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This reading of Allen Ginberg's Howl will attempt to demonstrate that the poem is a political work which is driven by the author's mysticism. I will consider eachsection in turn to delineate what I will interpret as a variety of attacks upon the post-war America of Truman and Eisenhower, culminating in a brief examination of the politics of poetic form. My definition of 'political' will be a broad one, that sees personal issues of lifestyle and sexuality, sanity and madness, as intrinsically political, a politics based, by necessity, on the individual.. In the post-war years, the older channels for political protest had been, in the main, defeated and discredited, and '[p]olitics at that point became a struggle between individuals and the institutions and laws to which they were supposed to conform.' (F, 99). Ginsberg mounts a critique of his society in Howl that extends deep into the personal psyche, alleging that '... the only authority was the authority of the individual.' (F, 86) Although risking solipsism, this is a poetics that moves back out of the individual to make links and gestures of solidarity with those whom he perceives are the victims of postwar America, its outsiders and outcasts. As the poet states: 'To call it nihilistic rebellion would be to mistake it completely.' (H, 154) Part 1, 'a lament for the Lamb in America:
' (NH, 416)
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, (H,1-3, 3). 'I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness.' In the first line of the poem Ginsberg is bearing witness to what
'Hysterical:' because they have been driven to extremes of mental behaviour by the society they inhabit.' 'Starving:' for a new sustenance in an increasingly materialistic society where the older forms of protest had become discredited. the world of work. they are 'dragging. by their individual lifestyles and existence. inclusive sweep of the poem). or are attempting. in a gesture of 'solidarity. Significantly. and dominated by.) And one notes that this is 'an angry fix. Ginsberg is specifically eschewing any moral judgement here. by the overall wild. but one that is overcome. a reference to Herbert Huncke. A political act that has to be seen as such in the climate of its writing. a political issue of lifestyle. 'naked' equals a search for honesty deep inside the individual. As part one expands outwards in its long. those addicts who are 'dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.in this case. described by the poet as his 'Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath. display a resultant extremity of expression that will be be radically (hysterically) opposed to the bland conventions of the day). Ginsberg is expressing a poetic solidarity that takes in the outlaws of America. (A somewhat dubious point in an isolated context. As dawn approaches. they are seeking out drugs. and academic conservatism.' (D. arguably. (1. when lifestyle and sexuality. 'Naked:' because they have attempted. Wall Street and Madison Avenue. flowing lines.' are existing in the only space allowed them: ' the negro streets' of Harlem.' counterposed to the bustling rhythms of the day that belongs to straight white America. while at the same time exposing the bleak reality of addiction . in lines that succinctly express the poetic heart of Howl in their linkage of politics and alienated spiritualities: 'In the spiritual and political loneliness of America of the fifties you'd hitch a thousand miles to meet a friend. the conservative status quo.might be termed a 'psychic attack' on the inner life of many of his generation that produces their 'madness' . . could be seen as 'political. especially in the homosexual underground.one of the major themes in Howl. (and their discourses will. In this sense.' Thus. to rid themselves of the excess cultural and spiritual baggage of their society. Gary Snyder has said. therefore. can be seen as opposed to.' with heroin addiction being converted into an antisocial individual defiance.' (NH. not the traditional passive immolation of heroin.' many scattered and isolated individuals and groups across America who.) These 'isolatoes' are the ones identified by Ginsberg as 'starving hysterical naked. 23. 415) it will attempt to encompass. and the AfricanAmerican underclass.
