Throughout the ages of poetry, there is a poet who stands alone, a prominent figure who represents the beliefs and mor s of the time. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Beatnik era in America brought forth poets who wrote vivid, realistic poetry in response to the rise of bigotry, crimes against the innocent, and the loss of faith in the national government. With little euphemism, they wrote about homosexual sex, drug abuse, and other brazen topics. Of this Beat Generation, as they were called, Allen Ginsberg rises above the rest as the pseudo-poet laureate of the group (Burns 125). His most well-known poem, “HOWL”, caused an incredible amount of controversy; however, it also forever changed the world of poetry.
Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926 to an upstanding middle class Jewish family. In a lifetime of literary accomplishment, he has moved from the position of a curiosity on the borders of society to become the hero of a broad-based subculture. In 1943, Ginsberg entered Columbia University where he met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, two names that would later join him as fathers of a literary/social movement known as the Beat Generation. Ginsberg’s subject matter focused on the activities of his social circle and included such things as drug use and homosexual sex. These topics hadn’t been written about so openly, without some sort of literary masking before. Ginsberg’s far-ranging, wildly expressive style greatly impacted the evolution of modern literature. His literary odyssey created a vast legacy of poetry and the publication of many books of poetry and prose. Perhaps most notable, “Howl,” was published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. A landmark court decision found “Howl” to be “not obscene” (Ehrlich 57).
Allen Ginsberg’s monumental poem was first heard in a series of famous readings that signaled the arrival of the Beat Generation of writers. The first of these readings took place in October 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was Allen Ginsberg’s first public performance, and it made him instantly famous at the age of twenty-nine.
The poem is part Walt Whitman, part Old Testament hellfire ranting, and one-hundred-percent performance art. The lines in the famous first part of the poem tumble over each other in long unbroken breaths, all adding to a single endless sentence:
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 5)
The rhythms of the rolling, crashing words portray a vivid picture of Ginsberg’s friends and their numerous adventures across America. Ginsberg is describing his fellow travelers, the crazy, lonely members of his community of misunderstood poet artists, unpublished novelists, psychotics, radicals, pranksters, sexual deviants and junkies. At the time that he wrote this he’d seen several of his promising young friends broken or killed:
who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island Ferry also wailed, who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons, who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in police cars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication … (Ginsberg 7)
Each of these describe real-life events by people Ginsberg knew, but the poem is especially dedicated to Carl Solomon, Ginsberg’s insane hyper-intellectual friend who he’d met in a mental hospital years before. In the poem, Ginsberg makes mention of Solomon’s actions at a lecture where he threw potato salad at the professor teaching on Dadaism. It is Carl Solomon’s insanity that drove Ginsberg to write this poem, especially because it reminded him of his mother’s own unspeakable insanity (which he finally wrote about in ‘Kaddish,’ but here he can only say ‘with mother finally ******’). Carl’s insanity also reminds him of himself (Hyde 22).
This first section of the poem is a seven page typed list of “all the spirits broken, impaired , or thoroughly destroyed by a force he would not name until the second part of the poem.” (Burns 104). Since he did not feel that he was writing for publication, Ginsberg felt free to experiment. He replaced his normally short lines with the Kerouac and jazz influenced long line. He employed a cataloguing style similar to that used by Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” and he broke the long lines into a triadic ladder structure that he learned from William Carlos Williams.
Ginsberg describes the poem’s structure as a “huge sad comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin’s walk, long saxophone -like chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear the sound of.” (Schumacher 220)
Part I of Howl was not completed , though, in the order in which it now appears. Ginsberg went back over the poem, categorizing each stanza thematically from A to D. He then grouped the stanzas accordingly.
B. Lines relating to the “break of life between the womb of college days and the shock and alienation entering the world, making a crippled living outside of family and academic shelter–this motif accounting vocational failure or readjustment, leaving the city, or nervous breakdown, typical post-college crisis.” (Schumacher 226)
C. Lines “grouping together personal apocalypsis, estrangement, breakthrough to social solitude, disaster or triumph, mixed illumination and/or madness, travel, unthinkable dramas, comedies and tragedies of maturation–arrest, hospitalization, outcast status–degradation and transcendence.
