During the 1950’s a large movement of American writers, artists, and musicians achieved considerable notoriety for creating literature, works of art and music that dissented from what they deemed the prejudiced and oppressive mainstream American ideals of conformism and materialism. Out of this movement, which soon became known as the “Beat Generation,” a counterculture manifesto entitled Howl by Allen Ginsberg was spawned. Since Ginsberg brought his groundbreaking work to the forefront of the American consciousness, it has become a defining work of beat literature.
Howl is written in free verse, a form of poetry that does not adhere to a uniform rhyme or meter. According to Robert Henson in his article entitled “Howl in the Classroom”, the authorial decision to write in this fashion demonstrates Ginsberg’s personal belief that the “mind is shapely” and when “practiced in spontaneity” it “invents form in its own image” (Henson 8). Howl in and of itself is a repudiation of adherence to uniform rhyme and meter as the sole path to creating poetry that can be considered art. Literary criticism has also defined works such as Howl as stream of consciousness narrative, a term adopted from psychological discourse. Stream-of-consciousness narrative is a mode of narration meant to represent the thought process of the narrator. Therefore not only is Howl a protest against conformity but an authorial confession in which Ginsberg bears his heart and soul for all the world to see.
The poem was originally written in three sections with a fourth section written some time later. Much more than a mere protest, Howl can easily be defined as the chronicle of a holy war that was waged between conformist, materialist, mainstream American culture and the burgeoning proto-counter culture movement of the 1940’s and 1950’s. The first three sections can be read as three waves of attack. Drawing from Ginsberg’s personal experience and that of other poets, artists, dissidents, musicians, junkies, and psychiatric patients, the first section offers a deeply troubling portrayal of the marginalized, pathologized and essentially beaten down members of society whom Ginsberg would refer to as the “lamb” in later reflections upon the poem. In the poem’s opening line Ginsberg tells us “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (Norton Anthology 2576). Those who Ginsberg defines as the “best minds” would have been perceived by the mainstream culture as societal rejects. As Mark Doty points out in his article entitled “Human Seraphim: Howl, Sex, and Holiness”, these marginalized members of American society were under the constant threat of being jailed, medicated, or hospitalized because those who refused to adhere to a binary system of heteronormativity, those who exercised their right to political dissent, those who sought enlightenment through experimentation with illicit drugs were deemed deviant and deranged (Doty 7). For Ginsberg to define people who have been driven to insanity as “the best minds” is an audacious and deliberate subversion of conventionality and an attack against what the “Beat Generation” deemed a conformist and materialistic society.
Of the people whom mainstream American culture perceived to be a generation of degenerates, homosexuals and drugs addicts were considered most perverse. Homosexual imagery and experimentation with illicit drugs abound in this first attack. Not only does Ginsberg portray homosexual acts and drug use with shameless candor, he employs religious terminology and mythological allusions in an effort to make these aspects of the human condition holy. Mark Doty echoes this sentiment when he defines Howl as “a chronicle of friends seeking…transcendence…through whatever means they find at hand” (Doty 7). Drug addicts experiencing withdrawals are suddenly transformed into “angelheaded” figures yearning for an “ancient heavenly connection”, homosexual men performing filatio become “human seraphim” and anal sex is “saintly”. In terms of war, homosexuality and drugs become Ginsberg’s artillery as they obliterate preconceived notions of heteronormativity and what it means to be a respectable human being.
The second section of Howl, which was inspired during a drug-fueled hallucinatory experience, attacks the destructive forces of materialism and conformism. Ginsberg opens with the following rhetorical question: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” (Norton 2581). Ginsberg immediately answers with “Moloch…unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” (Norton 2581). The true state of America, Ginsberg claims, is one of perverted faith, oppression and neglect. It is the capitalistic idolatry of materialism and conformism, which Ginsberg characterizes as “Moloch”, that has transformed the American psyche into an inhuman mechanism perpetually and fruitlessly pining after the almighty buck, that abandons starving children in the streets, that requires young men to perish on the battlefield in service of “democracy”, and that proclaims members of elder generations dead before their time.
This culture, in which skyscrapers, factories, laboratories, and asylums mark the otherwise barren landscape like altars to technological and scientific advancement, subdues the masses into blind acceptance of a hollow existence or drives them to insanity and rebellion. “Moloch” frightens us out of our “natural ecstasy”, transmogrifying the sexual passion of men into “granite cocks”. We “Wake up in Moloch” for it has stolen our dreams and replaced them with its nightmarish visions of death and insanity. In the Old Testament of the Bible, it is written that Moloch was a Hebrew idol that required the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings. “And you shall let any of your seed pass through the fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:21). By likening the mechanized state of industrialized civilization to “Moloch”, Ginsberg condemns the false idols of materialism and conformism to which he perceives “the lambs” of society are being sacrificed. His condemnation of these false idols is a clarion call for all those under the oppression of materialism and conformism to take up arms.
The third section of Howl is addressed to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg befriended while both were patients at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in Rockland, New York. This is perhaps the most powerful section of Howl. Like those “who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons” (Norton Anthology 2578), Solomon embodies “the lamb” brought to complete mental ruin by the oppressive force of the psychiatric hospital that seeks to “cure” homosexuals and drug users of their perversity. Ginsberg writes, “I’m with you in Rockland where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void” (Norton Anthology 2583). In this disturbing image of electroshock therapy, Solomon becomes a casualty of war. He has paid the ultimate price for insurrection against conformist society – his freedom and sanity. Comparable to his efforts in the first section to sanctify homosexual acts and experimentation with drugs, Ginsberg employs religious imagery in his depiction of Solomon’s descent into spiritual death. Solomon makes a “pilgrimage” to a “cross” shaped table upon which he will receive “treatment”. This image is reminiscent of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Ginsberg is likening Solomon’s demise to a messianic sacrifice, one that will result in the redemption of humankind. However, Ginsberg does draw a difference between Solomon and Christ. Whereas Christ rose from the dead, Solomon’s body will never regain his soul. He is trapped within a “concrete void of insulin metrasol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy”, spiritually dead (Norton Anthology 2580). The sole redemption that can be derived from Solomon’s suffering is that the world will be awakened to the barbaric practices of mental institutions and the prejudiced, intolerant nature of the society which allows for such crimes against humanity to occur.
In the fourth and final section of the poem, entitled “Footnote to Howl”, Ginsberg claims “Everything is holy ! everybody’s holy ! everywhere is holy !” (Norton Anthology 2583). This can be read as Ginsberg extending an olive branch to “Moloch” or industrialized civilization. It is essentially an armistice drafted by Ginsberg on behalf of the Beat Generation, inspired by the transcendentalist notion that transcendence or holiness can be discovered in every aspect of the human condition.
Doty, Mark. "Human Seraphim: Howl, Sex, and Holiness." American Poetry Review 35 (2006): 6-8.
Ginsberg, Allen. "Howl." The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Seventh Edition: Volume E 1945 to the Present. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 2576-584.
Henson, Robert. "Howl in the Classroom." CEA Critic 23 (1961): 8-9.
The New English Bible. NY: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Moloch and the Lamb: The Holy War of Conformism and Proto-Counter Culture in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl by Joshua Alan Blodgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at verboseprose86.blogspot.com.