“The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.” – John Clellon Holmes.
“Howl”, written by Allen Ginsberg and was first published in 1956, was one of the poems that caused a stir in mid-century America, though thought as obscene has now turned into one of an American classic. It is a long, complex poem splits into three sections and is acknowledged as a classic that has broken through cultural and traditional barriers like the use of drugs and homosexuality – which had not been written about so openly without at least some sort of literary masking it before. “Howl” was known as one of the most important voice in the Beat Generation due to its resistance to the ideas of conformity and normality of their time. The Beat Generation is a social movement which was created during the 1950s at the end of WWII. It is a movement that focuses on a group of writers of the time who detached themselves from the social norms in an attempt to gain freedom for their artistic expression and personal lives. It was the time where a group of writers wrote numerous pieces of art for not only their own sake, but for the sake of all the people of their time – a style of literature that is used to encourage the people, to educate the people, and to unite the people. This poem is a social commentary, and a revolutionary manifesto of the Beats Generation that relies on obscenity, analogy, and self-experiences to paint the conditions in American society at the times.
Ginsberg begins the poem with the aggressive statements and vivid images to show the madness of the people that are being suppressed and destroyed by American society. Right at the beginning of the poem, he writes about how the “best minds” of his generation are being destroyed by the madness caused by the society – the mental degradation of the people who are struggling to fit in with the normality. “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” (“Howl” I. 1-4). This line is beautiful yet haunting at the same time due to the meaning behind it. It is a graphical detail about the life of different sorts of people within Ginsberg’s social at the time – from junkies and hippies to psychiatric patients, from drugs addicts to homosexual beings. In just one line, Ginsberg is able to show the condition of the American’s society back then, where there were sodomy laws criminalized homosexual intercourse on all fifty states of the United States, and how people were suppressed with desires, fears, and madness and were seeking and silently crying for help. Further, Ginsberg starts up his second section with another great use of imagery that is colored with obscenities to show the ugly conditions of the society that he is living in – a society that is only hungry for wealth and would not bother to look at its own people. “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable/dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in/armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (“Howl” II. 3-5). This is a compelling and lucid description of American society, a place that only cares for the people unless those individuals have wealth. It would not bother to glance once at the kids that are lost, scared and crying by themselves as the war goes on – a war that does not limit to the WWI, but a war of their family with the capitalist society, or cared about the elders who aged without having their family by their side as most of them lose their lives during the war or some are being entwined with capitalist state and are working days and nights to survive. Children and senior citizens would not get a chance to live a good life as they would be suffering from the poverty created by the industrial progression in the United States.
Ginsberg uses an analogy to show the inhuman monster that is America repressing its people. The comparison between Moloch and American society is to symbolize all of the evils in the American society that is killing the youth and lives with its narrow-minded and blinded rules. “Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!” (“Howl” II. 19-20). Ginsberg talks about Moloch, the god for whom parents sacrifice their own children by placing them in a fire. It signifies the American society – the monster that takes pleasure in devouring the “brains and imagination” of the present generations, especially the youth, with its jealous and cruel social system of the American society. It is used to describe all the evils in the society, from corporate power to governmental violence and oppression – death by fire is one of the cruelest ways to kill someone, which Ginsberg equalizes it to the suppression of the society on the “best minds” of his time. In the same section, he continues using the Moloch to convey the real image of the American society and culture that solely a dominance of industry and corporate power. “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is/running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch/whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a/smoking tomb!” (“Howl” II. 12-15). In just four lines, Ginsberg is able to paint a picture of what American society looks like back in the 50s, a society that is built on industries, corporations, and capitalism. Through the analogy of this description of Moloch, Ginsberg is trying to show the effects of the industrial progress in America; how it is destroying the natural resources of the country, how it has ripped off the original values of its society, and how it has been killing its citizen – both literally and figuratively – by working them to death in order to live.
To finalize and accentuate his message, Ginsberg inputs his own experiences to show the readers of the madness that America’s suppression has done to him and his people. In the last section of his poem, Ginsberg introduces his friend Carl Solomon, a man whom he met at his brief stay at a mental institution, he called “Rockland”. In the poem, Solomon displays the theme of insanity caused by the madness from his society. “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland/where you’re madder than I am/I’m with you in Rockland/where you must feel very strange” (“Howl” III. 1-4). In these few lines, Ginsberg is trying to say that Solomon must be baffling as he is in a place that not only confined his madness but also limits his intellectual and artistic freedom as well. This place can be as literal as it says in the quote, the mental institution, or act as a symbolization to the American society and how it is trying to cage its people’s mental and physical freedom with its social norms. These invisible prisons make people go insane – making the country lose their “best minds” as it goes on. However, toward the end of his poem, Ginsberg demonstrates his desire to reconcile with it even though he has a difficult relationship with it. “I’m with you in Rockland/where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the/United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep” (“Howl” III. 42-44). Despite all the obscenities and analogy to Moloch, America is still Ginsberg’s birthplace and citizenship, and that he fights with it because he loves it; hence, the hugs and kisses under the bedsheets as if a parent is tucking his sick child in bed. The coughs that Ginsberg refers to is likely to be describing the United State’s condition as it is suffering from its consequences of capitalism, the industrialization as it is ruining the natural resources, and the oppression as it is ruining its “best minds”.
Howl, a sound that no people want to hear at night or any time of the day, a sound that will give any people goosebumps as soon as one hears it, and a sound that is so eerie yet so powerful as of a wolf howl at a full moon. This is the image that Ginsberg wants to convey by using it as his title, an image of a powerful beast standing majestically at the edge of a cliff, howling for its pack to unite and strengthen their bonds – a bond that is so scary, so powerful, and unstoppable once made. This poem is written to acknowledge the repression and madness in the society and to also remind the society that the people of the Beat Generation cannot be easily silenced down. Because this poem is a cry for people to unify, to stand together and fights the desperation, the suffering, and the persecution of the outcasts in the society, it always stands as the celebration of counterculture movements.
“Follow your inner moonlight, do not hide the madness.” – Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl. Accessed on 12 Feb 2019.