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.

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