Allen Ginsberg: The Beat Bohemian
Many recollect the post-World War 2 era in the United States as one of unprecedented economic prosperity and abounding national patriotism. Indeed, as Winston Churchill noted of the epoch, “America at this moment stands at the summit of the world” (qtd.in “The 1950s”). With a surge in worker wages, expanded manufacturing, and soaring birth rates, Americans frenzied into a decade of materialism, mechanization, conformity, and a growing comfort in the country’s capitalist system. However, underlying cracks in society’s gilded facade did not go unnoticed, for it was during these years that agitation for civil rights and the crusade against social confinement known as the Beat movement emanated. Between 1950 and 1970, Beat writers identified themselves as literary outcasts who sought to liberate the country through sexual experimentation, recreational narcotics, the search for enlightenment, and embracement of African American culture. No more apparent are these rebellious sentiments conveyed than through the works of Allen Ginsberg, arguably the country’s most highly renowned Beat poet whose mission was to inspire “visionary consciousness of reality to his readers” through his poetry (Charters).
Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 to an immigrant mother from Russia and a father who taught high school English and pursued leisurely poetry. Much of Ginsberg’s childhood was tainted by his father’s strict discipline and his mother’s activism in Communist circles, both of which likely compounded to inspire his rebellion against convention and disdain for capitalism. It was during his adolescent years that Ginsberg began to struggle with growing homosexual stirrings as well as bear the burden of his mother’s emerging mental illness. When the severity of her epileptic seizures and schizophrenia became intractable, she was admitted to a New Jersey rest home and would spend the next fifteen years within the confines of mental institutions, in which she received electroshock therapy and multiple lobotomies. Bearing witness to the government’s disregard and primitive treatment of the mentally ill, Ginsberg’s awareness of social disparities and prejudices grew, which motivated his future criticism of the nation’s health and justice systems.
In 1943, Ginsberg began his undergraduate studies at Columbia University with the intent of pursuing a legal profession. However, the chaste and prosaic lectures failed to pique his interest, prompting him instead to experiment with prose and poetry. It was during his freshman year that Ginsberg came into contact with the literary visionaries who would influence his decision to cultivate a profession in poetry and would become the nucleus of Beat ideologies. Namely, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, heroin addict and jazz enthusiast Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, and lover Neal Cassady fostered an environment in which Allen Ginsberg openly explored his homosexuality, matured his poetic style so as to break away from the orthodoxy of English verse, and indulged in narcotics to achieve spiritual liberation (Charters). While Ginsberg remained dedicated to his formal education, he was expelled in 1945 for publicizing obscenities on his dormitory window and entertaining homosexual dalliances. Both citations evidenced the social conservatism of even the most progressive intellectual circles, convincing Ginsberg that his future lay beyond the scope of traditional academia.
In years subsequent, Ginsberg moved into a communal apartment and became entangled with hedonistic fleshpots and the underground culture of Burroughs and Kerouac (Charters). During his residence in New York, Ginsberg embraced the postmodernism of his comrades, and began sharing these ideas through crude free verse poems that drew inspiration from his adolescent idols, Walt Whitman and William Blake.
An equally important experience that influenced Ginsberg’s social rebellion involved his admittance to a psychiatric unit after pleading insanity in order to avoid criminal indictment for storing stolen goods in his apartment. During his eight months in Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, Ginsberg became close friends with Carl Solomon, an adrift writer being treated with shock therapy for insanity and depression. Solomon shared Ginsberg’s beatnik commentaries, and the two developed a brotherly solidarity. Ginsberg was mesmerized by Solomon’s intellect and progressivism, hardening his belief that America had buried true geniuses and visionaries under a label of “madness.” After leaving the ward, Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” while under various narcotics, as a dedication to Solomon.
Only one year after its publication, “Howl” was brought to national attention in 1957, marking a turning point in Ginsberg’s advocacy for freedom of personal expression. Unsold copies of the poem had been confiscated from a local bookkeeper, who was charged with distributing obscenities. In a highly publicized trial, Allen Ginsberg defended his work as an illustration of the plight of discarded minorities, and criticized the nation for censoring blatant truths of life. Ultimately, Judge Clayton Horn agreed with Ginsberg and concluded that “Howl” possessed “redeeming social value” that was not to be bowdlerized by the reactionary public (Charters). Not only was this a milestone for Ginsberg’s writing career, but it also emboldened future revolutionaries to advocate for change on national platforms.
