Howl Summary

Allen Ginsberg


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Howl Summary

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“Howl” is a poem written in 1955 by Allen Ginsberg, later published as part of his book Howl and Other Poems in 1956. It lacks deliberate meter or a rhyming scheme, instead taking the form of breath-length lines that, when read out loud, resemble a rant or a diatribe.

The poem is divided into three sections. The first section opens with perhaps the poem’s most-famous lines: “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.”

The rest of this section lists and describes the sort of people within Ginsberg’s orbit at the time: junkies, hippies, protesters, poets, musicians, and psychiatric patients. It is a deeply biographical piece, as is the rest of the poem, as Ginsberg mines his own personal experience to populate his poem.

Included in this first section are graphic details about life as a psychiatric patient, drug user, and homosexual. This last point is especially provocative, as all fifty states at the time had sodomy laws on their books that effectively criminalized homosexual intercourse.

The first section continues to list all these people, struggling through their daily existence, who Ginsberg has labeled the “best minds” of his generation, including rich language such as “who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas” and “who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music.”

The second section considers the god Moloch. Moloch is mentioned in the Bible as a reference to a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice. The name “Moloch” is also used for the industrial, demonic figure in the German Expressionist film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. Ginsberg acknowledged the film’s influence on “Howl.”

In section two, the reader can presume that the characters from section one have been sacrificed to Moloch, like children sent to their slaughter. While section one has a sort of joy, even as it describes filth and illness, the second section feels far more violent and despondent. It opens with the lines, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!”

The second section eventually returns to the celebratory tone of the first section. As it nears its conclusion, Ginsberg writes “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!”

Section three is addressed to Carl Solomon, a friend of Ginsberg’s whom he met in a psychiatric hospital. Again, Ginsberg mines his own experiences with mental illness, as well as the illness of his mother, throughout the section. Section three begins with the lines “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland / where you’re madder than I am / I’m with you in Rockland / where you must feel very strange / I’m with you in Rockland / where you imitate the shade of my mother.” In this case, “Rockland” refers to Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute, where Ginsberg and Solomon first met.

This section begins as a departure from the rest of the poem, employing much shorter lines at the outset. As section three approaches its conclusion, however, the line lengths build to match the rest of the poem.

Despite its pessimism, the poem concludes on what could be considered an upswing: “I’m with you in Rockland / where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    O skinny legions run outside    O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here    O victory forget your underwear we’re free / I’m with you in Rockland / in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”.

“Howl” is the seminal example of a poem from the group of writers referred to as the Beats. Beat poetry was marked by its political awareness, abandonment of form, and unblinking attitude toward controversial topics. Beat poetry, especially “Howl,” used language in a way that both elevated it and brought it down to a more everyday level. Words that were not usually considered poetic were used in ways that both shocked and illuminated.

“Howl” was controversial almost immediately after its publication. The poem was the centerpiece of an obscenity trial against its publishers, though the judge would eventually rule that the poem was not obscene.

The poem is rich with references to Ginsberg’s personal life, and allusions to other works, particularly religious texts. Spirituality became increasing important to Ginsberg throughout his life, and its impact on his thinking is clearly evident throughout the poem. Ginsberg’s own sexuality, and his comfort with proclaiming it, are also important elements of the poem, along with his exposure to jazz music, drug use, and the counter-culture movement.

The poem’s fiftieth anniversary was widely celebrated, though there was significant debate about how to take the graphic language of the poem into account for public and broadcast readings.