Study Guide

Howl

by Allen Ginsberg

Howl Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

When Ferlinghetti heard “Howl” for the first time, he wrote Ginsberg a note asking for the manuscript so that he could publish it and repeated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman upon the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Many others shared his enthusiasm.

The tremendous energy that Ginsberg had generated with his images and gathered with his rhythmic structure was impossible to avoid, but while those who were open to all the possibilities of “language charged with meaning” (in Ezra Pound’s famous phrase) were excited and inspired by the poem, a very strong counterreaction among academic critics and others frightened or appalled by Ginsberg’s subject matter and approach produced some very harsh criticism.

Norman Podhoretz attacked “Howl” for “its glorification of madness, drugs and homosexuality, and . . . its contempt and hatred for anything and everything generally deemed healthy, normal or decent.” Ginsberg felt that the poem spoke for itself in terms of his ideas and attitudes, but what bothered him was how the poetic qualities behind its composition seemed to have been overlooked in the furor. Even if he saw himself as a poet who, in the ancient sense, was a prophet who offered insight which could guide his race, he was, initially, a poet. Therefore, it was his “craft or sullen art” (as Dylan Thomas put it) which he offered as his proclamation of intention, and when it was misunderstood, Ginsberg explained or taught the poem himself.

His work prior to 1955 had consisted primarily of imitations of earlier poets or variations on early modernist styles. Then, in a crucial moment of self-awareness, he decided “to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.” His plan was to write down (or “scribble”) images flashing across his perceptual circuits in an overview of his entire life experience. From the famous first line, “I saw the best minds of my generation . . . ,” Ginsberg compressed or condensed the life stories of his acquaintances—students, artists, drop-outs, madmen, junkies, and other mutants deviating from the conventional...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

Howl Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The protagonists of Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s best-known book, are marginalized because of their rejection of, or failure to measure up to, the social, religious, and sexual values of American capitalism. The poem “Howl,” central to the book, is divided into three sections. Part 1 eulogizes “the best minds of my generation,” whose individual battles with social, religious, and sexual uniformity leave them “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” Ginsberg said that his use of the long line in Howl, inspired by Walt Whitman, is an attempt to “free speech for emotional expression.” The poem is structured to give voice to those otherwise silenced by the dominant culture, to produce from their silence a “cry that shivers the cities down to the last radio.”

Part 2 focuses on Moloch, the god for whom parents burned their children in sacrifice. Moloch symbolizes the physical and psychological effects of American capitalism. From America’s “mind” of “pure machinery” emerges Moloch’s military-industrial complex, whose bomb threatens to destroy the world.

Part 3 is structured as a call-and-response litany, specifically directed to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in 1949 when both were committed to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated, represents the postwar counterculture, all of those whose “madness basically is rebellion against Moloch.” The addendum to the poem, “Footnote to Howl,” celebrates the holy cleansing that follows the apocalyptic confrontation dramatized in the poem.

Ginsberg termed crucial those elements of the poem that specifically describe the gay and bisexual practices of his protagonists as “saintly” and “ecstatic.” Drawing from Ginsberg’s experiences as a gay man in the sexually conformist 1940’s and 1950’s, the poem affirms gay eroticism as a natural form of sexual expression, replacing, as he said, “vulgar stereotype with a statement of act.” The sexual explicitness of the poem prompted the San Francisco police to seize Howl and to charge Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with obscenity. The judge in the case found the book to be “not obscene” because of its “redeeming social importance.” The Howl case remains a landmark victory for freedom of expression in the twentieth century.

Howl Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When read as a social commentary and revolutionary manifesto, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” certainly merits special consideration. This is especially true of its remarkable tone, its perverse romanticism, and its impassioned indictment of society and of the numbing effects of materialism and mechanization. Ginsberg reveals a deep concern with the damnation and corruption of his contemporaries, and he criticizes the constrictive social focus of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Indeed, much of the poem appears to reflect elements of the darker side of existential pessimism, in which cynicism is founded in self-obsession, psychosis, and fear. The poem also reveals a primitivist impulse, itself generated and propelled by what Ginsberg called “neural impulses and writing impulses.” The poet claimed that such impulses were a consequence of “physiological movements” that created an organic “pattern.”

The poem is liberally seasoned with bombast and subscribes to the illusion that obscenity is sacramental and cathartic, that creativity involves a venal perspective that is perversely original, and that a spiritual war against “mass homogenization” is a necessary prerequisite to artistic integrity. As the work develops, Ginsberg provides a helter-skelter tour-de-force through horrendous volumes of alcohol and drugs, and the reader is carried through an urban maze of slums, poverty, and unspeakable dissipation—all, as Ginsberg declared, in the interest of a “fresh” image and a medium of expression intended to convey a feeling of doom and terror. Early in the poem, he writes:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

Ginsberg goes on to claim that in his youth he saw poets and scholars who cowered and burned in horror; who got busted, ate fire, and drank turpentine; who purgatoried themselves night after night with dreams, drugs, and waking nightmares. He describes “mind leaping” hallucinatory illuminations, a “motionless world of Time” that was crowded with “Peyote soldiers,” vegetable “vibrations,” and rantings in unrestrained confession. In Ginsberg’s writing, disembodied rage and paranoia descend to new depths of horror, and social protest is transformed into a fanciful embroidery of artistry, pathological withdrawal, and self-mutilation.

After its initial publication, some came to regard the poem as a latent manifesto for the Beat generation; others saw it as a spiritual and political declaration of righteous indignation; still others condemned the poem as little more than obscene drivel. The legal proceedings that accompanied the poem’s reception were sensational and far-reaching, involving the U.S. Customs, the American Civil Liberties Union, the San Francisco Chronicle, the juvenile department of the San Francisco police department, and a host of reputable critics and writers.

The poem was first published in England by Villagers. It then passed through U.S. Customs and on to San Francisco where it was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in the fall of 1956. Although charged with being obscene, the poem was found to have some redeeming social importance and was therefore ruled not censorable by the courts.

“Howl” most certainly fueled a controversy about the value and focus of contemporary literature. Harvey Cox, a theologian, did not...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)