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Allen Ginsberg's HOWL - An Analysis - The Poem That Unleashed the Bindings of Time-Set-Mind

Updated: Oct 4, 2022



Howl is a poem written by Allen Ginsberg.


It spoke to and for an unrepresented people- those brilliant and broken.


Howl, like Ginsberg, surges ahead of its time.


It creates space for those who have none and gives voice to those unheard.


This piece shakes the very fabric of mindsets so cemented in their time.


The poem achieves this through the power of the written and spoken word.


Howl recounts his pier’s narrative via provocation and resolve.


“Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private. ” Allen Ginsberg


Table of Contents


Part One- Heaven Knows the Many "Who"

Part Two- The Role of Exclamation in Poetry

Part Three- Do you Know I am With You?


My poetry…has nothing to do with dull materialistic vagaries…. The secrets of individual imagination … are not for sale to this consciousness, are no use to this world, except perhaps to make it shut its trap and listen to the music of the Spheres. Allen Ginsberg (1959)



Part One- Heaven Knows the Many "Who"


Howl or Howl for Carl Solomon was written in 1954-1955.


It had its first public reading in 1955 on October 7.


The reading took place at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.


Jack Kerouac was amongst the "beats" (beat generation) who attended the reading.


Kerouac poured wine and cheered on Ginsberg fervently.


Other members of the beats were William Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Herbert Huncke (HH apparently coined the term 'Beat').


Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956 on November first by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.


Lawrence ran City Lights Bookstore and the City Light Press.


Howl is revered as the quintessential piece of the beatnik movement.


Howl and a Supermarket in California are renowned works from this collection that find relevance to this day.



Howl, set into motion, from its first read, a furor from all sides of the political, religious, and cultural spectrum.



Ginsberg endeavors to reach those on the margins of society.


Howl helped initiate counterculture.


Ginsberg was born into a Jewish family. His mother was a Russian emigrant and his father was a teacher and sometimes poet.


As a young adult, Allen Ginsberg demonstrated an awareness of social issues.


He wrote social commentary letters to magazines like the New York Times. In these he voiced his concerns on political matters -World War 2 and worker's rights. Ginsberg published his first poems in the Paterson Call before he hit puberty.



Howl is an extension of Allen Ginsberg's literary efforts.


He attempts to restore the deep fissures and rooted evils of contemporary society.


It's asymmetrical power dynamics and cultural ills.


It is a revolutionary manifesto, mutinous, challenging, and obscene.


There are schools of thought that believe that Howl earmarked nascent modernity.


Howl, when read aloud requires deep, disciplined breaths.


The long lines of the poem reveal Walt Whitman's influence on Ginsberg as a poet.


Howl was not intended as a performance piece. Yet executed in performance, the poem renders audiences at that moment- still- listening, and occasionally laughing. Listeners murmuring their approval- a people found, a people well met.


Even though Howl gives readers or listeners a sense of rambling, disorganized musings.


It is a tightly structured piece of work that has been thoroughly thought through, revised, reworked, and remastered.


It's society (as a whole) that is disorganized.


Howl reacquaints form to the disheveled mess (if not huddled mass).




Howl is sequenced into three parts or dialogues. The first feels like a lamentation.


It acknowledges Ginsberg's peers- brilliant, forsaken, and warring an unknown, losing battle.


Almost each and every line of the first section begins with "who". It's an interesting technique for Ginsberg to employ.


When reading these long biographical lines -a light shines on the backs of these innumerable "who".


As account after account a gilded, alloy-studded journey is recorded and held to the heavens.


Ginsberg stated, “I depended upon the word "who" (in part one) to keep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to and take off again onto another streak of invention.”



A frisson of electricity sweeps through this poem. It's wrought in humane sensitivity and expressed in visceral swagger.


Further, it's knotted with unapologetic vulgarity.


Howl and Other Poems became known to the United States government officials.


A shipment of 250 recently published books was seized by the Federal Collector of Customs in San Francisco.


The books arrived from London England on 25 March 1957.


There were unlawful allusions to drugs and deviant sexuality.


On June 3 the authorities arrested and jailed Shig (Shigeyoshi) Muroa, City Light Bookstore manager and clerk for selling the collected works to a covert police officer. Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was then arrested for the publication and distribution of obscene materials sewn throughout Howl. Both Ferlinghetti and Muroa were charged.



The Howl Obscenity Trial was a long-drawn-out trial. Ferlinghetti and Muroa's defense brought forward nine academics, poets, authors, and critics that testified on behalf of Howl.


These testimonies spoke to Howl's literary value and immense contribution to a generation of new thinkers.


The American Civil Liberties Union supported the defendants of the obscenity trial.


Judge Clayton W. Horn dismissed the case, ruling in favour of Howl, declaring that it was not without “redeeming social importance”.



According to the ruling:


Howl was not inducive to-


“substantial tendency to deprave or corrupt its readers by inciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desires.”


The obscenity trial rocketed Howl into the cultural stratosphere.


Individuals across the globe heard its call and rallied behind its intent.




Described as Operatic Catalog the listing of the many "who" is reminiscent of works of epic poetry.


In addition, this technique draws upon Walt Whitman's Song of Myself.


