from Prisma - Friday, February 14, 2003
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The poem “Howl” with its improvisational and experimental tone leave some enamored with Ginsberg and others confused or noncommittal. This essays attempts to capture my thoughts on Ginsberg’s “Howl”.
Nothing in traditional poetry compares to the tone of absolute disgust in which Ginsberg speaks in “Howl.” Even in this day and age his choice of words is shocking especially in the form of a poem. The poem, the beautiful romantic dream world for some authors but for Ginsberg the expression of the horrific reality that was the state of society and governmental contradictions. I think Ginsberg through his experimental tone and choice of words, was ingenious when he wrote “Howl”. He left no room for subtle symbolisms or pretty words in which he could wrap his message – he spoke unconventionally and purposefully used terms to shock and bring to light the coarse truth of the reality in which he lived.
“Howl” exposes all kinds of hypocrisy and indecency and the entire poem has a great rhythm both musically and ideologically. Ideologically the poem literally howls the truth of the insanity in which he in lived, and in some cases this same insanity is prevalent today. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” I’m unable to find adequate words to respond to all the issues that Ginsberg addresses in “Howl,” however I did encounter many disturbing images that passed through my mind when I read “Howl”; perhaps this was the intent of Ginsberg – to leave his readers speechless but visually stimulated at the same time. There is so much to process in “Howl” and I was forced to read it several times over and each time another issue was brought to light.
Ginsberg created a work of art in “Howl,” a work that opens the mind and soul to a world outside of our conventional thoughts. “Howl” speaks out against drug addiction, the growing gap between the rich and poor due to a capitalistic government, religious contradictions, the anti-gay attitudes of that time and the many acceptable social, monetary and governmental norms, which he refers to as “Moloch”. In my opinion the most powerful section of his poem is “Moloch” where he uses the ancient god of fire to symbolize the horror and brutal realism in the so-called “modern” world. “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!" The worshipers of Moloch put a lesser value in the life of their children to attain a false sense of security and something very temporary, superficial and material. Ginsberg’s anti-war message is also apparent in his passages, “Moloch whose building are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!”
“Howl” also speaks for those who are unable to speak for themselves; Ginsberg created a voice for those who have no voice of their own. Ginsberg spoke for the suicidal, the homeless and the restless visionaries who idealize about a better world. Those “who jumped of the Brooklyn Bridge … and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly gaze of Chinatown soup,” those “who wandered around and around at midnight in railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,” and those “who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa”. It seems Ginsberg made every attempt to relate to as many individuals as possible in “Howl” rich, poor, uneducated, college students, abused, addicts, politicians, law enforcement, young and old alike he challenges the very existence and self identity that makes us who we are. The existences that he is challenging are those that he considers as being manufactured and influenced by material wealth and status - “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy!”
I can see Ginsberg’s “Howl” causing all sorts of cultural and political uproar after its appearance in 1955-56. Some people probably considered “Howl” offensive sacrilege and a distasteful literary work. Even by today’s more liberal standards I can see how some conservative thinkers would reject the message of Ginsberg and find many negative criticisms to voice about “Howl”. The fact is that “Howl” caused an uproar because, not only did it voice what most people didn’t want to hear, but he also had no sense of propriety in the delivery of his message. While this method of delivery was thought of as revolutionary and visionary to some most of the successful upper class American’s rejected Ginsberg’s “Howl” –because it spoke truth. Ginsberg voiced the concerns for a much-needed change that had to take place in order to bring about equality and rid society of bigotry, racism, sexual and religious prejudices. For those who did not appreciate all of Ginsberg’s political views one has to admire his passion and the conviction in his writings – he simply didn’t care what people thought of his shocking and blatant message. He was led by his desire to speak what others were afraid to speak and for that and much more he will always remain a literary icon.
The following is a link to the biography of Allen Ginsberg as well a few selections of some of his poems, including part I & II of “Howl”.