend to particulars; but his imitativeness of Williams had produced the same self-annihilating result. "Howl" links the visionary and the concrete, the language of mystical illumination and the language of the street, and the two are joined not in a static synthesis but in a dialectical movement in which an exhausting and punishing immersion in the most sordid of contemporary realities issues in transcendent vision. Ginsberg is still uneasy about life in the body, which he more often represents as causing pain (i.e., "purgatoried their torsos") than pleasure; but in this way he is, like his mother in "Kaddish," "pained" into Vision. At the close of "Howl," having looked back over his life, Ginsberg can affirm a core self of "unconditioned Spirit" and sympathetic humanity that has survived an agonizing ordeal.

Of the poem's three parts (plus "Footnote"), the first is the longest and most powerful, an angry prophetic lament. Its cataloging of real and surreal images in long dithyrambic lines creates a movement that is rushed, frenzied, yet filled with sudden gaps and wild illuminations; the poem begins by immersing us in the extremities of modern urban life, overwhelming and flooding us with sensations. Generalizing generational experience in Parts I and II, Ginsberg shows these "best minds" veering back and forth between extremes, with the suddenness and intensity of an electric current leaping between two poles; they adopt attitudes of defiance, longing, terror, zaniness, hysteria, prayer, anger, joy, tears, exhaustion--culminating in the absolutes of madness and suicide. Clothes and then flesh are constantly being stripped away in this ordeal; the "best minds" are exposed and tormented, then cast out into the cold and darkness. So they are at once hounded and neglected ("unknown" and "forgotten" in the poem's words). But modern civilization's indifference and hostility provoke a desperate search for something beyond it for spiritual illumination. Again and again, the young men are left "beat" and exhausted, alone in their empty rooms, trapped in time--at which point they gain glimpses of eternity. "Howl" constantly pushes toward exhaustion, a dead end, only to have these ends twist into moments of shuddering ecstasy. In one of the poem's metaphors, boundaries are set down, push in on and enclose the self--then suddenly disintegrate. At such times terror shifts to ecstasy; the "madman bum" is discovered to be the angel-headed hipster, and "beat" (beaten, exhausted) becomes "beatific."

As the catalog of Part I moves through gestures of greater and greater desperation, the hipsters finally present "themselves on the granite steps house with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, instantaneous lobotomy"--an act that frantically mixes defiance and submission, clownishness and martyrdom. What they want is immediate release from their heads, from suffering; what they get is prolonged incarceration, "the concrete void of insulin" shots and therapy aimed not at liberation but "adjustment," their "bodies turned to stone as heavy as the moon." At this point, in its longest and most despairing line, the poem seems about to collapse, to "end":

with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window,
    and the last door closed at 4am 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--

With all communication broken off and all vision denied, the self is left in a lonely, silent, empty room--the self is such a room--the room itself the culmination of the poem's many images of walls, barriers, and enclosures. In having the visionary quest end in the asylum, Ginsberg is referring to his own hospitalization, that of Carl Solomon (whom he had met in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute) and that of his mother. Moreover, madness is here perceived as encapsulating the psyche in a private world. In a strikingly similar passage in "Kaddish" Ginsberg emphasizes the way his mother's illness removed her into a private, hallucinatory world ("her own universe") where, in spite of all his hysterical screaming at her, she remained inaccessible ("no road that goes elsewhere--to my own" world). Ginsberg himself had found it impossible to communicate his own visions, to make them real to others. At this climactic moment of Part I, then, the condition of separation, division in time--a preoccupation of Ginsberg’s poetry since The Gates of Wrath--has been taken all the way out: temporal reality is experienced as a series of unbridgeable gaps, a void populated with self-enclosed minds. Ordeal by immersion leaves the self feeling dead and walled-in; the body, heavy as stone, lacks affect and becomes a heavy burden, while the spirit incarcerated inside the "dead" body finds itself in no sweet golden clime but a "concrete void."

