The end of World War II brought with it the rise of beatnik poetry. A group of poets interested in the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” aspect of poetry; beatniks were often rebellious in their writing and challenging of the “bourgeoisie” suburban culture that was dominant in post-war America.
Of these poets, Allen Ginsberg used poetry to critique what he saw to be deficiencies of post-war America. These deficiencies are illuminated through his poetry in a way that shows how mainstream society sees those who refuse to conform.In “Howl” Ginsberg uses social commentary to speak for those who society had deemed outcasts and does so in the ranting and rebellious way which parallels the people that he is describing. It is often assumed then that the “best minds of his generation” (1) are his beatnik peers and the protagonists of his poem. The first example of Ginsberg challenging post-war America can be seen in the title: “Howl. ” The title forces the reader to acknowledge that this will not be the traditional ode, sonnet, or quiet poem expected by the dominant society; rather it will be a loud and prosaic poem which parallels the beatnik artists.
The title alludes to madness and animalism which are often traits applied to the beatniks. Like animals, the beatniks were unaccepted by mainstream society, forcing them to be outcasts. The sense of howling can also be seen as a detachment from conformity and the expression of the beatnik counter culture. Overall, the sense of howling suggests the frustration, self-destruction, madness, and energy associated with the generation of suppressed artists.
In Line one Ginsberg says his most famous line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. It can be inferred that Ginsberg considers these minds to be the “best minds” because they are uninfluenced and unaffected by the domesticated and hegemonic society of post- war America.It is a reflection on what the post-war culture and society did to those who did not “fit the mold. ” The dominant culture destroyed his generation and drove these minds into “madness” and “hysteria. ” Ginsberg goes on to allude to the deficiencies in post-war America by depicting a society of people (the beatniks) who face hardships because of their status as outcasts.They are impoverished, both spiritually and physically.
“Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness,” shows that the beatniks are so poor they were tattered clothing. The spirituality is suggested again in the following lines, “who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated” (4/5). Here religion is alluded to in a way that is unconventional. “El” is the Hebrew name for God, but it can also refer to the L line in New York City or the abbreviation for elevated train.Therefore this line can be taken to mean that they are “bar[ing] their minds to Heaven under God, but also under train tracks which is a common place for homeless people to sleep. These outcasts are not conforming to one religion, as society would like them to, rather they are experimenting with multiple religions; this is a trait that was common among beatnik artists.
This can be seen as Ginsberg’s belief that these people are the salvation that post-war America needs, however they have not yet achieved it.The poem goes on to discuss the ways in which the “best minds” experienced conflict within intellectual societies, too. Lines 6-8 read, “Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among scholars of war,/ who were expelled from the academics for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull. ” Here Ginsberg implies that though they are the “best minds,” their work would never be accepted by societies and that they only passed through these universities.They would be expelled for their work which would be deemed “crazy” and “obscene.
The expulsion based on obscenity belief is founded in the trials of other poets of Ginsberg’s time for work the government saw as inappropriate, including “Howl. ” By calling the academic society “scholars of war” Ginsberg alludes that academia is under the power and control of the dominant, militaristic post-war America.The themes of suppression and conflict of desires is introduced at lines 9-12: “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. These people are forced to hide their desires from society and forced underground into the “sex and drug” environment.Therefore, they “cower” in rooms which they would not have had to enter had they not been cast out.
They are also unfairly targeted by the authorities at the time; forced to strip searches they would not have had to experience had they conformed to societies expectations of looks and beliefs. The oppressed people living in “waking nightmares” (11) are forced to do so because they are suppressing who they are for fear of society’s harsh reactions.It is not the acts which destroy these people and lead them to madness, but it is the forced suppression of these acts and desires and the ultimate persecution they face which destroys them. Here they are in the urban environment, one which allows them to form their own community.
