How can I critically analyze "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg?

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owls21 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In terms of literary style, "Howl," by Allen Ginsberg, can be placed within the Beat Movement. Beat poetry (as exemplified by writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs) often challenged the notion of the status quo; it regularly featured a refusal of gender and sexual norms, capitalism, and social expectations. Travel, drug use, artistic expression, and personal/spiritual enlightenment were common themes in Beat poetry and prose, and Ginsberg's work draws upon these as well. Within Howl, the speaker laments the destruction of "the best minds of [his] generation" and proposes that these minds have ultimately succumbed to madness. Importantly, this madness is one perpetuated by social and economic demands. For Ginsberg's speaker, madness (whether literal or figurative) is, at least in part, propelled by a destructive, machine-like, frequently violent society, one which often excludes artists, intellectuals, minorities, roamers, and the disadvantaged. Ginsberg addresses the most negative aspects of the human experience through the figure of Moloch, a powerful presence within the poem who stifles creative or spiritual development while promoting the tendency toward war and who exists symbolically in faceless representations of capitalism and impersonal, oppressive public structures. The final portion of Howl addresses Ginsberg's friend, Carl Solomon, and his experiences at Rockland, a psychiatric institute. One way of interpreting this section of the poem is seeing it as an expression of solidarity--an attempt to share experiences. The references made within Howl are extensive, and it is certainly worth looking into the meaning behind each line.