The Poem

Allen Ginsberg’s own description of “Howl”—“A huge sad comedy of wild phrasing”—is an accurate summary of its largest structural outlines and predominant moods. Written in a version of open verse that employs as its fundamental unit a series of individual image clusters, it is divided into three parts, each marked by a specific rhythmic pattern. The first part, with its fervent declaration that “the best minds” of a generation have been driven to madness, immediately establishes the poet as an engaged witness, while the compelling claim that opens the poem, “I have seen ,” is a conscious parallel to Walt Whitman’s active participation (“I was the man; I suffered; I was there”) in the critical moments of his time.

Taking as his subject the “angelheaded hipsters” who represent an undiscovered underground community of artists, junkies, street people, mutants, and other outcasts, Ginsberg uses the first part of “Howl” to tell, in compressed form, the life highlights of people who have been damaged or destroyed by their inability to fit into American society during the Eisenhower years. Using the word “who” to begin each miniature biographical fragment, Ginsberg gradually develops a picture of an entire counterculture, the separate images building toward a mosaic of madness and desperation, but a mosaic which is informed by the manic energy of inspiration and excitement that made these people so distinct.

The motive behind the actions he describes is...

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Forms and Devices

Before writing “Howl,” Ginsberg had worked primarily on what he called “short-line free verse” in the measures of American speech and in more traditional forms based on centuries-old British prototypes. Describing himself as “sick and tired” of what he was doing, and fearing that his work was not “expressionistic enough” because he could not “develop a powerful enough rhythm,” he decided to follow his “romantic inspiration” and write without concern for precedents or conventions of any kind.

He thought that his subject (“queer content my parents shouldn’t see”) would probably prohibit publication, so he felt free to compose without preconception or limitation. Guided by what he called his “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath”—a version of Old Testament prophetic proclamation, modified by Herman Melville’s conversions of those rhythms into the syntax of American prose narrative—Ginsberg worked out an effective, original formal structure which was completely missed by most critics at the time of publication. Noting in a letter that none of the reviewers had “enough technical interests to notice” what he considered the “obvious construction of the poem,” Ginsberg explained (or taught) the poem himself in his “Notes for Howl and Other Poems.”

According to his account, after his initial declaration of his subject, the fate of the “best minds” (his narcotics-using bohemian community), Ginsberg depended on repetition of the word “who” to keep the beat, an approach influenced by Jack Kerouac’s ideas about improvisation akin to modern jazz. He then built “longer and shorter variations on a fixed base,” elaborate images lifting off each basic measure that were written for their meaning as well as “the beauty of abstract poetry” and the latent energy found in “awkward combinations disparate things put...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Version, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography. Edited by Barry Miles. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. An impressive study of the annotations, allusions, inspirations, revisions, and original typescripts of the poem. The book also presents contemporaneous correspondence from a range of poets and critics who were involved with the poem.

Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. An excellent collection of essays, reviews, and biographical materials. Gregory Stephenson’s explication of “Howl” is especially comprehensive and helpful. The discussion of “Howl” in the 1950’s and James Breslin’s essay on the poem’s genesis provide interesting information on the circumstances leading up to the original publication.

Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Boston: Twayne, 1969. Provides a good overview of the publication history, structure, and theme of “Howl.” Also includes a useful chronology.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Ostriker, Alicia. “Blake, Ginsberg, Madness, and the Prophet as Shaman.” In William Blake and the Moderns, edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Explains how Ginsberg’s reading of Blake inspired a series of religious visions that led him to believe that the poet is a prophet of madness who must “illuminate mankind.”

Portuges, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erickson, 1978. Portuges writes about Ginsberg’s quest for a transcendent, mystical vision. He describes the poet’s fascination with the poetry of William Blake and his interest in jazz, drugs, mantras, and Tibetan Buddhism.

Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. An intensive scholarly study of the historical and cultural context of the poem and its author.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Shinder, Jason. The Poem that Changed America: “Howl ” Fifty Years Later. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Twenty-six essays produced by noted authors recounting personal reactions to Ginsberg’s poem and the way it impacted society.