The beat that my heart skipped — Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,

starving hysterical naked,

Chances are, even if you haven’t read Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Beat generation classic ‘Howl’ you have read this line somewhere. It has come to represent a period of time and writing so completely that it is often referred to as the single most important line in 20th century literature. While this is questionable there is no doubt that Howl is held in high regard. Ginsberg’s opus, the subject of a 1957 obscenity trial due to its depiction of drug use and homosexual acts, has come to be known as ‘one of the great works of American literature’.

Now, a confession. When I first read Howl, years ago, I hated it. Not just hated in fact, but resented it. Why was it so adored by people when it didn’t even make sense? Howl made me mad like no other writing has done since. But slowly, and with the perseverance that a lot of great art requires, I came to enjoy it. Then I started to love it. I would say Howl now stands as one of my favourite poems and actually one of my go to pieces when I need inspiration.

”Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!”

Howl was written between 1954 and 1955. The three parts were written separately during this time and then pieced together. Each part holds its own story and they join as a whole to make a wonderful and frank depiction of Ginsberg’s mind and the mind of the Beat Generation.

Part one begins with the immortal lines above, and is described by Ginsberg as ‘a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths’. Each line details the descent of people and scenes that Ginsberg knows. Ginsberg uses the word ‘who’ at the beginning of almost all the lines ‘to keep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to and take off from again onto another streak of invention’. Its hard going certainly, and the length of the piece is off-putting to many. But it revels in beautiful language and it’s a story told by someone who has experienced the Beat Generation first hand. Ginsberg saw what drugs and the lifestyle were doing to his friends. He saw what being a Beat was, the genius and the destruction. The first part of Howl jumps with the Bop of the era and descends down to the pits of despair so many of those types dwelt in towards the end.

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and their imagination!

If Part One describes the people, Part Two describes the cause of the problems. Ginsberg himself said that Part Two ‘names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb’. Ginsberg calls the monster Moloch, after the biblical idol the Canaanites sacrifice their young too. Written under the stifling influence of the psychotropic drug Peyote, Part Two is ripe with imagery and symbolism;

Moloch the incomprehensible prison!

Ginsberg aims his sites at everything the Beats stand against. Corporations, tax, the banks, war, the military, judges, everything is attacked in Part Two by Ginsberg but he does so with such effortless language and beautiful phrasing.

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!

It’s wonderful, emotive stuff and the more you read of it, with the background knowledge of who he was and why he said it, the better it gets.

Part Three of Howl is the hardest to grasp without previous information regarding the poet.

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

I’m with you in Rockland

where you imitate the shade of my mother

Rockland is a psychological institute where Ginsberg met Solomon (whom the whole piece is dedicated to). Here they use to compose letters to other poets to keep themselves amused. Part Three is Ginsberg reassuring Solomon that he is still alive and still writing. It uses repetition to drive home the point and again uses wonderful language to open up the poem, taking it from deluded rambling to Beat opus.

I’m with you in Rockland

in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

And then it finishes. There is a footnote, but the story has been told. Using astounding language, wonderful parataxis and breathless phrasing Ginsberg had told the story of himself and the generation he inspired and drastically altered. It’s a wonderful, wonderful poem and rightly stands as one of the finest pieces of literature of all time.

For an astonishingly in depth and wonderful line by line analysis of Howl, you can go here. I wont pretend to be as knowledgeable, but I hope my passion for the piece shines through.

But what do you think? Beat sensation or utter rubbish?

Let me know!

Yours, Howling,

Stuart Buck