Ginsbergs direct response to Song of Myself Howl

First it must be noted how contrasting the two titles are themselves. It's easy to be surface-orient-ed with this poem; indeed, critical attention has focused on the long lines and spontaneous feel of the writing (Ginsberg had Kerouac's "Rules for Spontaneous Prose" written on the wall of the apartment in which he composed "Howl"). It's also easy to concentrate on the poem's breakthrough use of obscenity and overt gay references, it's also important to remember the results of the "Howl" trial in 1957. "Howl and Other Poems" was seized by the US Customs in San Francisco. Publishers Ferlinghetti and manager Shig Murao are tried, but not convicted of obscenity charges. Judge W.J. Clayton Horn's landmark ruling says that material with "the slightest possible redeeming social importance" is protected by the 1st and 14th amendments. This allowed for publication of D.H. Lawrence's and Henry Miller's works.

But the poem is founded on discipline—it took years for Ginsberg to produce this work. Allen's father Louis was a poet and member of the modernist circle that gathered around Alfred Kreymborg in the 1920s; although he was associated with some of the more experimental and innovative writers of his time, his own work was relatively conservative. As a doctrinaire socialist, he was a careful student of traditional literary form.

Allen Ginsberg, too, started this way. Though he was kicked out twice, he graduated from Columbia and there received the classical "core" education evident in his earliest writings. The Gates of Wrath: Rhymed Poems, 1948-1952 shows how academic and technically skillful his first poetic attempts were. The models for Ginsberg were poets like Andrew Marvell and Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Original Photo Caption: Allen Ginsberg, "Tanned & bearded satisfying Whitman -Mexico, returning to U.S. 1954

So "Howl" has a long foreground, much like "Song of Myself." In it, Ginsberg takes chances—perhaps even more chances than Whitman did in Leaves of Grass. The poem is graphic and obscene. Ginsberg uses strong language to describe and provoke strong, dark emotion. He, like Whitman, is upset by the state of the union and demands change. He shocks and appalls, but also transfixes—the vulgarity elicits an emotional response from the reader, and that is intended. Even the first line shows this intensity: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."

The language of "Howl" has an electric quality. The images are striking, but it's really the language that gets under your skin. It begs to be read out loud. It feels urgent and contemporary, though it was written fifty years ago.

The Techniques of Writing "Howl"

There were some important influence and techniques that Ginsberg used in the composing of "Howl":

• Importance of jazz rhythms a la Charlie Parker and Lester Young (esp. "Lester Leaps In"). Kerouac made Ginsberg listen to Young's improvisation, where Young uses the same or a similar initial sounds (or series of notes) to start "catalogues" of thematic associations. Ginsberg began his series with "who." The rhythm of the catalogue, thus, becomes the element of control, freeing the mind for associations without the restriction of trying to make sense or follow a linear flow of thought. The importance has been noted of these ideas of music and rhythm to the poetry of Whitman.

• Rhythmic breathing units: Ginsberg became intrigued by the possibility of catalyzing his consciousness in his reader by arranging the rhythmic units to correspond exactly with this own breathing at the time of composition.

In essence language for Ginsberg is an extension of the physiology of the body. In his own words:

The words we pronounce do connect finally to our body, connect to our breathing particularly, and breathing connects to our feeling articulated in language. Poetry is a rhythmic, vocal articulation of feeling, and the content of poetry is feeling as well as whatever else you would call it, if it were removed from feeling.

Amazingly, when the reader says the units aloud, in an excited mood, making sure he breathes with each rhythmic break, the experience can actually approach Ginsberg's original breath-mind-feeling patterns. This idea of the body and language connecting has a very clear precedent in the work of Whitman.

• Ginsberg was having fun with language here, making things up, much like Whitman. For example, his onomatopoeic use of repeated words like "boxcar, boxcar, boxcar," and phrases like "waving genitals and manuscripts" recall the tone of Whitman lines like, "The poems that droop shy and unseen" (from "Spontaneous Me").

The Shape of "Howl"

The poem is divided into three main parts and then has a footnote at the end. What is the poem about?

Part I is about feelings of protest, pain, outrage, attack, lamentation, alienation, darkness, suffering and isolation. It is a description of a group of outcasts (probably meant to include Ginsberg himself) seeking transcendent reality. What is the "angry fix" he talks about? Besides a narcotics urge, it could be a general quest, a visionary experience, of a sudden glimpse "into the depths of the universe". The desperate nature of the quest, plus the hostility of the society in which the quest is pursued, alienates and impoverishes the seekers, the "solitary Bartlebies" as Kerouac called them.

It is true that much of Part I is autobiographical, but for Ginsberg, as for Whitman, the personal communicates the universal.

Part II brings a definite mood shift to the poem. Here there is an indictment of modern society. Molloch, the god of abomination, is referenced extensively throughout and is a metaphor for the materialistic condition of Ginsberg's society. What are the consequences of Moloch?—commercialism, militarism, sexual repression, technocracy, soulless industrialization, sexual repression.

Part III is a personal address to Ginsberg's friend, Carl Solomon. Solomon, in the madhouse, is the specific representative of what the author regards as a general condition. Solomon's brave cry from the Rockland Mental Hospital is the essence of the poem's statement: his is the howl of anguished and desperate conviction. There is, however, a new sympathy and identification with the human spirit that prevails in Carl Solomon. There is a new confidence and expansiveness to the ending of this poem and one gets the sense that the human spirit emerges in the end after all of the pain and suffering. The poem actually moves from alienation to communion.

The Footnote has a rhapsodic quality where the inner eye triumphs and we see what we believe and we are what we believe. William Blake's inner vision triumphs here. ("If the doors of perception were cleans'd.") Everything that lives is holy. The essence of everything is holy—only the form may be foul or corrupted, or our vision be distorted. The poet descends into an underworld of darkness, suffering, isolation, and then ascends into spiritual knowledge, blessedness, achieved vision, and a sense of union with humanity and God.

Whitman feels this sense of falling and then rising, of destruction and then reconstruction, of the sleeping and the waking. There is a strong connection for Ginsberg with Whitman's vision of possibility and hope.

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore, Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, Shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

—Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," end of stanza 46.

In the next lecture we'll look at Whitman's influence on the visually based poetics of the New York School of the 1950s.

1. How does Allen Ginsberg's poetry reflect Whitman's poetic stance?

2. What did the Beat Generation stand for?

3. Consider the lasting legacy of the Beat Generation. How did this movement effect modern American culture?

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