The Howl of a Generation
The “Beat Movement” in modern literature has become an important period
generation is now aging and its representative voices are becoming lost
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
poem?s history serves well as an account of the birth of the Beat
Generation. Ginsberg?s life leading up to the writing of “Howl,” the
Beat Generation by studying not only the chronology of its past, but its
intricate and unique structure as well as its themes and ultimate
message. Following is an examination of the poem as the great
expression of Beat defiance, beginning with a short history of the poem.
group of writers would remain life-long friends of Ginsberg and
influence him in myriad ways. The history of “Howl,” however, begins in
1953 after Ginsberg?s move to San Francisco in search of poetic
York friends, Ginsberg began to feel dislocated and depressed. Ginsberg
knew he was at a crossroads in his art between his apprenticeship to
academic models of literature (mentor William Carlos Williams
specifically), and breaking through to a personal voice which could sing
academic standards ? to speak of in poetry.
Battling writer?s block, Ginsberg decided to enroll in graduate school
Kerouac?s. It was in these surroundings that he came to be part of poet
Kenneth Rexroth?s Friday night poetry circle. The Rexroth circle:
well-read and international, homosexual and heterosexual, poets and
artists from several generations, laid the foundation for the Beat
Ginsberg slowly became more comfortable with his new surroundings,
encouraged by his new companion, Peter Orlovsky. He still, however, was
becoming more and more depressed, attempting to deal with his repressed
homosexuality. Ginsberg consulted a psychiatrist and asked him if he
should be trying to be heterosexual. When the doctor asked Ginsberg
what he really wanted to do, the poet replied, “I really would just love
to get an apartment, stop working and live with Peter and write poems.”
To which the doctor replied, “why don?t you?” (Schumacher 147).
Ginsberg felt he had received a blessing. He arranged his own layoff
at the market-research firm where he had been working by replacing
months. He and Orlovsky moved into an apartment together and Ginsberg
“I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned,” thinking of his
apartment to release some poetic energy into his typewriter.
I sat idly at my desk by the first floor window facing Montgomery
street?s slope to gay Broadway ? only a few blocks from City Lights
literary paperback bookshop. I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap
scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal
As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had
nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies
Ginsberg expanded on the line from his journal, changing it to a second
draft of the bast-known line in 20th Century poetry: “I saw the best
minds of my generation / generation destroyed by madness / starving
mystical naked.” Ginsberg continued for seven single-spaced pages. The
poem, combining the short lines into long, “breath-lines.” Although he
felt the poem was too personal to publish, Ginsberg sent a copy to
Kerouac. Kerouac?s reply was so encouraging that Ginsberg immediately
began scouting for a venue in which to read his poem. Finally, in the
fall of 1955, a reading by six poets, including Ginsberg, was arranged
at the Six Gallery.
The Six Gallery reading has since become a literary legend. Several
well-known authors were in attendance, including Kerouac, who beat a
wine jug and shouted “GO!” after each line of Ginsberg?s poem. The
emotional first reading of the poem left Ginsberg and others in tears.
subsequently, a charge of obscenity against its publisher, City Lights
books. The sensationalism surrounding the months of litigation that
followed stifled the poem?s literary reception, but at the same time
made Howl and Other Poems easily one of the best-selling volumes of
poetry of the 20th century. These are the events that shaped the poem
and elevated it to a level that few literary works have ever achieved.
It became the voice of a generation that was emerging from subcultural
San Francisco into the minds of America at large.
way of publicity alone. What is it, then, that propels “Howl” past the
bounds of ordinary poetry and into the realm of landmark literature?
What is it that has caused this poem to become the handbook of an entire
own views of his work. Ginsberg considered the writing of “Howl” to be
a new phase in his poetic development, best characterized by total
creative freedom. This freedom consists mainly of an escape from “fear”
claims he began the poem with no structure in mind. He worked with his
own “neural impulses and writing impulses” to arrive at a pattern
“organically, rather than synthetically” (Art 44). The poem, he states,
wild phrasing [and] meaningless images” (Notes). In order to read
“Howl” properly, one must avoid the impulse to search for a logical or
seem to be n competition with the poem?s own message, which is literally
a violent howl of human anguish and other spontaneous feelings.
