Howl by Allen Ginsberg

So. For those of you that don’t know, I’m bipolar. And lately, I’ve just been feeling a tad off. Not anything to freak out about, just off. So, I picked the poetry in the Top Ten for this week. I told Dave my mood was better suited for poetry right now. FYI: Howl was listed by Sherman Alexie.

Howl wasn’t the only poem on the plate for this week. It was part of a collection of Ginsberg poems. However, I am focusing on it today, it’s a seminal piece of the Beat generation. In my opinion, it remains relevant now, as well.

The first line of Howl is “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”. As the first part of the three part poem progresses, you find out Ginsberg isn’t talking about the physicists or the researchers of medicine. He’s talking about the poets, artists, the writers and the rest of the “artistic” bunch.

Anyone that has lived with madness, either their own or someone around them will recognize almost every description by Ginsberg in part 1 of the poem. Here’s one of the many reasons I say it’s still relevant.

“Who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

There’s a movement right now of administrations of universities expelling students or making life so hard for them that they quit, with mental illnesses. Go here. So, to find a line about that in a poem written decades ago serves to speak to us in this time and in this place.

I am a huge fan of spoken poetry, think slam poetry. Howl is amazingly suited to a performance piece. Here’s a section showing the rhythm.

“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”.

That also shows you some of the amazing descriptions of madness, of losing it, of different types of frenetic people that Ginsberg must have known.

I loved this part, I found it a perfect description of some manic fits I have had in my life.

“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”.

Part of the madness that Sandberg writes about are the addicts.

“who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium, who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion”.

Now, if you read above, you will notice that I mentioned part 1 of the poem. There are actually three parts. Ginsberg dedicated it to Carl Solomon, the poem is for him. The first part of the poem is about the different breeds of insanity he has seen in his years. (Ginsberg’s, not Solomon, though as a contemporary and close to Ginsberg, he would have as well). The second part is what Ginsberg blames it on. Ginsberg blames it on Moloch

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?/Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!”

Ginsberg seems to be saying that Moloch kills creativity, that Moloch is capitalism, is conformity, suburbs and the latest gadget that the Jones’ have down the street. And Moloch is causing the insanity and deaths of his friends.

The third part of the poem is addressed directly to Carl. Carl and Allen met in the psychiatric hospital nicknamed Rockland. This part of the poem is about how Ginsberg feels tied to Carl.

“Im with you in Rockland/where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter/I’m with you in Rockland/where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio/ I’m with you in Rockland where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses/I’m with you in Rockland where you drink of the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica”

In the end, Sandburg shares his dream.

“I’m with you in Rockland/in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”.

Dave and I got into a text discussion last night about Howl. He stated that Vonnegut once said the only people of his generation worth anything were the scientific minds. I didn’t look any of this up so I might be saying it wrong, by the way (Dave didn’t say that, it’s my own editorial comment on what Dave _did_ say). But, here’s the thing that I think. I think that the “lunatics” are the ones that help define the very generation they live in. Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Picasso are but a few. A lot of the most theologically important people either had a documented mental illness or a theorized one (Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Martin Luther King Jr. had depression. All of these people not only contributed to their eras but defined and enhanced their eras. I think Ginsberg had a lot to say about how contemporary society, both back then and now stifles those people, gags them, sends them reeling into the night.

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

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