(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.