It has been fifty years since Allen Ginsberg published his poem “Howl.” Though the poem has been discounted by many critics, it remains famous for launching Ginsberg’s career and as an emblem of rebellion for those who are able to reminisce and for young poets. What made “Howl” a sensation among the younger literary crowd of the 1950s and 60s was similar to what made Elvis’ music iconic: the expression of sexual freedom. Both poetry and music débuts happened in 1956, two years after McCarthy’s attempts at repression, but still during the Cold War.
Elvis’ expression of freedom was heterosexual, for the most part, and gained a wider attention for that reason. He also was introducing African American culture to the white middle class. Through “Howl” Ginsberg introduced homosexuality to those classes in denial, but did so as a Jew while the Western world continued to negotiate the guilt of the Holocaust. In other words, he may as well have stood in front of American culture and announced his homosexuality as Whitman had done, but unlike in Whitman’s case, the moment in history was right. Jesse Monteagudo in his October 27th, 1997, article “The Death of the Beat Generation” assures us that, “More than any other work, it was Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ that made homosexuality, both overt and sublimated, the hallmark of the Beat Generation” (Gay Today). Freudian psychology had infiltrated the suburbs, and the sexual revolution had begun.
One can’t separate the sexuality from the poem. Ginsberg’s being a Jew and declaring sexual liberation ten years after the Holocaust of WWII complicated efforts by the government or anyone else to quiet him. Though in 1957 Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were sued for obscenities, in his book Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Merrill tells us, “If nothing else, the legal proceedings brought against ‘Howl’ for obscenity served to make it easily one of the bestselling volumes of poetry of the twentieth century.” Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti won the law suit, and in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle Lawrence Ferlinghetti remarked that the trial rendered the book famous and aided in the sale of 10,000 copies (Merrill 51).
The historical situation he found himself in was not lost on him. In John Raskin’s book AmericanScream, he tells us that in his youth Ginsberg “was astounded to learn that in Germany and in Italy political parties advocated ‘killing all the Jews’” (34). Raskin goes on to say that “given the geopolitical and personal backdrop of Allen’s early development, it’s understandable that he grew up to write the poetry of personal crack-up and political catastrophe” (34). Conscious or not about the self-proclamation that thrust him into the world of American poetry, he could be understood as having been reacting to the pressures of his day, a new voice emerging with force before American culture. The voice is one of pain, but also one of celebration that made Ginsberg a hero.
Ginsberg’s confessional style three years prior to Robert Lowell’s confession of his father’s and his culture’s failure in his “groundbreaking” Life Studies was instrumental in establishing his heroism. Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque, metrically free loose verse with its long line also mocked the tight academic poetry that ruled the small, elite poetry audience of the day. The powerful affect of Ginsberg being a Jew after WWII confessing his beat fate and that of friends in a poem can’t be overstated. Ginsberg was unapologetic, irreverent of power structures, and reminded readers of Whitman’s dream of a more open America. In his essay “The Jew as an American Poet” Allen Grossman sums up Ginsberg’s situation:
Ginsberg’s poetry belongs to that strange and almost posthumous poetic literature which began to be produced in America after World War II, and in which the greatest figure is the spoiled Calvinist (Catholic), Robert Lowell. The characteristic literary posture of the postwar poet in America is that of the survivor—a man who is not quite certain that he is not in fact dead. It is here that the Jew as a symbolic figure takes on his true centrality. The position can be stated hypothetically from the point of view of a European survivor who has made the Stygian crossing to America: ‘Since so many like died, and since my survival is an unaccountable accident, how can I be certain that I did not myself die and that America is not in fact Hell, as indeed all the social critics say it is?’ Ginsberg’s poetry is the poetry of a terminal cultural situation. It is a Jewish poetry because the Jew is the prime symbolic representative of a man overthrown by history. (103)
In the opening line of “Howl” the persona celebrates himself as a survivor of the death and madness of kindred spirits at the same time the poem screams an animal pain. But more, the persona claims to have been subjected to and witness of “The atrocities that have allegedly been endured by Ginsberg and his friends” (Merrill 55). The reader generalizes the confessional critique to one of civilization which gives the poem its power. Each “atrocity” in the poem’s list pivots on the repetition of the word “who” that introduces another representative in the catalog that makes up section one of the poem. Part one of the poem is steeped in sexuality and in the threat of insanity. Again, Grossman explains that Ginsberg’s “protagonist is the apotheosis of the young radical Jewish intellectual” who has “exhausted all the stratagems of personal identity, sexual and ethnic, he is nonetheless determined to celebrate his state of being and his moment in history” (104). The ability of serious reviewers to find Ginsberg’s psychological autobiography in the poem makes it “confessional” and so narrows the place of persona. The last lines of Part one call up Carl Solomon of the poem’s dedication and draw parallels with Christian religious figures of martyrs and of Christ.
