Literary Analysis: Howl by Allen Ginsberg
In the essay, the author focuses on a brief literary analysis of a selected passage from Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl. The analysis explores the poem’s broad context and centers on the leading themes, symbols, and issues in the passage. The passage is interpreted in the light of the key ideas expressed by Allen Ginsberg in Howl.
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
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning
their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through
Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in
Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their
torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol
and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and
lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of
Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless
world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery
dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops,
storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon
blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree
vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn,
ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless
ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine
until the noise of wheels and children brought
them down shuddering mouth-wracked and
battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance
in the drear light of Zoo (…).
These are the beginning lines of the poem. The author has chosen to analyse the first part of Howl given its expressiveness and vivid imagery that defines the flow of the rest of the poem. In particular, the beginning lines describe the subjects of the whole poem – “the best minds” (Ginsberg, Howl).Prior to analysis of the themes, issues, and symbols in the extract, the background should be discussed. The poem itself reminds a howl by its poetic persona about the repressive powers of the American society that destroyed the best people of his generation known as the Beat Generation. That was a generation of people in the 1950s who sought liberty from traditional forms of living, from traditional morality, and capitalism-based ideology. However, those were not intellectual geniuses or successful American citizens; on the contrary, those were drug addicts, homosexuals, drunkards, and sexually free youth, etc, who did not want to live by the rules of their society (Ginsberg, Howl). For example, the friend of the poetic persona – Carl Solomon – is a madman locked in a psychiatric hospital (“Rockland”). Carl Solomon is believed to be holy by the poet, as well as some other “weird” characters in Howl (e.g. Marlon Brando), because of their opposition to the society. In the poem, the American society of the 1950s is associated with Moloch – an old pagan deity related to everything evil: greed, war, repression, discrimination, hatred, and an overwhelming desire of making money.
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The major theme in this passage is the self-destruction and frustration of America’s “best minds” – people of the Beat Generation, who attempted to resist the conformity of their parent society. After the “best minds” are introduced to the poem, various themes emerge related to this image. Specifically, “the best minds” are driven to madness, kill themselves by overuse of drugs, escape from the reality through excessive sex, protest against the state’s ideology of war, are abused by the powers, and sacrifice life success (“expelled from the academies”) to find the meaning of life outside the conventional morality and hypocritical lifestyle. These people make up an opposition to the whole American society by their neglect of money (“burning their money in wastebaskets”), morality (“endless cock and balls”), traditional lifestyle (“who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine”), desire to find light and some heavenly sense in the material world they lived in (“who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated”), and protest against unfair and immoral practices of the society (war in “among scholars of war” and racial discrimination/ segregation (“dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn”) (Ginsberg, Howl). Hence, madness is a clear theme here, too. Another vividly expressed theme is noncoformism and abuse by power, so that “the best minds” are actually outcasts in their own land.
In this passage, the poet discuses, above all, the issue of the opposition of the Beat Generation, who are, as he believes, “the best minds”, to the conventional society, which is, in his view, the repressive machine, obsessed with war, money, and false ideals. Secondly, the author raises an issue of the abuse that his friends are subject to. Challenging the ideals of their society, they are doomed to be outcasts, so they wander from one border to another, suffer in clinics, drink on cemeteries, and so on. In other words, there is no place for them in any of the current institutions of their society.
There are a plenty of symbols that help to express the themes and issues discussed above. To name a few, “the best minds” and all whom Ginsberg describes starting with the word “who” are symbols of the Beat Generation – people who may be thought of as outstanding only by their attitude to life and opposition to the conventional society and its hypocrisy. “Mohameddan angels” are symbols of religion and enlightenment, “cock and endless balls” symbolize destruction of conventional morality that condemned free sex; together with “marijuana”, “drugs”, and “alcohol”, this symbol reflects the underground life the Beat Generation was forced to lead; in relation to this, the existence of these people is symbolically described by referral to “cemetery dawns” and “winter dusks”, i.e. their life is that of outcasts and those doomed to suffering because of “otherness” (Ginsberg, Howl).
To conclude, the following themes have been found in this passage: self-destruction, madness, opposition to the conventional society and its values, and abuse of the Beat Generation representatives by the powers of their society. Issues identified in the extract were those of confrontation of the society’s best minds with the society itself and subsequent suffering of those who did not want to conform. Symbols that may be found are those of doom and suffering of outcasts, their underground existence, opposition to traditional values and lifestyle, and looking for enlightenment.
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