Literary Devotional: “Howl”

A quick note:  If you notice, Paperback Fool was missing its Monday review…yet again.  However, I am not yet finished reading The Stand, and so there was really no book to review.  I’m 100 percent sure that I will finish this week, and so rest assured Paperback Fool readers: reviews will return.  Unfortunately, this is what happens when you read giant books.

America tends to look back on the 1950s nostalgically, whitewashing the whole decade as a utopia of postwar prosperity and Leave It to Beaver living.  But even during this seemingly tranquil time, an undercurrent of rebellion and dissatisfaction existed in the United States.  In literature, this rebelliousness coalesced into the Beat generation, one of the figureheads of which was Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).  Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” a ranting but moving attack on the American status quo, is one of the most concentrated expressions of the Beat sensibility.

Ginsberg was a true New Yorker to the core:  Born and raised in northern New Jersey, he attended Columbia University and lived in Manhattan for most of his life.  At Columbia, he became fast friends with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, who would themselves become major authors of the Beat generation.  After college, Ginsberg traveled extensively, blending his Jewish roots with Zen Buddhism, leftist politics, jazz music, and rather alarming drug habits.

“Howl” (1956), Ginsberg’s first significant published work, is a lengthy, raving, nakedly emotional diatribe that upends the seemingly picture-perfect American social landscape of the 1950s:

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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high up sat up smoking in the supernatural
darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering
on tenement roofs illuminated…

The poem primarily targets the materialism of American life, although it also spins into discussions of drug addiction, censorship, homosexuality, and spirituality.  The work was banned almost immediately on charges of obscenity, but after a high-profile legal battle in which the American Civil Liberties Union came to Ginsberg’s aid, a California judge ruled that “Howl” had “redeeming social importance” and should remain in print.

Formally, “Howl” shows the influence of two earlier American poets, Walt Whitman and Williams Carlos Williams.  With its long lines of free verse and realistic, strong language, the poem comes across as a spontaneous, uncontrollable outpouring of sentiment.  Indeed, its tone of anger and despair was an accurate harbinger of the social upheaval that would shake the United States during the Vietnam War.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

One thought on “Literary Devotional: “Howl”

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon: September 5, 2010 « Paperback Fool

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