When read as a social commentary and revolutionary manifesto, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” certainly merits special consideration. This is especially true of its remarkable tone, its perverse romanticism, and its impassioned indictment of society and of the numbing effects of materialism and mechanization. Ginsberg reveals a deep concern with the damnation and corruption of his contemporaries, and he criticizes the constrictive social focus of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Indeed, much of the poem appears to reflect elements of the darker side of existential pessimism, in which cynicism is founded in self-obsession, psychosis, and fear. The poem also reveals a primitivist impulse, itself generated and propelled by what Ginsberg called “neural impulses and writing impulses.” The poet claimed that such impulses were a consequence of “physiological movements” that created an organic “pattern.”
The poem is liberally seasoned with bombast and subscribes to the illusion that obscenity is sacramental and cathartic, that creativity involves a venal perspective that is perversely original, and that a spiritual war against “mass homogenization” is a necessary prerequisite to artistic integrity. As the work develops, Ginsberg provides a helter-skelter tour-de-force through horrendous volumes of alcohol and drugs, and the reader is carried through an urban maze of slums, poverty, and unspeakable dissipation—all, as Ginsberg declared, in the interest of a “fresh” image and a medium of expression intended to convey a feeling of doom and terror. Early in the poem, he writes:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
Ginsberg goes on to claim that in his youth he saw poets and scholars who cowered and burned in horror; who got busted, ate fire, and drank turpentine; who purgatoried themselves night after night with dreams, drugs, and waking nightmares. He describes “mind leaping” hallucinatory illuminations, a “motionless world of Time” that was crowded with “Peyote soldiers,” vegetable “vibrations,” and rantings in unrestrained confession. In Ginsberg’s writing, disembodied rage and paranoia descend to new depths of horror, and social protest is transformed into a fanciful embroidery of artistry, pathological withdrawal, and self-mutilation.
After its initial publication, some came to regard the poem as a latent manifesto for the Beat generation; others saw it as a spiritual and political declaration of righteous indignation; still others condemned the poem as little more than obscene drivel. The legal proceedings that accompanied the poem’s reception were sensational and far-reaching, involving the U.S. Customs, the American Civil Liberties Union, the San Francisco Chronicle, the juvenile department of the San Francisco police department, and a host of reputable critics and writers.
The poem was first published in England by Villagers. It then passed through U.S. Customs and on to San Francisco where it was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books in the fall of 1956. Although charged with being obscene, the poem was found to have some redeeming social importance and was therefore ruled not censorable by the courts.
“Howl” most certainly fueled a controversy about the value and focus of contemporary literature. Harvey Cox, a theologian, did not...
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