Ginsberg's state of mind at this point can be compared with his prevision mood "of hopelessness, or dead-end": with "nothing but the world in front of me" and "not knowing what to do with that." Here, too, at the limits of despair--with the active will yielded up--Ginsberg experiences a sudden infusion of energy; the poem’s mood dramatically turns and the concluding lines in Part I affirm the self’s power to love and to communicate within a living cosmos. Immediately following the poem's most despairing lines comes its most affectionate: "ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time." Unlike Wilber and Rich, Ginsberg does not seek a cautious self-insularity, and he here endorses vulnerability to danger and a tender identification with the victims of time and history. "I saw the best minds of my generation," Ginsberg had begun, as if a prophetic and retrospective detachment exempted him from the fate he was describing; but Ginsberg now writes from inside the ordeal, as if the aim of writing were not to shape or contain, but sympathetically to enter an experience. By his own unrestrained outpouring of images and feelings Ginsberg exposes himself as writer to literary ridicule and rejection, and he does risk the annihilation of his poetic self in the released flood of raw experience and emotion. But by risking these dangers Ginsberg can achieve the kind of poetry he describes in Part I's last six lines, a poetry that bridges the gap between selves by incarnating the author's experience, making the reader, too, feel it as a "sensation."

Immediately following the poem’s most intimate line comes its most exalted and grandiose, as if Ginsberg could rightfully claim a prophetic role only after acknowledging his vulnerable humanity.

and who therefore ran through icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of
    the alchemy of the use of the elipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating
    plane,

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed,
    and trapped the archangel of the soul betwen 2 visual images and joined the
    elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping
    with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

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 to come after death,

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of

the band and blew the suffering of America's naked mind for love into an
    eli eli lamma lamma sabachthani saxaphone 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.

In biographical terms, the agonized elation of these lines may recall the emotional lift given Ginsberg when, apparently at the end of his rope when hospitalized, he discovered in Carl Solomon someone who shared his "vision" of life, someone he could communicate with. But the mood of these lines more obviously grows out of the writing that's preceded them, as the poem turns on itself to consider its own nature, style, and existence; in fact, these closing lines of Part I drop some helpful hints on how to read "Howl," as if Ginsberg feared he had gone too far and needed to toss a few footbridges across the gap separating him from his reader. Later on I want to take up some of these hints and talk in detail about the poem's idea and practice of language; for now I want to emphasize what Ginsberg is saying here about the very act of writing his poem. In the 1948 visions the "living Creator" had spoken to Ginsberg as "to his son"; no secret about Ginsberg's identity here! Now, having been persecuted for his visions, Ginsberg echoes the despair of Christ on the cross: "eli eli lamma lamma Sabacthani." Yet this modern messiah incarnates divine spirit not in his body but in his writing, which embodies the "sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus." So the tormented Ginsberg arises "reincarnate" in the apocalyptic words of his own poem. "Howl," butchered out of his own body, will be "good to eat a thousand years."

The movement of Part I—a building sense of being closed-in issuing in a release of visionary energy—becomes the movement between Parts II and III of "Howl." "What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?" Ginsberg asks at the start of Part II; his answer--Moloch!--becomes the repeated base word for a series of exclamatory phrases ("Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch!") in which Ginsberg seeks to exorcise this demonic power by naming it correctly and exposing its true nature. In Part I Ginsberg immerses himself and his reader in the tormented intensity and sudden illuminations of the underground world; now in Part II, strengthened by his descent and return, he can confront his persecutor angrily, his words striving for magical force as they strike, like a series of hammer blows, against the iron walls of Moloch. As we have just seen, Moloch is an ancient deity to whom children were sacrificed, just as the "rains and imagination" of the present generation are devoured by a jealous and cruel social system. Moloch stands broadly for authority—familial, social, literary—and Ginsberg does not share the young Adrienne Rich's belief in an authority that is "tenderly severe." Manifest in skyscrapers, prisons, factories, banks, madhouses, armies, governments, technology, money, bombs, Moloch represented a vast, all-encompassing social reality that is at best unresponsive (a "concrete void") , at worst a malign presence that feeds off individuality and difference, Moloch—"whose mind is pure machinery"—is Ginsberg’s version of Blake’s Urizen, pure reason and abstract form. A clear contrast to the grave yet tender voice that Ginsberg heard in the first of his visions, Moloch is also "the heavy judger of men," the parent whose chilling glance can terrify the child, paralyze him with self-doubt and make him feel "crazy" and "queer." Moloch, then, is the principle of separation and conflict in life, an external force so powerful that it eats its way inside and divides the self against itself. "Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!" It is Moloch who is the origin of all the poem's images of stony coldness (the granite steps of the madhouse, the body turned to stone, the sphinx of cement and aluminum, the vast stone of war, the rocks of time, etc.). Like the Medusa of classical myth, Moloch petrifies. Ginsberg's driving, heated repetition of the name, moreover, creates the feeling that Moloch is everywhere, surrounding, enclosing--a cement or iron structure inside of which the spirit, devoured, sits imprisoned and languishing; and so Moloch is also the source of all the poem's images of enclosure (head, room, asylum, jail).

