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Howl -- Allen Ginsberg

An excerpt from
(Poem #293) 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 of night,

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
contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels
staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

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 skull,

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, and 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
in 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,

who sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford's, floated out and sat
through the stale beer afternooon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack
of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to
museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,

a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire
escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes
and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,

whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with
brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,

who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture
postcards of Atlantic City Hall,

suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China
under junk-withdrawal in Newark's bleak furnished room,

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where
to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward
lonesome  farms in grandfather night,

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kaballa because
the  cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who
were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman of Oklahoma on the impulse of winter
midnight streetlight smalltown rain,

who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and
followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a
hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa,

who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the
shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace
Chicago...
-- Allen Ginsberg
The dedication reads 'for Carl Solomon'.

'Howl' is not a poem that could ever be described as beautiful, or evocative, or
inspiring, or mystical, or any of the myriad other adjectives that reviewers
like myself are wont to use. Indeed, it doesn't seem to be very 'poetic' (in the
traditional sense of the term) at all; it's unstructured to the point of
incoherence, violent, bizarre, crude, sprawling, energetic ... all told, more of
a delirious rant than a poem.

Yet poem it is, and a brilliant one at that. In the sheer _scale_ of its
undertaking it has very few peers [1], while the mode of expression is both
stunningly original and perfectly suited to the underlying emotion / theme /
state of mind.

An incredibly wild ride...

thomas.

[1] Dylan's 'Desolation Row' springs to mind, as does T. S. Eliot's 'The
Wasteland'.

[Digression]

'Howl' in its entirety is a very long poem indeed, and I meant to run only a
dozen or so versets... as it happened, each time I picked a good place to stop,
I'd discover something new and magical a line or two downstream, and would feel
compelled to extend my selection. I guess it just goes to show...

[Minstrels Links]

In previous posts I've mentioned Ginsberg's inheritance of Whitman's mantle;
you can read more about the former at poem #244, and about the latter at
poem #246.

'Desolation Row' can be read at poem #227

[Notes from the Net]

Allen Ginsberg's monumental poem was first heard in a series of famous readings
that
signaled the arrival of the Beat Generation of writers. The first of these
readings took place in October 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was
Allen Ginsberg's first public performance, and it made him instantly famous at
the age of twenty-nine.

The poem is part Walt Whitman, part Old Testament hellfire ranting, and
hundred-percent performance art. The lines in the famous first part of the poem
tumble over each other in long unbroken breaths, all adding to a single endless
sentence...

Ginsberg is describing his fellow travelers, the crazy, lonely members of his
community of misunderstood poet artists, unpublished novelists, psychotics,
radicals, pranksters, sexual deviants and junkies. At the time that he wrote
this he'd seen several of his promising young friends broken or killed...
[various lines in the poem] describe real-life events by people Ginsberg knew,
but the poem is especially dedicated to Carl Solomon, Ginsberg's crazy-insane
hyper-intellectual friend who he'd met in a mental hospital years before:

    -- [broken link] http://www.charm.net./~brooklyn/Poems/Howl.html

To accusations that "Howl" is a negative and destructive poem, Ginsberg
responded by saying:

"The title notwithstanding, the poem itself is an act of sympathy, not
rejection. In it I am leaping out of a preconceived notion of social 'values',
following my own heart's instincts - allowing myself to follow my own heart's
instincts, overturning any notion of propriety, moral 'value', superficial
'maturity', Trilling-esque sense of 'civilization', and exposing my true
feelings - of sympathy and identification with the rejected, mystical,
individual, even 'mad'.

"Howl is the first discovery as far as communication of feeling and truth, that
I made. It begins with a catalogue sympathetically and humanely describing
excesses of feeling and idealization."

"Only if you are thinking an outmoded dualistic puritanical academic theory
ridden world of values can you fail to see I am talking about realization of
love. LOVE."

"To call it work of nihilistic rebellion would be to mistake it completely. Its
force comes from positive religious belief and experience. It offers no
'constructive' program in sociological terms - no poem could. It does offer a
constructive human value - basically the experience - of the enlightment of
mystical experience - without which no society can long exist."

    -- [broken link] http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~slatin/20c_poetry/projects/gh/eberhart.html

[Afterthought]

This, by the way, is one poem that I'd _strongly_ advise you to read out loud.

485 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Print News said...

The poem simply ends too soon.
This Gisnberg fellow should have made it longer.

StoneDonald said...

it still hold truth. a witness.

paul roche said...

It is, as the author pointed out, an expression of love.

The desolate windswept environment is the negative.

The characters are loveable to the extent that they have choosen a magical and desolate place.

He begins by pointing out how clever his fellows are. They are the best minds of a generation.

They experience life in a way few of us would dare (with drug fuelled intensity).

We are invited to admire their freedom and their awareness of the magic of life.

But we are also warned about the price for this. A chaotic cold and hungry existence.

Modern physics tells us that the universe is not at all predictable in the Newtonian sense. It is magical in a quantum mechanical sense. It is stranger, 'more magical' than we can imagine.

That is what Howl is about. Ginsberg knows intuitively what scientists took another 40 years to figure out.

The price of that knowledge was high. His 'seers' might just as easily be described as tramps.

Samuel Beckett uses tramps to communicate his otherwise obscure point in Waiting for Godot.

The waiting tramps (waiting for God) were like the more active beatnik tramps in Howl.

More aware than the rest of us, but still hopelessly lost in a cold and magical universe.

Trying to make something happen without being quite sure what it was.

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