Beat Generation and Allen Ginsburg


The Howl of a Generation
The "Beat Movement" in modern literature has become an
important period in the history of literature and society
in America. Incorporating influences such as jazz, art,
literature, philosophy, and religion, the Beat writers
created a new and prophetic vision of modern life and
changed the way an entire generation of people see the
world. That generation is now aging and its representative
voices are becoming lost to eternity, but the message is
alive and well. The Beats have forever altered the nature
of American consciousness.
The impact of the Beats would certainly not have been as
universal or influential if not for the writing of one
poem; "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg:
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)
These lines, perhaps the most well known in 20th century
poetry, serve as a thematic statement for a poem that
offers a new way of thinking, a sense of hope of escape
from the "Molochs" of society. The story of the poem's
history serves well as an account of the birth of the Beat
Generation. Ginsberg's life leading up to the writing of
"Howl," the actual creation of the poem, its legendary
first reading, and the aftermath of its public debut all
figure prominently into the history of the literary
movement. One can understand the impact of the poem on the
Beat Generation by studying not only the chronology of its
past, but its intricate and unique structure as well as its
themes and ultimate message. Following is an examination of
the poem as the great expression of Beat defiance,
beginning with a short history of the poem.
Ginsberg's Beat career began at Columbia University in 1943
where he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal
Cassidy and others. This group of writers would remain
life-long friends of Ginsberg and influence him in myriad
ways. The history of "Howl," however, begins in 1953 after
Ginsberg's move to San Francisco in search of poetic
inspiration. Having moved away from the camaraderie of his
group of New York friends, Ginsberg began to feel
dislocated and depressed. Ginsberg knew he was at a
crossroads in his art between his apprenticeship to
academic models of literature (mentor William Carlos
Williams specifically), and breaking through to a personal
voice which could sing of experience beyond the bounds of
what was permissible - by 50's academic standards - to
speak of in poetry.
Battling writer's block, Ginsberg decided to enroll in
graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, moved to North Beach, and
moved in with a friend of Kerouac's. It was in these
surroundings that he came to be part of poet Kenneth
Rexroth's Friday night poetry circle. The Rexroth circle:
well-read and international, homosexual and heterosexual,
poets and artists from several generations, laid the
foundation for the Beat breakthrough.
Ginsberg slowly became more comfortable with his new
surroundings, encouraged by his new companion, Peter
Orlovsky. He still, however, was becoming more and more
depressed, attempting to deal with his repressed
homosexuality. Ginsberg consulted a psychiatrist and asked
him if he should be trying to be heterosexual. When the
doctor asked Ginsberg what he really wanted to do, the poet
replied, "I really would just love to get an apartment,
stop working and live with Peter and write poems." To which
the doctor replied, "why don't you?" (Schumacher 147).
Ginsberg felt he had received a blessing. He arranged his
own layoff at the market-research firm where he had been
working by replacing himself with a computer, ensuring
himself unemployment benefits for six months. He and
Orlovsky moved into an apartment together and Ginsberg
began writing. In July of 1955, Ginsberg wrote a line in
his journal, "I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster
damned," thinking of his friend Carl Solomon. A week or so
later, Ginsberg sat down in his apartment to release some
poetic energy into his typewriter.
I sat idly at my desk by the first floor window facing
Montgomery street's slope to gay Broadway - only a few
blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookshop. I had
a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began
typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but
stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were
worth. As my loves were impractical and my thoughts
relatively unworldly, I had nothing to gain, only the
pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies most
intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of
family, formal education, business and current literature
(Art 44).