In later years, Ginsberg wandered the world in search of spiritual enlightenment via the exploration of multiple religions and unsurprisingly, more psychedelic drugs. He attended poetry conferences, wrote renowned works including “The Kaddish” and “The Change,” and established creative writing programs in which he taught English and poetry. In 1968, Ginsberg was propelled back into national spotlight when he became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the poet’s pacifism, personal liberation, heterodoxy, and support for minorities, made him a pioneer of the emerging “hippie” culture.
Needless to say, Allen Ginsberg was in all sense of the word, an iconoclast. Gay, spiritualist, Marxist, pacifist, humanitarian, jazz and narcotic enthusiast, Ginsberg stood for a broad spectrum of reforms that remain relevant to this day. In the eternal strive for national unity and acceptance, in the crusade for individuality, Allen Ginsberg lives on as an exemplar of reckless courage in the face of adversity. As he once said, “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and consciousness” (qtd. In Christensen).
Poem Explication and Analysis
Click link to read Ginsberg’s “Howl” : https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl
“Howl” can most readily be dissected by first contextualizing it within the American Beat era. Ginsberg ultimately wrote “Howl” to lambaste the draconian American society he lived in. To Ginsberg, the social restraints, censorship, and lack of intellectual fulfillment had left the country aimless and divided, and had destroyed “the best minds” of his generation (Ginsberg, Line 1). Of course, Ginsberg’s satire was most heavily influenced by his bohemian ideologies. In the end, “Howl” allows audiences to experience the frustration, madness, and isolation of a closeted American who could never attain “liberty” in a society that was afraid of progressing religiously, intellectually, and socially.
While “Howl” presents syntax and language that is not readily understood, it can be broken down into three sections, each centralizing around a different theme. Part 1 serves as one exceptionally loquacious run-on sentence, through which Ginsberg describes the subject of his poem, the so-called “best minds” of America. He specifically addresses the social status of this avant-garde population, which surprisingly, is neither one of reverence nor respect, as we might expect of brilliant minds. Instead of elucidating on the lives of wealthy, renowned, hackneyed academics, the geniuses Ginsberg’s calls attention to are the social rejects, whose eccentric ideas outpace mainstream, gradual progressivism. Part 1 thus conveys the desperation, misery, and activities of this forsaken community. Part 2 goes on to describe the reasons behind these intellectuals’ insanity and social displacement. In particular, Ginsberg cites “Moloch,” a complicated religious reference that takes on a broader personification in the poem, as the culprit of this suffering (Lines 80–89). Finally, Part 3 serves as an expression of solidarity to Ginsberg’s psychotic comrade, Carl Solomon. The third movement allows audiences to explore Solomon’s schizophrenic tendencies, drawing parallels to Ginsberg’s mother. By its conclusion, the poem shifts from a monologue of despair to an expression of hope, both for revolution and liberation, as well as for reunification with Solomon.
Acknowledging the contributions of poem structure, punctuation, and literary devices are critical to understanding “Howl’s” overarching message. To begin, “Howl” is written in free verse, a liberal poetic style Ginsberg adopted after reading the works of Walt Whitman. Its freedom with line length and meter give the poem a characteristic volatility. Ginsberg wanted to explore not only how his graphic imagery could influence audiences, but also how he could impart desperation through the way in which his poems were read. It is interesting to note how in Ginsberg’s recitation of “Howl,” he speaks at a brisk and manic pace, as Cary O’Dell describes, “Throughout, though, momentum in the piece is maintained by Ginsberg’s rapid pace — he hardly breaths between lines…” This demonstrates how Ginsberg’s use of long lines, disjointed phrasing, and a scarcity of commas instills a mental exhaustion in readers, similar to the feelings of many Beat outcasts of the time. For example, in Line 71, Ginsberg writes,
“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.”
