Allen Ginsberg and a Summary of Howl
Howl is a long poem split into three parts and is Ginsberg's most controversial work. This analysis concentrates on part one, dedicated to Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met and befriended in a psychiatric institute in 1949.
- Howl is full of people and places, food, music, suicides, sex, madness, drugs and unusual language.
- Ginsberg is a keen observer, the first person perspective evident in the first line. Autobiographical and biographical episodes play a major role, but often they are altered and transformed.
- The syntax is unusual in some lines, and the language paradoxical.
- Note the use of the word 'who,' which starts many of the lines and gives the poem a repetitive feel, much like an incantation.
- Howl is a social commentary, a rambling, intense narrative featuring characters, scenes, references and real-life sequences. Those on the margins of society are prominent—poets, artists, radicals, homosexuals and the mentally ill—and all are swept along on the long lines Ginsberg employed to convey deep frustration, joy and energy.
- Ginsberg was influenced by Walt Whitman's long rhythmic lines (in poems such as 'Starting from Paumanok', 'Salut au Monde' and 'By Blue Ontario's Shore'), William Blake's visionary work (Songs of Innocence and Experience) and certain books of the bible.
Today Howl is acknowledged as a literary classic in that it broke through cultural barriers, challenged the establishment and encapsulated a generation's anger and frustrations.
Love or hate it, Howl is important because it is of urban birth, the language simultaneously surreal and vulgar, jazzy and foul, yet full of real-life sensitivity and hope.
When it was first presented to the public on October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Fransisco, the reading caused an uproar. Something new and disturbing had been unleashed.
At that gathering were several of the group who would become known as the 'Beats', including Jack Kerouac, who poured the wine that night and screamed encouragement as Ginsberg read.
'Howl' would go on to influence not only Kerouac (and authors such as William Burroughs) but artists and alternative thinkers and artists to come, including a young songwriter called Bob Dylan.
Some place 'Howl' in the same boat as the Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, 'The Prelude', 'Song of Myself' and 'The Waste Land.
Walt Whitman's pioneering spirit and opening up of taboo subject matter, plus his use of the longer line, certainly inspired Ginsberg. But 'Howl' is seen as a game-changer primarily because it expressed for the first time a modern psychological angst, an urban existence fueled by drugs, jazz, travel and expansion of the mind.
That said, there are critics who dislike the explicit content, the prose-like loose structure and overall subversive message.
'Howl' is on the one hand a personal cry for understanding and a condemnation of comfortable, conforming societal values. It is also full of anguish, incoherency and pain juxtaposed with praise, urgency and calls for change.
Published in November 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the City Lights bookshop as Howl and Other Poems, the book came to the notice of the authorities and was seized by customs officials in San Fransisco as it arrived from London, where it had been printed.
At the obscenity trial in California in June 1957, nine literary experts gave evidence in support. Subsequently the judge's verdict concluded that the book was of 'redeeming social importance' and could be freely sold.
Suffice to say that many believed the modern world to have begun that day, a generation born since the end of the second world war.
Allen Ginsberg's name became synonymous with radicalism, freedom of speech and the right to protest against sexual and political oppression.
Allen Ginsberg on His Own Work
'Howl' is an outpouring, fashioned into long lines that demand deep breathing and emotional commitment. There are many different rhythms and tones within it. Some hear the long, staccato stressed bebop sessions Ginsberg and his gang loved to attend. Others note the alliteration and assonance, the inventive wordplay and surreal imagery.
There's no doubting its ability to shock, to take the reader down to the sordid streets of a dimly lit city at dawn or midnight; there is sex, drugs and turmoil. On the other hand it can inspire because it depicts in vivid imagery and spontaneous language the experiences of young, alternative America.
These are outsiders, creative and freewheeling, lusting after life, succumbing to the effects of readily available drugs.
But just what had Ginsberg in mind with his masterpiece 'Howl'?
“I thought I wouldn’t write a poem, 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.”
'Howl' by Allen Ginsberg
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 1–12
'Howl' is a free verse poem, almost a prose-poem, a single long stanza of 78 dense lines, with no regular established meter (metre in British English) and no set rhyme scheme.