The two aspects which perhaps contribute most to the poem?s literary
power are “tightness” and spontaneity. The first of these two has to do
with what Ginsberg called “density” ? the richness of imagery packed
from grammatical continuity. The rules of grammar are abandoned in
order to place images densely in carefully chosen proximity to other
images. The result is the appearance of such strong images as “negro
streets,” “angry fix,” “paint hotels,” “blind streets,” and “hydrogen
jukebox.” The poem communicated somewhat ambiguously, through images.
Because of this, grammatical logic is of little concern. The entire 78
line first section of the poem is, in fact, one sentence.
spontaneity. Ginsberg has discovered a way to sustain a long line of
poetry without allowing it to lapse into prose. He leaps from one image
or perception to another with speed. This spontaneity gives the poem a
feeling of uncontrived honesty.
These technical aspects of the poem contribute to its power in very
important way. “Howl”?s spontaneity and collection of juxtaposed images
give the poem a “voice” that may be both defiant and celebratory in the
celebrating the rise of a new counterculture.
methods. The themes in the poem are most important in representing the
message of the Beat Generation. In the first part of the poem, the
author sets himself as an observer in a mad world. He is witness to the
destruction of “the best minds of my generation” by madness (9). This
theme of madness in the first section of the poem is used to describe
the workings of these minds. They are “burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night,” and they
have “bared their brains to Heaven” (9). Later comes a reference to
Ginsberg?s own commitment to an asylum (15) as well as the application
treatment at Rockland State Hospital (16). These minds are martyrs in
the sense that they have chosen to embrace madness as an alternative to
the unbearable sanity of the real world. Their madness consists of
their refusal to accept a non-spiritual view of the world, in their
“burning for the ancient heavenly connection” in a civilization that has
pronounced God dead.
and ate up their brains and imagination?” (17). Here, the antagonist is
perhaps most constructive to read this part simply as an indictment of
hurled “down upon the rocks of Time” (18).
Part three begins on a note of compassion and identification, directed
Solomon.. “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland where you’re madder
than I am” (19). “I’m with you in Rockland” becomes a repeated phrase
that causes the section to read as a sympathy card from Ginsberg to
Solomon. Solomon comes to represent what the author considers to be a
The last section, “Footnote to Howl,” actually a separate poem, offers
a cure for the social illness represented by Moloch in part two.
Ginsberg has consciously designed these two sections to be roughly
parallel to each other. The name “Moloch” is replaced with the word
“holy”. Consider the following two passages from part two and
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose
skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!
Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog!
Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities! (17)
Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! Holy the
of tears under the streets! (21)
Identical raw materials are presented in both cases (skyscrapers,
pavement), but the substitution of the words provides two very different
perspectives; one of ugliness and one of the understanding of the
holiness in everything.
Very few themes overlap the three sections and footnote to “Howl”. Two
that provide a thematic groundwork for the poem are time and religion.
Time is presented as the main difference between the two struggling
realms of existence in the poem. The “hipsters” time is eternal, not
the chronological time of real-world existence. During their journey
toward timelessness, the “hipsters”, “threw their watches off the roof
to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell
on their heads every day for the next decade” (13). In pursuing
“timelessness” the “hipsters” are punished by “Time”. On the other
hand, there is the destructive time which destroys the “mad
generation”. Time, therefore, becomes a symbol of two separate realms
of existence: the “square” reads time by a clock while the “hipster”
reads the holy “clocks in space” which tell him that time does not
matter — that truth is timeless.
The second theme present in the poem is religion. The poem reads at
times like scripture, with words like “blessed” used repeatedly. Other
times, the religion of the poem is internal. Kenneth Rexroth states
that the writing is “prophetic”. “There are prophets of the Bible,” he
says, “which it greatly resembles in purpose and in language and in
subject matter . . . The theme is the denunciation of evil and a
pointing out of the way out, so to speak” (Rexroth 68). Another
underlying religious theme is that of persecution, such as that of those
“who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow
toward lonesome farms in the grandfather night” (11), and those “who
were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid
blasts of leaden verse . . . or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of
Absolute Reality” (14). These themes of time and religion give the poem
an eternal and prophetic quality that has remained unrivaled in modern
This examination of “Howl”?s history, structure, and themes brings to
light the poem?s ultimate importance to the history of American
literature and society. The Beat Generation of writers offered the
world a new attitude. They brought to society a consciousness of a life
worth living. They offered a method of escape from the stultifying,
unimaginative world we live in through the exploration of one?s
intellect. Allen Ginsberg?s “Howl” does all of these things and more in
generation” toward a reality that is timeless and placeless, holy and