Part two of the poem uses the repetition of “Moloch” to center it. The mythological Middle Eastern god of the sun for which believers sacrificed their first born is used to blame for the evil represented in the first section of the poem. The contemporary Moloch of the poem is one for which people break their backs lifting it to Heaven, a “Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!” (Howl 22). Ginsberg’s Heaven is right out of Blake’s mythology. His Moloch is cement and aluminum, industrial, whose soul is made up of electricity and banks. In this section, Ginsberg turns the “mad generation” on the “rocks of time” into heroes who broke through and with “real holy laughter . . . saw it all” (23).
Part three of the poem declares solidarity with the persona with Carl Solomon, his mother, and other victims of the madness of Moloch. He does this by insisting that the persona is with Solomon et al. in Rockland, the place of “rocks in time.” Here again he suggests the mythological Christianity of William Blake. It is important to note that in this section the solidarity of the mad people in the poem secretly hug and kiss the United States under their bed sheets. These bed sheets remind the reader of Whitman’s. However, the bed sheets of Whitman are more eloquently, less boldly portrayed than Ginsberg’s graphic portrayal.
The “Footnote to Howl” updates Blake’s New Jerusalem for the twentieth century by declaring everything is holy. The section seems a second thought and a swipe at earlier twentieth century poems that provided footnotes for their readers, e.g. “The Wasteland.” This section also seems to attempt to justify the poem’s victims’ place in the world by listing the victims and suggests apologies for the accusations of the other parts of the poem by declaring everything holy, including the middle class, pavements, and skyscrapers which are the “incomprehensible prison” of the United States and the Moloch of sections three and two (27).
The triumph of the poem is the call for liberation of the mad defined broadly from the forces that provoke madness and imprison. In 1956, homosexuality was seen as a psychological disorder if not insanity. The poem’s triumphant call is both that of content and its freedom of form and structure. It also brings freedom of subject matter in bringing the self as a legitimate subject for poetry in an age of psychology. Voila confessional poetry is born. Ginsberg’s triumph would be repeated by others throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
The poem’s limitation is remarkable in that Ginsberg prided himself in writing what he called visionary poetry, and yet, the poem dates itself shortly after its publication. What connects the last three sections of the poem to the first section is the villain of the poem, the evil that is Moloch and the United States and the “incomprehensible prison.” The driving force behind the evil is the women of the first section of the poem and no amount of accumulated build up of organic structure or speech patterns can hide the finger being pointed at the “three old shrews” (14). Moloch, the middle class, the United States, the prison are merely symbols or cover for the blame the poem places on women. Indeed a close reading of lines 128-153 reveal the poem’s limitations. Its limitations of perception, discernment, and tolerance are misogynistic. As a Jewish poet affected by the treatment of Jews in the twentieth century, Ginsberg seems to attempt to seek shelter, to tie his fortunes to the patriarchy that distains women, a patriarchy that has no love of homosexuals either.
