I [gave] my first
poetry reading with Allen Ginsberg, the Zen poet Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and the
American Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. The reading was in
December 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. . . .
On this night Kenneth
Rexroth was master of ceremonies. This was the first
time that Allen Ginsberg read Howl. Though I had known
Allen for some months preceding, it was my first meeting with Gary Snyder and Philip
did not read his poetry that night but instead recited works of the recently deceased John
Hoffman--beautiful prose poems that left orange stripes and colored visions in the air. .
The Six Gallery was a
huge room that had been converted from an automobile repair shop into an art gallery. Someone had knocked
together a little dais and was exhibiting sculptures by Fred Martin at the back of
it--pieces of orange crates that had been swathed in muslin and dipped in plaster of paris
to make splintered, sweeping shapes like pieces of surrealist furniture. A hundred and fifty
enthusiastic people had come to hear us. Money was collected
and jugs of wine were brought back for the audience. I hadn't seen Allen in
a few weeks and I had not heard Howl--it was new to me. Allen began in a small
and intensely lucid voice.
At some point Jack Kerouac began shouting "GO" in cadence as Allen read
it. In all of our
memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before--we had gone beyond a point of no
return--and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to
go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void--to the land
without poetry--to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it
new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we
wanted vision. . . .
Ginsberg read on to
the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but
knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body
had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and
academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases.
A week or so later I
told Allen that Howl was like Queen Mab--Shelley's first long poem. Howl was
Allen's metamorphosis from quiet, brilliant, burning bohemian scholar trapped by his
flames and repressions to epic vocal bard. Shelley had made the
McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. San Francisco: North Point, 1982.
William Carlos Williams
When he was younger,
and I was younger, I used to know Allen Ginsberg, a young poet living in Paterson, New
Jersey, where he, son of a well-known poet, had been born and grew up. He was physically
slight of build and mentally much disturbed by the life which he had encountered about him
during those first years after the first world war as it was exhibited to him in and about
New York City. He
was always on the point of "going away," where it didn't seem to matter; he
disturbed me, I never thought he'd live to grow up and write a book of poems. His ability to
survive, travel, and go on writing astonishes me. That he has gone on
developing and perfecting his art is no less amazing to me.
Now he turns up
fifteen or twenty years later with an arresting poem. Literally he has, from
all the evidence, been through hell. On the way he met a
man named Carl Solomon with whom he shared among the teeth and excrement of this life
something that cannot be described but in the words he has used to describe it. It is a howl of
defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a
trivial experience. Everyone
in this life is defeated but a man, if he be a man, is not defeated.
It is the poet, Allen
Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from
life in these pages. The
wonder of the thing is not that he has survived but that he, from the very depths, has
found a fellow whom he can love, a love he celebrates without looking aside in these
poems. Say what
you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a
man, 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.
It is the belief in
the art of poetry that has gone hand in hand with this man into his Golgotha, from that
charnel house, similar in every way, to that of the Jews in the past war. But this is in our
country, our own fondest purlieus. We are blind and live
our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but
they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels. This poet sees through
and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but
experiences it to the hilt.
He contains it. Claims
it as his own--and, we believe, laughs at it and has the time and effrontery to love a
fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem.
Hold back the edges
of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.
Williams, William Carlos. "Introduction." Howl and Other Poems. By Allen Ginsberg. San Francisco: City Lights, 1956.
The most remarkable
poem of the young group, written during the past year, is "Howl," by Allen
Ginsberg, a 29-year-old poet who is the son of Louis Ginsberg, a poet known to newspaper
readers in the East. Ginsberg
comes from Brooklyn; he studied at Columbia; after years of apprenticeship to usual forms,
he developed his brave new medium. This poem has created
a furor of praise or abuse whenever read or heard. It is a powerful work,
cutting through to dynamic meaning. Ginsberg thinks he is
going forward by going back to the methods of Whitman.
My first reaction was
that it is based on destructive violence. It is profoundly
Jewish in temper. It
is Biblical in its repetitive grammatical build-up. It is a howl against
everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit, assuming that the
louder you shout the more likely you are to be heard. It lays bare the
nerves of suffering and spiritual struggle. Its positive force and
energy come from a redemptive quality of love, although it destructively catalogues evils
of our time from physical deprivation to madness.
