Howl Essay - Critical Essays

Howl, Allen Ginsberg

Introduction

“Howl” Allen Ginsberg

The following entry represents criticism of Ginsberg's poem “Howl” through 2000. See also Allen Ginsberg Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 13, 109.

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most popular and celebrated American poets of the twentieth century. His first published work, Howl and Other Poems, became the focal point of a landmark obscenity trial in 1957 that drew attention to San Francisco as a center of cultural revolution in the literary arts. The first public reading of the poem took place in October 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. This famous performance established Ginsberg as a prominent voice in the antiestablishment Beat movement of the 1950s.

Biographical Information

Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. His mother, Naomi, suffered from various mental illnesses and was periodically institutionalized, sometimes for several years at a time. Ginsberg's father, Louis, was a teacher and lyric poet. He tried to compensate for an unstable family life with an atmosphere of strict discipline. Ginsberg endured an emotionally troubled adolescence that was complicated by the confusion and isolation he felt as he became increasingly aware of his homosexuality. Ginsberg was introduced to poetry by his father and was influenced by literary mentors including William Carlos Williams, who lived nearby in Paterson, New Jersey, where Ginsberg attended high school. Ginsberg's literary influences also included Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, with whom he studied at Columbia University, and his New York literary peers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. Along with Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady, and Ginsberg would later become the core of the Beat movement. Ginsberg remained a champion and iconic figure of the counterculture throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and became active in antinuclear protest later years. He died in 1997.

Textual History

“Howl” was first introduced during a poetry reading on October 13, 1955, at Six Gallery in San Francisco. West Coast poets in attendance included Beat generation figures Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Ginsberg was a visitor from the East Coast, and his impassioned and uninhibited reading of “Howl,” a long poem that broke with convention, became the highlight of the event. During the coming year Ginsberg continued to revise the poem, and it was published in Howl and Other Poems in October 1956 by City Lights Books, a San Francisco bookstore and publishing house owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Law enforcement authorities soon seized and banned all unsold copies of the book and charged Ferlinghetti with the distribution of obscene material. The subsequent trial drew national attention to the cultural revolution that was taking place on the west coast in the 1950s. Judge Clayton W. Horn acquitted Ferlinghetti in 1957, ruling that the poem was not obscene. In the aftermath, Ferlinghetti wrote, “It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene.”

Major Themes

“Howl” is part vision, part angry lament, a raw denunciation of American society's shortcomings, as seen through the eyes of Ginsberg. Opening with a run-on sentence that expresses the poet's despair for himself and his generation, the poem is divided into three sections and contains a “Footnote” that critics generally consider to be a functional “Part IV” of the work, although it wasn't so-named by the poet. Part I chronicles the desperation felt during the post-World War II era by those who felt alienated by the mechanization and intellectual conformity that they felt American society demanded. Although much of Part I is autobiographical, the personal nature of the work does not minimize the poem's effectiveness. Rather, it serves to communicate a universal longing for escape from confinement and oppression. Notable structural characteristics include repetitive, incantatory phrases and run-on sentences.

Part II of “Howl,” written while Ginsberg was under the influence of the drug peyote, seeks to name the roots of human misery and discontent. In the character of Moloch, a Philistine god to whom children are sacrificed by the power-hungry, Ginsberg personifies the causes of social ills, as he sees them: government bureaucracy, conformity, materialism, technology. Moloch, a malevolent “judger of men,” destroys the best of human nature, inciting self-doubt and fear in the hearts and souls of those who would reject his ways.

In Part III of “Howl,” Ginsberg seeks to balance the destruction and despair of the first two parts in what is acknowledged to be a personal tribute to the poet's friend Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met during several months of treatment at a psychiatric institution. While maintaining his stance of protest against the aspects of American society that he holds responsible for crippling the spirit of a generation, Ginsberg nonetheless demonstrates in this section an underlying desire for reconciliation with the country of his birth and citizenship: “we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep.” The mood of Part III is one of grudging acknowledgment that certain painful aspects of life will not be easily rectified or eliminated but that the communal and individual fight is worthwhile and valiant.