The structure of the poem is unusual. Inspired by certain books of the bible, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, the lines are long and demand deep breaths and disciplined reading.
Note that the first line begins in normal fashion, tight against the left margin, but that subsequent lines are indented, creating a regular layered form.
1. I saw the best minds...
The well known first line starts with the first person speaker's own experience, looking back over an indefinite time period, of those around him losing their minds. He's already witnessed the mental degradation of those outsiders closest to him: artists, poets, friends and other bohemian types who have struggled to fit into the smothering routines of mainstream society.
2. dragging themselves through...
They're out on the streets, desperately seeking drugs to help them cope with the demands. That use of the word negro could be an allusion to an area of New York associated with African Americans. Or perhaps because it is dawn, there are early shift workers going to work, the majority being African American.
3. angelheaded hipsters burning...
The speaker begins to leave earth for the cosmos, using the term 'hipster' (which turns up in a 1944 glossary from an article Boogie Woogie in Blue meaning 'characters who like hot jazz').
Reference to the heavens and stars could have been influenced by Dylan Thomas's poem 'The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower. Ginsberg met Dylan Thomas briefly in New York in 1952.
4. who poverty and tatters...
The repeated use of the word who starts here. Ginsberg used this little word as a sort of reference point, a base from which another deep breath is taken in readiness for another of those stretched out lines. Repetition is a biblical ploy.
Jazz was the chosen music of the beats, particularly Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, among others. Jazz clubs such as the Bowery were like cauldrons where new language and phrases developed.
Juxtaposition plays a big role in this poem, as does surrealism. They partner each other well in this line.
Alliteration plays its part in the sound texture: hollow-eyed and high...smoking in the supernatural...flats floating.
5. who bared their brains...
The second mention of angels in the poem—angels are religious symbols best known from Christianity—but other religions have them too.
The El is short for Elevated railway, part of the subway system in New York.
Alliteration again, helping with the phonetics....bared their brains.
6–9. who passed through universities...
Ginsberg spent time at Colombia University where the scientists were busy splitting the atoms to be used eventually in weapons for the military.
William Blake, the English mystic poet and illustrator who wrote social commentaries in verse form and developed a visionary world full of angels and other beings.
Ginsberg did eventually graduate in 1948. By this time he knew Kerouac, Burroughs and other writers who were to influence his thinking. He also read Blake and was impressed by his prophetic poems.
Shortly after Colombia, Ginsberg became involved in the drugs world on the East Side of NY and could have been sent to jail after a friend of his Herbert Huncke was arrested for stealing. Ginsberg helped stash the stolen goods.
Instead of being sent to prison Ginsberg, having pleaded mental instability, was given a term in a psychiatric institute, where he met Carl Solomon, a 'professional lunatic-saint'. Solomon inspired the would be poet and urged he become a prophet and voice for the oppressed. Hence the dedication in 'Howl'.
10. who ate fire in paint...
Paradise Alley: 501 East 11th St New York, an area where many artists and writers lived in the 1950s. Their rooms seemed always in a state of repair, in need of redecoration, hence the turpentine and paint.
The unusual use of grammar: paint hotels...purgatoried their torsos...is in keeping with a poem written by someone who had experienced a kind of psychological and spiritual torture.
11. with dreams, with drugs,...
The first line to use explicit slang terms, it's also one of the shortest in the first section of 'Howl'. Here the reading slows down, comma after comma, indicating pauses.
12. incomparable blind streets...
As if to compensate, this line has only a single comma midway, the first breath enough to take the reader to Canada & Paterson. Paterson is the city in New Jersey where Ginsberg was born, in 1926.
The lightning lights up Time that is standing still, between now and the author's birth.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 13–22
13. Peyote solidities ....
Ginsberg spent many days and nights out in New York experimenting with peyote, a small cactus plant (Lophophora williamsi) from which the psychedelic hallucinogen mescaline is produced.
One of the gang was a certain Bill Keck who lived in an apartment overlooking a cemetery, on East 2nd street off Second Avenue. Ginsberg's journals are full of these escapades around New York.
For kicks, Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady & Co would drive off into the early hours looking for open jazz clubs.