Eberhart, Richard. "West Coast Rhythms." New York Times Book Review 2 Sept. 1956.
It is only fair to
Allen Ginsberg . . . to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful
little volume. I
believe that the title of his long poem "Howl," is meant to be a noun, but I
can't help taking it as an imperative. The poem itself is a
confession of the poet's faith, done into some 112 paragraph-like lines, in the ravings of
a lunatic friend (to whom it is dedicated), and in the irregularities in the lives of
those of his friends who populate this disturbed pantheon. . . .
This continues, sponging on one's toleration, for pages and pages. A kind of climax is reached, for me, in a long section of screams about "Moloch!", at a rare point of self-referential lucidity: "Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!" Howl seems to have emerged under the influence of a certain kind of literary Festspiel held at frequent intervals on the West Coast, in the course of which various poets, "with radiant cool eyes," undoubtedly, read their works before audiences of writing and adoring youths. . . . [A]ll proclaim, in a hopped-up and improvised tone, that nothing seems worth saying save in a hopped-up and improvised tone.
Hollander, John. Review of Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. Partisan Review Spring 1957:
A number of the
incidents in the first section are autobiographical, alluding to the poet's own
experiences, such as his travels, his expulsion from Columbia University, his vision of
Blake, his studies of mystical writers and Cezanne's paintings, his time in jail and in
the asylum. Some
of the more obscure personal allusions, such as "the brilliant Spaniard" in
Houston, may be clarified by reading Ginsberg's Journals. Other references are
to his friends and acquaintances--Herbert Huncke, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady,
William Cannastra, and others. . . .
The personal nature
of the references in "Howl"[, however,] do not make it a poem a clef or a
private communication. Nor
is the poem reduced or obscured by its personal allusions. To the contrary, as
images the persons, places, and events alluded to have great suggestive power. They possess a mythic,
poetic clarity. We
need know nothing of Ginsberg's experiences at Columbia University to understand the
poetic sense of the lines
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,
And we do not have to
know that the line "who walked all night with their shoes full of blood . . . "
refers to Herbert Huncke before we are moved to pity and terror by the picture. For Ginsberg, as for
Whitman, the personal communicates the universal. The images are
ultimately autonomous and multivalent engaging our poetic understanding by their very
intensity and mystery.
Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.
[Note: A comprehensive annotation of personal and other allusions in "Howl" can be found in Allen Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions, ed. Barry Miles (NY: Harper, 1986).]
Robert K. Martin
In the 1950s it often
seemed that the only openly gay poet was Allen Ginsberg. The enormous publicity
that Ginsberg received made him an important figure, whose avowal of homosexuality was
part of his larger attempt to undermine American society and its pretensions to
many of the Beat writers were homosexual or bisexual (such as Burroughs or Kerouac), it
was Ginsberg who made his sexuality an integral part of his public image and his poetry. "Howl" was
the first poem to bring Ginsberg public attention, and its treatment of homosexuality is
characteristic of Ginsberg's position during this time. "Howl" is a
lament for "the best minds of my generation," the "angelheaded
hipsters" destroyed by the cruelties of American society. The homosexual
functions in the world of "Howl" as a figure of angelic innocence, his love a
protest against the insensitivity and madness which surrounds him. . . .
to Whitman is clear in "Howl." Ginsberg learned from
Whitman the use of the long line, the repetition of the subordinate clause ("who
let," "who blew," "who balled," etc.), and the celebration of
phallic energy. The
. . . line ["who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass
of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who
may"] shows Ginsberg's assumption of Whitman's
democratic sexuality--the celebration of anonymous sexuality and the sharing of the poet's
seminal energy. At
the same time one can see a great deal of the private mythology of Ginsberg--the search
for the sexual encounter as perfect religious experience. While this might seem
to originate in Whitman's depiction of the sources of mystic vision as sexual, it should
be remembered that Whitman's sexuality is portrayed as both active and passive, and that
Whitman devotes as much attention to the image of two lovers simply happy to be together
as to actual moments of sexual penetration. In Ginsberg the desire
for religious vision is transformed into a desire to be fucked, whereas in Whitman the
experience of sexual pleasure leads to a greater understanding of the world. Although Ginsberg
calls on Whitman, he transforms an ultimately peaceful vision of human unity into an
affirmation of the homosexual's alienation from the "straight" world and a
desire to become an object of love rather than a participant in it. Here, as in the later
poems, Ginsberg links his passive sexuality to his poetics, as he rejects the
"craftsman's loom" for the orgasmic scream.
Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.
James E. B. Breslin
"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 . . . than pleasure; but in this way he is . . . "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.
[. . . .]
[T]he poem begins by
immersing us in the extremities of modern urban life, overwhelming and flooding us with
sensations . . . [of] modern civilization's indifference and hostility[, which] 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 angelheaded hipster.
. . .
As the catalog of
Part I moves through gestures of greater and greater desperation, the hipsters finally
present "themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and
harlequin speech of suicide, demanding 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
this point, in the longest and most despairing line, the poem seems about to collapse, to
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--
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. . . . At this climactic
moment of Part I, . . . 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."
. . . [A]t 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 of 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 in the total animal soup of time.". . . 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 the 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."
. . . [I]n 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. . . . Moloch
is an ancient deity to whom children were sacrificed, just as the "brains and
imagination" of the present generation are devoured by a jealous and cruel social
stands broadly for authority--familial, social, literary. . . . Manifest in
skyscrapers, prisons, factories, banks, madhouses, armies, governments, technology, money,
bombs, Moloch represents 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 . . . pure reason and abstract
form. . . . 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
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. . . . It is Moloch who is
the origin of all the poem's images of stony coldness. . . . 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. . . .
"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 the loss, futility, and self-contempt as Ginsberg
sees all he values, "visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles!
ecstasies!"--"the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit"--"gone down
the American river!"
And so . . . 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. . . . An outpouring of anger
against constricting authority may be a stage in the process of self-liberation, but it is
not its end; anger, perpetuating divisions, 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 rocking rhythm. . . . 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. . . .
("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 ["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"]. "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.
Breslin, James E. B. From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry 1945-1965. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Perhaps the hardest
aspect of the poem to accept is, paradoxically, its humor. . . . [F]or example, the
"angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection" are compared
to lightbulbs, or to any machine that can be plugged in and operated by electricity. Even in relation to
Ginsberg's conception of mystical experience . . . the comparison is reductive, for it
suggests that such experiences turn on, galvanize the instant, and wink off, having no
significance beyond the momentary "kick" or "trip." For another example,
consider the persons in Howl who "threw their watches off the roof to cast
their ballot for Eternity outside of Time," and then "alarm clocks fell on their
heads every day for the next decade." These Dadaists are
typical Ginsberg questers, heroic and futile. He celebrates and
ironizes. As he
put it in a letter to Williams, he has "W.C. Fields on my left and Jehovah on my
virtuous in other kinds of poems, in lament and prophecy this double perspective is a
Ginsberg's self-reducing humor helps to explain the remarkably good-natured acceptance
bestowed on him. He
is perceived more as a spiritual clown than as a threat. A psychoanalyst might
suggest that Ginsberg is a child testing the father's love. His provocations are
what Erik Erikson calls "teasing." They defy and disarm
at the same time. . . .
The hipster is also a victim, but of just what is obscure. Ginsberg calls it "Moloch," and Moloch is the economic system, urban-industrial milieu, government, police, war, atom bomb, everyone's mentality, America, and Time (as opposed to Eternity). Within Moloch our loves, visions, ecstasies, and epiphanies seem crazy, and the only escape from Moloch lies in suicide. Because of the power of Moloch no rebellion can hope for practical effect. Gestures of defiance are, as I said, merely expressions of feeling, and the more they are extreme and absurd, the greater the emotional satisfaction. When the hipsters "distributed Supercommunist pamphlets," they did not expect to persuade anyone, any more than when they "burned cigarette holes in their arms," or "threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse . . . demanding instantaneous lobotomy." In his feelings of bafflement, helplessness, constriction, and woe Ginsberg speaks for many readers, but by conjuring Moloch he also provides himself with less acceptable satisfactions, for he locates the evil outside himself and his fellow hipsters. Or if Moloch exists in them also, it is not, Ginsberg thinks, as an inherent part of their being but an invading infection. Viewing the enemy as wholly external, Ginsberg sentimentally transforms him into a demon and his victims into innocents.
Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1987.
It is "Howl," completed in 1955 and published the following year, that marks the beginning of Ginsberg as we now know him. "Howl" also presents, in a remarkably complete form, a sensibility (if that Eliotic word will serve for such an un-Eliotic temperament) that we associate with a later time. The title and first line alone, closely considered, are packed with signs of things to come. In the mid-fifties, a poem might have a title such as "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act" (Richard Wilbur, 1956); "The Dancer's Reply" (Howard Nemerov, 1958), or "Argument" (Elizabeth Bishop, 1955). In such poems, the title implies that a voice is speaking aloud, but doing so for a socially defined purpose, or on a socially defined occasion. More commonly, one might give a poem a sharply nominalized title, so as to hold up an object or landscape as a central symbol for contemplation: "The Beacon," "The Sunglasses," "The Bight" (Wilbur, Nemerov, and Bishop again, from the same collections). Titles of that period typically emphasize the act of seeing or contemplating; if they emphasize speech, then it is considered speech, fitted to an occasion. But a "howl" is unconsidered speech, prompted by overwhelming desperation or rage; indeed, it is not speech at all, but pure inarticulate sound as uttered by an animal. Nor can one rule out the possibility that "Howl" is an imperative verb addressed to the reader, in which case it is opposed to the more usual noun-phrase title in form as well as spirit. The conception of poetry as an expression of preverbal states akin to the consciousness of animals or perhaps even matter itself, the rhetoric of expressiveness or exhortation, the preference for titles that invoke actions or processes (often with a nominalizing -ing suffix)—all of these widespread tendencies of poetry in the next decade were curled up, latent, within Ginsberg's title.
It takes the benefit of hindsight to extract all that from Ginsberg's title, but one can hardly make too much of his first line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . ." (AG, 126). The opening "I saw" does not startlingly violate period style; as it happens, Lowell's "Where the Rainbow Ends" opens with the same words. But the "I" this poem, we soon discover, is more literally Ginsberg than the "I" of Lowell's early poem is Lowell. Moreover, Ginsberg is not seeing in the usual sense; one does not "see" minds being destroyed by madness. Even more than Lowell in "Where the Rainbow Ends," which also speaks a language of visionary prophecy, Ginsberg uses seeing as if it meant knowing, as if moral knowledge were as immediate as sensuous intuition, an as self-evident. To say that one believes invites argument, but to say that one sees places the matter beyond dispute.
Like the campus New Leftists of the sixties, (and, as we shall find, like John Berryman and Robert Lowell as well), Ginsberg perceives himself as art of a "generation," victims sharing a collective historical fate. The best minds among them, Ginsberg says in passive voice, were "destroyed by madness"—as if madness were some sort of danger abroad in the world, like a hurricane or a virus, and could descend upon the individual mind to destroy it. Moreover, "madness" seems choosy about its victims, singling out the best minds to destroy; perhaps they go mad because they are the best minds. The three adjectives perched on the end of the line—"starving hysterical naked"—may at first seem mere overwriting. But they suggest that these elect "best minds" are "starving" not only for food, drugs, and sex, but for spiritual transcendence, for "the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" (AG, 126) Such yearning seems mystical only to a society that represses its own hunger for spiritual (as well as sexual) exploration. They are "naked" not only in their refusal to wear the clothes of social convention, or in preparation for lovemaking, but also in their vulnerability. In refusing all covering, they refuse protection also. The best minds have no Reichian character armor. And although "minds" stands metonymically for persons and emphasizes consciousness rather than the body, these "minds" are presented in predominantly bodily terms: one thinks of the body in connection with the words "naked" and "starving," and even "hysterical" derives from the Greek word for "womb." The hysterias that Freud decided to treat psychologically had previously been considered somatic ailments. The effect of Ginsberg's language is to sexualize the concept of "mind," making it more bodily and instinctive, while simultaneously spiritualizing the body, making its hunger and nakedness into emblems of religious yearning.
