Social Pressures Reflected in Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Post World War II America produced a number of images that will be forever imprinted on the minds of Americans. Such images as television shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “I Love Lucy,” movies such as “An Affair To Remember,” and “Brigadoon,” are watched frequently even in today’s society. But in this world of fairytale movies and the “American Dream,” what about those who didn’t fit into the picture of perfection and prosperity? These men became the basis of an underground network of dissident writers, teachers, artists and filmmakers. Often a reaction against the strict standards of normalcy held by the American public and the bureaucracy of the government, their work not only carried them through the 50’s and 60’s, but continues to inspire those who are exposed to it.
The literature from this generation was defined clearly by two works; “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac, and “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg. These writings were a stark reality check for the American people who lived in their idealistic neighborhoods. With the expressed purpose of bringing the reality of aberration to society, Allen Ginsberg created a masterpiece in “Howl.” It is the portrayal of the lives of many of his closest friends and associates, among them, Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.
“Howl,” published in 1956, is a poem in three parts. The first, and perhaps most quoted section, explains how Allen Ginsberg saw “the best minds” of his generation “destroyed by madness.” He carefully describes the repression his group faced because of their beliefs and actions. The American society did not accept Ginsberg’s homosexuality, his political beliefs, or his use of drugs. His friends were condemned in many of the same ways. This was a major source of anger and frustration in Ginsberg’s life, and was a prevalent theme in his poetry, as in “America.” The first line, “America, go f*** yourself,” quickly gets to the point, obviously not skirting around the topic or language. Such is the same in “Howl.”
Ginsberg does not spare the ‘innocent’ reader. When one analyzes the social power of Ginsberg’s statements, one can come easily to the conclusion that society was not exactly welcoming to Ginsberg, and he reacted to that through his writing, especially in “Howl.”
The second portion of “Howl” is commonly considered by critics to be the most complicated for the average mind to comprehend. In this section, nearly every thing is described as a ‘Moloch.’ Moloch, in mythology was a God to whom children were sacrificed. Now, the term is commonly used to describe anything responsible for destroying innocence. In Part II, Ginsberg describes nearly everything about American culture to be a Moloch. Even society’s viewpoints are Molochs. In a way, Ginsberg is calling America itself a Moloch, and then continuing to describe parts of the whole.
“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!” (Ginsberg 21)
The third section of “Howl” is a striking contrast to the other two parts. It seems almost soft, gentle, more relaxed than the exclamations of repression and objection in the first sections. The third section is written directly to Ginsberg’s lover, Carl Solomon. Each stanza, save the first, begins “I’m with you in Rockland.” Carl Solomon was being held in a mental institution in Rockland for killing 12 secretaries, and was only allowed to be visited by Ginsberg twice a week. This caused Ginsberg great grief. He had once spent 18 months in such a place, and thus understood the feelings of his lover. Each stanza addresses comments made to Ginsberg by Solomon in letters.
The subject of Ping-Pong comes up frequently in much of “Howl,” and it is believed to represent the emotions of Ginsberg in relation to his changing perspective of American society.
In addition to the three parts of “Howl,” Ginsberg also wrote a footnote to the poem, which ironically was completed before the poem was. The footnote, barely two pages long, describes exactly what Ginsberg didn’t name as Moloch. These things are Holy, and many ‘Holy’ things in Ginsberg’s mind are people that he was closely associated with.
Allen Ginsberg, in this final part of “Howl” reflects on his life, and points out all the good things. It is ironically the happier end to a blatantly Hellish poem.
“It is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from life in these pages. The wonder of the thing is not that he has survived but that he, from the very depths has found a fellow whom he can love, a love he celebrates without looking aside in [Howl]. Say what you will, he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer to a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist.”
Allen Ginsberg endured more in a span of thirty years than most would have to deal with in two lifetimes. His ability to face the world and the society that drove him to such lengths was amazing. He is truly the epitome of perseverance.
In a society where Ginsberg, nor any of his kind, was accepted in to the daily works, he proved that the life of one person honestly can change the world. His contribution to literature is the greatest of his time, and should be admired for the courage in adversity shown throughout all his works. A great man, Hubert H. Humphrey once said, “The great challenge which faces us is to assure that, in our society of big-ness, we do not strangle the voice of creativity, that the rules of the game do not come to overshadow its purpose, that the grand orchestration of society leaves ample room for the man who marches to the music of a different drummer.” If this is indeed the great challenge facing all of us, Ginsberg certainly pushed America and Americans in the right direction with poems like “Howl,” proving that endurance will win out over adversity if we, like
Ginsberg, would only have the patience to persevere.