Analysis of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

I’m back…Weird, I know. It’s been a long time, but I got sidetracked for a while. I’m making some changes in my life, and I realized how much I do love writing. I always loved it, but I never realized the pure joy it brought me. So, one of my changes is to write more. I think this is the perfect place to do it, so I’m making a comeback. If you’ll have me.

I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in my English 1102, and fell in love. Here’s my analysis.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” This is the opening sentence to Allen Ginsberg’s notorious poem, “Howl.” From there, Ginsberg begins his very own howl for these “best minds,” more specifically for Carl Solomon, the man who Ginsberg dedicates his words to. Ginsberg met Solomon in a psychiatric facility, where the author of the poem spent eight months of his life. Throughout the poem, the reader notices that these “best minds,” which he refers to, are not doctors, lawyers or scientists but those considered, by society, the bottom of the barrel. They are drunks, drug-users, poets, the homeless and the so-called mad ones. Ginsberg considered Solomon one of those best minds and found genius in his friend’s insanity. The poem’s title sets the tone for the entire work. It gives the reader an idea that this poem will not be a murmur or a romantic sonnet, but a howl, a cry for those who are mentally trapped by the society of the 1950’s that valued commercialism and conformity over free expression. This counter-cultural movement was known as the Beat generation led by Beatniks, and “Howl” was their manifesto. “Howl” is a celebration of personal liberty and breaking free from prisons.

In 1957, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was called to an obscenity trial on whether or not the poem held any literary merit, and while the strong language, and many drug and sexual references were called into question, nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf until the judge concluded that “Howl” was of “redeeming social importance”. The publisher of the poem, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was found not guilty, so he and “Howl” were both set free. The question of whether or not the poem holds any literary merit is a rhetorical one, since it has clearly established a voice and made an impact on society. While the poem, written in free verse, seems outwardly chaotic, there is a distinct form to “Howl,” not to mention the fact that the apparent chaos of the poem is intentional. The poem superficially looks disordered with the lack of periods and the multitude of run-on sentences, but these deliberate grammar mistakes create an insane chatter that reflects the author’s mental state and thus, the reader’s. Each and every line must be read in one breath, which at times can be difficult because it leaves the reader breathless. This is another deliberate detail established by the author, in order to make the reader feel even the slightest ounce of struggle Ginsberg’s “best minds” went through. The form divides the poem into three parts: who, what and where. The relentless repetition of “who” refers to the “best minds” that Ginsberg introduces at the beginning of the poem. Throughout the work, the reader is able to recognize the author’s abhorrence of the society in America during the 1950s and blames the mainstream culture of leaving the best minds “starving hysterical naked” and while he mourned for their downfalls, Ginsberg rose them up to spiritual status, calling the best minds “angelheaded hipsters” (3). There are a multitude of religious references throughout the poem such as “heaven, purgatory, angels, saints, three fates, laurel crown, seven days and nights,” all referring to the best minds; however, Ginsberg establishes a paradox by stating that these men “bared their brains to Heaven under the El” (5) and were “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists” (36). These two statements have clear oppositions within them. Heaven is under the El and “saintly” motorcyclists perform sodomy, known as a sin in the bible. Ginsberg states that while these minds are the best, they are also inconsistent contradictions.

“Howl” spends a lot of time on what exactly these “best minds” are doing, which relates to the second segment of the poem: the what. They protested the “narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism” by burning cigarette holes in their arms (31) and “distributed Supercommunist pamphlets” (32). There is some irony established here where Ginsberg praises drug-users that protest Capitalism, but then compares Capitalism to a narcotic. This fact reminds the readers that the poem is a personal one, not perfected for society but an individual’s thoughts and mental state. These best minds had sex with strangers and “hiccupped endlessly… in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword” (39), which shows they were sexually free, willing to have intercourse in public places with an anonymous angel or a mere mortal stranger. In line 39, Ginsberg presents phallic imagery with “pierce them with a sword,” establishing another literary element like phallic imagery, that shows the work’s complexity. The “what” is all about what these “best minds” did, and it wasn’t save lives or cure diseases. Instead, they injected themselves with narcotics, fell asleep under the “El,” and enjoyed sex with anyone and anything, but above all, they “howled on their knees in the subway” (35), howling for their manuscripts, their genitals, and their freedom.