The “Footnote to ‘Howl’” chronicles a vision of unification for both society and the individual torn by conflicting cultural forces. Although it was suggested by early critics that the “Footnote” was added by Ginsberg simply to soften public criticism toward the first sections of the poem, later critical opinion favors the position that the last section is an integral, inseparable part of the entire work. In the four parts of “Howl,” Ginsberg progresses from angry protest and desperate lamentation to acceptance of certain realities, balanced with a visionary insistence that the future can hold the promise of wholeness and integrity.

Critical Reception

Ginsberg's “Howl” became one of the most widely read poems of the second half of the twentieth century. In part this was due to Ginsberg's role as a 1950s champion of causes later embraced by the 1960s counterculture: freedom from sexual repression and traditional behavior; freedom to engage in recreational drug use; rejection of authority and censorship; rejection of the military-industrial complex. The poem assumed the status of gospel to those who found in it a voice that expressed their youthful angst and disillusionment.

Although they generally underestimated its eventual influence and often disliked its form, subject matter, and graphic language, early reviewers predicted that “Howl” would achieve a certain landmark status as a touchstone of the Beat movement's poetic expression. Critic John Hollander, while characterizing Howl and Other Poems in 1957 as a “dreadful little volume” and a “very tiresome book,” acknowledged that Ginsberg's “hopped-up and improvised tone” would be likely to enjoy a degree of celebrity. The same year, M. L. Rosenthal wrote of Ginsberg's “Howl”: “He has brought a terrible psychological reality to the surface with enough originality to blast American verse a hair's-breadth forward in the process … very simply, this is poetry of genuine suffering.”

Critical opinion of the work has evolved in the decades since it challenged the sensibilities of mainstream literary critics. In 1957, Michael Rumaker characterized “Howl” as being the victim of “hysterical language” and “nonexact vocabulary.” In 1983, Rumaker reconsidered his initial assessment and acknowledged that he had written “largely out of resistance to this new, shrill and unknown voice howling outloud what I, and many others of the time, only mentioned in oblique and cynical whispers.” Perhaps the most lucid early commentary on the poem, which also served as a testament to its right to be considered a valid contribution to contemporary American literature, came not from a literary critic but from Judge Clayton Horn, who made the determination that “Howl” should not be categorized as obscene. Horn wrote, “‘Howl’ presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature. … The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition. … ‘Footnote to “Howl”’ seems to be a declaration that everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body by name. It ends in a plea for holy living. …”

Principal Works

Howl and Other Poems 1956; also published as Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions [revised edition] 1986

Siesta in Xbalba and Return to the States 1956

Empty Mirror: Early Poems 1961

Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958-1960 1961

The Change 1963

Reality Sandwiches: 1953-1960 1963

Kral Majales 1965

Wichita Vortex Sutra 1966

T.V. Baby Poems 1967

Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals 1968

Ankor Wat [with Alexander Lawrence] 1968

The Heat Is a Clock 1968

Message II 1968

Planet News 1968

Scrap Leaves, Tasty Scribbles 1968

Wales—A Visitation, July 29, 1967 1968

The Moments Return: A Poem 1970

For the Soul of the Planet Is Wakening … 1970

Ginsberg's Improvised Poetics 1971

Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze 1972

Iron Horse 1972

New Year Blues 1972

Open Head 1972

The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 1972

The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems, 1948-1952 1972

First Blues: Rags, Ballads, and Harmonium Songs, 1971-1974 1975

Sad Dust Glories: Poems during Work Summer in Woods, 1974 1975

Mind Breaths: Poems, 1972-1977 1978

Poems All over the Place: Mostly Seventies 1978

Careless Love: Two Rhymes 1978

Mostly Sitting Haiku 1978; revised and expanded 1979

Plutonian Ode 1982

Collected Poems: 1947-1980 1984

White Shroud: Poems, 1980-1985 1986

Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992 1994

Illuminated Poems 1996

Selected Poems, 1947-1995 1996

Death and Fame: Poems, 1993-1997 1999

The Yage Letters [with William Burroughs] (correspondence) 1963

Indian Journals: March 1962-May 1963; Notebooks, Diary, Blank Pages, Writings (journals) 1970