Cataloging is a literary device used to discretely convey meaning or a subtly persuasive message. Or subversive regarding Howl.


It does this through the inherent rhetorical effect that inevitably arises from cataloging.


Rhetoric effect in poetry is a device used to persuade its audience or readers.



Rhetoric effect as s poetic technique is subtle, especially as employed through literary listing or cataloging.


It continually brings the audience or reader's attention back over and again to the description of events that the poet is relaying.


There is a distinct feeling of honour or homage with cataloging. It's like listing the lives of fallen men or comrades in war.


There is a unifying quality to catalogs experienced by poet, reader, and nation.



Ginsberg catalogs the detailed events of the great minds known to him.


He shocks us with crude tidings enacted by these great minds.


Through grandiose intrigue, Ginsberg recalls our focus back to the next ether-stained awakening of a corrupted body-heavenly.


Howl is a subversive Rally.


Tearing away our sensibilities exposing rubied flesh.

Howl intoxicates us with the myriad precious droplets of the blood of his beloved peers.


And back again to the next line- the next recall.


It isn't through guilt that he wins our attention or fights an otherwise unspoken battle.


He fights through account, after account, the journey toward victory.


Triumph through acknowledgment, knowledge, and knowing.


The first part of the Howl possesses an elegiac undercurrent to a space of invocation and reckoning.


Personally, I feel that Howl cuts Shame from experienced madness.


He allows his readers to remember madness differently- in rainbowed orgiastic shades of awareness- angelic happenstance.


To depart from plagued loneliness, as Ginsberg cries "My God, My God, Why has though forsaken me".


This cry erupted in tattered beats, riding an erratic sax wave to the lamentation's final destination.


Ready for broadcast.


Howl is both overdue and before its time. Ginsberg, bound and institutionalized, reaches fellow inmate Carl Solomon... and mobilizes us, through the power of the written word.



Part Two- The Role of Exclamation in Poetry


In the second part of Howl, Ginsberg addresses Moloch personally. Moloch, Molek, or Molech is a divine, albeit evil entity, found in the old testament mainly in the book of Leviticus.


Moloch is synonymous with great and terrible demand for sacrifice- Carthaginian child sacrifice.


Moloch is also referenced in John Milton's 1667 Paradise Lost.


I noticed, in the live readings of Howl, Ginsberg's voice immediately gains strength in its inflection, tone, and pitch.


It's an automatic reaction to the words expressed. It's almost as if he is stepping up and emboldened by the task of facing this now-identified evil.


It's Moloch who has cleverly constructed poverty through corrupt capitalism.


It's Moloch too great to be seen- all-encompassing, omnipresent, prolific in all things.


Moloch, the make-up of our materialistic universe.


The cruelty and the malevolence behind the mask of our three-dimensional surroundings.


Ginsberg maintains the high call of Howl.


He does this by fixing his fight on naming the evil responsible for the damned of society.


He repeats "Moloch" often and courageously.


A writer in the truest sense he fights evil not through might, or muscle but through brave incantation.


In single expressive imperatives and one-word statements- Ginsberg shatters the long chanting of the first sequence of Howl, into Dreams! Visions! Miracles! Adorations! Epiphanies! Despair!



What is Ginsberg endeavoring to achieve with this?


Why is the form suddenly fractured?


Exclamation after exclamation, and each as potent as the last.


Does the might of Howl hold true to the very end of the last exclamation of part 2?


Reader if you can tell me in the commentary I'd be interested to know.


Part Three- Do you Know I am With You?


When Ginsberg was in college, he allowed an acquaintance to store stolen goods in his dorm room.


With the threat of prosecution, Ginsberg pleaded insanity and was sentenced to eight months in a psychiatric ward.


Ginsberg was no stranger to mental illness.

He endured his mother's fragile state of mind.


He met Solomon in a psychiatric room while waiting for his mother.


Rockland here, an imaginative, recreated sanctuary whose brick-and-mortar is the cementing of friendship and solidarity. Each repetition is an assurance, reminding Solomon that a friend is still with him.



When reading the third part of Howl, the constant anaphora of "I am with you in Rockland" feels to me as an echo.


An echo bouncing off a wall from a place far, far removed, a place forgotten.


The third part of Howl grounds the otherwise high-flying piece.


It's still intense in its imagery, metaphors, and allusions.


However, the rhythm steadily takes readers and audiences back home while Ginsberg himself remains with Solomon.


He exercises his right to freedom in this single choice.


Ginsberg solidly affirms the power of the poem through themes of freedom, friendship, solidarity, and empowerment.



The entire force of Howl is not only a war cry but also a warning.


I suppose as he nests quietly with Solomon the rest of the polluted, polluting populous need to build their own Rockland and embrace those we love.


For me, I could read or listen to Howl day in and day out.


It will always offer something new, some terrifying and interesting dimension of mind and spirit. I have not yet dreamt.


To the Beat Generation- forefathers of nascent, brazen minds and the new narrators who structured freedom in individual thinking-


-I hope collectively- you find your place amongst a refiguring of the constellations as Moloch the mechanisms of the heavens, disintegrate under the force and potency of your City Lights.









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