D. Verses conjoin images of practical transformation of self-defeat and social ignominy into conscious illumination via artworks for Eternity, ‘Calling the Great Call’ of candor and actuality: ‘alchemy of the use of the [ellipsis]‘ (haiku), ‘catalogue’ (Whitman), a ‘relative measure [the meter]” (W.C. Williams), the “vibrating plane” (Cezanne).
With this technique Ginsberg was able to “rearrange and rehook the verses into their appropriate groups and refine rhythm, syntax, and diction to create an even and elastic flow verse to verse. Part III of “Howl” utilizes a similar cataloguing technique.
The first part of the poem, the single long sentence, gives way to the second part, a long curse spit at Moloch, ’sphinx of cement and aluminum’. According to Biblical tradition, Moloch was a Canaanite idol to whom children had been sacrificed as burnt offerings. In Leviticus 18:21: ‘You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.’ Moloch appears in the poetry of Milton and Coleridge. Ginsberg is cursing the false idols to which human beings are still sacrificed today.
The second portion of “Howl” was written one evening after Ginsberg had gone for a walk along the streets of San Francisco under the influence of peyote. The Francis Drake Hotel appeared to Ginsberg to be a gigantic cycloptic monster. Ginsberg described it as “Uprising in the timeless city gloom, Dark Tower above ruddy building, suddenly a vision the Death Head–The building an evil monster–A tower in Hell–(”Those poor souls making it up in the tower”)–Two eyes blast light far apart brick glass illuminated from within–A painter might make it look like a surrealistic reality, that would be too corny–this is deep gong religious. Impassive robot (antannalike structure) of Sir Francis Drake Hotel. And quite vegetable that monster too–it may be coming to eat me someday…”
Ginsberg focused on the vision in the second part of “Howl” and named it after Moloch, the Canaanite fire god who was worshipped in a ceremony in which parents sacrificed their children. In the poem Moloch becomes society and is named as the entity responsible for the madness and destruction showcased in Part I.
Part II has been compared to a jazz piece in three movements: 1. “Hot saxaphonic expressions, reminiscent of the jazz lines of Charlie Parker and Lester Young. 2. “Short sqwawks or statements, not unlike those played by Miles Davis. 3. “Cool bluesey and lyrical feeling similar to the moody music played by John Coltrane.” (Ehrlich 73) This similar cataloguing style is utilized in Part III of the poem, but the focus is more personal.
Ginsberg’s stay in the mental ward was not intended to help him realize his desire for life to be a “sweet humane surprise.” Ginsberg tried to conform, returned after several months to Paterson, dated women, and found a job. He was miserable until he moved to California in 1954 and began seeing a $1 an hour psychiatrist at the university in Berkeley. In San Francisco Ginsberg saw another psychiatrist, Philip Hicks, who asked him what he would like to do. “Doctor,” as Ginsberg recalls his answer, “I don’t think you’re going to find this very healthy and clear, but I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.” Then he said “Well, why don’t you?”
In the third part, Ginsberg says: “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland,” and imagines Solomon behind the walls of the upstate New York psychiatric hospital. This section is followed by a ‘Footnote to Howl,’ in which the name of Moloch is replaced by the word ‘Holy’.
“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is eternity! Everyman’s an angel! (Ginsberg 22)
There’s nothing like a good obscenity trial to turn the high school kids of America onto a work they’d otherwise ignore. In the case of ‘Howl,’ the line about “saintly motorcyclists fucking somebody up the ass” brought the wrath of the right-wing. Moloch played his role to perfection, confiscating 520 copies of the City Lights Pocket Poets edition of ‘Howl and Other Poems’ in March 1956. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of City Lights Books, was arrested and bailed out by the ACLU, who led the legal defense. Nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf. Ferlinghetti later described the prosecution’s attempt at building a case: “The prosecution put only two ‘expert witnesses’ on the stand — both very lame samples of academia — one from the Catholic University of San Francisco and one a private elocution teacher, a beautiful woman, who said, ‘You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn’t linger on it too long, I assure you.’” Ferlinghetti was found innocent of publishing obscene books and was quickly set free.
Though this is Ginsberg’s most famous poem, when a friend of mine asked him to sign a copy of it at a poetryreading he said, “This isn’t my best work.” The year of 1955 was particularly difficult for Allen Ginsberg. Seeking a new creative direction after failing to get his collectionEmpty Mirror published, he decided to take his analyst’s advice and quit his day job, move in with his lover (Peter Orlovsky,) and devote all of his time to poetry. Having quit his job, though, he found himself plagued with financial difficulties. Living with his lover led to emotional problems; and to top it off he was suffering writer’s block.
These problems led Ginsberg to begin studying Buddhism under his friend and fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac. With the practice of Dhyana meditation, he hoped to attain a level of heightened consciousness similar to that he experienced during his visions of William Blake. It would take a great deal of study, however, until his Buddhist studies became infused into his work. In the meantime he immersed himself in Classical Greek and Roman poetry, Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese odes, and the works of Herman Hesse, in addition to classical Buddhist texts such as the “Surangama Sutra.”
What seems to have had the strongest influence on Ginsberg’s new writings of this period, however, was not literature but rather the painting of Paul Cezanne. Studying biographies of the painter and color reproductions of his work, Ginsberg sought to understand how Cezanne “juxtaposed planes and made use of what he called ‘petite
sensation’ in such a way as to induce quick flashes of illumination in those looking at his works.” “The Great Bathers” utilizes juxtapositioning of bathers in the foreground with a townscape in the background. It was this painting which provided Ginsberg with the “illuminative flash” comparable to his Blake vision. He would now seek the same effect with his poetry. The object would be to juxtapose written imagery in such a way as to produce what he and Kerouac referred to as “eyeball kicks.”
In “Dream Record: June 8, 1955″ Ginsberg recorded a dream in which he was back in Mexico having a conversation with Joan Vollmer, the accidentally murdered wife of William Burroughs. Devoting parts of the poem to passages about the dream, and parts to passages about Vollmer’s death, he was moderately successful in achieving the “petite sensation” effect. But despite praise by William Burroughs for the poem, Ginsberg was still basically blocked. He attempted unsuccessfully to complete two other larger works, and was only able to write in “flashes,” single lines of imagery recorded haphazardly in his journals. There was one line though, which he would soon return to alter somewhat and expand on greatly:”I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned…” The poem which would grow out of this line was, of course,”Howl.” And quite a growth it was. Ginsberg’s lover Orlovsky had recently left on a hitchhiking trip of the east coast, and Ginsberg now had some much needed solitude. One August afternoon Ginsberg was visited by the muse; she came back with a vengeance. In a few short hours the entire first section of “Howl” was finished. Ginsberg described how he:
“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 only a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth.”
He is an extraordinarily prolific artist, having had over forty books published and eleven albums produced. Alien’s friendship and literary experimentation with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs began in 1945, and a decade later as this core group expanded to include other poets and writers, it came to be known as the “Beat Generation.” (Hyde 72).
He has received numerous honors, including the National Book Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, National Arts Club Medal, 1986 Struga Festival Golden Wreath, and the Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins Medal of Honor for Literary Excellence 1989. A potent figure in the cultural revolution of the sixties, he has been arrested with Dr. Benjamin Spock for blocking the Whitehall Draft Board steps, has testified at the U.S. Senate hearings for the legalization of psychedelics and been teargassed for chanting “Om” at the Lincoln Park Yippie Life Festival at the 1968 Presidential convention in Chicago.
His Collected Poems 1947-1980, were published in 1984 with White Shroud and the 30th Anniversary Howl annotated issue in 1 986. Several books of his photographs and a recordlCD of his poetry-jazz album, The Lion for Real, appeared in 1989. He is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and is a Distinguished Professor at Brooklyn College and a member of the Executive Board of PEN American Center. A practicing Buddhist, Alien cofounded Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. In 1997 the Beat Generation lost their beloved poet, and Allen Ginsberg became a legend (Schumacher 312).