A “community of outcasts” that is seen as a place of freedom where they can express themselves artistically without judgment. However, the urban scene is also prison which is full of injustice and traps the individual.The critique of post-war America is continued; however the “best minds” are now resisting harder; no longer are they cowering but instead are fighting back. Line 37 reads, “who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,” which shows that they were resisting authority and persecution violently for a crime they did not see as wrong. They were fighting because they did not see what they did as worthy of the punishment.In the following lines Ginsberg focuses on the sexuality of the “best minds.
” This is perhaps the most frowned upon aspect of their lifestyles by mainstream society. Line 38 reveals how closely connected work and sex were for the beatniks: “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts. ” The focus on sexuality continues further with crude, brash, and up front descriptions of homosexual acts. These descriptions are a slap in the face to mainstream post-war Americans who demanded sexual conformity to heterosexuality.The line which most noticeably would invoke these feelings in post-war Americans would have been line 42: “Who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.
” Ginsberg is making no apologies for their sexual preferences and their sexual non-conformity. These acts are not seen as shameful or perverted; rather they are so pleasurable that the participants “screamed with joy. ” Pain, lost loves, and loneliness were also shown in beat poetry; themes which were and still are common in most poetry.Ginsberg examines the damage done to the “best minds” by these unaccepted forms of love and sex.
“Who ballad in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” (46), they reminisce about these lost loves in the places where they performed these sexual acts. Not only was it painful because they were not accepted by mainstream America, but also because they were unable to find peace. The roll of women in beat poetry is rare and they are often only there to serve the male desire.When a woman’s desires become too much or she wishes to settle down and start a family this is then often used as an “escape route” for the man. He must leave because domesticity would force him to suppress his artistic self and he would therefore have to conform to mainstream America.
Ginsberg similarly depicts women. At line 52 Ginsberg introduces the “three old shrews of fate. ” The first shrew represents the beatniks who married and had families; the “one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar,” which shows the conflict felt when they were expected to provide for their family which is the exact opposite of the beatnik lifestyle.The second shrew represents the children, “ that winks out of the womb,” suggesting that these people resent that they are now responsible for these children and are further being forced to conform.
The final shrew represents the wives and the resentment that these men felt because these women trapped them in this lifestyle of domesticity. These feelings, which go against the post-war/ baby boom society, parallel the beatnik lifestyle. Again, in the next lines, Ginsberg relates that they still participate in the sexual acts common with their lifestyle.These men still sleep around; “who sweetened the snatches of million girls trembling in the sunset” (60) thereby committing the act of adultery, a sin that mainstream America would abhor. If post-war America did not make society feel as if they had to marry and have children then these “minds” would not feel the need to settle down and pretend to be someone they are not. It is ultimately the fault of society for pressuring people to be a part of something that is not true to their selves.
Ginsberg continues his critique of American post-war culture by describing Carl Solomon, who the poem is dedicated to. Ginsberg depicts Solomon, along with the other “best minds” as a tragic hero. He also sees Solomon as a more insane than himself, but also more brilliant; Ginsberg even suggests that he may be the best of the “best minds. ” He says, “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe” (77), implying that for those who society sees as mentally insane their selves would never be safe. Solomon is portrayed as a symbol for the beatniks.
Though he is the most mentally unstable, he is also the most brilliant of them all. Ginsberg suggests that if the most insane mind could be understood for its brilliance then perhaps it would then be safe for the other beatniks to be true to themselves. The post-war conformist “sane” society is juxtaposed here with insanity which is equated with brilliance. Allen Ginsberg effectively points out and critiques the deficiencies of post-war America by illuminating the non-conformist beatnik society.He depicts a group of people who he deems as extremely important to American society, but are instead persecuted and looked down upon for how they live their lives. Ginsberg wants the reader to examine the “weirdness” of the human self (lecture).
He is not trying to overthrow society; rather he is merely trying to give a sense of what is missing from society. He highlights the injustice and hypocrisy of a country which prided itself on being progressive and accepting, but was only so as long as everyone conformed to the mainstream society.