Are there explicit references to sex in Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl"?

1 Answer | Add Yours

docholl1's profile pic

Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1956), one of the most widely read and controversial poems of the Beat Generation (1950's), is a sweeping condemnation of twentieth-century mainstream American society, which Ginsberg personifies as the Canaanite (and other cultures of the Middle East in early biblical times) god Moloch.  "Howl" begins with perhaps the most well-known lines of any poem of the Beat poets:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. . . .

Ginsberg argues, especially in Parts I and II of the three-part poem, that the "best minds," by which he means the creative artists and poets of his generation, are victims of an uncaring materialistic, mechanistic society that simply cannot recognize or appreciate those who are not part of what Ginsberg conceives as the American machine.

The poem's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another of the Beat poets, was actually tried (and eventually acquitted) for publishing "Howl," which was widely banned from schools and libraries because of its (perceived) obscenity, especially its references to homosexual acts and other sexual acts that offended the mainstream reading public:

. . . their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,/who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts. . . .

Many readers at the time had to look up the word pederasty, and when they discovered that Ginsberg is referring to a man having sex with a boy, the condemnation of the poem began in earnest.  Even the word genitals was offensive in print. 

In the same section, Ginsberg refers to another sexual act in such explicit terms that even the academic world had a difficult time discussing the poem as a work of literature:

. . . 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. . . .

With these images, Ginsberg managed to alienate and stigmatize the 1950's motorcycle culture, which was seen as primarily heterosexual, as well as the entire United States Navy, another bastion of masculinity in American culture.  The reading public during this era was used to reading disguised references to human sexuality, not graphic and explicit references to sexual acts that were actually criminalized in most, if not all, states in the country.  

Although most of Ginsberg's explicit references to sexuality are in Part I, his last and most personal sexual reference occurs near the end of Part III:

I'm with you in Rockland/where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States/that coughs all night and won't let us sleep. . . .

In this part of "Howl," he is addressing his friend Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated, a man Ginsberg met while they were both undergoing treatment at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute in New York City in 1949-1950.  The lines above make it clear that Ginsberg and Solomon had a homosexual relationship, which embarrassed the hospital because the lines imply a lack of oversight on the hospital's part but, more important, confirmed Solomon and Ginsberg's homosexual relationship, another mark against Ginsberg and the poem.

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,917 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question