Analyze a specific message from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, primarily concerning the form (the numbered divisions, the rhythm, the syntax, the punctuation) and rhetorical devices (especially...

Analyze a specific message from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, primarily concerning the form (the numbered divisions, the rhythm, the syntax, the punctuation) and rhetorical devices (especially anaphora) of the poem.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Allen Ginsberg's iconic poem "Howl" contains many themes or messages, and one of those themes which ties all three parts of the poem together is the concept of religion. Ginsberg would not claim to be a particularly religious man, but the religious undertones in the work are difficult to ignore. 

The primary religious theme is developed in Part I. He contrasts two kinds of worshipers: those who worship the capitalistic forms and organizations of society (religion, education, metropolises, authority, business) with those who worship hedonistic pursuits such as drugs, sex, hypnotism, and suicide. 

While there is clearly no rhyme in this poem, the form certainly creates a recognizable poem. Part I is one long sentence, making this stanza one long recitation, suggestive of a hymn or a sermon. The rhythm of listing example after example creates a kind of hypnotic, ritualistic cadence. This reinforces the religious symbolism, recreating a traditional or mystical kind of chanting. 

In Part II, the religious tone continues and is even more obvious, as the speaker consistently cries out the name of "Moloch," an idol (false god) to whom children were once sacrificed. Here Moloch symbolizes the traditional structures of society, such as government, culture, war, and religion. 

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

As we see in this line from Part II, the rhythm has changed from a steady cadence to a more choppy list, dealing a punch or a blow with every word and phrase. The syntax and punctuation have both changed dramatically. The exclamation points add emphasis to every punch and stab, and the short descriptions are much more focused than the meandering clauses in Part I. Both forms of religion--rigid society and unfettered hedonism--eventually become a bit more focused and even violent in this stanza.

In Part III, Ginsberg (the apparent speaker of the poem) associates himself with his friend, Carl Solomon, who is in a mental institution (Rockford). This stanza reads more like a chant of solidarity in the faith of insanity. The syntax changes again to a kind of chant. Like Part I, this stanza is essentially one long sentence, adding to the hypnotic effect of the chant. 

One of the primary rhetorical devices Ginsberg uses to achieve his purposes in this poem is Anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of lines or verses which serves to create or enhance literary meaning. This poem is filled with anaphora, something different for each of the three parts of of the poem. In Part I it is one simple word, the relative pronoun who. In Part II, the one unusual word "Moloch" is significant, and in Part III it is an entire line: "I'm with you in Rockland." 

It is clear that while Ginsberg believes society is too restrictive and crushes the human spirit, he is realistic enough to portray the "madness" that destroyed "the best minds of [his] generation" as being equally hypnotic, cultish, and dangerous. When we consider Ginsberg's theme that both blind adherence to the rules and structures of society and the complete abandonment to physical pursuits are kinds of religion, his use of anaphora is particularly apt. The cadences he uses to create the effects of both cult-like religions are developed through his syntax and punctuation, as well. Form and function combine to serve this religious theme. 

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