Perhaps the greatest of all beatnik poems, Howl (full text below) is, on its surface, an epic, disorganized manifesto. While the opening lines, 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, certainly grab the reader’s attention, it is a demanding listen or read. In fact, it is the beginning of a stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence that urgently howls no less than 2,107 words before reaching its first full stop.
However, it is anything but disorganized, and Ginsberg knew exactly what he was doing. Howl consists of three parts, each a riff on one topic, each designed to be read without so much as a moment to catch breath, with part one being the longest.
Who are the best minds of the generation the speaker laments in the very first line? There aren’t the engineers and rocket scientist and ad men and politicians of the era. They are the wounded, the damaged, the trodden upon. They are dope fiends, and backpackers, and musicians, and writers, and dissidents. It is a deliberate poke in the eye of the middle class establishment; a pure re-drawing the lines of society through a Beat poet’s eyes. The repetition of the word who is what gives the section its forward thrust and rhythm; every line rides on who except the digressions, which don’t break cadence even when they break the pattern. Part I defines the audience, and the people whom Ginsberg is attempting to eulogize.
If Part I is defined by who, then Part II is all about what. Ginsberg has told us who he has seen destroyed in the most intimate detail, but what destroyed them? Ginsberg doesn’t leave the listener dangling: Moloch! destroyed them. This is a reference to the Hebrew Bible story about a god who was idolized by worshipers who burnt children in sacrifice to it. This hungry god fed on children to gain potency. The allusion being made here becomes explicit with the rest of the section. For Ginsberg, Moloch is a catchword for government, war, the capitalist system, and mainstream culture. Moloch is also described in mechanical terms; it is the machinery of society that eats children; it is an enemy to humanity, the killer of love and beauty.
Part III can be read as the where section, which Ginsberg addresses to his writer friend Carl Solomon. Solomon was confined to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Institute, one of the great minds driven insane. Ginsberg refers to the hospital as “Rockland” in the poem, and repeatedly states his solidarity with Solomon in his repetition of “I’m with you in Rockland” This section takes the listener inside the walls of the institute, and depicts madness. However his descriptions leave the reader to ask who is really mad, the patients, or the world outside the walls.
Howl is a powerful experience the first time you really listen to it. It grabs you by the collar and lifts you off the ground; it is in your face with its insistence. Ginsberg’s remarkably colorful depictions drive the point home, and its sheer rhythmic thrust is undeniable and immediate. Perhaps the best way to experience Howl is to set aside twenty minutes and listen to Ginsberg’s own reading of it. A link is below, as is the full text.
Does poetry need to rhyme? Don’t be silly.
HOWL by Allen Ginsberg
For Carl Solomon