The entire first section of "Howl" rushes forward in a single sentence. By line four, it settles into a litany of "who" clauses, each of which gets a long Whitmanian line to itself. Occasionally Ginsberg substitutes another initial word for "who," and he may have intended to signal the approach of closure by breaking the pattern in the last ten lines, only one of which begins with "who." The incantatory syntax, as many critics have remarked, draws attention to the poem as speech rather than as an object for contemplation; the sweep of the enormous sentence encourages the reader not to stop and savor nuances, but to surrender instead to the insistent rhythm. Moreover, the syntactical complexities one associates with nuance are missing. There is little variety of sentence construction and, therefore, little complexity in the relations among words. To say this is not necessarily to condemn the poem, which aims at force, not subtlety. But the effect of the steady accumulation of parallel subordinate clauses goes beyond the suggestion of passionate speech. Like the catalogue passages in Whitman, the first section of "Howl" implies by its syntax a view of reality: the many parts of the world simply exist, next to each other, without conflict and without hierarchy of greater and lesser, and they are unified not by complex relations among the parts, but by a simple and all-embracing relation between any part and the whole.
But if we ask what that whole is, we must return two answers. There is the demonic world, in bondage to "Moloch the heavy judger of men" (AG, 131), and an angelic world, in which, as Ginsberg flatly declares in the "Footnote to Howl," "Everything is holy!" (AG, 134). The two worlds, moreover, exist in the same place at the same time. We read of "holy Bronx" (AG, 126), "the supernatural darkness of coldwater Hats" (AG, 126) and "Zen New Jersey" (AG, 127), and we hear Ginsberg exclaim, "Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements" (AG, 134). Yet we also find the same urban reality treated as the embodiment of the unholy "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!" (AG, 131).
Ginsberg seems aware of this contradiction, and at points scattered throughout the poem, he attempts to resolve it. Although Moloch is demonic, there is nonetheless "the Angel in Moloch," stunned perhaps, but never killed or displaced. In a long letter to Richard Eberhart, later published as a monograph, Ginsberg compared "Howl" to "Sunflower Sutra." Just as, in the shorter poem, the poet recognizes and loves the sunflower beneath its coating of industrial grime, so he recognizes in "Howl" an essential self and an essential world beneath the distortions of Moloch. "The effect is to release self and audience from a false and self-denying self-deprecating image of ourselves which makes us feel like smelly shits and not the angels which we most deeply are."
One could justify this division of the world into two superimposed images by various mystical traditions known to Ginsberg: the Gnostic doctrine of the pneuma struggling through a world of darkness toward its home in a world of light; the contradictory higher and lower truths of Buddhism (that all dharmas are empty, yet all dharmas have a conditional existence), reconciled by the middle path; the Hindu belief in the Atman, an essential divine self beneath the secular ego. Supplying traditional precedents absolves Ginsberg from the charge of know-nothing anti-intellectualism. But the trouble with Ginsberg's dualism—as with Manichean dualism—is that it creates an utter chasm between secular intelligence and mystical knowledge. Having made his huge repudiation of existing social reality, Ginsberg has little interest in a more particular account of it, or in secular causality.
Although "Howl" anticipates later confessional poetry, including Ginsberg's own "Kaddish," in its equation of personal and collective crisis, Ginsberg's mystical speculations tempt him to solve the confessional poet's problem of engulfment in false consciousness by a leap of faith rather than by secular moral inquiry. Indeed, it may be his extreme version of the problem of false consciousness that makes the mystical way out so appealing to him. Whereas John Berryman thought that "current American society" was enough to drive people mad, Ginsberg seems at times to think that the problem is the unredeemed condition of the world rather than any particular social evil. There is thus, from the beginning, a conflict between Ginsberg as confessional poet and Ginsberg as religious seeker—or religious prophet. After all, the notion that one's vocation as poet is to be destroyed by madness, bearing witness to that destruction in one's poems, is not very encouraging; Ginsberg can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape from it if possible. But the escape from madness, since the entire secular world is saturated with madness, becomes disturbingly akin to a rejection of secular reality altogether.
