Howl and other Poems

by Allen Ginsberg
(1956)
   The scope and range of allen ginsberg’s first book of poems, Howl and Other Poems, is often lost in celebrations and attacks on the long poem “howl” itself. “Howl” is, after all, so loud that it can drown out in the other poems in the small collection as a whole. William Carlos Williams’s preface to the book situates Ginsberg’s first volume immediately in the early modernist tradition but with a forward-looking vision of the effect of Beat poetry on contemporary American letters. As Williams puts it, Ginsberg “proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist.” The poems in the book also placed Ginsberg as a poet in the prophetic tradition of Walt Whitman and William Blake. As the book achieved increased acclaim, Ginsberg’s acknowledgment of these influences revived interest in the visionary tradition of American and British romanticism in the wake of its rejection by high modernism and New Criticism. Its role in shaping Ginsberg’s reputation as a political poet of the new American avant-garde and his eventual legacy as a cultural translator of Buddhism in the West also was inaugurated in this book. Indeed, his dedication to the book describes as much. He acknowledges the “spontaneous bop prosody” of jack kerouac; the work of William s. burroughs, whose “endless novel” naked luncH “will drive everybody mad”; and neal cassady, whose autobiography The First Third “enlightened Buddha.” Ginsberg’s good friend Lucien Carr was also acknowledged on the original dedication page but had Ginsberg remove his name in an effort to keep his privacy. Ginsberg affirms at the close of this dedication that the Beat aesthetic is both a spiritual and cultural enterprise: “All these books,” he says of Kerouac’s, Burroughs’s, and Cassady’s volumes, “are published in Heaven.”
   Williams’s final words in the introduction forecast with some accuracy what will follow in the pages to come: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” This commentary significantly prepares the reader for the sufferings of the protagonists of “Howl.” Section I of the title poem catalogues the miseries of the poem’s protagonists; Section II mythologizes the cause of their debilitating cultural condition in Moloch, “the heavy judger of men”; and Section III dramatizes the potential for redemption in the apocalyptic, conversational call-and-response between the speaker of the poem and Carl Solomon, with whom Ginsberg spent time in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute in 1949. The following poem in the book, “Footnote to Howl,” is constructed as a sequel in which the poet returns from the pilgrimage of “Howl” to affirm the holiness of the world as a lost condition that can be reclaimed from the suffering produced by Moloch: “The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy! . . . Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith!” The anaphoric repetition of “Holy” in “Footnote to Howl” is a direct response to the same repetition of “Moloch” in Section II of “Howl,” suggesting that the unholy condition of the world can be transformed at the level of language-a trust in the power of naming that Ginsberg revisits later in his career, more skeptically in “kaddish” and with an almost mystical trust in “wichita vortex sutra.”
   The communal vision expressed in Section III of “Howl” and, subsequently, in “Footnote to Howl” recedes into solitude and loss in the following poem, “A Supermarket in California.” This is Ginsberg’s most well known of his many homages to Whitman in poetry and prose. Although Ginsberg self-fashioned his reputation as a liberator of American sexual mores, this is one of many poems, such as the earlier “Love Poem on Theme by Whitman” and, later, “Angkor Wat,” in which the speaker’s sense of himself as a sexual being is fraught with anxiety, longing, and loneliness. A quiet alternative to “Howl” and “Footnote to Howl,” this poem opens with the speaker dreaming of Walt Whitman on his walk to the supermarket. His physical hunger brings him to the market, but this destination is a screen for the hunger of desire-for the sexual tension that has caused him to reflect on his gay forefather, Whitman, in the first place. The poet is “self-conscious” and full of “hungry fatigue.” He finds a phantasmic Whitman cruising the supermarket stock boys, “poking among the meats in the refrigerator.” Whitman’s desire is Ginsberg’s, too, as often is the case, politically and sexually, in Ginsberg’s homages. Thus, when Ginsberg’s speaker imagines himself followed by the store detective, the supermarket becomes a figure for cold-war policing of sexual desire in the United States, where McCarthyism questioned homosexuality as anti-American. Eventually, Ginsberg unites with Whitman, and the two walk the supermarket together in the poet’s imagined scene, presumably “eyeing the grocery boys” together. Their walk might seem an act of liberation for a poet such as Ginsberg writing in a gay tradition-doing so in Whitman’s long-line catalogue form, but with candor that would have been foreign in Whitman’s era. Nevertheless, Ginsberg emphasizes of himself and Whitman that they will “both be lonely” in a culture in which digressions—literal and physical—from the sexual status quo produce alienation. In the final strophe of the poem, Ginsberg’s speaker reminds himself of the difference between Whitman’s America and his own and states with deep loss that the price, for Whitman, of being a precursor poet to subsequent generations was a life on the sexual margins as a “lonely old courageteacher.” The next two poems recontextualize traditional poetic pastoralism in light of the modern, industrial world. In both “Transcription of Organ Music” and “Sunflower Sutra,” the distrust of machinery and technology in “Howl” and the wistful solitude of “A Supermarket in California” are reenvisioned in terms of vision and community. Written from notes taken while listening to Bach’s Organ Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, “Transcription of Organ Music” traces the sublime rise and fall of the music as a figure of the cyclic death and rebirth of natural phenomena. Yet in an inversion of traditional pastoral poetry, the ground for the poet’s analogy is not nature itself but the artificially reproduced music coming from his record player. The epiphany of the poem—its imagined community between artist and audience mediated by “the presence of the Creator”—is produced by the ordinary artifice of the wiring in the speaker’s home. He writes, “The light socket is crudely attached to the ceiling, after the house was built, to receive a plug which sticks in it alright, and serves my phonograph now. . . .”