. say. 1944-48. Columbia scientists helped split atoms for military power in secrecy.' (H. That cold war influence darkened the complexion of scientific studies and humanistic attitudes. 6-7.' Ginsberg's annotations to Howl clearly identify his target: 'During [the] author's residence.Who are these night people? 'Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient connection to the starry dynamos in the machinery of night.) In these lines.' the collective 'scholars of war. (H.' This striking word-crammed passage again contrasts the 'night' of the rebel to the day of the dominant..' The religious need is expressed through the language of the mechanical and the modern which produces a striking interfusion and juxtaposition of words to express this yearning..' (2. the New Criticism. who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating> Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war.' This is a 'burning' compulsion for a linkage with older and buried beliefs: 'the ancient connection.) As Part I expands further outwards. and emphasises the urgent spiritual yearnings of Ginsberg's 'hipsters. Subsequent military-industrial funding increasingly dominated university research. couched in a spiritually polemical language. it makes certain explicitly political points about the nature of American cultural life.. 125) Those 'who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes' see further than the limiting textual world of.' and cosmic movements 'the starry dynamos in the machinery of night.' a linkage between the mystical . which can be seen as a representative of the 'humanistic attitudes' contaminated by the 'cold war influence.' They are 'hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy. who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull. 3. the attack is narrowed down onto the academic system that is seen as implicated in the wider 'military-industrial complex. As Charles Bernstein says: 'Howl makes it apparent that something has gone wrong with America by the 1950s.
3) 'Newark..' (H.' (H. and oblique references to Burroughs and Kerouac.' (H.' (H. 43. (H. and a rebel poetic tradition with William Blake as one of its chief avatars.' to illuminate the mind through 'the windows of the skull. 20. This is a re-iteration of the passionate. individual vision. and a grounding in.e.12. for example).' the light of a mysticism that Blake exemplifies. 4) 'Idaho. a privileging of.' The juxtaposition of 'obscene' and 'odes' is interesting here . 4) 'Baltimore. (such as the afore-mentioned Cassady. a different line of rebellious descent. 24. Ginsberg is bearing witness to the alienation of his generation. secret hero of these poems') (H.' (NH. 25. 26. 3) back to 'Brooklyn'. From the anonymous outlaws of the American night to close friends. 3) onwards again to 'Kansas. which Ginsberg sees as an expression of the wider political conformity of the cold war. that lights the 'tragedy' of existence. 30. They see a 'Blake-light tragedy. And such an individual will not last long in such a stifling environment: 'who were expelled from the academies for crazy. (3. 21. 4) and across to 'the West Coast.3) 'Battery to holy Bronx. and also captures.the new poets are struggling to write a verse that is unlimited by the prevailing academic orthodoxy. 4) 'Oklahoma.vision of a wider America typified by 'Arkansas... with Neal Cassady ('N. 14. 4) the poem reads geographically like a wild ride through the American night. 4) at the wheel. This encompassing textual voyage acts to bind the isolated together in a gesture of solidarity.' (H. 4) 'Houston. and attempting to set up a field of dissident spiritual energy.' (H.' (H.' beyond the Eastern academic establishment.' i. many of the individual potential/immanent energies for change in America.' > This first part of Howl criss-crosses the country in a rapid-fire textual journey. 13. 28. set against the official wisdoms. at a point in the midFifties when conservatism was the dominant order of the day. From Harlem/New York City. 3) 'Zen New Jersey. for being unrestrained in their desires and the expression of them: 'publishing/obscene odes on the windows of the skull. 4) 'Mexico' (29. 416) .' (H. Atlantic City Hall. 27... This rawly honest-'obscene' . to 'Canada & Paterson' (H.'(H.poetry will expand the traditional association of 'ode.) 'Part II names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb.C.
In part two. (H. whose worship was marked by parent's burning their children as propitiary sacrifice.S. called by the ancient biblical name of 'Moloch:' '"Moloch": or Molech.A. 6. 79-82. 1948. technological state: 'What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imaginations? Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks! Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jaihouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgement! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!' (H. 139) but extend Ginsberg's critique of the more oblique control of the minds of the people. the physical brutality of the monstrous 'sphinx of cement and aliminium' who 'bashed open their skulls' is linked to the image of mental control: 'ate up their brains and imaginations.is rapaciously eager to devour its young.' which is a reference to the '[p]ost-war U. citizens are prisoners of a state whose power they cannot fully apprehend due to its 'incomprehensible' complexity.' and suggest the crushing 'heavy' weight of the dominant power structure.) Here.). in other words. the Canaanite fire god. These verses do not just refer to the state's physical control. This state apparatus is figured further as an 'incomprehensible prison'. Ginsberg is again linking the ancient to the modern.' (4. the poem takes its attack to American Capitalism. In the first line. This is the true 'Nightmare of Moloch.' The state . reinstitution of [the] peacetime draft. body and soul. This line goes on to present a powerful composite image of the state's judiciary and legislature.' These words strongly imply that little mercy will be forthcoming from a 'heavy judger.' the 'Mental Moloch' which can reach out into people's minds as well control their bodies through such apparatus as the legal system: 'Moloch the heavy judger of men.'Moloch' . (via a reference to Lynd Ward's striking visual imagery in 'God's . as in: 'Boys sobbing in armies.