The phrase kind king light of mind Ginsberg was inspired by a line from Kerouac's Mexico City blues poem, written between 1954 and 1957.
14. who chained themselves....
This is the subway line. Battery to Bronx, south to north on a subway train. Battery Park, 25 acres, is at the tip of Manhattan Island. Bronx is the home of the NY Yankees and has lots of green areas. The Zoo is situated there.
Benzedrine, an amphetamine, was quite commonly prescribed once upon a time, until the late 1960s when an undercover journalist blew the lid on it. Taken in pill form as bennies, benzedrine, speed, gave the taker an instant hit. Over time it could prove addictive.
15. who sank all night....
Bickford's was a chain of eateries that flourished in New York from the 1920s to the 1980s when the last was closed. Breakfast was cheap and popular. Fugazzi's was a bar on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village but isn't there anymore.
The crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox is a reference to the loud booming of that machine, akin to a hydrogen bomb going off.
16. who talked continuously....
Ruth Goldenburg, a young Jewish woman Ginsberg knew from the San Remo bar is said to have talked non-stop for 72 hours one time (possibly high on speed?) but unfortunately ended up in Bellevue, a mental hospital.
17. a lost battalion of platonic....
More platonic conversationalists are buzzing around New York. They are lost. They are full of energy, jumping off the stoops (small stairs leading to an apartment) at night when the moon is out...another sign of latent lunacy.
18. yacketayakking screaming vomiting...
There is more vibrant talking...yacketayakking...and in contrast to the howl, some whispering...and some vomiting...as the beat gang best minds live out their mental and physical existence on the streets of the Big Apple.
19. whole intellects disgorged...
This must be the speed working. Minds are emptied, souls spilled out onto the pavement, everything mentally spewed out...meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement is a metaphor for all of this...the meat being kosher of course.
20. who vanished into nowhere...
Those same minds, or some of them, disappeared...into Zen, the eastern Buddhist discipline that involves a certain amount of meditation on nothingness. Ginsberg's friend and fellow poet Gary Snyder was and still is a practitioner of Zen.
Disappeared into New Jersey, back to Ginsberg's home town? Sending postcards, from where or from whom it's not clear. It's interesting to look at the first draft of this line, how it changes in the finished piece:
who vanished into the New Jersies of amnesia
posting cryptic picture postcards
of Belmar City Hall and last years sharks
So this line turns out to be autobiographical—as many images are in this poem—a composite of images based on Ginsberg's young years growing up in Paterson and holidaying in various places.
21. suffering Eastern sweats....
Withdrawal symptoms mixed in with phrases inspired by William Burroughs, who was living in Tangiers, Morocco at the time and who also had suffered withdrawal from heroin, describing it in letters to Ginsberg.
Ginsberg had his Blakean vision in a Newark room.
22. who wandered around and around...
The beat gang must have covered an awful lot of New York's seedier districts, walking, talking, looking for action, ending up in all sorts of weird places, including a railroad yard.
Ginsberg and Kerouac took a walk in a railroad yard where both were inspired by a... grimy sunflower, the basis for Ginsberg's poem Sunflower Sutra.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 23–34
23. who lit cigarettes in boxcars...
Crossing the country in a box car was a common occurrence for hobos and drifters at one time in the USA. This line is an echo of some of those lonesome journeys undergone through bleak times way back.
24. who studied Plotinus Poe St John...
This must have been an unbelievably intense time for the beats. Not only were they out on the streets day and night speeding up, dropping out, yacketayakking—they were in quiet corners somewhere studying Roman philosophy, Plotinus, gothic verse, Edgar Allan Poe, christian mysticism, St John of the Cross (Spanish mystic 1542-1591) who wrote 'The Dark Night of the Soul'.
Telepathy is communication without use of the senses whilst bebop kaballa—the kaballa is an ancient Judaistic discipline for self-enlightenment...to do with esoteric knowledge of the soul.
Wichita, Kansas was also a hot bed of alternative thinkers and protobeats.
25. who loned it through the streets...