The only people in the urban landscape of "Howl" are the isolated "best minds," glimpsed in one-line tableaux as they jump from fire escapes, wander at midnight, or seek transcendence in drugs or "ultimate visions of cunt and come" (AG, 128). The various persons of the opening section are all-but-interchangeable avatars of the Universal Beat, "mind leaping toward poles of Canada and Paterson" (AG, 126), who migrates in the course of the poem from New York through New Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas, Colorado, the Southwest, Mexico, Tangiers—only to end up back in New York with Carl Solomon in Rockland. These isolated persons are, as Ginsberg put it in "The Green Automobile," "hidden / like diamonds / in the clock of the world" (AG, 84). The square or Molochian world is a mechanism like a clock; in "Howl" it appears not in persons but in images of buildings or machinery, or it is abstractly summarized as the "shocks of hospitals and jails and wars" (AG, 127). Through this unremittingly hostile environment the "best minds" wander, like awakened Gnostics, looking for a way out, "waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium" (AG, 128). Society and its artifacts are but an elaborate prison, and nature, in this overwhelmingly urban poem, does not exist as an alternative. The world offers nothing for loving contemplation except one's fellow angelic victims.
The entire intersubjective realm of culture, and with it the very landscape, has been devoured by "Moloch." The litany against Moloch in the second section of the poem so easily accommodates a wide range of pent-up grievances against society that one might forget to ask the hard question: what, after all that cathartic frenzy, is Moloch supposed to represent? Capitalism ("Moloch whose blood is running money")? Industrialization ("Moloch whose mind is pure machinery")? Aggression ("Moloch the vast stone of war," AG, 131)? Reason ("Mental Moloch") exalted at the expense of feeling ("Moloch the loveless," AG, 131)? Or denial of religious transcendence, of "Heaven which exists and is everywhere around us" (AG, 132)? Ginsberg's catch-all bill of indictment lacks incisiveness, although it allows him to work up a good rhetorical head of steam.
Peter Michelson, in an article cast in the form of a dialogue between himself and "G. Graph," whom "the reader of critical prose may be tempted to identify . . . with one Gerald Graff," allows "Graph" to argue that Ginsberg's diatribe against Moloch amounts to nothing but "fake" emotion and the sophomoric belief that
if you walk safely with the light across an intersection it's a sign of moral obtuseness, whereas if you walk against the light and get flattened by the bourgeois steamroller it's a revelation of your exquisite moral sensibility. Everything is levitated to a simplistic war between good and evil, and your medal of honor is insanity. Ginsberg's Moloch, when it's not pure bombast, is just paraphrastic sophistry.
Although I find that "Graph" has the better of his antagonist here (and it's just possible that Michelson intended him to), this summary of the case against "Howl" fails to take into account Ginsberg's uncertain attitude toward the concept of madness. Even though the poem does for the most part regard insanity as a "medal of honor," it also raises, if only fitfully, the question of whether "madness" is only society's name for resistance to Moloch, or whether some "madness" really deserves to be called madness. Insanity in this sense would be undesirable to Ginsberg as well as to the squares and would signify the triumph of Moloch rather than rebellion against him. Ginsberg finds it hard to decide whether madness is the helpless internalization of destructive social norms or the defiant refusal to comply with those norms.
As an example of Ginsberg's equivocal attitude toward madness in "Howl," one might follow the progression of thought in the eighth line of Section Two:
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream angels! Crazy in
Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
The line begins with a complaint of loneliness. The second exclamation can be understood as arising from this initial thought: nowadays, people who dream angels usually dream alone. But whereas the first exclamation is a cry of pain, the second is more ambiguous. Is it a cry of pain or a cry of triumph? If being lonely is the price of seeking connection to "the starry dynamo in the machinery of night," then perhaps loneliness is better than company. Next comes the thought: "Crazy in Moloch!" To be lonely is bad enough, but to be "crazy" is worse. Is one "crazy" because one dreams angels or because Moloch frustrates the chance of making such a dream into reality. Then the last two exclamations turn to Ginsberg's homosexuality, which in the less tolerant era of "Howl" was itself often considered a form of craziness. The slang pejorative "cocksucker," moreover, reminds us of the contempt with which homosexuality was regarded. In the last of the exclamatory phrases, the loneliness of the first phrase becomes explicitly sexual.
