Analysis Of The Poem Howl By Allen Ginsberg
Throughout history, poetry has been used to express feelings that some think prose cannot. One poem that takes this idea and utilizes it is Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg tends to question authority and structure when it comes to writing. His own father was a poet who used the traditional rhyme in his poetry, something that Ginsberg did not. In his poem 'Howl', Ginsberg uses his own friends and experiences as inspiration for the stories he weaves within the poem and does so without the rhyme that he frowned upon. When reading the poem, you can almost imagine how Ginsberg and his friends were in their youth, and how they felt about the world, which was the intention of this poem. The style in which Ginsberg wrote was considered revolutionary for his time, which was exactly his intention. Howl was Ginsberg’s first published poem, which made it special, being the bar that he now had to hold himself to with all future writings.
The poem has three parts each telling its own interconnected story. The first part of the poem goes into detail about his youth and his friends lives in New York city. During the mid-1940’s Ginsberg and his friends were students at Columbia University, frequent users of drugs and alcohol to inspire their writing. (cite this) Ginsberg talks about seeing “the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness” while walking the streets looking for their “angry fix” (Howl, Ginsberg, Line 1-2). It could very easily be a reference to his friends Lucien Carr and William Burroughs, Carr having committed a murder at the end of the time at Columbia and Burroughs having been addicted to drugs, later mentioned in his novel ‘Junkie’. Burroughs specifically, was a well-known drug user, something that would follow him around for most of his life. He would not get clean until 1957, which is believed the be a direct result of accidently killing his wife at a party 6 years earlier while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Throughout the rest of the first part of Howl, Ginsberg continuously uses poetic language to relate back to stories of his youth and that of those he knows, stating things like “who plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg,” and “who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other’s salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair for a second,” (cite this). The repetition of the “who” to start each line is used to make each sentence feel like its own story about an individual. Ginsberg’s intention with this first part of the poem is to highlight the people who formed his writing into what it is and pay tribute to the stories of the past.
The second part of Howl is dedicated to the Hebrew figure Moloch, a name mentioned predominantly in Leviticus. Moloch is specifically associated with violence and child sacrifice, which you can see reflected in the second part of Howl. Reading the first line, “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” it is clear to see that Moloch in this case is a reference to New York City.
This can be seen through references such as “Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!” (cite this) which can be read as the many different apartments and cities in New York, which at the time of Howl was where he was living and where he had been for the previous few years. With all the noise and business it is easy to why it would be considered as such. New York has always been what some would consider the artistic center of the united states, which is exactly why Ginsberg includes a tribute to the concrete jungle in this poem. He uses language such as “Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! “(cite this), and “Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!” (cite this), to show the darker side of what is usually referred to as the city where dreams are made. When going to New York, people have dreams of becoming famous and living the life they have always wanted, and while some succeed in this goal, many are left broken fragments of the people they once were due to the corruption that is common in a place with so much to offer.
The final part of Howl is simply a celebration of Ginsberg’s friend Carl Solomon, another writer of the beatnik era. It is clear to see this as the first line is, “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland” (cite this), and Ginsberg utilizes the repetition of the phrase “I am with you in Rockland” throughout the poem to stress the significance of Rockland. The significance of Rockland is it being the place where Solomon and Ginsberg first met, where Ginsberg was visiting his mother and Solomon was seeking care. You can see the references to their meeting when Ginsberg states that Solomon is “madder than I am” (cite) and “imitates the shade of my mother” (cite). Ginsberg has spoke before on the affect his mother being institutionalized had on him, who was going off to Columbia at the time. He and his mother were very close, and the situation upset him greatly, which made his meeting Carl Solomon all the more significant. To him, meeting someone like Carl, a fellow writer around his own age, in this place was like fate. Solomon was someone who struggled with his mental health throughout his life, which is also highlighted in the earlier parts of howl, referencing his “demanding instantaneous lobotomy,” (cite this), which he had done due to his lack of creativity despite his mind being so full.
In sum, Ginsberg’s Howl is a commentary on his own and his friend’s youth in New York City. The poem gives an understanding on what it is like to come into yourself as an adult, with experiences unique to the time, place and individual. Knowing Ginsberg’s past with drugs, education, and a deep connection to the mental health of his mother, it is clear to see where his inspiration for the poem stems. Howl accurately gives the reader a feel, at least in theory, of what it is like for Ginsberg during this transitional stage of his life. All in all, the poem acts as a three-part story in reverse. The beginning of the poem being the end of the story, telling us about how each of his friends that he made in New York ended up. The middle telling us about the place that made them this way and why, and the final part serving as an introduction to one of his many friends that influenced his writing and who he was enough to garner a dedication. The overall feeling of the poem does not leave the reader with a happy feeling but a pang of sadness that can only come when something accurately portrays the story it is trying to tell. By the end of Howl, the reader can almost feel as if they were apart of the group that Ginsberg held so dear to his heart, and they can only wish that things that ended better for them.