As you read the first lines of ?Howl? and ?Kaddish?, the overall tone of the poem hits you right in the face. Allen Ginsberg, the poet, presents these two poems as complaints and injustices. He justifies these complaints in the pages that follow. Ginsberg also uses several literary techniques in these works to enhance the images for the reader. His own life experiences are mentioned in the poems, the majority of his works being somewhat biographical. It is said that Allen Ginsberg was ahead of his time, but in fact he was just riding the wave of a literature revolution.
The decade of the 1950?s was a time of change. America and the world was experiencing a transition from innocence to a more knowledgeable society. Revolutions in all aspects of life were going on: civil rights, sexual, rock and roll and the introduction of new experimental drugs in the communities of San Francisco and Greenwich Village. Out of all of these revolutions came the beat generation, a group of young Bohemian writers who wrote and thought about the things that Americans used to ?throw under the rug?. Names can be mentioned: Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Felinghetti. Perhaps the most famous and most criticized of these ?beatniks? is Allen Ginsberg.
Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His mother, Naomi, was a Russian immigrant, and his father Louis was a poet and Paterson, NJ teacher. Allen?s childhood was not always a happy one; Naomi went back and forth from mental hospitals and endured the physical abuse of Louis. She also had Communist leanings, thinking that spies were out to get her and that Hitler was on the way. All of these are mentioned in some of Allen?s works, the topic of many of them.
After being dismissed from Columbia University, he joined the merchant marines and sailed to the West Coast. In San Francisco he befriended young men just like himself: angry, pessimistic about the future, confused about their sexuality, and not knowing what their place in life really was. After he was released from the merchant marines, he went back to the Bay Area. These young men began to hold meetings where they would read poems and share ideas. They also formed a sense of friendship, because they were all that they really had.
?Howl? is a three part poem written in 1955 to his friend Carl Solomon. In it he talk about the ?best minds of my generation destroyed by madness? ?It destructively catalogues evils of our time from physical deprivation to madness? (Eberhart, Page 25). The first part of ?Howl? is a list of the atrocities that have allegedly been endured by Ginsberg and his friends. These atrocities accumulate to form a desperate critique of a civilization that has set up a power structure that determines everything people do. This power structure is dictated by the conservative society of America. The theme of the poem is given in the first part: it is one of question, seeing the things going on and hoping things get better. By ?burning their money in wastebaskets? he shows that anyone who does not fit into societies mold is made to feel that life is hopeless. The imagery used here is very well placed- dark ?Negro? streets give a picture of gloominess, ?angry fix? deals with the consumption of drugs. He really blames society for his friends going ?mad? when in fact they are not, they are just different. So much pain and pressure is put on them that they are ?demanding instantaneous lobotomy? Ginsberg is also aware of the fact that these atrocities are not just occurring in San Francisco and New York but in all of America, big and small. He mentions Houston, Chicago, Denver, North Carolina, etc. No one is excluded from the changes that are happening.
The allusion in the first part of the poem reflects the tone and the way that Ginsberg feels about the future of the world. You can be ?listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox? which is of course in reference to the hydrogen bomb. The ever growing threat of nuclear war loomed over the 1950?s and Ginsberg was no exception to the rule. ?Howl is the confession of faith of the generation that is going to be running the world in 1965 and 1975, if it is still there to run? (Rexroth, Page 32) ?The sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down and wailed down wall, and the Staten Island Ferry also wailed?. In this he mentions wails and walls, which is not only alliteration, but it is also a double interpretation. It is meant to be Wall Street because of the Staten Island Ferry and the New York connection but also the Wailing Wall in Israel. People go to the wall to pray, perhaps Ginsberg is suggesting we get down on our knees and start to pray ourselves to prepare for what is to come. ?Hothead Golgotha? is another Biblical allusion to the place where Jesus was crucified. The Jews were perhaps to hasty in crucifying Jesus, therefore they were a bunch of hotheads. Ginsberg is telling us to be more cautious in our words and actions before we ?crucify? another innocent.
There are some similarities between the early Christians and the Beatniks. Both groups were trying to introduce a time of change in their respective societies- one with religion and the other with people?s way of thinking in general. They were both persecuted; the Christians were stoned, fed to lions, and martyred. The Beatniks were stoned (no pun intended) as well-but verbally via reviews and the conservative society deeming them outcasts. Eventually the Christians and the Beatniks won their fights. Christianity became a major world religion and the Beatnik way of thinking about drug use and homosexuality (as well as their writing) became more widespread.
Part two of ?Howl?, written under the influence of peyote, is an accusation: ?What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashes open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?? The who from the first part is now replaced with a WHAT, which creates a more hostile tone. He compares the ear of people to a ?smoking tomb?, in effect saying that it is dead and will not listen to anything he or anyone else has to say. Once again Ginsberg alludes to the hydrogen bomb in the line ?whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen? When the end of the world comes, the sexual preference or the gender of a person will not matter; they will be dead anyway. Ginsberg is frustrated with the majority of people who will not accept the fact of homosexuality. The hostility shines through when he screams ?Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!? Each phrase is ended with an exclamation point. He repeats the word Moloch is almost every line, which is a god of the Ammonites and Phoenicians to whom parents offered their children to be burnt in sacrifice. Perhaps this is some sort of litany or prayer to this god, Ginsberg feels that society is offering their children, the outcasts, to be sacrificed.