At first glance, this line would seem to be a series of parallel outcries protesting the suffering that Moloch has inflicted. But one can read it in two mutually irreconcilable ways. One might conclude that Ginsberg himself thinks it is a misfortune to be crazy, lonely, and homosexual; he would rather be sane, surrounded by friends, and heterosexual, but Moloch has twisted him, (To make "homosexual" parallel with "lonely" and "crazy" already implies an introjection of the judgment that these adjectives are near-synonyms.) Or one might conclude, with equal warrant from the poem, that to be crazy, lonely, and homosexual is, as Michelson put it, a medal of honor, the sign of one's solitary resistance to Moloch within a subjugated culture. But Ginsberg wants it both ways. He berates Moloch for turning him into a "cocksucker," but he also portrays homosexuality as rebellion against Moloch when he laments, in Section One, that the homosexual contingent of the "angel-headed hipsters"
lost their love boys 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 of the craftsman's loom.
The words "heterosexual dollar" momentarily align heterosexuality with capitalist greed, although Neil Cassady's "innumerable lays of girls" are elsewhere cause for celebration.
Through the eighth line of Section Two, Ginsberg has imagined himself inside Moloch, "the incomprehensible prison," but in the ninth, this spatial relationship is reversed with the cry: "Moloch who entered my mind early!" Moloch's "name is the Mind," but he is an acquired mind; one of his other names is culture. In order to "abandon" Moloch, as Ginsberg claims to do at the end of the section, one must first exorcise him from the self. Thus insanity can be understood, in its laudatory sense, as the refusal of acculturation. If Moloch's name is the mind, and one must abandon him, then one must literally go out of one’s mind.
The question remains, however, whether abandoning the acquired mentality of Moloch restores one to a natural sanity that Moloch had usurped or leaves one so radically estranged that only an innocent but ineffectual holy madness is possible. In the third section of the poem, we find the poet in the madhouse with Carl Solomon, whose insanity is sometimes presented as an affliction. Ginsberg cannot think it entirely angelic that Solomon imagines he has "murdered [his] twelve secretaries," or that "the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses." And no reader of "Kaddish" would wish on anyone that he should "imitate the shade of [Ginsberg's] mother." At other times, however, Solomon’s madness becomes a Christ-like redemptive sacrifice, or political revolution, or, as in these lines, both at once:
I'm with you in Rockland
where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body
again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void
I'm with you in Rockland
where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew
socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha
I'm with you in Rockland
where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your
living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb
I'm with you in Rockland
where there are twentyfive-thousand mad comrades all together
singing the final stanzas of the Internationale. . . .
Ginsberg's praise for this wisdom of Solomon—in which madness becomes equated with the "living human" in an inhuman world or with the political alienation of revolutionary "comrades"—echoes through the poetry and politics of the 1960s.
The indictment against Moloch is essentially the one that began to emerge in the conformity critiques of the 1950s and was more completely formulated in more radical writings of the following decade. Like Marcuse and Laing, Ginsberg envisions a repressive social determinism so all-encompassing that the idea of individual agency is lost. The ego has been totally socialized, and only by abandonment to the involuntary impulses of the unconscious id can we act from our own motives rather than those of one-dimensional society. But in this extreme position, the crucial difference between madness and rebellion is lost. The rebel chooses to rebel, being somehow able to make a choice between accepting the demands of society and rejecting them. But the mad go mad because they cannot help it. Madness resists authority only in a minimal way. Once classified as mad, one is no longer held responsible for understanding authority and is therefore excused from compliance with it. The dissenter or revolutionary wants it known that he understands perfectly well what is demanded but does not consent to it. Declare him mad, and you deny the meaning of his resistance. That is why the Soviet government sometimes puts troublemakers in the madhouse rather than in prison. If "madness" could be understood as enclosed in ironic quotation marks, then Ginsberg's affirmation of it as political rebellion might be easier to accept. But sometimes it is madness not only in Moloch's judgment, but in Ginsberg's own. And then it means estrangement from knowledge rather than attainment of gnosis. It becomes an emblem of defeat rather than defiance.
from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Copyright © 1987.
The publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) sounded a cry of rage, and in turn other cries of rageor downright dismissalswere raised against it. Ginsberg announces himself, in the opening of the volume's title poem, as speaking for his compatriots, naming their collective condition of disaffection: "I saw the best minds of my generation, starving, hysterical, naked." The title poem explicitly identifies itself as a lamentation for those most promising and most excluded from the "American ideal." In a long descriptive catalogue Ginsberg makes clear his contention that the finest have been driven, by what a critic called "the overwhelming pressures of conformity, competition, prestige and respectability," toward madness, dissipation, and the outraged enactments of the denied. Not only is he exiled from the tranquilized suburbs by virtue of ethnicity, sexuality, political philosophy, and intellectual energy; he also cannot locate in the codified possibilities of American society a tenable way of living. Thus the speaker inhabits a sort of psychic inferno, a territory of the lost which underlies the flawless, bourgeois vision of American life. "He avoids nothing," William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to the volume, "but experiences it to the hilt. . . . Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." M. L. Rosenthal offered a more balanced appraisal: "Despite the danger that he will screech himself mute any moment now, he has brought a terrible psychological reality to the surface with enough originality to blast American verse a hairs breadth forward in the process."
"'Howl' lies," as Kenneth Rexroth observed, "in one of the oldest traditions, that of Hosea or the other, angry Minor Prophets of the Bible." The fault for the condition of Ginsberg's generationand his own violated psychic statethus lies with "Moloch," the embodiment of the State as evil, the demon of this world. But even in the "belly of Moloch " lies the possibility of transcendence. This tension between existential despair at the political and social conditions of the world and the prophetic optimism of vision would continue to inform all of Ginsberg's work. Transcendence is always possible, even in the shattered universe of Howlthrough visionary experience, sex, or chemical transformation of the psyche through drugs: "flower of industry, / tough spiky ugly flower, / flower nonetheless, / with the form of the great yellow / Rose in your brain." This excerpt from the concluding stanza of the final poem in the volume exemplifies Ginsberg's vision of the possibility of transcendence, a Neoplatonism in the tradition of Blake. The form of the poems in Howl is likewise Blakean and biblical; Ginsberg relied on parallel constructions and long incantatory lines which, like those of Whitman before him, take the form of the King James Bible as their model. Ginsberg fuses his Whitmanic apostrophes and catalogues with verbal play influenced by the prose of Jack Kerouac.
Due in part to the poem's "obscenity trial" and resultant publicity, Howl became an important indicator of the changing climate in American poetry, an alarm sounding the decline of academic verse. If the poem was not taken seriously by many poets and criticsdue to its bombastic, sprawling rhetoric, its spontaneous and chantlike formthen it at least offered a signal of a realm of possibility for powerful poetry to be constructed from "unmentionable" realms of experience. The poem would also, by virtue of its visibility and its radical loosening or re-visioning of formal design (which, Ginsberg said, echoing Olson, sprang "from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say, it came from the breathing and the belly and the lungs"), serve as a rallying cry and focus to other poets in the loose nexus of artists who came to be known as the "Beats." Though the coherence of the group was at least in part created by the media (certainly a new phenomenon in American poetry: poets as somewhat scandalous news, interesting as much for their other activities as for their poetry), the group took the label to heart. "The word 'beat' originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat . . . sleeping in subways. Now that the word is belonging officially it is being made to stretch to include people who . . . have a certain new gesture, or attitude, which I can only describe as a new more." More seems an accurate term; the program of the Beats, like that of the Surrealists before them, was less a set of aesthetic principles than an embodiment of a philosophy of experience, a program of action. From existentialist philosophy, the Beats appropriated the replacement of given social, ethical, and religious codes with an emphasis on individual experienceor, to borrow the name of a magazine of the day, "the unspeakable visions of the individual." They yoked the existentialist sense of despair with a will to transcendence (thus their idolization of Whitman and Rimbaud and their linkage of the term "beat" with "beatitude") that found its vehicles in Oriental religion and meditational practices, in sheer verbal exuberance and in the visionary experiences of drugs, and in the rhythms and improvisations of progressive jazz.
from A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahan. Copyright © 1991 by Southern Illinois UP.
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