   “Sunflower Sutra” dramatizes this fusion of artifice and nature in the form of a Buddhist sutra, or scriptural narrative. The occasion for the poem was a walk Ginsberg took with Kerouac and philip whalen in a San Francisco railyard. The three found an abject sunflower beaten down by the dirt and grime of the trains, “crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye.” Echoing his own auditory vision of Blake reciting “Ah! Sunflower” in Harlem in 1948, the sunflower in this poem is a catalyst for the poet’s transformative vision of himself and his environment. As he does in “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg constructs a world of machinery and industry in “Sunflower Sutra” that can redeem the natural world rather than, as Moloch, consume it. “Sunflower Sutra” directs its visionary experience inward; but in a revision of the pastoral form from which it borrows, the speaker of the poem sets out to renovate a world in which nature and artifice are coequivalent. The final strophe of the poem famously states this equivalency in one long breathless line reminiscent of Whitman’s poetics: “We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset. . . .” In the next poem, “America,” Ginsberg revisits Whitman’s idea of America as a poetics of possibility-where, in Whitman’s words, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” One of Ginsberg’s major works, “America” is situated in Howl and Other Poems as a culmination of the tension between the exterior and interior modes of vision—material reality and the imagination—of the preceding poems. The external and internal combine in “America” to such an extent that it should come as no surprise to readers that halfway through the poem, the speaker declares, “It occurs to me that I am America.” The poem’s idealistic belief in American potential gives way to a realization of the limits of romantic possibility. In this way, the poem resembles the arc of Whitman’s career from the exuberant first edition of Leaves of Grass through the dire futurism of Democratic Vistas. Romanticism is overwhelmed by nationalism in “America” as the poem moves from short, clipped, comic lines—“America why are your libraries full of tears?”—to adversarial argument, as when the speaker warns, “America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.” All the same, the poem never wavers from the absurd, and in this way “America” is a precursor to the goofy political satire of later poems such as “Kral Majales” (1965), “Plutonian Ode” (1982), and “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization, Eat More Grease” (1999). The cold war is reduced in this poem to theater of the absurd and is rendered in affected language that reminds readers that the presumed birthright of American exceptionalism is based on the colonial conquest of native lands: “The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages. / Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.” Anticipating the later strategies of writers and theorists who reappropriated the epithet queer into the study of gay literature known as queer theory, Ginsberg engages America in an argument to turn its own evaluative terms against it. The speaker of the poem takes his adversary, America, at its word that he is an alienated other because of his sexuality; yet he uses this otherness as a mode of resistance-the same hierarchy of values that alienates him. Proclaiming that he “better get right down to the job,” the speaker closes the poem with a vow straight from American utilitarian rhetoric—but for its proud assertion of the speaker’s homosexual identity. “America,” he promises, “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
   Howl and Other Poems established Beat poetics as a new generation’s avant-garde. As often is the case with experimental work, this book received mixed reviews by the established critics of its era. In this way, perhaps M. L. Rosenthal’s 1957 assessment (reprinted in On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg) states the case best for the extremes of both attraction and aversion to the book from critics. In a literary period dominated by the depersonalized mode of new critical poetics, the autobiographical focus of Beat literature was radical in itself, and this focus on autobiographical selfhood, jarring for its time, was more unsettling in the case of Howl and Other Poems because of Ginsberg’s emphasis on an apocalyptic breakdown and reconstruction of the self in the narrative thread that runs through the book. Rosenthal writes, “Ginsberg may be wrong; his writing may certainly have many false notes and postures. . . . But that is all beside the point. The agony, in any case, is real; so are the threats for the future that it signals.”
 Bibliography
■ Breslin, James. “The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish.’ ” Iowa Review 8, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 82–108.
■ Ehrlich, J. W., ed. Howl of the Censor. San Carlos, Calif.: Nourse Publishing Company, 1961.
■ Hyde, Lewis. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.
■ Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’sHowl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
■ Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
■ Trigilio, Tony. “Strange Prophecies Anew”: Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H.D., and Ginsberg. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
   Tony Trigilio

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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