The best minds “barreled down the highways” (59), “drove crosscountry” (60) and “journeyed to Denver” (61). The Beatniks travelled the country, never calling one place their homes, which leads to “the where” segment of “Howl. The “where” reflects all the different places such as Houston, New York, Denver, Baltimore etc., which Ginsberg refers to. The best minds “lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex” (28) and “reappeared on the West Coast investigating the FBI” (30). The poem travels around the world the same way the Beats moved around and established a lack of constancy. “Howl” is a literary representation of what a physical Beatnik is and does, and for Ginsberg to be able to paint such a vivid and accurate picture for his readers is certainly worth literary merit. “Howl” is not a stable poem, and with this fact, Ginsberg comments and continues to howl alongside these misunderstood geniuses, that life is unstable, especially for those “best minds.”

“Howl” is a diatribe, a stream of consciousness that found itself in the spotlight. It was never meant to gain popularity or acceptance because the readers are able to see that “Howl” is a glimpse into Ginsberg’s mind. It is not a poem filled with “stanzas of gibberish” but rather a piece of literature that takes its readers on a journey of drugs, sex and most of all, life. It is almost as if it’s a rage-fueled diary entry, because Ginsberg’s howl is heard through his words. His frustration and anger, left on the pages, is almost tangible. He genuinely views the people who are deemed mentally ill by mainstream society as unacknowledged geniuses. Close to the end of the poem, he equates an “angel beat” to a “madman bum” (76) establishing them as one and the same and at the end of the poem, one can’t help but think: There are academies filled with history books and biographies of apparently great men like politicians and military leaders, the “heroes” of the generation whose stories are being told over and over again, but what about those true “best minds” that are believed to be insane? Do they get their biographies or their names in history books? This is what Ginsberg tries to accomplish with “Howl”. It’s his ode to the mad, reminding society there are unrecognized great minds, and Ginsberg howls for them, stands by their sides and thrust his fist in the air in support. If one listens closely when reading the poem, a delicate but intense howl can be heard in between breaths.

Saving Mr.Disney

   Where did it all go? You know, all the glamour and magic this world once had? It’s strange to think a world like that even existed. With all the fast food chains and unnecessary “in-your-face” advertisements, it’s easy to forget that there was something beautiful going on decades ago. Within simplicity, beauty was found. Now, the bigger, the better. Less is never more, and we all delude ourselves in believing that the time is now. Sometimes, that belief is true. None of us can deny that we have benefitted from everything that has been handed to us. In this age, your relatives, living across the ocean are merely a Skype call away. Or any opinion that you might have can simply just be put out into the world without a single thought. We hide behind these screens, the same hiding I am doing right now, and just rant or rave about a person, an event or a decision that was made by people of much higher positions than us. Granted, that embodies some mystery. A mystery that begs the question: “Who is this person, and why is she complaining about the obviously “simpler” world she is living in?” But this superficial mystery is nothing compared to the mystery that was embodied during the older eras. If you have not guessed already by the title, I did see Saving Mr.Banks today. The movie itself, was not strong, but that didn’t stop me from crying my eyes out. There were many explanations of my tears, some more literal than others like P.L Travers, portrayed by Emma Thompson, finally giving in and tapping along to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” but there was more…emotional explanation, which was, simply put, where did the magic go? When did that last sprinkle of fairy dust disappear? And why? Did we use it all up with our need for making money and changing things that didn’t need to be changed in the first place? I don’t know…And do not tell me you haven’t thought about living in another era, just to get a taste of those people and what they were capable of doing. People we have only truly ever experienced on the screen. The Marilyns, the Chaplins, the Disneys. The Bette Davis’ and the Humphrey Bogarts. The Hepburns. Both Katherine and Audrey. The list goes on and on and on…Now, I know it’s not wise to live in the past, but we can’t help but feel nostalgic at times. Without these bursts of sentimentality, I’m afraid that the magic that is deep within us, sinks farther and farther. For some, the magic is gone forever, and we can’t really blame them. It’s hard to hold onto something when you’re not trying. But for those of you, who feel the magic brewing inside yourselves, all I ask is to let it consume you. Let it take over. Let is just wash over you like buckets of lukewarm water cleansing your skin. This world needs more magic, and not technological “magic” or scientific magic, but actual, indescribable, unconventional magic. It all starts with a spoonful. 