Ginsberg expanded on the line from his journal, changing it
to a second draft of the bast-known line in 20th Century
poetry: "I saw the best minds of my generation / generation
destroyed by madness / starving mystical naked." Ginsberg
continued for seven single-spaced pages. The lines were
short, influenced by Williams, and the phrases showed
inspiration of soaring jazz saxophone riffs. "I knew
Kerouac would hear the sound," Ginsberg later said
(Parkinson 114). The author revised his poem, combining the
short lines into long, "breath-lines." Although he felt the
poem was too personal to publish, Ginsberg sent a copy to
Kerouac. Kerouac's reply was so encouraging that Ginsberg
immediately began scouting for a venue in which to read his
poem. Finally, in the fall of 1955, a reading by six poets,
including Ginsberg, was arranged at the Six Gallery.
The Six Gallery reading has since become a literary legend.
Several well-known authors were in attendance, including
Kerouac, who beat a wine jug and shouted "GO!" after each
line of Ginsberg's poem. The emotional first reading of the
poem left Ginsberg and others in tears. The legendary
reading led to the publishing of the collection and,
subsequently, a charge of obscenity against its publisher,
City Lights books. The sensationalism surrounding the
months of litigation that followed stifled the poem's
literary reception, but at the same time made Howl and
Other Poems easily one of the best-selling volumes of
poetry of the 20th century. These are the events that
shaped the poem and elevated it to a level that few
literary works have ever achieved. It became the voice of a
generation that was emerging from subcultural San Francisco
into the minds of America at large.
Obviously, however, a literary work does not become a
modern classic by way of publicity alone. What is it, then,
that propels "Howl" past the bounds of ordinary poetry and
into the realm of landmark literature? What is it that has
caused this poem to become the handbook of an entire
generation? This question is best explored beginning with
Ginsberg's own views of his work. Ginsberg considered the
writing of "Howl" to be a new phase in his poetic
development, best characterized by total creative freedom.
This freedom consists mainly of an escape from "fear" to
total openness and honesty. "I thought I wouldn't write a
poem," he explains, "but just write what I wanted to
without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and
scribble magic lines from my real mind - sum up my life -
something I wouldn't be able to show anybody, write for my
own soul's ear and a few other golden ears" (Notes). A
second aspect of the total creative freedom of the poem is
metrical. Ginsberg claims he began the poem with no
structure in mind. He worked with his own "neural impulses
and writing impulses" to arrive at a pattern "organically,
rather than synthetically" (Art 44). The poem, he states,
was, "typed out madly in one afternoon, a tragic
custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing [and] meaningless
images" (Notes). In order to read "Howl" properly, one must
avoid the impulse to search for a logical or rational
connection of ideas. Analysis or explanation of the poem
would seem to be n competition with the poem's own message,
which is literally a violent howl of human anguish and
other spontaneous feelings.
The two aspects which perhaps contribute most to the poem's
literary power are "tightness" and spontaneity. The first
of these two has to do with what Ginsberg called "density"
- the richness of imagery packed into a given line. The
poem achieves this with the help of an escape from
grammatical continuity. The rules of grammar are abandoned
in order to place images densely in carefully chosen
proximity to other images. The result is the appearance of
such strong images as "negro streets," "angry fix," "paint
hotels," "blind streets," and "hydrogen jukebox." The poem
communicated somewhat ambiguously, through images. Because
of this, grammatical logic is of little concern. The entire
78 line first section of the poem is, in fact, one sentence.
The other aspect of the poem which brings the language to
life is its spontaneity. Ginsberg has discovered a way to
sustain a long line of poetry without allowing it to lapse
into prose. He leaps from one image or perception to
another with speed. This spontaneity gives the poem a
feeling of uncontrived honesty.
These technical aspects of the poem contribute to its power
in very important way. "Howl"'s spontaneity and collection
of juxtaposed images give the poem a "voice" that may be
both defiant and celebratory in the same line. This is the
voice of the Beat Generation, at once reacting against the
increasingly commercial and conformist Eisenhower years and
celebrating the rise of a new counterculture.
