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 Ginsberg:
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 breakthrough.
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 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 poetry.
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 eternal.