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When Ferlinghetti heard “Howl” for the first time, he wrote Ginsberg a note asking for the manuscript so that he could publish it and repeated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman upon the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Many others shared his enthusiasm.

The tremendous energy that Ginsberg had generated with his images and gathered with his rhythmic structure was impossible to avoid, but while those who were open to all the possibilities of “language charged with meaning” (in Ezra Pound’s famous phrase) were excited and inspired by the poem, a very strong counterreaction among academic critics and others frightened or appalled by Ginsberg’s subject matter and approach produced some very harsh criticism.

Norman Podhoretz attacked “Howl” for “its glorification of madness, drugs and homosexuality, and . . . its contempt and hatred for anything and everything generally deemed healthy, normal or decent.” Ginsberg felt that the poem spoke for itself in terms of his ideas and attitudes, but what bothered him was how the poetic qualities behind its composition seemed to have been overlooked in the furor. Even if he saw himself as a poet who, in the ancient sense, was a prophet who offered insight which could guide his race, he was, initially, a poet. Therefore, it was his “craft or sullen art” (as Dylan Thomas put it) which he offered as his proclamation of intention, and when it was misunderstood, Ginsberg explained or taught the poem himself.

His work prior to 1955 had consisted primarily of imitations of earlier poets or variations on early modernist styles. Then, in a crucial moment of self-awareness, he decided “to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.” His plan was to write down (or “scribble”) images flashing across his perceptual circuits in an overview of his entire life experience. From the famous first line, “I saw the best minds of my generation . . . ,” Ginsberg compressed or condensed the life stories of his acquaintances—students, artists, drop-outs, madmen, junkies, and other mutants deviating from the conventional expectations of the muted 1950’s into what he called “a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing.” He used the word “who” to maintain a rhythmic pulse and to establish a base from which he could leap into rhapsodic spasms of language:

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connectionto the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smokingin the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floatingacross the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

When he realized that it would be difficult to sustain such a long line, he juxtaposed disparate items and elements in a kind of verbal associative collage. He likened his technique to a haiku that involved a clash of images which maintained an element of mystery while putting “iron poetry back into the line.” The first part of the poem was designed to be a lament for what Ginsberg felt were “lamblike youths” who had been psychically slaughtered by American society, and it was conceived in a “speechrhythm prosody to build up large organic structures.”

In the second section, Ginsberg identified “an image of the robot skullface of Moloch,” which he used as a symbol for the devouring power of every destructive, inhuman, and death-driven feature of American life. His plan was to use a version of a stanza form, which he divided further by inserting and repeating the word “Moloch” as a form of punctuation; within each stanzaic unit, he defined the attributes of Moloch in order...

(This entire section contains 902 words.)

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to form a picture of what he called “the monster of mental consciousness.” Ginsberg builds this section to a climax of exclamation before temporarily releasing some of the accumulated tension in a vision of a breakdown or breakthrough where the social contract can no longer bind the diverse impulses of energy into any coherent arrangement. The lingering effect of the section is that of a ritual of exorcism, an incantation that develops a spell of sorts through the effect of a chant that alters consciousness.

Part 3 takes as its subject Carl Solomon, an old friend of Ginsberg from the time he spent in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, who is the conspectus of all the “best minds” of part 1, a victim/hero of modern American life to whom Ginsberg pledges a unity of spiritual allegiance in his incarceration in Rockland Mental Hospital. Ginsberg took the form of this section from Christopher Smart, whose poem “Jubilate Agno” (“rejoice in the lamb”) of the eighteenth century used a statement-counterstatement stanza which Ginsberg appropriated so that “I’m with you in Rockland” is followed by “where . . .” in a “litany of affirmation.”

Ginsberg described the third part as “pyramidal, with a graduated longer response to the fixed base,” and the last image of the poem depicts Solomon at the door of Ginsberg’s “cottage/ in the Western night.” The poem does not end with a period, however, suggesting the almost utopian hopes for a better future which Ginsberg maintained. Even if the poem now seems almost overwrought in spots, it contains the central concerns of Ginsberg’s work: the intense interest in sound appropriate to a poet firmly in the oral tradition, a fierce condemnation of the worst of American politics, a commitment to an explicit statement of erotic intention, and a rapturous reaction to the wonder of the universe akin to religious ecstasy.


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The protagonists of Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s best-known book, are marginalized because of their rejection of, or failure to measure up to, the social, religious, and sexual values of American capitalism. The poem “Howl,” central to the book, is divided into three sections. Part 1 eulogizes “the best minds of my generation,” whose individual battles with social, religious, and sexual uniformity leave them “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” Ginsberg said that his use of the long line in Howl, inspired by Walt Whitman, is an attempt to “free speech for emotional expression.” The poem is structured to give voice to those otherwise silenced by the dominant culture, to produce from their silence a “cry that shivers the cities down to the last radio.”

Part 2 focuses on Moloch, the god for whom parents burned their children in sacrifice. Moloch symbolizes the physical and psychological effects of American capitalism. From America’s “mind” of “pure machinery” emerges Moloch’s military-industrial complex, whose bomb threatens to destroy the world.

Part 3 is structured as a call-and-response litany, specifically directed to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in 1949 when both were committed to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated, represents the postwar counterculture, all of those whose “madness basically is rebellion against Moloch.” The addendum to the poem, “Footnote to Howl,” celebrates the holy cleansing that follows the apocalyptic confrontation dramatized in the poem.

Ginsberg termed crucial those elements of the poem that specifically describe the gay and bisexual practices of his protagonists as “saintly” and “ecstatic.” Drawing from Ginsberg’s experiences as a gay man in the sexually conformist 1940’s and 1950’s, the poem affirms gay eroticism as a natural form of sexual expression, replacing, as he said, “vulgar stereotype with a statement of act.” The sexual explicitness of the poem prompted the San Francisco police to seize Howl and to charge Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with obscenity. The judge in the case found the book to be “not obscene” because of its “redeeming social importance.” The Howl case remains a landmark victory for freedom of expression in the twentieth century.