The basic irony of the text is that...
Allen Ginsberg’s long poem “Howl” is famous (or infamous) for being charged as obscene and frequently banned. Yet however one feels about its content, “Howl” is carefully written and structured, and uses literary devices to great effect—including irony.
The basic irony of the text is that it uses a lofty style and form of poetry to write about low and earthy content, and, vice versa, uses this low content to illustrate lofty ideas. In other words, whether you read “Howl” as a high-brow take on bawdy content, or an elevation of ideas that might otherwise be taken as crass, things are never quite what they appear to be; hence, they’re ironic.
Let’s look at a few examples from the text of the poem. It starts off with the famous line:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked
This shows the characteristically long poetic lines that “Howl” is also famous for. On one hand, these kind of long, rolling lines evoke classic literature, like the Bible or the poetry of William Blake and Walt Whitman. On the other hand, they are themselves meandering, chaotic, and rambling—in a word, “hysterical.”
In another ironic twist, “Howl” pokes fun at its own hysterical ramblings, describing poets:
Who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish
The earthy, sexual content that is so controversial in “Howl” also shows irony. The poem describes individuals:
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love
“Saintly motorcyclists” and being “fucked in the ass” by them creates stark irony: saints, angels (seraphim) and similar entities aren’t usually associated with such acts.
As striking or even unsettling as it may seem, Ginsberg’s “Howl” opened opportunities for bringing “high” and “low” into a single form of art to be appreciated, a chance to study “Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah” all at once. Or, as the “Footnote” to “Howl” ecstatically puts it:
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!