out' of realising his human potential.Man'): 'Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!' (5.' both as an individual and as a homosexual: '.. arguably. Moloch gains its power not because it lives beyond human will but because we willingly..' (H... one is complicit with the system. for example.. Ginsberg can attack the system from a different angle. which gives a sense of life-long. specifically addressed to him. 6). Ginsberg was in a position to know very well how oppressive a society could be if one did not conform to accepted patterns of behaviour. by not resisting.is emphasised by such lines as 'Moloch who entered my soul early' (H. the role of the poem's addressee rose organically out of the act of composition: < 'He quickly found that the theme he kept returning to was the story of Carl Solomon. to a remarkable degree. inescapable. 86). mental domination. Recognizing that the poem was about Carl.. 85.' (D. he began a second section. ' (M. participate in its authority. 85. This is the wing of the State that deals specifically with mind-control: issues of sanity and madness. if blindly.' > Part III of Howl was. his 'natural ecstasy. By accepting that fearful dominance. In keeping with the spontaneous nature of its composition.190) By concentrating on the concrete plight of Solomon. Or 'Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy. which the rewriting has retained.) The context of all-intrusiveness .. written at the same time as Part I. in the poem's original conception..and a troubling personal involvement with the state power .. A double assault in Ginsberg's case: he has been 'frightened. 6).' (F. one's individual fear feeding its power over the many: '. normality and abnormality: 'I'm with you in Rockland where you scream in a straitjacket that you're losing the game of the actual > pingpong of the abyss I'm with you in Rockland ....82) 'Part III a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory.
(And an anticipation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?) Solomon's despair is seen as a mute inability to express the spiritual truths of the individual. subjected to 'fifty more shocks. to its body again.where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse 'I'm with you in Rockland where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void' (H. as yet another metonym for the state.' is described as having his very being bifurcated: '[your soul] will never return. III..' The combination of technology (electricity) and psychological control by an arm of the state (the armed madhouse) has condemned his 'soul' to a 'pilgrimage' that has left it crucified in some hellish limbo 'a cross in the void. the 'piano' appropriated to stand as a medium for communication which is blocked.' incapable of sending sound into the world. 104-106) The linking of inner and outer oppression is continued in these powerful and striking lines: the physical restraints of the mental hospital and the terror they produce 'where you scream in a straitjacket' is combined with the existential and the spiritual.' . Solomon. where Ginsberg explicitly refers to the stark reality of the 'armed madhouse. the piano is 'catatonic. (in a darkly humourous manner). The sundering of mind and body is further rendered by the reference to the barbarity of electric-shock treatment.' the humour of 'actual pingpong' contrasted to the mystery and fearfulness 'of the abyss. one assumes.. resonating with the context of this section. that 'the soul is immortal it should never die ungodly' in these surroundings. In the language of psychological terminology. Solomon is described as 'losing the game of the actual/pingpong of the abyss.' standing.' This is re-inforced in the next line. to 'bang on a catatonic piano' conjures an image of a possible recreational facility.
