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(Poetry Criticism)

“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...

(The entire section is 1,346 words.)