‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg

According to Allen Ginsberg, his Beat-poem “Howl” was written in jazz style. The text abounds in description of feelings experienced by social outcasts – the group to which many of the author’s friends belonged. Along with emotions, we discover lines full of merciless and emotionless cynicism, which however, arouses a not less powerful emotional response. Due to this, Ginsberg’s work acquires a revolutionary quality, which perfectly matches its name. It’s a cry of a person and many persons who are going through never-ending attacks at their consciousness, their minds, and their bodies. Drugs, casual sex, hopelessness and the desire to take everything life has to offer without giving anything in return… This phantasmagoric, from the point of view of common people, whirl is presented as the only possible reality, the reality in which hundreds people live.

Words and images in the poem are often repeated, punctuation marks, required by grammar rules, are ignored – there is no place and time for them in the animal life of Harlem inhabitants. The young hipster Allen Ginsberg describes his life experience using a peculiar language, which was created by him and other young rebels of the 1940s and 1950s. Counterculture, to which the author belonged, gave birth to a whole new language and set of images, yet it didn’t enter the fight with classic literature. As a result of this, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” actually stands by itself. In comparison with the mainstream literature of that period, it exists somewhere in the parallel reality.

The Beat-poem “Howl” was the work that literally opened the way for the new literature. For the refined poetry connoisseurs, it was like a journey to the ugly hell of slums. No wonder it caused a great public resonance. One of the reasons for this was that the author used the colloquial language of marginalized classes instead of classical literary language.

The author constantly uses sexual contexts, allusions and even openly discusses homosexual activity at some points, due to which critics blamed the poet and his work for excessive overtness and sexual liberalism. The author himself calls his poem “hell” or “abyss”. Lack of moral restraint, absolute licentiousness of the generation, which almost always finds itself in the state of drug intoxication, in fact is a howl, a cry in itself. To an independent, unbiased observer, this world, where sexual contacts matter no more than just a “hi”, is characterized by lack of any solid base, of any social responsibilities. In this world, a person can only hear and understand his own thoughts, desires, and needs, while completely ignoring those of his family or any other people.

Some of the words used in the poem have sacred meaning. Most of them are from Buddhism and paganism, but occasionally Christian symbols may be discovered, too. In Ginsberg’s poetry (provided you choose to call “Howl” poetry), the notion of sacred experiences a great shift, as compared to the common cultural code. For the author, the range of things sacred expands to human body, including genitalia, and any form of human interaction, including sexual relationship, as well as even the state of drug intoxication. Taking all this into consideration, you may discover that mere biological existence in Ginsberg’s poetry acquires the sacred status, and even anarchism, which was so attractive to the poet, is shown from the most appealing, for the Beat generation, point of view. The society is viewed as an inhuman monster, Moloch, who devours all the pleasures a human being may experience and turns each person into a robot or a slave.

Critics called “Howl” “a hymn to sincerity”, “a hymn to non-conformism”, “a hymn to nakedness in any form”, “a hymn to protest”. This protest, however, is nothing but live and bleeding parts of bodies and souls of the rebels. Whether one can consider this image romantic is a question, to which each and every reader finds his own answer.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk