Analysis of the poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

Term Paper, 2014

12 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Interpretation and Analysis
2.1. The speaker
2.2. The style
2.3. Section I
2.4. Section II
2.5. Section III

3. The Beat Generation

4. Howl’s adaption in other media

5. Current Relevance of Howl

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Howl was written by Allen Ginsberg in 1955 and is probably the most important, most discussed and one of the best known poems of the 20th century. Even its first public reading represents one of the major events on modern literary history (Gaughan 124). Ginsberg was intensely influenced by people and events that surrounded him when writing Howl. This is worth mentioning because Ginsberg is not an average citizen of a 1950s United States of America. Ginsberg has a “Russian-Jewish background” (Miles 4) and was born to a mentally unstable mother and a father writing apocalyptic poems (Raskin 25-26). Young Ginsberg had been expelled from school as student for writing obscene texts on a window. When graduating from Columbia University with a literature degree he came out as homosexual. He had taken many drugs by then, had been arrested, had undergone a therapy at a psychiatric institute and met the most famous poets of his time (Murphy 181-183). Howl is in a way what its title says: A howl of a young man that is disgusted by the culture he finds himself in. Ginsberg provided a counter culture, in circles of like-minded friends. They framed the anger of a whole generation in their literature and formed a rebellious movement, the so called Beat Movement (“Beat writers” 39). When Howl was published a fierce discussion started because the poem was different from the common poetry of the 1950s concerning the content, the form and the language. Howl was also adapted in a 2010 experimental movie by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which shows there is still an interest and a fascination for Ginsberg’s poem, maybe because the topic Ginsberg howls about is still relevant (Epstein).

2. Interpretation and Analysis

On a first sight Allen Ginsberg’s Howl seems to be a vast and disorganized poem, but it is not. It is clearly divided into three sections, alternatively into four, if one minds the footnote. The parts are separated from each other by blank lines; and they are numbered. They also focus on different aspects of the same content and base on each other, as the first section asks the question “who?” the second “what and why?” and the last one provides a declaration of solidarity to his friend Carl Salomon whom he dedicated Howl (Ginsberg 126). The footnote provides some kind of conciliatory summary. The four sections appear as one enormous run-on-sentence each, and though they are separated, they are underlined by the same images of madness, sexuality, rebellion and ecstasy and disillusioning oppression.

2.1. The speaker

The speaker of the poem, who introduces the first section with “I saw the best minds of my generation […]” (Ginsberg 1), can be equated to its author Ginsberg. Often one has to be careful when considering author and speaker to be one and the same person but in the case of Howl it is important for the interpretation. Howl is a rather rough, aggressive and highly emotional poem, this is because Ginsberg did not write it for public. As the dedication, that follows the title shows, he wrote it for Carl Salomon, a friend he made during his stay in Columbia Prespyterian Psychiatric Institute. Raskin calls Howl “a spontaneous work” in his Preface (Allen Ginsberg’s Genius 21). Another argument why Ginsberg can be ranged with the speaker provides the fact that “Denver” (Ginsberg 61), “New York” (9) and its “Paradise Alley” (10) and all the other places and locations in Howl are ones that Ginsberg lived in or travelled to and therefore he connects them to personal experiences. The topic of madness which is very strong in Howl serves another point for speaker-author thesis: Ginsberg’s mad mother influenced him, Ginsberg himself stayed in a psychiatric institute and was in therapy when he drafted Howl.

2.2. The style

It is a particular style; typical for Ginsberg and the work of Beat writers in general that underlies the poem. When reading the title of Howl, the reader is forced to howl himself, through the onomatopeia of the term “howl” this perfectly interludes the poem, which is characterized by a certain lamenting and complaining undertone. What attracts the reader’s attention at once is the slang used in Howl. Ginsberg used a lot of obscene terms, such as “[c]ocksucker” (Ginsberg 85) or “ultimate cunt” (41). He definitely did not use any euphemisms. Often the word “and” is replaced by the sign “&” (43; 44; 46) what gives the impression of a quick note, as if Ginsberg did not have the time to write the word out, it speeds up the reading of Howl. Another conspicuousness is the poems loose structure, if one compares Howl to more conventional modern works. It has no stanzas, but three sections and most of the verses are unusual long, they do not fit onto a page of a normal sized book. Karl Malkoff says “The long verse line reaches out to embrace all of [Ginsberg’s] experience, finding the spiritual in the sensual” (qtd in Burns 333), he points out the need of the immense length of the lines of verse and also refers to the sensuality in howlhhhHowl. Ginsberg often uses sensory terms, and describes synaesthetic experiences, such as in “who sang out of their windows [. . .] jumped in the filthy Passaic” (Ginsberg 85). Through the massive use of ellipsis, the syntax is broken up. Each section has a key word that is repeated extraordinary often, it comes up in nearly every verse and therefore those key words determine the sections. Howl is full of hermetic symbols (Burns 158), that display the prevalent feeling of the poem, besides the feeling of aggression. The Hermetic symbols and terms, such as “cemetery” (Ginsberg 13) and “Moloch in whom I sit lonely!” (86) provide a atmosphere of isolation that mirrors the feeling of Ginsberg being an outsider.

2.3. Section I

The first part is the longest and includes line one to 78. It mainly describes “the best minds” of the speakers generation that are said to be “destroyed by madness” (Ginsberg 1) in the first verse. Those “best minds” are Ginsberg himself and other befriended beat writers, as he describes what kind of people and whom in particular he counts in and what those people did. Most of the verses of the first section begin with “who” and deliver a detailed description. The anaphora of the word “who” is characteristic for the first section.

Concerning the tone of this first section terms of the word groups “light” and “darkness” define the atmosphere of the first sections. There are many terms like “illuminated” (Ginsberg 5) or whole sections, like the accumulation of “neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon” (12) that contrast either indirectly with terms like “darkness” (49) or “night after night” (10) or directly, antithetic as in verse 15: “who sank all night in submarine light”. This Contrast reflects the converse feelings of Ginsberg and his friends, the Beat writers, They felt oppressed on the one side and on the other they were in a state of vision and ecstasy. Another word group, namely the one of “fire” also attracts the reader. “[F]iretrucks” (57) and people “who were burned alive” (56) foreshadow the theme of the second section where the key word was inspired by an ancient false god to whom fire sacrifices were given.

The “best minds” of the first verse are - different from a general opinion back in 1955 – madmen in a state of vision or ecstasy, “who [are] hallucinating” (Ginsberg 6) or people in psychiatric institutions “who were given [. . .] electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong and amnesia” (67). They are drug addicts “who ate fire in paint hotels or drunk turpentine” (10) or “who got busted [. . .] with a belt of marijuana” (9). People who commit suicide, or at least have a try of doing so or just dream of it, “who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” (55) form one more group of people that are the speakers “best minds”. Ginsberg also mentions homosexuals, “who let themselves be fucked in the ass” (36) or just people that live out their sexuality in a very open way, “who copulated ecstatic and insatiate” (41). Another group of people presented in the poem are political dissidents “who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism” (31) and “who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets” (32). Ginsberg also gives his attention to poets “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling” (51). But he also referrers to himself, specific persons, his friends and other poets. For example in verse 7 where Ginsberg writes about his personal experience of being “expelled from academis for crazy & publishing obscene odes”. An example for a specific person he writes about provides verse 57 where he displays the experience of Tuli Kupferberg a close friend (Raskin 135). Ginsberg even gives the hint, that he did not invent this image of the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened”. The first section could be summarized as the following: The speaker and his friends are the greatest minds and they all went insane. Concerning the “best minds” it becomes obvious that the speaker’s philosophy and world view differs strongly from the average 1950s American: Those best minds are social outcasts.

2.4. Section II

The second section gives an answer to the question that comes up during the first section and which was introduced through the very first verse, namely “What destroyed the best minds of the speaker’s generation?” There are already some hints that could provide an answer in the first section, such as “madness” (Ginsberg 1) and being “run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality” (56) or “hopeless cathedrals” (62). But in the second section, that includes the lines from 79 to 93 the speaker comes straight to the point: “Moloch” (80). This term is the key word of the second section as it is used anaphoric what impacts emphasis throughout the whole section; it is often followed by an exclamation mark, which provides an aggressive tone and shows the speakers increasing aggression and his certainty. With “Moloch” Ginsberg means the prevailing social mores, which he rejected. He chose a term that has its source in the old testament of the bible; there it is the name for a sacrifice of children to a false god by throwing them into fire (Raskin 138). Ginsberg uses this term because he was hallucinating when he “’got high on peyote’ in his [. . .] apartment in the city and ‘saw an image of the robot skullface of Moloch in the upper stories of a big hotel’” (Raskin 131). The image of “Moloch” was haunting in his subconscious mind and when he was on drugs, he could see it, just if it was real when he looked at the city with all its dominant culture that seemed to oppress Ginsberg and his friends. Probably Ginsberg, the speaker of “Howl” believes that modern American society “sacrifices” young people and therefore they go mad. The American youth is somehow a victim of “the complacent and materialistic era” (“Beat writers” 39) which Ginsberg describes in verse 82: “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money”. He offers a personification of “Moloch” as he writes about its mind and blood, he lets “Moloch” become alive and makes it therefore more concrete and even more brutal. For the mind he uses the metaphor “machinery” what stands for the establishments of a materialistic society; the blood is “running money” what gives the impression of a capitalistic monster. For Ginsberg “Moloch” is a term for everything bad, as the tricolon “[s]olitude”, ”[f]ilth” and “[u]gliness”(Ginsberg 80) shows. It is the “[n]ightmare of Moloch” and “Moloch the loveless” (81); Moloch is a metaphor for everything that the speaker perceives as negative, sad or bad. Its permanent repetition puts even more emphasis in and gives the impression of an apocalyptic preacher telling his visions with a wagging finger.


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Analysis of the poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg
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Caroline Piontek (Author), 2014, Analysis of the poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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