In addition, Ginsberg played with the hypnotic quality of his work, giving it a castigating spoken power (reminiscent of puritanical sermons). His use of anaphora and parallelism in “Howl’s” three movements give it “both a metronome-like rhythm and a reverberating power” (O’Dell). As an illustration of anaphora, Ginsberg begins every line of Part 1 with “who,” and repeats this device in Part 3 with the phrase “I’m with you in Rockland.” These patterns, coupled with the incantatory use of “Moloch” in Part 2, give “Howl” a distinct parallelism. Ultimately, Ginsberg used this Whitman-inspired structure to evoke a mental numbness in audiences, akin to the capitalist apathy he scorned.
In the opening lines of the poem, Ginsberg describes his observations about the Dadaist of his generation. Using vivid imagery, readers are led to visualize emaciated, destitute, and psychotic drug addicts wandering in search for an “…ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo…” (Line 3), indicating their quest for spiritual connection amidst America’s increasing materialism. He goes on to detail their predilections for heterodox culture, evidenced in the lines,
“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” (Lines 4–5).
El, the Hebrew term for God, and Mohammedan, synonymous with Islam, demonstrate the Beat generation’s embracement of multiple religions, which, coupled with their appreciation of African American music, contributed to their social exile.
Line 6 is particularly insightful, for hidden within the poetic artistry lay references to both Ginsberg’s political outlooks and writing inspiration. He describes universities as communities of “scholars of war.” As a pacifist, Ginsberg believed that America’s academic institutions perpetuated warfare through the development of militaristic technology, and by promoting notions of superiority and trust in capitalism. Furthermore, the reference to “Blake-light tragedies” suggests that Ginsberg and the Beat populace drew inspiration from the works of poet William Blake, a pioneer of mystical prophecies during the late 18th century.
The poem goes on to detail the ritualistic drug abuse these bohemians entertained as they “… ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine… purgatoried their torsos night after night” (Line 10). However, not only did they fill themselves with creative narcotics, but they also drowned in alcoholic stupors, the sorrow of unattained dreams, perpetual nightmares, and “cock and endless balls” (Line 11). Not able to cope with this aimlessness, isolation, and closeted promiscuity, many Beats began taking their own lives, evidenced in the lines, “…a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes.”
Later on, Ginsberg employs alliteration to mimic the hysteria of the restless rejects, exemplified in Line 14,
“… from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo.”
This line indicates that revolutionary sparks of the 1950s nonconformists were being trampled by social confinement, leaving their minds bleak and empty, akin to the growing mechanization of the nation.
In Line 15, the phrase, “…listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,” highlights Ginsberg’s trademark juxtaposition of dissonant terms that, in this case, allow for contextualization of the Beat era. The first American hydrogen bomb was tested in 1952, and had stirred considerable concern among pacifists who feared that such technology would plunge the country once again into an era of divisive warfare. Thus, while America stood with pride and confidence to advance national agendas through militaristic action, the Beat rebels found themselves instead, “…with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets” (Line 30), referencing their vain crusades against warfare.
Ginsberg’s frustration with concealing his true sexuality appears as a recurring theme in Part 1. He describes homosexuals who “…balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely” (Line 38), forced into hiding to foster their “forbidden” preferences. He goes onto describe how these individuals were not only pressed to conform their sexuality, but also their livelihood, otherwise risked suffering destitution and charges of insanity. Specifically, three quotes epitomize the Beats’ social suffocation:
“who lost their loveboys 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” (Line 40)
“who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality” (Line 56),
“who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & were left with their insanity & their hands & a hung jury” (Line 65),
The first quote details how homosexuals in the United States often wore masks of deception, contrived to strangle their true selves in exchange for social acceptance. The “heterosexual dollar” refers to how one’s livelihood depended on their adherence to “straight” masculinity, and any deviation from this etiquette overarchingly buried one in poverty, evidenced by the abjection of so many Beat revolutionaries. These visionaries thus became tied down to childbearing wives either by experimental sexual liaisons, or in order to escape sexual persecution. Ginsberg included this line to reflect on the social obstacles he overcame before reaching a point of sexual liberation.
The second quote, though quite abstractly, elucidates on how many social heretics were incarcerated under the capitalist advertising industry, another national evil that commanded submission and repressed individualism. To Ginsberg, advertising rhetoric was in itself, a weapon of intimidation, suffocating reform with toxic orthodoxy.
