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 the achievement of a transcendent vision of existence, and the range of experience he covers is transnational, including urban jungles and open plains, academic settings and back alleys. His “angelheaded hipsters” use every available transformative agent, as well as their untapped mental capacity, to reclaim a world that has gone awry. Part 2 of the poem is an attempt to identify the reasons that society has become so hostile for these “remarkable lamblike youths,” and after asking what “bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination,” Ginsberg locates the core of corruption as a “monster of mental consciousness” that he designates “Moloch” after the Canaanite Fire God (in Leviticus) whose worship required human sacrifice.
The entire section is written as a composite of images that coalesce into the super-symbol of monstrosity which stands for every negative element in American life. Each long-breath line is set off by the word “Moloch,” and the repetition of the word within the line as well generates a cascade of doom overwhelming the political realm (“Congress of sorrows”), the social (“Whose blood is running money”), the sexual (“Lacklove and manless in Moloch!”), and the personal (“who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!”). The inventory of ugliness culminates in a series of staccato statements, a chant of wrath—“demonic industries! spectral nations! in-vincible madhouses!”—that suggests a swirl of chaos in which people are engulfed, their lives governed by forces beyond their ken.
The third part of the poem is an attempt to set the spiritual strength of an artistic intelligence against the materialistic forces responsible for this spiritual desolation. This section is addressed to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met when they were both patients in Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and places the poet in a kind of solidarity with Solomon, who is being treated in Rockland Hospital. Solomon stands for all the “lambs” of part 1, and each line in this section begins with the affirmation “I’m with you in Rockland,” which is modified by aspects of Solomon’s ingenious, creative, and anarchic method for spiritual survival. The poem concludes with a presentation of what Ginsberg called “the answer,” followed by the last image, an extension of the community of love and brotherhood into a dreamlike future of promise and hope.
Forms and Devices
Before writing “Howl,” Ginsberg had worked...
(The entire section is 1,758 words.)