If you read just one poem in your lifetime, it should be “Howl.” This poem not only captures and expresses the unspoken reality of post-WWII America, but it shattered social taboos and paved the way for artistic expression that continues today. It is truly a masterpiece.
The poem is much too long to include here. You can click here to read it online; or better yet, go and purchase a copy from your local indie bookstore. Ginsberg would certainly approve of that.
The poem begins with one of the greatest poetical openings ever, in my opinion:
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,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
It is free-form poetry that has a distinct rhythm. I’ve heard it compared with Walt Whitman, and I can see that, but the rhythm is unique and heavily influenced by the jazz music of that period. Reading the words, the cadence makes me feel like I am in a smoke-filled basement and losing myself in hypnotic beats.
In addition to the long, winding lines of verse, Ginsberg brilliantly uses alliteration to create the musical feel of the poem. The following line is a great example of this, where he uses the “B” sound to accent the verse and drive the natural rhythm of the language.
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
The 1950’s were a time of repression. Thinking and acting in a way that didn’t fit in with the social mores could be very dangerous. As a result, people began exploring new spiritual and intellectual paths. Ginsberg expresses this searching and longing in the poem.
who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,
who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,
who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,
who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels,
who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,
Travel and mysticism were not the only ways in which Ginsberg and his contemporaries searched for meaning in their world. They also turned to sex and drugs, and for Ginsberg, this was open homosexuality, something that was not accepted at that time. Ginsberg expresses his homosexuality with frank openness, something which led to an attempt to ban the poem as pornographic. Thankfully, the courts upheld the artistic value of the poem in one of the landmark censorship cases.
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
The poem is divided into three parts. The second part focuses on Moloch. Moloch was a god worshiped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who required parents to sacrifice their children by fire. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) Ginsberg adopts the symbol of Moloch and employs it as a metaphor for America. People were expected to sacrifice themselves and their children to a culture that demanded obedience, crushed individuality, and thought of people as nothing more than cogs in the great wheel of capitalist consumerism. It was a society where money was God.
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
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!
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 smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
The third section of the poem is all about how Ginsberg relates with Carl Solomon, to whom the entire poem is dedicated. Solomon was a writer who was influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism. He was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to shock therapy. (Source: Wikipedia) In the final section, Ginsberg uses the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” to express solidarity, and most importantly, to assert that, like Solomon, we are all institutionalized. We are all trapped within the society that seeks to dull our minds with the continuous zapping of our thoughts. All creativity and deviation from the societal norms is systematically extinguished by a culture that demands conformity.
Again, I cannot stress enough how important this poem is. It is one of the most ground-breaking works of literature ever. While I have your attention, I’ll also recommend watching the film “Howl” starring James Franco, which has some great reenactments of the court sessions where Lawrence Ferlinghetti from City Lights Books was on trial for publishing Howl and Other Poems.
Finally, there is a “Footnote to Howl” which stands alone poetically. You can probably guess what my next post will be.
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