“Howl” Allen Ginsberg

The following entry represents criticism of Ginsberg's poem “Howl” through 2000. See also Allen Ginsberg Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 13, 109.

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most popular and celebrated American poets of the twentieth century. His first published work, Howl and Other Poems, became the focal point of a landmark obscenity trial in 1957 that drew attention to San Francisco as a center of cultural revolution in the literary arts. The first public reading of the poem took place in October 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. This famous performance established Ginsberg as a prominent voice in the antiestablishment Beat movement of the 1950s.

Biographical Information

Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. His mother, Naomi, suffered from various mental illnesses and was periodically institutionalized, sometimes for several years at a time. Ginsberg's father, Louis, was a teacher and lyric poet. He tried to compensate for an unstable family life with an atmosphere of strict discipline. Ginsberg endured an emotionally troubled adolescence that was complicated by the confusion and isolation he felt as he became increasingly aware of his homosexuality. Ginsberg was introduced to poetry by his father and was influenced by literary mentors including William Carlos Williams, who lived nearby in Paterson, New Jersey, where Ginsberg attended high school. Ginsberg's literary influences also included Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, with whom he studied at Columbia University, and his New York literary peers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. Along with Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady, and Ginsberg would later become the core of the Beat movement. Ginsberg remained a champion and iconic figure of the counterculture throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and became active in antinuclear protest later years. He died in 1997.

Textual History

“Howl” was first introduced during a poetry reading on October 13, 1955, at Six Gallery in San Francisco. West Coast poets in attendance included Beat generation figures Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Ginsberg was a visitor from the East Coast, and his impassioned and uninhibited reading of “Howl,” a long poem that broke with convention, became the highlight of the event. During the coming year Ginsberg continued to revise the poem, and it was published in Howl and Other Poems in October 1956 by City Lights Books, a San Francisco bookstore and publishing house owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Law enforcement authorities soon seized and banned all unsold copies of the book and charged Ferlinghetti with the distribution of obscene material. The subsequent trial drew national attention to the cultural revolution that was taking place on the west coast in the 1950s. Judge Clayton W. Horn acquitted Ferlinghetti in 1957, ruling that the poem was not obscene. In the aftermath, Ferlinghetti wrote, “It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene.”

Major Themes

“Howl” is part vision, part angry lament, a raw denunciation of American society's shortcomings, as seen through the eyes of Ginsberg. Opening with a run-on sentence that expresses the poet's despair for himself and his generation, the poem is divided into three sections and contains a “Footnote” that critics generally consider to be a functional “Part IV” of the work, although it wasn't so-named by the poet. Part I chronicles the desperation felt during the post-World War II era by those who felt alienated by the mechanization and intellectual conformity that they felt American society demanded. Although much of Part I is autobiographical, the personal nature of the work does not minimize the poem's effectiveness. Rather, it serves to communicate a universal longing for escape from confinement and oppression. Notable structural characteristics include repetitive, incantatory phrases and run-on sentences.

Part II of “Howl,” written while Ginsberg was under the influence of the drug peyote, seeks to name the roots of human misery and discontent. In the character of Moloch, a Philistine god to whom children are sacrificed by the power-hungry, Ginsberg personifies the causes of social ills, as he sees them: government bureaucracy, conformity, materialism, technology. Moloch, a malevolent “judger of men,” destroys the best of human nature, inciting self-doubt and fear in the hearts and souls of those who would reject his ways.

In Part III of “Howl,” Ginsberg seeks to balance the destruction and despair of the first two parts in what is acknowledged to be a personal tribute to the poet's friend Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg had met during several months of treatment at a psychiatric institution. While maintaining his stance of protest against the aspects of American society that he holds responsible for crippling the spirit of a generation, Ginsberg nonetheless demonstrates in this section an underlying desire for reconciliation with the country of his birth and citizenship: “we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep.” The mood of Part III is one of grudging acknowledgment that certain painful aspects of life will not be easily rectified or eliminated but that the communal and individual fight is worthwhile and valiant.

The “Footnote to ‘Howl’” chronicles a vision of unification for both society and the individual torn by conflicting cultural forces. Although it was suggested by early critics that the “Footnote” was added by Ginsberg simply to soften public criticism toward the first sections of the poem, later critical opinion favors the position that the last section is an integral, inseparable part of the entire work. In the four parts of “Howl,” Ginsberg progresses from angry protest and desperate lamentation to acceptance of certain realities, balanced with a visionary insistence that the future can hold the promise of wholeness and integrity.

Critical Reception

Ginsberg's “Howl” became one of the most widely read poems of the second half of the twentieth century. In part this was due to Ginsberg's role as a 1950s champion of causes later embraced by the 1960s counterculture: freedom from sexual repression and traditional behavior; freedom to engage in recreational drug use; rejection of authority and censorship; rejection of the military-industrial complex. The poem assumed the status of gospel to those who found in it a voice that expressed their youthful angst and disillusionment.

Although they generally underestimated its eventual influence and often disliked its form, subject matter, and graphic language, early reviewers predicted that “Howl” would achieve a certain landmark status as a touchstone of the Beat movement's poetic expression. Critic John Hollander, while characterizing Howl and Other Poems in 1957 as a “dreadful little volume” and a “very tiresome book,” acknowledged that Ginsberg's “hopped-up and improvised tone” would be likely to enjoy a degree of celebrity. The same year, M. L. Rosenthal wrote of Ginsberg's “Howl”: “He has brought a terrible psychological reality to the surface with enough originality to blast American verse a hair's-breadth forward in the process … very simply, this is poetry of genuine suffering.”

Critical opinion of the work has evolved in the decades since it challenged the sensibilities of mainstream literary critics. In 1957, Michael Rumaker characterized “Howl” as being the victim of “hysterical language” and “nonexact vocabulary.” In 1983, Rumaker reconsidered his initial assessment and acknowledged that he had written “largely out of resistance to this new, shrill and unknown voice howling outloud what I, and many others of the time, only mentioned in oblique and cynical whispers.” Perhaps the most lucid early commentary on the poem, which also served as a testament to its right to be considered a valid contribution to contemporary American literature, came not from a literary critic but from Judge Clayton Horn, who made the determination that “Howl” should not be categorized as obscene. Horn wrote, “‘Howl’ presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature. … The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition. … ‘Footnote to “Howl”’ seems to be a declaration that everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body by name. It ends in a plea for holy living. …”