Mark Doty: On "Howl"

The publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) sounded a cry of rage, and in turn other cries of rage—or downright dismissals—were raised against it. Ginsberg announces himself, in the opening of the volume's title poem, as speaking for his compatriots, naming their collective condition of disaffection: "I saw the best minds of my generation, starving, hysterical, naked." The title poem explicitly identifies itself as a lamentation for those most promising and most excluded from the "American ideal." In a long descriptive catalogue Ginsberg makes clear his contention that the finest have been driven, by what a critic called "the overwhelming pressures of conformity, competition, prestige and respectability," toward madness, dissipation, and the outraged enactments of the denied. Not only is he exiled from the tranquilized suburbs by virtue of ethnicity, sexuality, political philosophy, and intellectual energy; he also cannot locate in the codified possibilities of American society a tenable way of living. Thus the speaker inhabits a sort of psychic inferno, a territory of the lost which underlies the flawless, bourgeois vision of American life. "He avoids nothing," William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to the volume, "but experiences it to the hilt. . . . Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." M. L. Rosenthal offered a more balanced appraisal: "Despite the danger that he will screech himself mute any moment now, he has brought a terrible psychological reality to the surface with enough originality to blast American verse a hair’s breadth forward in the process."

"'Howl' lies," as Kenneth Rexroth observed, "in one of the oldest traditions, that of Hosea or the other, angry Minor Prophets of the Bible." The fault for the condition of Ginsberg's generation—and his own violated psychic state—thus lies with "Moloch," the embodiment of the State as evil, the demon of this world. But even in the "belly of Moloch " lies the possibility of transcendence. This tension between existential despair at the political and social conditions of the world and the prophetic optimism of vision would continue to inform all of Ginsberg's work. Transcendence is always possible, even in the shattered universe of Howl—through visionary experience, sex, or chemical transformation of the psyche through drugs: "flower of industry, / tough spiky ugly flower, / flower nonetheless, / with the form of the great yellow / Rose in your brain." This excerpt from the concluding stanza of the final poem in the volume exemplifies Ginsberg's vision of the possibility of transcendence, a Neoplatonism in the tradition of Blake. The form of the poems in Howl is likewise Blakean and biblical; Ginsberg relied on parallel constructions and long incantatory lines which, like those of Whitman before him, take the form of the King James Bible as their model. Ginsberg fuses his Whitmanic apostrophes and catalogues with verbal play influenced by the prose of Jack Kerouac.

Due in part to the poem's "obscenity trial" and resultant publicity, Howl became an important indicator of the changing climate in American poetry, an alarm sounding the decline of academic verse. If the poem was not taken seriously by many poets and critics—due to its bombastic, sprawling rhetoric, its spontaneous and chantlike form—then it at least offered a signal of a realm of possibility for powerful poetry to be constructed from "unmentionable" realms of experience. The poem would also, by virtue of its visibility and its radical loosening or re-visioning of formal design (which, Ginsberg said, echoing Olson, sprang "from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say, it came from the breathing and the belly and the lungs"), serve as a rallying cry and focus to other poets in the loose nexus of artists who came to be known as the "Beats." Though the coherence of the group was at least in part created by the media (certainly a new phenomenon in American poetry: poets as somewhat scandalous news, interesting as much for their other activities as for their poetry), the group took the label to heart. "The word 'beat' originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat . . . sleeping in subways. Now that the word is belonging officially it is being made to stretch to include people who . . . have a certain new gesture, or attitude, which I can only describe as a new more." More seems an accurate term; the program of the Beats, like that of the Surrealists before them, was less a set of aesthetic principles than an embodiment of a philosophy of experience, a program of action. From existentialist philosophy, the Beats appropriated the replacement of given social, ethical, and religious codes with an emphasis on individual experience—or, to borrow the name of a magazine of the day, "the unspeakable visions of the individual." They yoked the existentialist sense of despair with a will to transcendence (thus their idolization of Whitman and Rimbaud and their linkage of the term "beat" with "beatitude") that found its vehicles in Oriental religion and meditational practices, in sheer verbal exuberance and in the visionary experiences of drugs, and in the rhythms and improvisations of progressive jazz.

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Criticism Overview
Title Mark Doty: On "Howl" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jack Myers, David Wojahan Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry
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