Sunday, October 20, 2013

ModPo 2013 #40 Angry Beat Oracle: On Ginsberg's "Howl"

Image of Moloch from

The link to the entire text of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg is here.

Here's an excerpt with famous first lines:

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,

And here's a memorable line from the video discussion:

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, -

Part II of "Howl" has a series of lines that begin with a brutal god's name.

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!


This poem was definitely in the Whitmanian tradition. After having gone over Whitman in Chapter 1, I've come to appreciate long tracts of poetry. Through the video discussion, I also got to distinguish the musicality and internal rhymes and alliterations of Ginsberg's poem. This was epic, a poem to define, or at least describe, a generation (and even beyond it).

This was an angry poem. The first lines are definitely angry: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." The last lines that refer to Moloch, a god known for "demanding" child sacrifice, depicts cruel master who demands what is most precious. It's been known that Ginsberg was referring to Moloch as a metaphor for America...or at least the America/ American establishment that he was angry with. Even if this poem was written in 1956, I can see how this kind of America continues to anger its citizens (and those outside America). In the face of the government shutdown that just occurred and the huge biological footprint that America continues to make due to the unstoppable growth that is the nature of capitalism...this poem continues to be relevant. Wars and armed interventions still demand the lives of young American men even up to today. And the protests against war continue as well. You could call Ginsberg prophetic.

In the middle of this anger, there is that confessional stanza wherein the speaker/ poet addresses "you" (the reader), vulnerable and naked, incomprehensible but conforming to "the rhythm of thought of his naked and endless head." It is the voice of a poet that is encountering a different America from Whitman's, a far more cruel one and yet one that is full of beat-ific beauty.

All in all, what I take from Ginsberg is a poetry that is sprawling, unafraid in its anger, musical in its interruption of everyday discourse, a textual hemorrhage heralding the sixties of hippies, free love, drugs, protests and spiritual reawakenings. I'm glad to have read this (once-banned) poem. It gives voice to my own dissatisfactions with my country (now embroiled in corruption controversies---which we've all known about but could never pinpoint until now---and rocked by natural calamities like earthquakes in the South---and man-made ones like our city floods) and the kind of future my children will have.

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