Howl is a dive into the ‘other’ America, the ‘city of night’, the city of outcasts, beatniks and all those branded ‘mad’ by regular society. The poem is ‘for Carl Solomon’, one of Ginsberg’s friends, who was assigned to mental asylum Rockland “where you’re madder than I am”, as Ginsberg states in the first line of the third stanza. But all the way through he is with him, declaring himself one with Solomon and as such with everyone who is considered an outcast. Howl is a comment on the stifling conformity of America of that time, being the Eisenhower era.
The poem crosses many barriers. References to drugs abound, and Ginsberg himself has declared many times how he wrote the poem under the influence of peyote in an attempt to broaden the workings of the mind. The first stanza is a 78-line volcanic outburst of spontaneity in which Ginsberg presents through a ‘stream of consciousness’-technique image after image of the rejects of modern society, “who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (Howl, line 10,11). Grammatical rules are neglected. The only way to present the truth is to allow this long stream of thoughts to be poured out uninterrupted, spontaneous and dense, leaving the poet nor the reader time to reflect upon what has been said, as the next image is already being presented, and after that another one and so on. The words follow the pattern of natural breathing, and after the necessary pause for air, a new image follows before the reader can reflect upon the one just read.
The poem has to be read from beginning to end, as it is an indivisible unity. The city that had an overall positive portrayal in Leaves of Grass has become a bleak world where artificial light and colours dominate the landscape. Whitman’s ‘seas of bright juice’ have been exchanged for ‘neon lights’ . It is no longer the place where the poet can attain hope. The only means left to him is to create a world of all those whose existence is being denied by society. The way to achieve this is through an unrestricted outpouring of truth. To do this, the poet has to expand his boundaries.
Like his famous fellow beat writer Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg goes ‘on the road’ to further explore the world around him. Only then can he look for ‘eternity’: “who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity” (Howl, line 60). We find the same quest for eternity in line 54, where it is linked to the wish to cross the boundaries of time: “who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade”. He leaves the city and travels all over the country.
He leaves the country to visit Africa an Mexico, only to come back to the west coast, where he “bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication” (line 34) In the second stanza, Ginsberg evokes the ‘Moloch’ line after line, like a chant or hymn. The Moloch is clearly a reference to modern society. Once more we discover how the city, still full of hope in Whitman’s world, has left modern man destitute: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
” (79) In the modern world, there is no place for outcasts, run as it is by money: “Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch whose blood is running money! ” Whereas Whitman was positive about the city extending its boundaries upwards, in Ginsberg’s world this has become a burden: “They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! ” Salvation comes only through unity. Ginsberg does this by calling Solomon his brother, his equal: There can only be salvation if we embrace the world as one. Like he says in line 72: “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time”.
Just like Whitman, Ginsberg is explicit in the way he describes homoeroticism in Howl. What could be said about Whitman applies just as much to Ginsberg: Howl is an outpouring of spontaneous images and feelings, there is no time for reflection and there is definitely no time for holding back the truth. There may still be many ways to interpret Whitman’s references to (homo)eroticism, but there can be no doubt about the following lines in Howl: “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy, who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” . (Howl, line 36/38) There is no salvation in holding back the truth and to do as such, Ginsberg has to cross many boundaries, just like Whitman. In Ginsberg’s free expression, we hear the reverberation of the jazz that was part of the counterculture in the fifties. Just like Whitman, Ginsberg broke with the generally accepted idea of poetry to create his own world. Similarities and differences
There are many similarities between Leaves of Grass and Howl. The poems share the main theme: Only in unity can there be salvation. To reach this, the poet has to let his feelings run free and uninterrupted. The ‘stream of consciousness’ in the style evokes a string of images that gives way to what’s going on in the poet’s mind, the way he creates his visions by expanding time and space. It is no coincidence that Whitman and Ginsberg use the same literary techniques. Only the uninterrupted ‘stream of consciousness’, without reflective interruptions that may diminish their spontaneity, can render the truth.
To do this, both Whitman and Ginsberg had to cross the borders of what was generally accepted as being poetry. Grammatical rules were neglected, free verse reigns overall. Both writers yearn for a world that goes beyond the material. The only salvation possible is by fully embracing not just the whole world, but the whole universe surrounding us. But while Whitman portrayed a world that was full of promise, Ginsberg could only depict a world of counterculture to escape the stifling ‘Molochs’ of modern society.
He tries to find salvation in crossing the borders of language, time, society and experience. He crosses the limitations of the mind through the use of drugs and he uses an almost religious repetition or chant as an extension of the spiritual world. Conclusion For the landmarks they are in modern American literature, both Leaves of Grass and Howl are remarkably unconventional, especially set back against the time in which they were published. Maybe the overall theme of salvation through unity wasn’t new, but the means through which both poets achieve this definitely were.
Both Whitman and Ginsberg were looking for new ways to give way for a free expression of the mind, as the above mentioned salvation was only possible through a spontaneous, free and uninterrupted flow of imagery, for which all conventional rules of style and grammar had to be thrown overboard. In addition to this stylistic revolution, both poets crossed borders in time, space and mind to create a world that in the end would bring hope, be it of a clearly different character after the hundred year-interval that separates both modern masterpieces.