The third quote summons attention to the nation’s brainwashing propaganda during the 1950s. America’s solidarity in World War 2 had required the enforcement of national unity, and because of the economic prosperity abounding after the war, the federal government was hesitant to roll back its unifying patriotic campaigns. Of course, Beat avant-gardes saw through this idealistic indoctrination and criticized the nation for feeding the public censored realities. However, their protests ultimately caused these 20th century “muckrakers” to be labeled as paranoiacs by the federal government, and thus instead of becoming the vanguards of revolution, they became the victims of inhuman pseudoscience.
For the sake of brevity, explication of Parts 2 and of Howl have been omitted from this version.
From my interpretation, “Howl” serves as an indirect call to action, employing shocking explicitness to showcase the failures of American society with the intent of inspiring change. Now of course, I realize that this was likely not the original intent of this piece. In fact, Ginsberg’s poem was initially dedicated to his closest comrades, namely Carl Solomon and Jack Kerouac, as a cynical rumination on the state of the nation and a profession of lasting companionship. However, as the poem’s audience broadened, “Howl” transformed into a pioneering work for social rebellion due to its acceptance of numerous rejected communities.
In reading William Williams’ introductory note to “Howl” from 1956, I discovered departures from my takeaways of the piece. For example, Williams states about Ginsberg, “Literally he has, from all the evidence, been through hell.” The phrasing of this sentence seems to suggest that Ginsberg was victimized by his life circumstances. While I believe it is true that he suffered tremendously from his mother’s illness as well as religious and sexual persecution, his choice to foster Marxist ideologies, his purposeful association with suicidal and Beat drug addicts, and his voluntary admittance to a psychiatric ward appear to me as though he embraced his bohemianism, and took it upon himself to lead a life of hardship in order to understand the struggles of downtrodden minorities.
I also believe that Williams over-idealizes Ginsberg’s central theme, aligning it with one of passive love rather than with a more aggressive call to action. This is evidenced in his statement, “He proves to us… [that] the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith…” (Williams). To me, this is a narrow minded interpretation, limiting the scope of Ginsberg’s work to a romantic anecdote. In fact, the majority of Ginsberg’s poem is dedicated to societal lamentation and postmodernist frustration. It became renowned not for its sentimental expression of love in the face of adversity, but because of its shocking vulgarity that woke the nation up from its complacency. Had Williams’ generalization been globally accepted about “Howl,” its impact would not have extended to such diverse audiences (African American, socialist, Communists, spiritualists, etc.) and become the emblem of the Beat epoch. Furthermore, while Ginsberg was a culprit of verbal irony, it would be quite sardonic had he titled a work of tender love, “HOWL.”
In any case, I do agree that Williams was correct in claiming that, “We [Americans] 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.” Poets of the Beat era did not adorn the rose colored glasses worn by the broad populace. They suffered under the weight of the cruel and overlooked realities of life, a fact made no more evident than in Ginsberg’s poem.
All in all, after perusing historical opinions on “Howl,” the words of Richard Eberhardt most concisely forward the ideas of my thesis. As he concludes about this idiosyncratic classic, “ 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… It destructively catalogues evils of our time from physical deprivation to madness.”
Charters, Ann. Allen Ginsberg’s Life, University of Illinois, 1999,
Christensen, Paul. “Allen Ginsberg: Overview.” Gay & Lesbian Literature, vol. 1, Gale, 1994.
Literature Resource Center,http://link.galegroup.com/app s/doc/H142000330
1/LitRC?u=pl2634&sid=LitRC&xid=863b97fa. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.
Eberhart, Richard. “West Coast Rhythms.” New York Times Book Review 2 Sept. 1956.
Ginsberg, Allen, 1926–1997. Howl, And Other Poems. San Francisco :City Lights Pocket
Bookshop, 1956. Print.
Ginsberg, Allen.”Howl”. Narrated by Ginsberg, PennSound, 4 May 1995,
O’Dell, Cary. National Registry, Library of Congress, 2006, www.loc.gov/static/programs/nat ional-recording-preservation-board/documents/Howl.pdf.
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