Howl: Beat Generation and Ginsberg

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The end of World War II brought with it the rise of beatnik poetry. A group of poets interested in the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” aspect of poetry; beatniks were often rebellious in their writing and challenging of the “bourgeoisie” suburban culture that was dominant in post-war America. Of these poets, Allen Ginsberg used poetry to critique what he saw to be deficiencies of post-war America. These deficiencies are illuminated through his poetry in a way that shows how mainstream society sees those who refuse to conform. In “Howl” Ginsberg uses social commentary to speak for those who society had deemed outcasts and does so in the ranting and rebellious way which parallels the people that he is describing. It is often assumed then that the “best minds of his generation” (1) are his beatnik peers and the protagonists of his poem.

The first example of Ginsberg challenging post-war America can be seen in the title: “Howl.” The title forces the reader to acknowledge that this will not be the traditional ode, sonnet, or quiet poem expected by the dominant society; rather it will be a loud and prosaic poem which parallels the beatnik artists. The title alludes to madness and animalism which are often traits applied to the beatniks. Like animals, the beatniks were unaccepted by mainstream society, forcing them to be outcasts. The sense of howling can also be seen as a detachment from conformity and the expression of the beatnik counter culture. Overall, the sense of howling suggests the frustration, self-destruction, madness, and energy associated with the generation of suppressed artists.

In Line one Ginsberg says his most famous line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” It can be inferred that Ginsberg considers these minds to be the “best minds” because they are uninfluenced and unaffected by the domesticated and hegemonic society of post- war America. It is a reflection on what the post-war culture and society did to those who did not “fit the mold.” The dominant culture destroyed his generation and drove these minds into “madness” and “hysteria.” Ginsberg goes on to allude to the deficiencies in post-war America by depicting a society of people (the beatniks) who face hardships because of their status as outcasts. They are impoverished, both spiritually and physically. “Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness,” shows that the beatniks are so poor they were tattered clothing. The spirituality is suggested again in the following lines, “who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated” (4/5). Here religion is alluded to in a way that is unconventional. “El” is the Hebrew name for God, but it can also refer to the L line in New York City or the abbreviation for elevated train. Therefore this line can be taken to mean that they are “bar[ing] their minds to Heaven under God, but also under train tracks which is a common place for homeless people to sleep. These outcasts are not conforming to one religion, as society would like them to, rather they are experimenting with multiple religions; this is a trait that was common among beatnik artists. This can be seen as Ginsberg’s belief that these people are the salvation that post-war America needs, however they have not yet achieved it.

The poem goes on to discuss the ways in which the “best minds” experienced conflict within intellectual societies, too. Lines 6-8 read, “Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among scholars of war,/ who were expelled from the academics for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.” Here Ginsberg implies that though they are the “best minds,” their work would never be accepted by societies and that they only passed through these universities. They would be expelled for their work which...
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