Part three begins like a peptalk or a get well card: ?Carl Solomon! I?m with you in Rockland where you are madder than I am? This final section of the poem unfolds as once again Ginsberg uses the image of Golgotha in ?where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against fascist national Golgotha? The most obvious of techniques in ?Howl?, and in the last part is the use of repetition. ?It is Biblical in its repetitive grammatical buildup. It is a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit, assuming that the louder and more often you shout the more likely you are to be heard? (Eberhart, Page 25) The repetition of who and with in the first part, Moloch in the second and I?m with you in Rockland in the third also give the impression that Ginsberg is impatient, he wants to be heard and he will repeat himself until his ideas get through to the public. Indeed, the ideas did get across, the poem was banned in several cities and states, including San Francisco, home of the Beatniks. After ten years had passed, people began to realize the reality of this poem, and even though it was raw and straightforward, it made them think about themselves. It certainly did in the case of the author of this paper.
Kaddish is a five pat poem written in 1959. It deals with the life of Naomi Ginsberg, her frequent stays at mental hospitals, her separation with Allen?s father, further deterioration, and finally her demise. He also touches on the subject of Jewish assimilation in a predominantly Christian world. Like ?Howl? the tone is often one of hopelessness and sometimes rage. It is often considered Ginsberg?s best work. Critics have called it ?a breakthrough? (Shapiro, Page 86). Different than many of his other causes, Naomi Ginsberg was perhaps the only thing that Allen truly loved in the world.
This poem really in fact is a Kaddish (a Jewish prayer recited by mourners). Even though Ginsberg may portray his mother in very vulgar terms he is still paying homage to her and expressing his sorrow at her death. ?He lets the appalling story speak for itself? (Alvarez, Page 92) Her life was indeed a horrible one, and maybe it was better off it she was dead. Allen missed her anyway.
The first part of the poem, is basically a meditation-one where Ginsberg asks many rhetorical questions. The subject of an after life comes up, Ginsberg is pondering what his mother is doing after she died. It ends with part of a Jewish plsam. Their is one line in the first section that sticks out ?All the accumulations of life- that wear is out-clocks, bodies, consciousness, shoes, breasts, begotten sons, your communism, ?paranoia? into hospitals?. This is a list of all the things that Ginsberg says aided to the death of his mother-time, age, awareness, fatigue, womanhood, childbearing, personal views, and society?s beliefs. In saying this, Ginsberg partly blames himself for the death of his mother. This thought ties the first to the second part, which details a trip to the metal hospital and Allen taking his mother to New Jersey where she believes that the spies will not get to her.
The second part of the poem is perhaps the hardest to interpret and certainly the longest. Ginsberg mentions the times of the ?gray? depression. He does have a point by saying gray; which is a word that means bleak as opposed to great which is used more often in a positive sense. The name of Franklin Roosevelt is also mentioned- ?invisible bugs and Jewish sickness breeze poisoned by Roosevelt?. This alludes to either the poison of the atomic bomb or the poison of the Holocaust- that Roosevelt could have prevented.
As his mother was ill, so was the society she lived in ?silent polished desks in the great committee room?Crapp the gangster issuing orders from the john? As his mother?s life was failing, so was the innocence of life. Corruption was taking over and poisoning America and Naomi Ginsberg. When Allen mentions his brother Eugene and how he becomes ?Gentile like?, the tone is not one of respect or admiration. The Jewish culture was dying as young Jewish men dropped their identity, and so was Naomi Ginsberg. Whatever advice Naomi gave her son he did not follow. She tells him to ?get married and don?t take drugs? while he went out and did the opposite of both. The final line in this section is ?the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window?. Outside the world is a delight, but you will never be able to experience it firsthand. You will always be on the inside looking out, but never be able to touch it.
The third section is short and terse; it does what the first and second have already accomplished. It is a more succinct summary of the life of Naomi Ginsberg. Not many examples of techniques exist in this part of the poem except that Naomi?s ?universe? is one of ?gray tables in long wards?. Although Ginsberg loved her, he does not outwardly express it, at least not in these words. Section four is written in a litany like format. It does sound like a Kaddish that Ginsberg may say in the memory of his mother. The ending with ?your death is full of flowers? reaffirms this position that Ginsberg felt that death was the best thing for his mother. The last section of the poem is a continuation of the litany of the fourth part only it has Ginsberg playing the part of a bird. Each other word is followed by an annoying ?caw?. The point of this last section can not really be determined, it would have ended better with section four.
Although the topics of ?Howl? and ?Kaddish? are different, the overall tone and writing format are still the same. ?He has said what he wanted to say with all the force of his original impulse, and with nothing left out? (Shapiro, Page 89) The pessimistic and hopeless overtones of both poems may be a little over the top. These were Allen Ginsberg?s feelings for the future and for life. They are real worries or a real person. Even if the nuclear arms race may be over, there was at least one time in everyone?s life that we felt the same way Ginsberg feels. It is with that feeling that we can believe and relate to these two poems.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and other Poems City Lights Books San Francisco 1956
Ginsberg, Allen Kaddish and other Poems City Lights Books San Francisco 1961
Merill, Thomas. Allen Ginsberg Twayne Publishers Boston 1988
Stephanchev, Stephen. American Poetry Since 1945 Harper and Row Publishers New York 1965
Turco, Lewis. Visions and Revisions of American Poetry The University of Arkansas Press Fayetteville, AK 1986
1) Eberhart, Richard ?West Coast Rhythms? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
2) Rexroth, Kenneth ?San Francisco Letter? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
3) Eberhart, Richard ?West Coast Rhythms? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
4) Grossman, Allen ?Allen Ginsberg:The Jew as an American Poet? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
5) Shapiro, Harvey. ?Exalted Comfort? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
6) Alvarez, A. ?Ginsberg and the Herd Instinct? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
7) Shaprio, Harvey. ?Exalted Comfort? from On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg?