Beat Generation


Beat Generation Essay, Research Paper

The Howl of a Generation

The “Beat Movement” in modern literature has become an important period

in the history of literature and society in America. Incorporating

influences such as jazz, art, literature, philosophy, and religion, the

Beat writers created a new and prophetic vision of modern life and

changed the way an entire generation of people see the world. That

generation is now aging and its representative voices are becoming lost

to eternity, but the message is alive and well. The Beats have forever

altered the nature of American consciousness.

The impact of the Beats would certainly not have been as universal or

influential if not for the writing of one poem; “Howl” by Allen


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?(1-3)

These lines, perhaps the most well known in 20th century poetry, serve

as a thematic statement for a poem that offers a new way of thinking, a

sense of hope of escape from the “Molochs” of society. The story of the

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

actual creation of the poem, its legendary first reading, and the

aftermath of its public debut all figure prominently into the history of

the literary movement. One can understand the impact of the poem on 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.

Ginsberg?s Beat career began at Columbia University in 1943 where he

met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassidy and others. This

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

inspiration. Having moved away from the camaraderie of his group of New

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

of experience beyond the bounds of what was permissible ? by 50?s

academic standards ? to speak of in poetry.

Battling writer?s block, Ginsberg decided to enroll in graduate school

at U.C. Berkeley, moved to North Beach, and moved in with a friend of

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

himself with a computer, ensuring himself unemployment benefits for six

months. He and Orlovsky moved into an apartment together and Ginsberg

began writing. In July of 1955, Ginsberg wrote a line in his journal,

“I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned,” thinking of his

friend Carl Solomon. A week or so later, Ginsberg sat down in 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

poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth.

As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had

nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies

most intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of family,

formal education, business and current literature (Art 44).

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

lines were short, influenced by Williams, and the phrases showed

inspiration of soaring jazz saxophone riffs. “I knew Kerouac would hear

the sound,” Ginsberg later said (Parkinson 114). The author revised his

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.

The legendary reading led to the publishing of the collection and,

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.

Obviously, however, a literary work does not become a modern classic by

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

generation? This question is best explored beginning with Ginsberg?s

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”

to total openness and honesty. “I thought I wouldn?t write a poem,” he

explains, “but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my

imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind

? sum up my life ? something I wouldn?t be able to show anybody, write

for my own soul?s ear and a few other golden ears” (Notes). A second

aspect of the total creative freedom of the poem is metrical. Ginsberg

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,

was, “typed out madly in one afternoon, a tragic custard-pie comedy of

wild phrasing [and] meaningless images” (Notes). In order to read

“Howl” properly, one must avoid the impulse to search for a logical or

rational connection of ideas. Analysis or explanation of the poem would

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

into a given line. The poem achieves this with the help of an escape

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.

The other aspect of the poem which brings the language to life is its

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

same line. This is the voice of the Beat Generation, at once reacting

against the increasingly commercial and conformist Eisenhower years and

celebrating the rise of a new counterculture.

The power of “Howl” goes far beyond what is achieved through technical

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

of this theme to a specific individual, Carl Solomon, who is undergoing

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.

Part two of “Howl”, written under the influence of peyote, is an

accusation: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open the skulls

and ate up their brains and imagination?” (17). Here, the antagonist is

named as “Moloch,” who becomes the symbol for social illness. It is

perhaps most constructive to read this part simply as an indictment of

those elements in modern society that lead to the “Mad generation” being

hurled “down upon the rocks of Time” (18).

Part three begins on a note of compassion and identification, directed

at Carl

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

general condition.

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

“footnote”, respectively:

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

cafeterias filled with millions! Holy the mysterious rivers

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

an unforgettable, inspirational way. The poem points the way toward a

new and better existence, chronicling the pilgrimage of the “mad

generation” toward a reality that is timeless and placeless, holy and


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