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On Howl

Reflection on Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poem Howl. Published October 2016 in Bilkent News.

This piece is on is Allen Ginsberg’s wild, wonderful ode to youthful obscenity in all its waste and destruction. Written in an unruly, uproarious hand, the poem crawls with all the parts of humanity excluded from poetry; it pictures the Beat generation in all its ruin and manages to make it sacred, frantic, larger than life. His people thrash and burn in semi-spiritual, fully irreligious pleasure; in this sprawling four-part poem, Ginsberg cries out the joy and terror of all that is horribly unspeakable and unspeakably human.

Published in 1955, “Howl” is almost a poetic counterpart to Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” as they both depict segments of Beat-era life. Where Kerouac has produced a plain, quick-moving narrative of his experiences drifting through America, “Howl” is emotional, erratic, a haunting effort in which Ginsberg speaks not about events, but about people. “Carl Solomon!” he says, “I’m with you in Rockland,” paying tribute in his driving, chantlike rhythm to the man he met in a New York mental institution; Ginsberg leaves traces of his friends and companions all through the poem, which introduces its subjects from the very first line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”—the minds of Neal Cassady, Bill Burroughs, Lucien Carr and Kerouac, all fragmented and tormented, vulgar and diffuse.

What is not there to describe others serves to describe me, the reader, snagged by breast and skin onto these winding sentences—“who broke down in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons,” so sterile, so spent and forlorn, “who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music,” as I do, without a pushcart and dry-eyed, marveling at the gorgeous sprawl of human terrain—the poem grows unfettered over the lives of everyone, each Beat captive, each half-grown child, anyone who has ever had some disruptive turn of heart. What makes this feat incredible is how selective Ginsberg’s words are, how they depict such specific experiences and still apply to the most general and distant of emotions: “…who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried,” he writes, and suddenly this is no Beat memoir but a common fear, an anxiety intertwined with the sense of empty, fleeting youth. With the words “who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other’s salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair for a second” comes the theme of faith, of redemption and damnation, bringing with it a reminder that each of these lines refers to someone Ginsberg has known, to him or his friend or some other man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer.” This work is nothing short of miraculous, based on men now long dead, “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

The second part of “Howl” is based not on people but on exclamations, criticisms of “Moloch the incomprehensible prison!…Moloch the vast stone of war!…Moloch whose blood is running money!” Ginsberg is calling out, crying to this perennial inexplicable Ghost, and the whole poem is one great undulating howl—“Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!” It is an outburst to all human nature against those systems and institutions and rules and regulations of suffocation, of greed, of those creators cold and hard—“They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us! Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!” Ginsberg is an artist, a protester, he keens in frustration! In my seat, eyes red and blind, I keen along with him!

The last section is addressed solely to Carl Solomon, and this time the poem takes on a tone less accusing than solemn; this part is sober and observant, reaching out to Solomon with pacific calm. This is where “Howl” ends and the footnote begins with explosive force, as Ginsberg yells, “Holy! Holy!” Holy is everything, Ginsberg wants to say, giving off an incredible love of the world. “Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!” the poet cries, expansive and free, “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” In “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg refuses to confine himself to either meter or verse and produces a pulsating, exuberant shout against confinement. It is the human condition that is laid out in this poem, the damage and bodily horrors, the misuse and abuse and rapid evolution from man to lamb to the indomitably holy. The poem draws from the lives of scores of Beats in their hedonism and rebellion, their freehanded growth, from the travels and languors of wasted sidelined pasts. “Howl” bites and tears and drags out the hearts and souls of subject and reader for the perusal of time, of man, of the slight and damning outcries of “the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death.”

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