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.
The motive behind the actions he describes is...
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