Notes after an Evening with William Carlos Williams (nonfiction) 1970

Kaddish (play) 1972

The Visions of the Great Rememberer (correspondence) 1974

Allen Verbatim: Lectures of Poetry, Politics, and Consciousness (lectures) 1975

Chicago Trial Testimony (nonfiction) 1975

To Eberhart from Ginsberg (correspondence) 1976

Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties (journals) 1977

Composed on the Tongue (interviews) 1980

Snapshot Poetics: Allen Ginsberg's Photographic Memoir of the Beat Era (photographs) 1993

Honorable Courtship: From the Author's Journals (journals) 1994

Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1958-1996 (essays) 2000

Criticism

M. L. Rosenthal (review date 23 February 1957)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, M. L. “Poet of the New Violence.” The Nation 184, no. 8 (23 February 1957): 162.

[In the following review, Rosenthal finds some fault with Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems but considers his poetry original.]

The two most striking pieces in Allen Ginsberg's pamphlet Howl and Other Poems—the long title-piece itself and “America”—are sustained shrieks of frank defiance. The themes are struck off clearly in the opening lines of each:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
by madness, starving hysterical naked …

and

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

John Hollander (review date spring 1957)

SOURCE: Hollander, John. “Poetry Chronicle.” Partisan Review 24, no. 2 (spring 1957): 296-8.

[In the following excerpt, Hollander describes Howl and Other Poems as both “tiresome” and exemplifying real talent.]

It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg, however, to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume [Howl]. 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...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Michael Rumaker (essay date fall 1957)

SOURCE: “Allen Ginsberg's ‘Howl.’” In On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Lewis Hyde, pp. 36-40. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, part of which was first published in 1957, Rumaker discusses “Howl.” This original material is accompanied by a 1983 updated comment by the critic.]

The language of “Howl” is curiously “materialistic.” I mean it is quantitative (a quantity of verbiage) without reference to quality. I speak later of fever in this poem and I think it's that: the feelings are not precise (are an onrush of emotional bulk) and therefore the words, the language, cannot be precise. The abstractions...

(The entire section is 1766 words.)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (essay date winter 1957)

SOURCE: Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Horn on ‘Howl.’” Evergreen Review 1, no. 4 (winter 1957): 145-58.

[In the following essay, Ferlinghetti gives an account of the charges that were levied against him for publishing and selling obscene writings and his subsequent San Francisco trial, after he published the first U.S. edition of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.]

Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which books burn, has finally been determined not to be the prevailing temperature at San Francisco, though the police still would be all too happy to make it hot for you. On October 3 last, Judge Clayton Horn of Municipal Court brought in a 39-page opinion finding...

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Kenneth Rexroth (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: Rexroth, Kenneth. “San Francisco Letter.” In On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Lewis Hyde, pp. 32-33. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1957, Rexroth, a popular poet often called “Godfather of the Beats,” lauds Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” as “more than the most sensational book of poetry of 1957.”]

Allen Ginsberg's Howl is much more than the most sensational book of poetry of 1957. Nothing goes to show how square the squares are so much as the favorable reviews they've given it. “Sustained shrieks of frantic defiance,” “single-minded frenzy of a raving...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

George Bowering (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Bowering, George. “How I Hear ‘Howl.’” In On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Lewis Hyde, pp. 370-78. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1969, Bowering discusses the experience of listening to a recording of Ginsberg's spoken version of “Howl.”]

(Poetry is a vocal art. In the following impression of Allen Ginsberg's poem, I will refer not so much to the printed versions as to his spoken version on the Fantasy LP 7005, Howl and Other Poems.)

… The central image of “Howl” is the “robot skullface of Moloch,” the mechanical monolith that eats the...

(The entire section is 3074 words.)

James Breslin (essay date spring 1977)

SOURCE: Breslin, James. “Allen Ginsberg: The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish.’” The Iowa Review 8, no. 2 (spring 1977): 82-108.

[In the following essay, Breslin explores Ginsberg's life experiences as they are reflected in the subject matter and tone of “Howl” and “Kaddish,” two of Ginsberg's best known poems.]

