Tag Archives: walt whitman

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

HowlIf 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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“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

It took me quite a while, but I finally finished reading all of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. My overall feeling is that I now have a deep sense of who Walt Whitman was and what it was like to be an American during that period in history.

Whitman’s poems parallel his own journey through life, from youth to old age, as well as the coming of age of America as a country. I see the poems structured into four categories: youth/pre-Civil War; early adult/Civil War; adult/post Civil War; and old age/the future.

The earlier poems reflect a youthful optimism, both for himself and the young America. The poems exude wonder and the promise of infinite possibility. Whitman captures the growth of the new country and is thrilled by everything that it has to offer.

Then came the Civil War and the poems take on a sense of boldness as he struggles to make sense of the chaos around him. Common themes of turbulent waters appear in these poems, as he must have felt himself tossed about by the throes of war. During this period, Whitman served as a medic and witnessed first-hand the graphic horror of warfare.

When the war ended, Whitman was a mature adult, and the poems from this period reflect this maturity as he ponders the change in America. The assassination of President Lincoln at this time also figures prominently, most notably in “O Captain! My Captain!” (see my earlier blog post about this poem).

Finally, in old age, Whitman’s poems become reflective on his past, his earlier writings, and the future. He meditates on what his legacy may be and what lays ahead for the country that meant so much to him. He sums this up beautifully in the poem “L. of G.’s Purport”:

Begun in ripen’d youth and steadily pursued,
Wandering, peering, dallying with all–war, peace, day and night absorbing,
Never even for one brief hour abandoning my task,
I end it here in sickness, poverty, and old age.

I could continue to write about the poems in this book, but poetry should really be experienced on a personal level. I encourage you to buy a nice hardcover or leather-bound version of this book and spend the time reading through it. It may not be the greatest collection of poems ever written, but I would venture to say it is the greatest collection of American poems ever written.

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“The Sleepers” by Walt Whitman

I read this poem today while sitting outside under a shady tree in my backyard. I think that reading Whitman outdoors adds to the experience.

The general metaphor running through the poem is that of sleep representing death. I found myself drifting back to Shakespeare: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Whitman also equates awakening with rebirth in a way that makes me feel that Whitman believed in the concept of reincarnation. Finally, sleep is portrayed as the great equalizer, to which all must at some point succumb.

There is one particular word that caused me to contemplate this poem more deeply, and that is “infolds” in the following line: “The night pervades them and infolds them.” Now, it’s possible that Whitman meant “enfolds,” but I’m not convinced, and “infolds” changes the meaning completely for me. I see enfolding as enveloping and covering, as opposed to infolding which I interpret as folding in upon oneself, more like internalizing. So if you look at the line like that, death causes one to infold and internalize all of the physical self into the spiritual self, or the internal. This would be similar to the concept of your life flashing before your eyes at the moment of your death.

Click here if you’d like to read this poem online, but you may want to print it and read it while sitting outside under a tree.

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“There Was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman

Last night, I was reading poems from Leaves of Grass and came across “There Was a Child Went Forth” (click here to read it online). The poem essentially talks about how everything that a person comes in contact with, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has an impact on that person’s development. Essentially, we are the combined imprints of all that we have been exposed to. I truly believe this myself, and as a result have always sought to experience as much of life as possible and to try new things.

There was a particular stanza that resonated with me:

His own parents, he that had father’d him and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that,
They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

Reading this as a parent, I couldn’t help thinking about how much of an influence I have on my children. Thankfully, I seem to have had a positive impact on their lives, since they are doing far better than I was when I was their age. I suppose that is the best I can hope for, to give them a good foundation before they go forth on their own path through life.

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“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

I have been slowly working my way through Leaves of Grass, reading some poems between other books, or when I feel inspired. This morning I read “O Captain! My Captain!” which I was first exposed to in the film “Dead Poets Society.”

In the poem, Whitman expresses his feelings of loss over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is the Captain, who navigated the ship (America) across the turbulent sea (the Civil War). The poem is more structured than most of Whitman’s poems, and the rhyming scheme and rhythm makes it feel like a funeral dirge.

This is a short and very accessible poem, even though it is instilled with strong emotion. If you have not read it, then you should. It’s a must-read.

Click here to read the poem online.


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