What were the best minds doing in Idaho of all places? Well, they were looking for native American visionaries, twice. Idaho is the birth state of none other than Ezra Pound, whose innovative poetic rhythms inspired the young Ginsberg (he would visit Pound later on in 1967 and forgive him his anti-semitism).
26. who thought they were only mad...
And on into the city of Baltimore, where Edgar Allan Poe had his home with the Clemms and where he is buried. Surely this line alludes to Poe, his stories and his manic personality.
27. who jumped in limousines....
This line introduces the mysterious Chinaman of Oklahoma—known only to the beat gang perhaps. The fact that they're in a limousine and in Oklahoma adds a little absurdity to the urban myth.
- Ginsberg employs these generic characters, be they outsiders or insiders, to create a sense of the beats being alternative, of America being a melting pot of ethnicity.
- Note the tumbling rhythms of the trochee...winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain, adding to the natural tension of the line.
28. who lounged hungry and lonesome...
This is a purely autobiographical line. In August 1947 Ginsberg had travelled to William Burroughs's farm at New Waverley in Texas, hoping to finally consummate his love for Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady. But Cassady was having none of it. He told Ginsberg that they would have to split up but that he was willing to spend one more night together in Houston.
The one night finale didn't quite pan out as Ginsberg had hoped. Cassady got high and teamed up with a girl he'd met, taking her back to the Brazos Hotel while Ginsberg was buying tickets for a trip back to New York by boat.
Ginsberg was so outraged he ended up buying a ticket to Dakar, Africa, spending 20 days there, missing out on the start of university at Columbia.
The brilliant Spaniard is? Perhaps someone Ginsberg met in Houston, another generic character.
29. who disappeared into the volcanoes...
From Africa to Mexico. And the figure of another poet, John Hoffman, close friend of Philip Lamantia, poet who read Hoffman's Yucatan seaside poems on the same night Ginsberg first read 'Howl'.
Hoffman disappeared in Mexico in 1952, presumed dead. He was 21. Kerouac thought he died of too much peyote in Chihuahua.
30. who reappeared on the West Coast...
Ginsberg plays with time and space, Hoffman reappearing as a different character—one Joffre Stewart, anarchist and protestor who he met in San Fransisco in early 1955.
Stewart always carried a white bag full of pacifist and anarchist flyers and was investigating the FBI, or so he claimed.
Note how the tables are turned. The FBI, a secretive established agency, is being looked into by a bearded anarchist in shorts. That is funny, ludicrous, but highlights the desperate plight of those on the periphery, fed up with the status quo.
31. who burned cigarette holes...
More desperation—physical self-harming is just one symptom of mental frustration and calls for attention. Smoking was all the rage in the 1950s, some tobacco companies claiming that cigarettes actually made the smoker healthier.
Ginsberg's clever use of language means that he saw through the hypocrisy—tobacco companies once made huge profits, still do, by selling products that are harmful, potentially deadly, one of the more dubious aspects of capitalism.
32. who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets...
This line caused a furore in some political circles in 1950s America. McCarthyism was already a well known phenomenon. Communists were seen as dangerous and many were sent to prison between 1941 and 1957 for their membership of the 'Reds' party.
So to use a term like Supercommunist is controversial to say the least. Many of the best minds were exploring different political avenues, handing out leaflets, undressing in places Los Alamos, New Mexico and Wall Street...while the police sirens wailed, the Staten Island ferry wailed.
33. who broke down crying in white gymnasiums...
The white gymnasiums could be mental institutions, halls, treatment rooms or plain gymnasiums, whilst the word machinery applies to bones, or suggests something robotic, non-human.
There's a parallel here with line 8.
34. who bit detectives in the neck...
Bill Canastra, another of the beat gang, is the main man in this line. He did all of these things and more. He eventually fell out of a subway train window and got killed.
Biting police officers in the neck is a sure way to get yourself thrown into jail. Even vampires don't do that. Seeming to enjoy being arrested in the squad car for this crime is likely to upset officialdom and increase the chances of conviction.
Wild cooking could be a disguised euphemism for the act. Pederasty is not in itself a crime (note the difference with paedophilia) being a relationship, platonic, between an adult and a junior. Intoxication is being drunk.