Most literary people have probably first become aware of Allen Ginsberg through the media, in his self-elected and controversial role as public figure and prophet of a new age. Ginsberg's public personality has changed over the years—from the defiant and histrionic angry young man of the fifties to the bearded and benign patriarch and...

(The entire section is 11848 words.)

William A. Henry III (essay date December 1981)

SOURCE: Henry, William A., III. “In New York: ‘Howl’ Becomes a Hoot.” In On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Lewis Hyde, pp. 367-69. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, which first appeared in 1981, Henry describes an early 1980s public reading of “Howl” by poet Allen Ginsberg.]

Night, the hour of poets, on a windy street in the part of New York City where academe meets Harlem. Outside a nondescript building, a man calls to an acquaintance. The second replies, “Allen Ginsberg reading ‘Howl’? It's tempting, but …” He walks on.

Inside McMillin Theater at Columbia University, an audience of...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

Jeff Gaydos (essay date 18 January 1987)

SOURCE: Gaydos, Jeff. “The ‘New’ Ginsberg: Still Full of Life.” Detroit News (18 January 1987): 9B.

[In the following essay, Gaydos reviews the anniversary edition of “Howl” and comments on the simultaneous release of Ginsberg's collection, White Shroud, Poems 1980-1985.]

The “beat generation” has been caricatured and romanticized as much or more than most quirky ripples in the flow of human behavior. And as with most “movements” that become diluted as they get washed through the American mainstream, it's tough to keep a perspective on its value to American life.

You find a set of bongo drums in the attic, think of black...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Michael Leddy (essay date autumn 1987)

SOURCE: Leddy, Michael. “Verse.” World Literature Today 61, no. 4 (autumn 1987): 630-31.

[In the following essay, Leddy reviews a thirtieth-anniversary facsimile edition of “Howl.”]

“It is a rare occasion when a living author illuminates the creative process behind his work,” says the dust jacket of the thirtieth-anniversary annotated facsimile edition of Howl. For once a dust jacket is guilty of understatement: the generosity with which Ginsberg illuminates his text is unprecedented. He and editor Barry Miles have assembled all significant drafts of the poem, reproduced with copious new annotations by Ginsberg concerning composition and revision,...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Thomas F. Merrill (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Merrill, Thomas F. “Howl and Other Poems.” In Allen Ginsberg, revised edition, pp. 50-69. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, Merrill offers an examination of Ginsberg's “Howl” and other works.]

HISTORY OF HOWL

Despite the fact that it has been fashionable to say that Howl exploded on the American literary scene like a bombshell, that San Francisco finally “turned Ginsberg on,” and that this poem heralded in the Beat Generation, it is difficult to find in this admittedly extraordinary poem much that has not been anticipated in inchoate and sometimes even mature form in Empty...

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Alicia Ostriker (essay date July-August 1997)

SOURCE: Ostriker, Alicia. “‘Howl’ Revisited: The Poet as Jew.” American Poetry Review 26, no. 4 (July-August 1997): 28-31.

[In the following essay, Ostriker considers the influence of cultural and religious Judaism on Allen Ginsberg and his works.]

I have reverenced Allen Ginsberg—man and poet—for three decades, and see no reason to stop now. The first time I met Allen I was amazed, as this essay suggests, by his voice: the power and sweetness and humor of it. His breath, I thought, was the breath of the spirit. The last time was the same, but more so. We were at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, N.J., in the soft weather of early fall, 1996. At...

(The entire section is 7229 words.)

Tony Trigilio (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Trigilio, Tony. “‘Sanity a Trick of Agreement’: Madness and Doubt in Ginsberg's Prophetic Poetry.” In “Strange Prophecies Anew”: Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H. D., and Ginsberg, pp.125-27. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay Trigilio explores the relationship between the prophetic language in the poems “Howl” and “Kaddish” and experiences of psychiatric institutionalization in the poet's personal and family history.]

1. INTRODUCTION: “WE SAY ANYTHING WE WANT TO SAY”

In 1943, the young Allen Ginsberg traveled by ferry from his home in Paterson, New Jersey, to...

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