"Moloch whom I abandon!" Ginsberg cries out at one point. Yet in spite of all the imprecations and even humor directed against this ubiquitous presence, the release of pent-up rage is finally not liberating; anger is not the way out. Part II begins with bristling defiance, but it ends with loss, futility, and self-contempt ass Ginsberg sees all he values, "visions! Omens! Hallucinations! Miracles! Ecstasies!"—"the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit"—"gone down the American river!" And so the mood at the close of Part II, similar to the moment in Part I when the hipsters with shaven heads and harlequin speech, present themselves for lobotomy, the mood here is hysterically suicidal, with anger, laughter, and helplessness combining in a giddy self-destructiveness:

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!

An outpouring of anger against constricting authority may be a stage in the process of self-liberation, but is not its end; anger, perpetuating division, perpetuates Moloch. In fact, as the last line of Part II shows, such rage, futile in its beatings against the stony consciousness of Moloch, at last turns back on the self in acts that are, however zany, suicidal.

But in Part III, dramatically shifting from self-consuming rage to renewal in love, a kind of self-integration, a balancing of destructive and creative impulses, is sought. "Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland," Ginsberg begins, turning from angry declamatory rhetoric to a simple, colloquial line, affectionate and reassuring in its gently rocking rhythm. Repeated, this line becomes the base phrase for Part III, its utterance each time followed by a response that further defines both Rockland and Solomon, and this unfolding characterization provides the dramatic movement of this section as well as the resolution of the entire poem. At first, the responses stress Rockland as prison and Solomon as victim--

where you're madder than I am
where you must feel very strange
where you imitate the shade of my mother--

but these are balanced against the following three responses, which stress the power of the "madman" to transcend his mere physical imprisonment.

where you've murdered your twelve secretaries
where you laugh at this invisible humor
where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter

A little more than halfway through, however, beginning with--

where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it
should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse--

the answers begin to get longer, faster in movement, more surrealistic in imagery, as they, proclaiming a social/political/religious/sexual revolution, affirm the transcendent freedom of the self. Part III’s refrain thus establishes a context of emotional support and spiritual communion, and it is from this "base," taking off in increasingly more daring flights of rebellious energy, that Ginsberg finally arrives at his "real" self.

I'm with you in Rockland
    where 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 hospital
    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

I'm with you in Rockland
    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

Again, boundaries ("imaginary walls") collapse, in a soaring moment of apocalyptic release; and the self--which is "innocent and immortal"--breaks free of Moloch, of whom Rockland's walls are an extension. The poem, then, does not close with the suicidal deliverance of Part II; nor does it end with a comic apocalypse ("O victory forget your underwear we're free"); it closes, instead, with a Whitmanesque image of love and reunion. "Howl" moves from the ordeal of separation, through the casting out of the principle of division, toward unification, a process that happens primarily within the self.

According to Ginsberg, Part III of "Howl" is a "litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory." His repetition of the colloquial "I’m with you in Rockland" turns it into an elevated liturgical chant. Words, no longer weapons as they were in Part I, build a magical incantation which delivers us into a vision of the "innocent" Lamb, the eternal Spirit locked inside Rockland, or inside the hard surfaces of a defensive personality. Carl Solomon functions partly as a surrogate for Naomi Ginsberg, still hospitalized in Pilgrim State when "Howl" was written; Ginsberg, who hints as much in the poem ("where you imitate the shade of my mother"), has recently conceded this to be the case. But less important than identifying the real-life referents in the poem is to see that a literal person has been transformed into eternal archetype, the Lamb of both Christian and Blakean mythology, and that Ginsberg's loving reassurance is primarily directed to this eternally innocent aspect of himself. The refrain line in Part II articulates the human sympathy of the poet, while his responses uncover his messianic and visionary self which at first rendered him terrified and incommunicado but later yielded what Ginsberg calls in "Kaddish" the "key" to unlock the door of the encapsulated self. "Howl" closes with Ginsberg's loving acceptance of--himself; the part of him that had been lost and banished in time in The Gates of Wrath has been reborn ("dripping from a sea-journey") and reintegrated. The mirror is no longer empty.

