David Perkins: On "Howl"

Perhaps the hardest aspect of the poem to accept is, paradoxically, its humor. . . .  [F]or example, the "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection" are compared to lightbulbs, or to any machine that can be plugged in and operated by electricity.  Even in relation to Ginsberg's conception of mystical experience . . . the comparison is reductive, for it suggests that such experiences turn on, galvanize the instant, and wink off, having no significance beyond the momentary "kick" or "trip."  For another example, consider the persons in Howl who "threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time," and then "alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade."  These Dadaists are typical Ginsberg questers, heroic and futile.  He celebrates and ironizes.  As he put it in a letter to Williams, he has "W.C. Fields on my left and Jehovah on my right."  Though virtuous in other kinds of poems, in lament and prophecy this double perspective is a limitation.  But Ginsberg's self-reducing humor helps to explain the remarkably good-natured acceptance bestowed on him.  He is perceived more as a spiritual clown than as a threat.  A psychoanalyst might suggest that Ginsberg is a child testing the father's love.  His provocations are what Erik Erikson calls "teasing."  They defy and disarm at the same time. . . .

The hipster is also a victim, but of just what is obscure.  Ginsberg calls it "Moloch," and Moloch is the economic system, urban-industrial milieu, government, police, war, atom bomb, everyone's mentality, America, and Time (as opposed to Eternity).  Within Moloch our loves, visions, ecstasies, and epiphanies seem crazy, and the only escape from Moloch lies in suicide.  Because of the power of Moloch no rebellion can hope for practical effect.  Gestures of defiance are, as I said, merely expressions of feeling, and the more they are extreme and absurd, the greater the emotional satisfaction.  When the hipsters "distributed Supercommunist pamphlets," they did not expect to persuade anyone, any more than when they "burned cigarette holes in their arms," or "threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse . . . demanding instantaneous lobotomy."  In his feelings of bafflement, helplessness, constriction, and woe Ginsberg speaks for many readers, but by conjuring Moloch he also provides himself with less acceptable satisfactions, for he locates the evil outside himself and his fellow hipsters.  Or if Moloch exists in them also, it is not, Ginsberg thinks, as an inherent part of their being but an invading infection.  Viewing the enemy as wholly external, Ginsberg sentimentally transforms him into a demon and his victims into innocents.

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Criticism Overview
Title David Perkins: On "Howl" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author David Perkins Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After
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