Robert K. Martin: On "Howl"

In the 1950s it often seemed that the only openly gay poet was Allen Ginsberg.  The enormous publicity that Ginsberg received made him an important figure, whose avowal of homosexuality was part of his larger attempt to undermine American society and its pretensions to respectability.  Although many of the Beat writers were homosexual or bisexual (such as Burroughs or Kerouac), it was Ginsberg who made his sexuality an integral part of his public image and his poetry.  "Howl" was the first poem to bring Ginsberg public attention, and its treatment of homosexuality is characteristic of Ginsberg's position during this time.  "Howl" is a lament for "the best minds of my generation," the "angelheaded hipsters" destroyed by the cruelties of American society.  The homosexual functions in the world of "Howl" as a figure of angelic innocence, his love a protest against the insensitivity and madness which surrounds him. . . .

Ginsberg's relation to Whitman is clear in "Howl."  Ginsberg learned from Whitman the use of the long line, the repetition of the subordinate clause ("who let," "who blew," "who balled," etc.), and the celebration of phallic energy.  The . . . line ["who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may"] shows Ginsberg's assumption  of Whitman's democratic sexuality--the celebration of anonymous sexuality and the sharing of the poet's seminal energy.  At the same time one can see a great deal of the private mythology of Ginsberg--the search for the sexual encounter as perfect religious experience.  While this might seem to originate in Whitman's depiction of the sources of mystic vision as sexual, it should be remembered that Whitman's sexuality is portrayed as both active and passive, and that Whitman devotes as much attention to the image of two lovers simply happy to be together as to actual moments of sexual penetration.  In Ginsberg the desire for religious vision is transformed into a desire to be fucked, whereas in Whitman the experience of sexual pleasure leads to a greater understanding of the world.  Although Ginsberg calls on Whitman, he transforms an ultimately peaceful vision of human unity into an affirmation of the homosexual's alienation from the "straight" world and a desire to become an object of love rather than a participant in it.  Here, as in the later poems, Ginsberg links his passive sexuality to his poetics, as he rejects the "craftsman's loom" for the orgasmic scream.


Title Robert K. Martin: On "Howl" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert K. Martin Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry
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