Howl

Allen Ginsberg (1956)

In celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s birthday, born on this day in 1926, I present to you Howl, the best-known poem produced by the literary movement called the Beat Generation—not to mention one of the most controversial and influential poems of the 20th century. Dedicated to Ginsberg’s friend Carl Solomon, who had been confined to a psychiatric institution, the poem is a lament for “the best minds of [Ginsberg’s] generation,” whom it portrays as having been “destroyed by madness.” But it’s also a tribute to rebellious artists, thinkers, and hipsters and an attack on the oppressiveness of western society, something it depicts as crushingly conformist, greedy, and violent. With affectionate sympathy, the poem ultimately suggests that the “mad” rebels are really the only sane exceptions to the insane culture of 20th-century America. Written in 1954-’55 and published in Howl and Other Poems (1956), “Howl” became an instant literary sensation and the target of censorship for its graphic language and sexual themes. Its victory in a 1957 obscenity trial paved the way for the publication of other controversial literature in the 1950s and ’60s.

The film is written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and stars James Franco as Ginsberg.

Lost in Industrialization:
A “Howl” for Freedom

Imagine a world in which industry controls the way in which you live, forcing you to sacrifice originality in the name of a commercial society. Unfortunately, this is a sad reality for those of us born into industrialized civilizations. Oppressed, controlled by the media, and led astray, Americans lose touch with themselves and their dreams as they cling desperately to an industrialized society that is not concerned for the plight of the individual, but rather for the growth and wealth accumulation of such a society. The American government is ignorant to the desires of individual thinkers and feel that people should work together to achieve this industrialized mad house we call home. Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” explores this ignorance and addresses the issues concerning the role of the individual American. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Beatnik era in America brought forth poets who wrote poetry in response to the rise of bigotry, crimes against the innocent, and the loss of faith in the national government. They wrote about homosexual sex, drug abuse, and other topics concerning the individual. Of this Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg’s poem caused an incredible amount of controversy, but changed the world of poetry forever. While Allen Ginsberg plunges into his own downward spiral toward madness, he exposes a world responsible for oppressive conformity, the evils of industrialized civilization, and the state of the individual as an effect of industrialization.

We are instantly introduced to the greatest minds of the Beat generation torn apart by the madness caused by oppressive conformity and materialism. Ginsberg was a firsthand witness, and casualty to this madness, to which he says, “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). Ginsberg uses a rhythmic style in his poetry to paint a vivid picture of his friends and their adventures across America. He is communicating scenes, characters, and situations drawn from his own personal experience, describing his fellow travelers, the crazy, lonely members of his community of misunderstood poets, artists, novelists, jazz musicians, psychotics, political radicals, pranksters, sexual deviants, and junkies. He had written this in response to the loss of his friends, who had either been mentally broken or killed by the system, to which he mentions, “who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed, / who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons” (32-33). This is a description of the people Ginsberg knew and the events of their lives. We get an indication that their spirits have been broken or destroyed by a force, which remains unnamed in the first section of the poem. They could not help but to be destroyed by their discovery of a manipulative governmental system that would not allow anyone to live outside of the rules and regulations that it set. This caused many of these Beatniks to be driven to insanity or suicide by their inability to live in the modern world and their inability to escape from it.

It is relatively apparent that the rhythm of Ginsberg’s poem was influenced by the jazz musicians of his generation. Jazz represented an unaccepted form of music. It was an African-American style of music not listened to by the majority of middle-class whites, to which Ginsberg says, “and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio” (77). Jazz music represented filth and bad behavior. The beaten down had inhabited jazz music because of their isolation and status as outcasts from respectable society, much like the African-Americans who performed it. The first section of the poem is structured as a single run-on sentence divided into breaths. Each line represents a single breath. This is what gives the poem a jazzy feel and a bop refrain, which Ginsberg uses to symbolize the separation of his beaten down friends from the evils of modern society.

The first section of the poem gives way to the second part, which is an expression of anger and frustration directed to the governmental powers that feel it necessary to oppress the masses of American society. It addresses the state of industrial civilization by the use of Moloch, the Canaanite fire god who accepted children as sacrifice, to which Ginsberg writes, “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!” (79-80). We can see right away that the “best minds” of his generation have been sacrificed to Moloch. Moloch represents modern society and the sacrifice of our individual freedom and expression. Moloch is the modern industrial state of the country to which Ginsberg mentions, “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!” (83), and again when he says, “Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius!” (85). We can see through the use of Moloch that Ginsberg feels that the American government places low wages on industrial workers so that those who dictate the lives of the beaten down Americans can live in greater luxury. However, Moloch does not take these things by force. Moloch represents the model American family, which sacrifices pleasure and personal freedom in order to feel a sense of normalcy, to which Ginsberg states, “Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs! / They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” (88-89). We get a sense that these families have either willingly or unknowingly sacrificed their freedoms for the purpose of elevating the power of the American government. This power leads to a corrupt management of civilization, which creates boundaries between classes and individuals. We also get a sense that the corrupt powers that Moloch represents is indeed inescapable because Moloch surrounds us throughout society. Unfortunately, it is this inability to escape from the corrupt clutches of Moloch that causes individual thinkers to plunge into a world of insanity.

Ginsberg writes of insanity in his poem and uses Carl Solomon to express this madness. Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while he was institutionalized, is driven mad because society builds structures and institutions that keep him from expressing himself through art, to which he mentions, “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland where you’re madder than I am” (95). We get an indication that Rockland is a Psychiatric ward by way of mentioning that Carl is madder than he is. Though the third section is a turning point away from Moloch, it is also symbolizes the destructive properties which Moloch represents. Although this section of the poem shows the effect of what Moloch has caused, it also ends on a hopeful note, which we see when Ginsberg mentions, “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” (129). This suggests that though the industrialized institutions of America may expect us to sacrifice ourselves for their own personal benefit, we control our own fate. We do not have to be a prisoner to this system of industry. We can tear down the walls that keep us bound within ourselves, and live our own lives free from the expectations of a cold, inhuman industrialized government.

In the end, Ginsberg realizes that the madness of his friends and other beaten down citizens is the cause of industrial America. As he plunges into the mouth of madness, he exposes a side of America that is responsible for oppressive conformity, the evils of an industrial civilization, and the madness directly related to this industrialization. His fear of being condemned to a life of insanity turns into a hopeful prayer to those of us who live among the bottom rungs of society. He shows us that it is possible to live among a society, which seems artificial and unnatural, and still be free to be ourselves. Unfortunately, this poem does not share the same ending of self-discovery for all Americans. Though many of us have discovered our own personal happiness, there remains a larger portion of the population that sacrifices themselves for the benefit of the system. They do not know how to tear down their own walls, which keep them bound within themselves. Perhaps this poem should be a message to Americans to speak out against the system when we do not agree with the unnatural restrictions set against humans. Once each individual discovers themselves within themselves, only then will each of us be truly free.

Written by Hobo Moon

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