In short, there's a whole lot happening to the best minds out there on the streets; there's much gnashing of teeth and screaming and shouting. Ginsberg paraphrases episodes in his own life, rails against the American establishment
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 35–43
35. who howled on their knees...
Is this the only line with the title incorporated? The best minds again being taken away by officials—despite or because of the waving genitals and manuscripts...of 'Howl' itself?
36. who let themselves be ******...
This line certainly caused some to label the poem as obscene. Nothing like this had appeared in poetry before—explicit, raw, honest—an obvious reference to homosexual sex, which was illegal back in the 1950s.
The saintly motorcyclists were inspired by Marlon Brando in the 1954 movie The Wild One.
37. who blew and were blown...
Another line that clearly documents the casual promiscuous sex going on in the city and Ginsberg's circle. The poet Hart Crane was well known for his love of sailors,...seraphim are angelic beings in Christian angelology.
38. who balled in the morning...
A natural follow on in this series depicting sexual encounters of gay young men in parks and other public spaces.
39. who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle...
The tone of these lines is youthful and light-hearted and is not without a comic element. Pathos also plays a role. Essentially Ginsberg is telling it as it is, he's mixing personal experience and group dynamics and spinning it all together, producing a mythological finish.
There is laughter, there are tears in the Turkish Bath. But who is the blonde angel with a sword? Could it be Neal Cassady who Ginsberg fell in love with, the bisexual friend of Kerouac?
40. who lost their loveboys...
The three old shrews of fate are the Greek Fates who spun, wove and then cut the thread of an individual's mortal life. Shrew is Shakespearean (The Taming of the Shrew). Ginsberg updates their roles in this line. The loveboys are lost to normal family life (man + woman + job + child) which severs the intellectual thread and the whole creative process.
41. who copulated ecstatic and insatiate...
Another classic Ginsberg line which some suggest depicts a heterosexual bedroom scene or more likely a homosexual bedroom scene, with bottle and candle starring as penetrative objects of desire.
The vision experienced is certainly not Blakean and gives the reader broad scope for imaginative inventiveness.
That word gyzym means ejaculation/sperm.
42. who sweetened the snatches...
Continuing with the sexual theme, here we have the best minds (or Neal Cassady) sweetening the snatches (snatches=female genitalia) from dawn to dusk, with that youthful energy that is both rampant and fecund.
This line is about fertility and creativity and the freedom to pursue the pleasures of the flesh outdoors.
43. who went out whoring through Colorado...
Introducing, at last, the famous Adonis of Denver, one N.C. Neal Cassady, handsome friend of Kerouac (Dean Moriarity in the novel On the Road) and lover of Ginsberg. A rare naming of an individual breaks with the collective 'who' and directly links to a known person, notorious for picking up lovers here, there and everywhere.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 44–55
44. who faded out in vast sordid movies....
Who hasn't fallen to sleep in a cinema before? This highly visual line of movies, dreams and basements seems autobiographical. Ginsberg was unemployed for a time and must have sought solace watching films and drinking Tokay, the Hungarian sweet white wine.
Third Avenue held the Etna Iron works, as well as the EL, the subway held together by iron in places.
45. who walked all night with their shoes full of blood...
One of the most quoted lines of 'Howl'. The image of blood in the shoes is so powerful, contrasting heavily with the dockland snow. The east river is a salt tidal estuary in New York.
This line is based on a real life episode. Herbert Huncke, a petty thief, one of the beat gang, arrived at Ginsberg's door one snowy morning. He'd been on the streets for ten days and was in a terrible state, with bloody feet. Ginsberg took him in and tended to his needs.
However, when Huncke recovered he began to take over Ginsberg's apartment, filling the place with stolen goods. Ginsberg's life changed when he agreed to be driven by one of Huncke's friends to his brother's house. It turned out the car was stolen, contained stolen clothes, and was spotted by a police patrol car. In a speed chase the car overturned.
Ginsberg survived but was found guilty of aiding a thief. Fortunately for him interventions from his university professors allowed him to avoid jail. Instead he ended up at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, where he was to be re-trained as a normal member of society.