Yet this unity, occurring only in a dream, is attained by means of flight and return. "Howl" struggles for autonomy, but Ginsberg, as he had when he moved to the West Coast, keeps looking back over his shoulder, affirming his fidelity to Carl Solomon, to Naomi Ginsberg, to images from his past life. Similarly, he says the tradition is "a complete fuck-up so you're on your own," but Ginsberg leans for support on Blake and Whitman, both of whom he perceives as maternal, tender, and therefore non-threatening authorities. Ginsberg in fact ends by withdrawing from the social, historical present which he so powerfully creates in the poem. He stuffs the poem with things from modern urban life; but materiality functions in the poem as a kind of whip, flagellating Ginsberg into vision. Moloch, it seems, cannot be exorcised, only eluded through a vertical transcendence; what starts out as a poem of social protest ends by retreating into private religious/erotic vision, and Ginsberg’s tacit assumption of the immutability of social reality establishes one respect in which he is a child of the fifties rather than of the universe. Ginsberg decided not to "write a poem" so that he could express his "real" self--which turned out to be his idealized self: the Lamb in its glory. Confessional poetry often presents not an exposure but a mythologizing of the self, as Plath's poems strive to enact her transformation into "the fine, white flying myth" of Ariel. In "Howl" Ginsberg wants to recover an original wholeness that has been lost in time; he wants to preserve a self-image which he can only preserve by keeping it separate from temporal, physical reality. Compositional self-exploration turns out to be compositional self-idealization.

"The only way to be like Whitman is to write unlike Whitman," Williams believed. Ginsberg certainly did take over some specific technical features of Whitman's work--the long line, the catalog, the syntactic parallelisms; he was in fact rereading Leaves of Grass as he was working on "Howl." Is it possible, then, that in learning to write unlike Williams Ginsberg ended up writing like Whitman and thus being like neither of these independent and innovative poets? The answer, I think, is that while Ginsberg did not accomplish the absolute fresh start that he sometimes liked to imagine, he does not merely repeat the literary past. He imagines Whitman as the founder; Ginsberg wants to move forward along lines initiated by the earlier writer. "Whitman's form had rarely been further explored," Ginsberg said; the character of his advance can be defined by comparing the first two lines of one of Whitman's long catalogs in "Song of Myself "--

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter's plane whistles its wild, ascending lisp,

with two lines near the beginning of Part I of "Howl":

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

Both poets build a catalog out of long, end-stopped lines that are syntactically parallel. Yet Whitman’s lines, each recording a single observed image in a transparent style, are simple and move with an easy insouciance, while Ginsberg, an embattled visionary, packs his lines with surrealistic images, and makes them move with an almost manic intensity. As he does here, Ginsberg works throughout the poem by juxtaposing the language of the street ("El," "staggering," "tenement roofs," "illuminated") in electrifying ways. "Howl" thus arrives at the visionary by way of the literal, as the poems in The Gates of Wrath did not; and Ginsberg here creates "images / That strike like lightning from eternal mind" rather than discussing the possibility. Ginsberg's language incarnates gaps--between street and heaven, literal and visionary--then leaps across them in "a sudden flash." His use of "images juxtaposed" shows that Ginsberg came to Whitman by way of the modern poets; but the resulting line is his own. The line serves an expressive purpose in baring the tormented mystic consciousness of the poet; but it serves a rhetorical purpose as well--seeking "to break people's mind systems open" by rationally subverting ("mechanical") consciousness and replacing it with a wild associative logic which sees connections where before there were oppositions. As a final example we can look at the line

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between

At first the line moves toward a terrifying dead-end ("blind streets") but then the landscape is internalized ("in the mind") and a flash illuminates the temporal world and releases "the archangel of the soul" from the dead-end of time. As we have seen, the poem as a whole--immersing us in the literal and temporal, then releasing us in a moment of vision--works in just this way.

By James E.B. Breslin. Copyright 1983, 1994 by University of Chicago


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