So. Much. Work.

Hey guys, 

So, I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been insanely busy. IB stress and work, college applications AND assistant directing the High School musical have literally taken over my life. I just wanted to say that, and also say that I will try and be back soon! 

<3 

Keto

Looking Good on Paper…

I told you I’d be back! I forgive you all for doubting me for a second, any more than that, I am truly hurt. :) 

So, I just wanted to talk about a very stressful and significant period that I am going through in my life. The college process. Most of you have probably already went through it or are in the same boat as me, going through it while trying not to drown. It’s difficult, isn’t it? The whole thing. So many factors that play into this idea that you might not be good enough for a school. You are unwanted for being who you are. It’s a shame really because there are so many beautiful and bright kids out there who might not excel in school, and because of that they won’t be able to show how they can excel in a different environment like college. This is a question for you all: How many well-rounded people do you know? Do we even know what well-rounded really means? It means having a personality that is fully developed in all aspects. Jesus Christ! What 17/18 year old has a personality that is fully developed?  You really only start to get close to figuring out who you are and what you believe in, what people are worth it or not, weeding out the good from the bad, in High School. At least, that is the way it was for me. 

The thing is I am still not comfortable with who I am. I want to do better and be better. I have so much more to go and do before I am ready to be judged on paper. And this whole paper bullshit. I understand that colleges don’t have the time or energy to meet with every student that applies, but how can you truly know someone just by reading a 650 word essay and looking at their extra-curricular activities? Maybe more Skype calls would be beneficial or have a student send in a creative video about a favorite activity or something they feel is necessary for the admission officers to know. Just to give our applications a bit of life and pizzazz. 

You send in a few papers and indirectly beg for acceptance and financial aid. I have learned that it’s not smart to have a dream college. The desire to get into Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc. will become so strong that it will overpower you. If you are accepted, it will be the best day of your life maybe, but if you are rejected…putting so much heart and soul into an application and just being denied from your dream…I don’t even want to imagine it. That’s why I decided that any school I get into, I will be perfectly content. I will still have fun and I will still learn and make friends hopefully wherever I go. That’s a big hopefully though…

It’s a crazy system, but I do know that it has to happen because out of hundreds and thousands of papers, after the blood, sweat and the inevitable tears, your application will be accepted and you will get that feeling of adoption. Someone chose you. Someone wants you. To someone the way you looked on paper was just right.

No Mayonnaise: A short story

  As you all know, I have become a very prominent food and restaurant critic over the past 2 years. I have no one to thank for my success but my taste buds and my sharp tongue. Restaurants quiver at my name and I thrive from that fear. They get a one-week notice prior to my arrival to prepare and somehow get their shit together. In my opinion, a week is too undemanding. A restaurant as horrid as that Denny’s I reviewed last month can mask their true repugnant identity in that amount of time. I don’t have the energy to expose their countless flaws and blemishes. Restaurants should always be impeccably clean, with the most polite servers who present to me the most delectable dishes as swiftly as they possibly can. Is that too much to ask from a critic in this field? I expect excellence when it comes to the restaurant’s appearance and service. However, I require perfection when dealing with the food they are serving me. I automatically know whether or not there is too much parsley in my salad or if my soup is lacking a pinch of salt. I may be picky, but I know the difference between a good meal and a superb dish. That is why I am respected and considered the best in my profession. It is not a matter of opinion, but of facts. Now, before I start reviewing the restaurant of the month, I just need to state, I am willing to accept any and all consequences that I shall receive after this review is published. As I said, I am known for my harshness and I embrace it.