' the Place of Skulls. arguably. or the doctors who impose a stifling and barbaric 'normality' on their patients.' The penultimate line of the poem is a textual liberation and affirmation.' (H.. 107) Who is really insane here? The patient. 8) Ginsberg invokes a spiritual war through the juxtaposition of 'souls' with 'airplanes. a positive response to the negativity of Part II. for the new outlaws of America. Wakened by a spiritual electricity that combats the nullifying force of electric-shock treatment . the 'fascist national' state is combines with 'Golgotha. and the rolling power of his verse.' Night here can be seen as some ending of the project of 'Western'/American civilisation . which acts as a metonym for the wider conformity of 'Truman's and Eisenhower's America' ? The amusing and romantic image of 'the Hebrew socialist revolution' is followed by another explicitly political reference to the 'fascist national Golgotha. a compounded geographic/mythic image. by Ginsberg's wit.' and 'angelic' with 'bombs.' (H 111. the furthest frontier. a resonation. 8) The Footnote. Ginsberg is on the West Coast. 8) The section ends on a dream of solidarity and unity. not just of New Testament Christianity.. 'in the Western night.' (H 111. 'Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!Holy!Holy!Holy!Holy!Holy!Holy!Holy! Holy!Holy!Holy! Holy! (H.8) (My italics). which seems to offer a new beginning. carried off. 101) an 'ecstatic democracy' of body and soul is envisaged in this section that bears a striking resemblance to the earlier poet. (6. Such lines as: 'The bum's as holy as the seraphim. grounded in the old hopes. One notes again the mingling of the political with the spiritual.' It is also a resonation with the image of night as the outlaw space of America throughout the poem . occurring. 113.' culminating in the humour of: 'O victory forget your underwear we're free.) is a recapitulation and affirmation of the spiritual.produced by 'our souls airplanes roaring over the roof they've come to drop angelic bombs. Solomon and Ginsberg joined: 'when we wake up electrified out of our coma. surprisingly. possibly.that has produced the state of 'Moloch.' Extreme language.'electrified out of' .and.' . commencing on fifteen repeated 'Holy!s' and moving in the next line to link the general 'The world is holy!' to the individual: 'The soul is holy!' to the body 'The skin is holy!' Although '[h]e didn't discover Whitman until later. but of the Old Testament image of 'Moloch.Yet the tone of this section changes subtly as Ginsberg's 'solidarity' describes Solomon's defiance: '.' (H111.' (F. you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha.
.. Celine. the 'breath measure' of projective verse jacked up to produce a 'howl' ripped out of the body -a physical breath at the extremes of pitch and voice. 86.' (NH.in its sprawling lines.. ChristopherSmart. a formal political gesture and an attack on the institutions that they are linked to metonymically. a response to the content. 6) display this despair and a tone of almost self-loathing.' (8. as expressed in Howl.. But the poem is never a political manifesto in the traditional sense. FORM I: 'I hear ghostly Academics in Limbo screeching about form. 416). Herman Melville. the long-lined surging form of Howl will represent madness as liberation: 'Madness in "Howl" is a sign of salvation. They also show how he uses a shorter line in Part II.. but .further define an inclusory equality within the then-contemporary 'beat ethic' (7.. with so much despair and hope and fear and rage welling up from inside the poet that it defines the shape of the finished work. If they represent 'sanity. repressed America that "Howl" attacks.)of combined spirituality and compassion for the 'down and outs' and outlaws of society.' (NH. to attack the poetics of the 'scholars of war' is. ' (NH 415) In exorcising the 'fear' by these private writings. Such lines as 'Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!' (H. Using the poet's logic. states: 'A lot of these forms developed out of an extreme rhapsodic wail that I once heard in the madhouse. 'I thought I wouldn't write a poem. the French Surrealists..) to name but a few of those who constitute 'the complex matrix of literary influence' (9.' (F. being too gloriously untidy .. 415). something I wouldn't be able to show to anybody. 103) As Ginsberg.and expand the American poetic form.. that again contains echoes of Whitman. in itself... that frequently struggle to hold together the epistemic chaos that is being howled out at the world. The long.. This 'extreme rhapsodic wail' represents a poetics of the voice and the body in extremis. Ginsberg managed to encapsulate a moment in American history . flowing lines can be seen as a formalistic necessity.) on Ginsberg's poetry. This last section rams home the message: that Ginsberg's political views are always heavily inflected with the author's mysticism. but just write what I wanted to without fear.too human? .. although one that had many antecedents: 'William Blake. intended to exorcise the calmly measured. He had created a new form.' as expressed by the tight formal considerations of the day.. Kerouac and Burroughs. enclosed (uneasily?) within the longer unit.