During his eight-month stay, he met none other than Carl Solomon, inspiration for the poem 'Howl'. What goes around, comes around.
46. who created great suicidal dramas...
Another suicidal scenario, this time high up overlooking the Hudson River. The moon, that harbinger of lunacy and cyclic energy is present as the victims are crowned with victory wreaths, an old Roman tradition.
47. who ate the lamb stew...
Ginsberg was well aware of the low life that gathered under the bridges of Bowery, in Manhattan. A rescue mission has been here since 1879.
48. who wept at the romance...
Weeping and onions seem to go together. Hobos and others down at heel often push their belongings around on wheels. There is something tragic about seeing people on the street who have fallen victim to the times, or have a loveless existence. On the flipside there is romance too. Perhaps there's no excuse for bad music though.
49. who sat in boxes breathing...
Bill Keck did build harpsichords, so this line is a direct link. Ginsberg is said to have spoken with his wife just before starting 'Howl'.
50. who coughed on the sixth floor...
Russell Durgin's sixth floor apartment in Spanish Harlem was where Ginsberg had his Blakean visions. Durgin happened to store his theology books in orange crates he'd picked up from the streets.
51. who scribbled all night rocking and rolling...
This line introduces rock and roll and the pioneering aspirant beats who thought they were writing great literature to this new music but woke up knowing their work was naught but trash.
52. who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet...
Food and eating appear quite often in 'Howl'. The Jewish dish lungen is a stew of lungs and other meats served with potatoes. Ginsberg's mother certainly cooked it but nowadays it is forbidden to eat animal lungs...perhaps the dish lungen, hated by some, loved by others, was enough to turn some people vegetarian?
53. who plunged themselves under meat trucks...
The shortest line. 10 words only. Desperation rules. You have to be mad and starving hungry for eggs to get under a truck for one. Is the truck moving at the time? Let's hope not, for the sake of the beat and the egg.
54. who threw their watches off the roof...
This line is well known and has some bizarre yet stirring imagery. A certain Louis Simpson, one of Ginsberg's Columbia Uni friends, and a poet and editor, did actually throw a watch, belonging to someone else, out of a window, a crazy thing to do. Simpson thought that time was no longer needed because everyone was living in Eternity.
Louis Simpson had served in WW2 and was older than Ginsberg. His war time experiences left him a little traumatised and he eventually had a nervous breakdown.
55. who cut their wrists three times...
Such absurd mini-stories within this poem. Suicide attempts result from desperation, the crushing demands of society and family squeezing out hope, yet in this line the victims fail in their attempts to end life and are forced to open antique stores!
Ginsberg's talent for juxtaposing dark and light, humor and horror in this poem is once more illustrated.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 56–62
56. who were burned alive...
One of the longest lines in the poem, depicting Madison Avenue, the luxury district of New York where fashion and bling and money count. In 'Howl', the scene is more like one from Hell—minds being burned alive in what appears to be an environment of war.
What battle rages? What war is this? This is none other than the military-industrial complex, the Capitalist elites and the conformists waging war on the best minds, the peripherals, the creatives who question, protest and promote alternative worlds.
57. who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge...
Tuli Kupferberg, poet, musician and protestor did jump off a bridge in 1944, the Manhattan bridge according to sources, and was picked up badly injured by a passing tugboat.
Ginsberg turns this true episode into a poetic fiction—as he did in many lines of 'Howl'—using biographical fact and dressing it up as poetry. Again, nitty gritty street-life is given ghostly character. And there's not even a free beer? Disappointing.
58. who sang out of their windows in despair...
Another long line, with commas for pauses, which helps break up the breath. Bill Canastra, another beat gang member, did fall out of a subway train window and got killed.
The language of this line: sang, fell, jumped, leaped, cried, danced, smashed, threw up...all in all a drunken fuzzy time was had...until the German jazz is heard and that changes everything. Ginsberg must have heard tales of Nazi Germany and the plight of the Jews in those dreadful camps.
59. who barreled down the highways...
Well, Ginsberg at speed in this line. The beats loved to drive their metaphors to all kinds of places.