The introduction to “Howl” by William Carlos Williams hints at the limitations of the poem’s empathy, the poem’s inability to recognize other oppressed peoples of America. Williams’ last sentence, “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell” reveals the limitations of Williams to understand the patriarchy’s power dynamic (8). His misogyny will be echoed by Ginsberg, who at the time was open regarding his hatred of women. What is surprising is that Williams was a champion of the idea of ethics over aesthetics, thus his falling out with Eliot over the poem “Wasteland.” However, Raskin tells us that Denise Levertov wrote to William Carlos Williams about the poems stating that “There’s something I can accept unconditionally” (Raskin175). So it seems even some women poets lacked insight into the poem’s misogyny or simply accepted it.
“Howl’s” audience is witness to Ginsberg blaming capitalism and all of America’s problems on women. Women become the victims of his diatribe and become villains in his narrative. He states that the “best minds” of his generation, “lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate / the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar / the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb / and the one eyed shrews that does nothing but / sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden / threads of the craftsman’s loom” (Ginsberg 14). One can easily read these lines as a complaint that good homosexual loveboys have been lost to women who are either desirous for money, or desirous of the conventional life of biological family, or desirous of destroying the intellectual gifts of her male lover while destroying her own.
The passage goes on to suggest that the loveboys have been distracted by the “vision of ultimate cunt and come” and have eluded “the last gyzym of consciousness” (Ginsberg 14). Lines 144 to 153 are very ambiguous. One may read the lines as “whoring” love-boys who possess cynical memories of “innumerable lays of girls” in a variety of empty situations while secretly rendezvousing in “stolen night-cars” with “cocksmen” and “Adonis” (14). One may also read them where the persona is projecting girls onto a variety of other love-boys. Either understanding suggests that the persona mocks women while lacking any integrity of its own. It seems to me that the poem’s sections two, three, and footnote are attempts to correct section one, or to bury it in the authority of Blakean religious imagery, or to distract the reader from the weakness of the poem’s accusatorial beginning. In section one, the persona perceived that women were the cause of madness, evil, and the ruination of intelligent males of a generation. The poem as a whole seems to suggest that if women didn’t screw men up there would be no capitalism, no middle class, no United States of Moloch. Allen Grossman has it right when he tells us that “The enemy in Ginsberg is Moloch” and he defines its creator as “the economic culture” (107). which has as its manifestation the “three old shrews of fate” (Ginsberg 14).
This is where the poem fails by not discerning capitalism’s manifestations as patriarchal and therefore that there may be other victims of patriarchal capitalism. That perception would have required that the persona recognize his part in the problem. The persona is male. Madmen and homosexuals are not alone in their victim-hood. Women have long suffered the double bind of men’s thinking so that blame falls to them for everything male and female. Ginsberg was not up to the task of recognizing kindred spirits and discerning the root of his poem’s anger. In fact he is quite apologetic about the poem later in his life. His reading of the poem in 1981 was described by a sympathetic audience member as Ginsberg “‘mocking the past – mocking the angry radicals, mocking the dreamers, mocking the quest for visions’” (Merrill 53-54). Ginsberg described the poem years later as “a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin’s walk . . .” (54).
So while Allen Ginsberg remains a folk hero or pop star to many young male writers and alternative culture youths, his later work may have a more lasting impact. If a reader is coming to poetry for insight into the possibilities of their time, “Howl” is not the poem to read. Had Ginsberg taken a more sincere, discerning look at the argument of the poem, he might have seen the obvious scapegoats women had been. It is amazing that he accepted the conditions of his fame on moral grounds. It is also telling, even on promotional grounds. We know that Ginsberg was a trailblazing self-promoter who was successful at it. Half his potential audience would come to cross the poem off their reading lists. A reader who is one generation removed wonders at Ginsberg’s lack of insight.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 1956.
Grossman, Allen. “The Jew as an American Poet.” On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ed.
Hyde, Lewis. UnderDiscussion. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.
Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Monteagudo, Jesse.Gay Today. (Oct. 27, 1997). 8 Sept. 2006
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.