Producing the 'crack of doom?' And the jukebox itself is a product of technology. part of capitalist America . 3) is an example of this 'juxtapositional' process.. an attempt to write and speak a language that can make some sense. .for recording and distribution. which can be linked to capitalist production. even the music is 'contaminated. the military/industrial complex.and still defies any interpretation that is too easily reductive. in this sense.but the outlaw musics of jazz..' (D.' (H.and attack . mysterious expression of resistance to a 'contaminated' language . This 'third image' produced by 'juxtaposition' is a powerful. with the nuclear nightmare image of the Atomic bomb signalled by 'hydrogen. as Ginsberg ends his poem on a note of mystical triumph.Are thus. Seemingly benign .' His juxtapositions. The poem itself is equally contaminated. act to shatter conventional linguistic sense. Thus.' as the world had been contaminated by the invisible 'fallout' from nuclear testing.separated by the exclamation marks that chop the rhythm up. political gestures at the most basic level of the poem.' coupled to the seemingly benign image of the 'jukebox' in the bars frequented by Ginsberg and his friends. 8) for example. Cezanne's ability to juxtapose two dissimilar images (or perspectives) creates a third image that partakes of the two but that is freed from the here and now. yet here the tone is ecstatic rather than despairing . This gives the section a frantic. 78. lay bare the 'contaminations' of 'Moloch. The famous image 'hydrogen jukebox' (H. by the internalised unconscious discourses of 'Moloch.. of the society that Ginsberg sees as oppressive. and r&b which one assumes were often played on these jukeboxes were also dependent to some extent upon the wider entertainment industry. dissonant edge that mirrors its subject the ugly domination of Moloch .) Ginsberg's 'juxtapositions' of images which he uses throughout the poem. This choppy rhythm is echoed in parts of the Footnote: 'Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! etc. however difficult.an interesting rhythmic twist..and a change of rhythmic pace which gives the overall form of the poem more variety. and finally to the 'bomb' that is the last line of defence . 126.for that system. forcing the reader to acquire new methods of reading.15.'Moloch' . In "Howl" this practice can be seen in the word clusters that make up Ginsberg's catalogues.' while trying to howl their way free of them . FORM II: HYDROGEN JUKEBOX: 'According to Ginsberg.
eschews the one-dimensional sloganeering that would. he asked him if he had read it. while being intensely political and partisan in its anguished (and often humourous) 'Howl' of rage. (10. 140) To re-quote Monk's terse comments: 'It makes sense' to this reader to approach Howl (and Ginsberg) as an expression of 'a mysticism which is intensely political. discredited struggles of the Left. have been expected from a purely 'political' position in the old sense. (11. perhaps. (B." said Monk. In conclusion. "Well?" asked Allen. perhaps. (12. . reaching deep into the subconscious to make connections beyond the 'lyrical and ideological interference of the ego. I offer my favourite anecdote about Howl: '[Ginsberg] gave a copy of Howl to Thelonius Monk.) IT MAKES SENSE..) and a week later ran into him standing outside the Five Spot. at a time of distrust in the old.both from the ineffective attempts by the State to ban it and its success with those who identified with it.> Further. "It makes sense. But this mystical/individualistic approach to politics. these 'juxtapositions' can be seen as the result of a mystical stance towards politics because of the spontaneous method of their composition. "Yeah..' to misquote and expand Olson's original line. in the aftermath of the famous Six Gallery reading. For which he received the vindication he deserved by the public response that the poem received .' I would argue that its howl of rage and protest and solidarity with the outlaws of the post-war American state acts to fuse form and content in such a way as almost to nullify any readings that attempt to ignore the spiritual/political motor that drives the poem. produced a language which." replied Monk.) An impossible gesture. I'm almost through.
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