The power of "Howl" goes far beyond what is achieved
through technical methods. The themes in the poem are most
important in representing the message of the Beat
Generation. In the first part of the poem, the author sets
himself as an observer in a mad world. He is witness to the
destruction of "the best minds of my generation" by madness
(9). This theme of madness in the first section of the poem
is used to describe the workings of these minds. They are
"burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of the night," and they have "bared
their brains to Heaven" (9). Later comes a reference to
Ginsberg's own commitment to an asylum (15) as well as the
application of this theme to a specific individual, Carl
Solomon, who is undergoing treatment at Rockland State
Hospital (16). These minds are martyrs in the sense that
they have chosen to embrace madness as an alternative to
the unbearable sanity of the real world. Their madness
consists of their refusal to accept a non-spiritual view of
the world, in their "burning for the ancient heavenly
connection" in a civilization that has pronounced God dead.
Part two of "Howl", written under the influence of peyote,
is an accusation: "What sphinx of cement and aluminum
bashed open the skulls and ate up their brains and
imagination?" (17). Here, the antagonist is named as
"Moloch," who becomes the symbol for social illness. It is
perhaps most constructive to read this part simply as an
indictment of those elements in modern society that lead to
the "Mad generation" being hurled "down upon the rocks of
Time" (18). Part three begins on a note of compassion and
identification, directed at Carl Solomon.. "Carl Solomon!
I'm with you in Rockland where you're madder than I am"
(19). "I'm with you in Rockland" becomes a repeated phrase
that causes the section to read as a sympathy card from
Ginsberg to Solomon. Solomon comes to represent what the
author considers to be a general condition.
The last section, "Footnote to Howl," actually a separate
poem, offers a cure for the social illness represented by
Moloch in part two. Ginsberg has consciously designed these
two sections to be roughly parallel to each other. The name
"Moloch" is replaced with the word "holy". Consider the
following two passages from part two and "footnote",
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch
whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless
Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the
cities! (17)
Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! Holy the
cafeterias filled with millions! Holy the mysterious rivers
of tears under the streets! (21)
Identical raw materials are presented in both cases
(skyscrapers, pavement), but the substitution of the words
provides two very different perspectives; one of ugliness
and one of the understanding of the holiness in everything.
Very few themes overlap the three sections and footnote to
"Howl". Two that provide a thematic groundwork for the poem
are time and religion. Time is presented as the main
difference between the two struggling realms of existence
in the poem. The "hipsters" time is eternal, not the
chronological time of real-world existence. During their
journey toward timelessness, the "hipsters", "threw their
watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity
outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every
day for the next decade" (13). In pursuing "timelessness"
the "hipsters" are punished by "Time". On the other hand,
there is the destructive time which destroys the "mad
generation". Time, therefore, becomes a symbol of two
separate realms of existence: the "square" reads time by a
clock while the "hipster" reads the holy "clocks in space"
which tell him that time does not matter -- that truth is
The second theme present in the poem is religion. The poem
reads at times like scripture, with words like "blessed"
used repeatedly. Other times, the religion of the poem is
internal. Kenneth Rexroth states that the writing is
"prophetic". "There are prophets of the Bible," he says,
"which it greatly resembles in purpose and in language and
in subject matter . . . The theme is the denunciation of
evil and a pointing out of the way out, so to speak"
(Rexroth 68). Another underlying religious theme is that of
persecution, such as that of those "who lit cigarettes in
boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward
lonesome farms in the grandfather night" (11), and those
"who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on
Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse . . . or were
run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" (14).
These themes of time and religion give the poem an eternal
and prophetic quality that has remained unrivaled in modern
This examination of "Howl"'s history, structure, and themes
brings to light the poem's ultimate importance to the
history of American literature and society. The Beat
Generation of writers offered the world a new attitude.
They brought to society a consciousness of a life worth
living. They offered a method of escape from the
stultifying, unimaginative world we live in through the
exploration of one's intellect. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"
does all of these things and more in an unforgettable,
inspirational way. The poem points the way toward a new and
better existence, chronicling the pilgrimage of the "mad
generation" toward a reality that is timeless and
placeless, holy and eternal.


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