That phrase hot-rod Golgotha jail-solitude watch quickens then slows all by itself...a hot-rod is a fast souped-up car, whilst Golgotha is the Jerusalem hill where Jesus Christ was crucified. Put the two together and you have a potent mix of life and death, whilst the latter suggests time in the clink, behind bars...or...preferably, go to Birmingham, Alabama and be a jazz musician.
60. who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours...
Still in the car, one of those heavy gas-guzzling whitewalled chrome beasts featured in On the Road, like a Hudson Commodore, driving nonstop to visit one of the best minds...have they discovered Eternity yet? Does it exist? In Reality or Not?
Ginsberg and the beats took long necessary excursions, journeying by car, bus, train...all they need do was journey through the mind and soul.
61. who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver...
Neal Cassady is associated with Denver, it was the city he grew up in, studied and worked. He lived with a drunken father but always sought a better life. Later on when Cassady started writing and mixing with Kerouac both would venture out into the city's bars and clubs, including Charlie Brown's and My Brother's Bar. Ginsberg was also around, falling in love with Cassady, the Adonis of Denver.
62. who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals...
Ginsberg liked cathedrals, especially St Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue in New York, where he is said to have prayed for Jack Kerouac one time, himself a visitor to the same cathedral on numerous occasions.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 63–71
63. who crashed through their minds...
A line without punctuation, to be spoken in one long breath, as are the next five. Alcatraz is the island prison in San Francisco Bay. It was in its heyday an infamous place, because nobody could escape from there. Ever.
So the best minds are in jail, waiting for the golden headed criminals, the hardened jailbirds who looked towards Alcatraz with pain in their souls and their sweet voices.
64. who retired to Mexico...
What became of some of the best minds? Well, they went to Mexico for the drugs, they went to Rocky Mount, North Caroline where Kerouac's sister lived to find Buddha, they went to Tangiers like William Burroughs for the boys or the railroad like Cassady who was a railroad worker for some time...or they become educated at Harvard and begin to self-love or experiment sexually at the Woodlawn Cenetery (in the Bronx, NY)...or die.
65. who demanded sanity trials...
Many of those labelled as insane in Ginsberg's time (and even today) were, arguably, anything but. Ginsberg is using the word sanity/insanity to highlight the plight of those wrongly diagnosed and those who were victims.
Ginsberg uses the radio of hypnotism in a figurative way—it stands for the brainwashing of the populace into believing that the mainstream way of life was the sane way and that alternative living, creative being, was the path of the insane.
66. who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers...
Throwing potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism—Ginsberg insists it was at City College New York against Dadaism—but Carl Solomon, the protagonist claims it was off campus or at Brooklyn College and the act was an expression of Dadaism not an act against Dadaism.
Whatever the fact, poetic license allows Ginsberg to neatly sum up Solomon's entry into the psychiatric institute.
67. and who were given instead the concrete void...
And once inside the treatment could start. Back then it was a drug called metrosol an anti-depressant that was commonly used, in conjunction with electric shock therapy, which is banned in some countries and most states nowadays. Ginsberg's use of adjectives and nouns is unusual—concrete void—quite an image.
68. who in humorless protest...
The symbolic pingpong table. The ball flying from one end to the other, the mood swinging between smash and mishit, the ball hitting the net, flying off here and there, out of control.
Catatonia is a state of sleep.
69 and 70 and 71. returning years later truly bald...
These three lines build up to a climax of near despair, culminating in line 71, the longest, which depicts a very private ending to Naomi Ginsberg's long struggle with mental illness.
Ginsberg is sensitive and detailed in this carefully constructed line; there's almost a child-like feel to the repeated and the...as his mother rants, losing her grip on life, down to the last hallucination.
In line 69 the best minds return years later, in memory? The wig of blood could be caused by the electric therapy, or be a symptom of self-harm.
The language in line 70 is weighty: Pilgrim State's Rockland's, Greystone's, dolmen-realms, stone, heavy. Ginsberg knew of insanity and madness—he was eight months in a psychiatric institute himself, as previously mentioned. He saw the sad decline of his own mother Naomi, a schizophrenic, who was in Greystones hospital for long stretches. She died June 9, 1956. Ginsberg wrote the poem Kaddish about her, considered one of his best poems.
