(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 1,255 words.)