The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Allen Ginsberg’s own description of “Howl”—“A huge sad comedy of wild phrasing”—is an accurate summary of its largest structural outlines and predominant moods. Written in a version of open verse that employs as its fundamental unit a series of individual image clusters, it is divided into three parts, each marked by a specific rhythmic pattern. The first part, with its fervent declaration that “the best minds” of a generation have been driven to madness, immediately establishes the poet as an engaged witness, while the compelling claim that opens the poem, “I have seen ,” is a conscious parallel to Walt Whitman’s active participation (“I was the man; I suffered; I was there”) in the critical moments of his time.
Taking as his subject the “angelheaded hipsters” who represent an undiscovered underground community of artists, junkies, street people, mutants, and other outcasts, Ginsberg uses the first part of “Howl” to tell, in compressed form, the life highlights of people who have been damaged or destroyed by their inability to fit into American society during the Eisenhower years. Using the word “who” to begin each miniature biographical fragment, Ginsberg gradually develops a picture of an entire counterculture, the separate images building toward a mosaic of madness and desperation, but a mosaic which is informed by the manic energy of inspiration and excitement that made these people so distinct.
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Before writing “Howl,” Ginsberg had worked primarily on what he called “short-line free verse” in the measures of American speech and in more traditional forms based on centuries-old British prototypes. Describing himself as “sick and tired” of what he was doing, and fearing that his work was not “expressionistic enough” because he could not “develop a powerful enough rhythm,” he decided to follow his “romantic inspiration” and write without concern for precedents or conventions of any kind.
He thought that his subject (“queer content my parents shouldn’t see”) would probably prohibit publication, so he felt free to compose without preconception or limitation. Guided by what he called his “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath”—a version of Old Testament prophetic proclamation, modified by Herman Melville’s conversions of those rhythms into the syntax of American prose narrative—Ginsberg worked out an effective, original formal structure which was completely missed by most critics at the time of publication. Noting in a letter that none of the reviewers had “enough technical interests to notice” what he considered the “obvious construction of the poem,” Ginsberg explained (or taught) the poem himself in his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems.”
According to his account, after his initial declaration of his subject, the fate of the “best minds” (his narcotics-using bohemian community),...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Version, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography. Edited by Barry Miles. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. An impressive study of the annotations, allusions, inspirations, revisions, and original typescripts of the poem. The book also presents contemporaneous correspondence from a range of poets and critics who were involved with the poem.
Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. An excellent collection of essays, reviews, and biographical materials. Gregory Stephenson’s explication of “Howl” is especially comprehensive and helpful. The discussion of “Howl” in the 1950’s and James Breslin’s essay on the poem’s genesis provide interesting information on the circumstances leading up to the original publication.
Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Boston: Twayne, 1969. Provides a good overview of the publication history, structure, and theme of “Howl.” Also includes a useful chronology.
Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Ostriker, Alicia. “Blake,...
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