I arrived at Spill at precisely 7:40. My reservation was at eight. However, I prefer to be a tad early to give the staff a bit of a scare. The restaurant is situated in a very lively, hip area where I assume many college students “hang out.” I could tell I stuck out like a sore thumb, but there are only two categories I never managed to excel in. Likeability and adapting to my surroundings. As soon as I paid the taxi driver, (a young man, who only needed to hear the name Spill to know exactly where I wanted him to take me) I stepped out of the cab and saw in cursive letters: Spill. The last “L” funnily enough, seemed to be spilling, extending all the way down to the metal blue door of the restaurant. I climbed up the glass-looking stairs with caution and I marked down a point for being a safety hazard. The door wasn’t as heavy as it looked, so I swung it open with ease, making a loud sound, which caused the cacophony in the restaurant to cease. The place was packed, however still quite airy. I admit my skin prickled from embarrassment, because of my grand entrance, but I maintained my composure. I hope.

I went up to the hostess, who was dressed in ripped jeans and a Sex Pistols t-shirt. She had piercings all over her face and I’m sure in some other places, but I am not allowed to say where. She greeted me with a truly genuine smile and welcomed me to Spill. She didn’t seem to know who I was, which slightly confused me. Did she not get my one-week notice?

   “Alright, table for…?”

She definitely did not get my one-week notice.

   “One.”

I kept looking at her, waiting for her to realize who I was, but the realization never came. She led me to my table in the corner. There were no chairs, just booths with lots of throw pillows that didn’t match each other and seemed to be previously owned. I sat down on a pink one with small black roses embroidered on it. I lifted myself back up and moved the pillow away. The hostess waited for me to get comfortable and then said:

   “That one was mine.”

She gave me a warm smile and told me my waiter would be with me in just a moment. With that, she strolled away and I watched her go. Her shirt had risen up a bit so I was able to see her tattoo on her lower back. It was black rose.

The waiter came straight away. His name was Jeff, with a tattoo of an elephant on his face. I don’t think I was in Kansas anymore. He asked me what I wanted to drink, gave me a menu and a few minutes. I glanced at the menu and immediately chose the club sandwich. A sandwich is extremely difficult to make. Many people will disagree, but a mediocre sandwich is often mistaken for a completely decent one. So many factors that can go wrong in a sandwich. Too much tomato, not enough lettuce, meat is too dry, bread is too soggy and so on. I look around and examine the restaurant. It was a very trendy space. Artists and writers discussing music. Students arguing about the conspiracies of past history. No one seemed pretentious or pompous. There was no smell of competition in the air, whose life changing experience was the most…well, life changing. It was quaint. It was cool. Most of all, it was refreshing. And I had only marked down one point. Service was friendly, place was spotless. Lighting was comforting; the music was gentle, but audible enough to enjoy it. My sparkling water with lemon arrived in a matter of minutes and for the first time in a long time; I was content with the restaurant I was dining in.

In exactly 12 minutes, my sandwich had arrived. It looked like any other sandwich. No burnt edges, more of a golden brown. The insides were neatly packed in with a toothpick pierced through the center. I stared at the sandwich for quite a while, or until people around me got somewhat uncomfortable. I picked it up and took a huge bite right in the middle. The sandwich was delicious, an absolute pleasure. I chewed every piece slowly, so I could savor the delectable taste. But wait, something was missing. Something important. Something so significant that it could ruin a sandwich almost immediately. But I didn’t know what. I kept eating, now focusing more on what it needed, instead of what it had to offer. Then I got it. How could I not have noticed it before? It was so simple, yet so timeless. Mayonnaise. This club sandwich had no mayonnaise. Right then and there, I paid for my mayo-less sandwich, sparkling water and left immediately, slipping out of the restaurant as quietly as I wanted to enter it.

I give the restaurant two stars out of five and the reason for it, is not because there was no mayonnaise in my club sandwich, (even though that played a major part) but because the entire restaurant was a façade, a simulation, an illusion. Its so-called “trendiness” and “cool factor” clogged up my critical senses and for a second there, I actually thought it was a decent restaurant. Thank god for the lack of or should I say, the non-existence of mayonnaise, that cleared up the fog for me and truly made me see what a charade Spill is. No mayonnaise…how preposterous!  

Quick Return…

Hello everyone, 

It has been so long. Too long, and I apologize for that. Summer ended, school has been crazy and very work-filled and the stress of the IB is really kicking in. I just got back from New Orleans, and I’m going to try and be frequent in my posts, because I have missed this <3