So when he writes of the dream of life a nightmare and with mother finally ****** the reader knows that it comes from the heart of soul experience. Time narrows down to 4 am and that dash—at the end of the line takes on new meaning.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Howl': 72–78
Following the death of his mother and the emotional trauma this must have caused for Ginsberg, captured poignantly in line 71, from out of the dark madness comes a glimmer of hope.
The final seven lines of 'Howl' feed on this hope and acknowledge that, despite the grief, destruction and loss, despite the awfulness of mainstream American reality, a transcendant cathartic relationship between mind and soul can be attained.
And out of this individual experience, meeting Solomon, Ginsberg gained new insights into his poetry and the direction he should take in life. Other important creative people in Ginsberg's life—Kerouac, WC Williams, Whitman, Cezanne—are also included in the closing lines of Part 1.
72. ah Carl, while you are not safe...
Reference to Carl Solomon and the close bond built between the two. Ginsberg's idea of society at large is summed up in the term animal soup of time.
73. and who therefore ran through the icy streets...
Ginsberg learned about the ellipse, shorter line, through studying haiku and the poetry of Pound and Williams. The catalog refers to the long lines of Walt Whitman, whilst meter connects the line length, stress and breath.
The mysterious phrase & the vibrating plane is said to derive from Ginsberg's study of Cezanne's paintings. Ginsberg loved Cezanne for his vibrant color and juxtaposed images, calling the effect of seeing such contrasts and depth an 'eyeball kick' hence the vibration. Ginsberg wanted to create a similar effect in his poetry, which occurs in 'Howl' with such phrases as hydrogen jukebox.
74. who dreamt and made incarnate gaps...
This line is inspired by the French artist Cezanne and his approach to painting. Ginsberg studied Cezanne at university in 1949 and was inspired by a letter Cezanne wrote in 1904 in which he describes his attempts to capture nature on canvas.
'May I repeat what I told you here: treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, that is a section of nature or, if you prefer, of the spectacle that the Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus spreads out before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface whence the need of introducing into our light vibrations represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of air.'
75. to recreate the syntax and measure...
Ginsberg listened to and was inspired by so many people in his quest for his own poetic truths. Prominent among them was Kerouac who himself had to go through much creative pain and experience before finally crafting prose that he thought a suitable vehicle for his inner soul.
76. the madman bum and angel beat in Time...
Post-mortem who knows what or how bums and angels will communicate? 'Howl' is Ginsberg's addition in the here and now, a prophetic lament to the possible conversations in the there and then. of the afterlife.
77. and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes...
Jazz, bums and angels meet in a ghostly afterlife; and America has been stripped down mentally as the weird cry for help carries across mainstream society one last time.
So Ginsberg is saying in a pseudoreligious manner that Solomon and all the beats had the same question that Jesus Christ had as he suffered on the cross at the point of death...Eli Eli lamma sabacthani...translated as My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? This is also part of the second line of Psalms 22 in the old testament.
Ginsberg is either saying that the best minds were abandoned (by society, family) or were meant to suffer for their beliefs, for their anti-establishment stance. There is also the idea that they did this for love—Ginsberg's anti-war protests and quest for peace (through Buddhism) in particular, are an expression of this.
78. with the absolute heart of the poem...
The final line is rather gruesome as an image—Shakespeare's pound of flesh springs to mind, when Shylock the moneylender in the Merchant of Venice demands his pound of flesh of Antonio, as payment of the debt—but the figurative sense suggests that the best minds, the creative writers are like Christ, sacrificial lambs.
Ginsberg's writers, artists and poets produce a poem that is so pure it will be edible for a 1000 years, just as Christians believe the body of Christ is good to eat and according to the book of Revelation 20, he will reign for 1000 years with those who did not worship Satan.
So time plays a huge role in these last few lines; time that can be measured and time that cannot. Ginsberg uses time throughout the poem, sometimes in conjunction with space, but more often to re-orientate and fix events, a grounding technique that contrasts with the idea of eternity and spiritual freedom.
© 2018 Andrew Spacey