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Reprinted from the book, FROM MODERN TO CONTEMPORARY: AMERICAN

POETRY 1945-1965 by James E. Breslin published by the University of Chicago

Press, copyright ? 1983, 1994 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair use

provisions of US and international copyright law and agreement, and it may be archived and

redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright

information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and

no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution or republication of this text on

other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

James E. B. Breslin

"Twenty years is more or less a literary generation," Richard Eberhart

remarks, "and Ginsberg’s Howl ushered in a new generation." Many

contemporary poets have testified to the liberating effect that Ginsberg’s poem had on

them in the late fifties, but "ushered in" is too tame a phrase to describe

Ginsberg’s historical impact. Ginsberg, for whom every poem begins, or ought to, with a

frontal assault on established positions, thrust a battering ram against those protective

enclosures, human and literary, so important to the young Wilbur and Rich. A

"howl" is a prolonged animal cry and so an instinctive cry, and Ginsberg’s poem

still forcefully communicates the sense of a sudden, angry eruption of instincts long

thwarted, of the release of excluded human and literary energies. Not irony but prophetic

vision; not a created persona but "naked" confession; not the autotelic poem but

wrathful social protest; not the decorums of high culture but the language and matter of

the urban streets; not disciplined craftmanship but spontaneous utterance and

indiscriminate inclusion–"Howl" violated all the current artistic canons and

provoked a literary, social, and even legal scandal.

Yet the Ginsberg of the late fifties was an oddly contradictory figure. He was a

strident revolutionary who, when not announcing his absolute newness, was busily tracing

his genealogical links with underground traditions and neglected masters, especially Blake

and Whitman. History was bunk, but the new consciousness Ginsberg proclaimed was empowered

by a fairly familiar form of nineteenth-century Idealism, the basis for his admiration for

Blake and Whitman. Ginsberg opened his poetry to sordid urban realities, and he packed

"Howl" with things, with matter. Yet, as we shall see, immersion in what he

calls "the total animal soup of time" was the first step in a painful ordeal

which ended in the visionary’s flight out of time. Ginsberg’s poem reaches,

nervously and ardently, after rest from urban frenzy, a resolution the poet can only find

in a vertical transcendence. Ginsberg’s departure from the end-of-the-line modernism

was a dramatic but hardly a new one; it took the form of a return to those very romantic

models and attitudes that modernism tried to shun.

Ginsberg’s subversion of the prevailing artistic norms was not achieved either quickly

or easily. While poets like Wilbur and Lowell early built poetic styles and earned

impressive critical recognition, Ginsberg’s early career consisted of a series of false

starts. "Howl"–contrary to popular impression–is not the work of an angry young

man; the poem was not written until its author was thirty, and Howl and Other Poems

was Ginsberg’s first published but third written book. Nor was

"Howl"–contrary to a popular impression created by its author–a sudden,

spontaneous overflow of creative energy. The poem, started, dropped, then started again a

few years later, was itself the product of a series of false starts. The visionary

perspective of "Howl" had already been revealed to Ginsberg in a series of

hallucinations he had experienced in the summer of 1948. The false starts were a part of

Ginsberg’s struggle to accept these visions and to find a literary form and language that

would faithfully embody them. The letters, notebooks, and manuscripts in the Allen

Ginsberg Archives at Columbia, along with Ginsberg’s published autobiographical writings

and interviews, allow us to document in ample detail the slow evolution, in the late

forties and early fifties, of one dissenting poet.

[. . . .]

Ginsberg once described Howl and Other Poems as a series of experiments in what

can be done with the long line since Whitman. In "Howl" itself Ginsberg stepped

outside the formalism of the fifties, stepped away from even the modernism of Williams,

and turned back to the then-obscure poet of Leaves of Grass, transforming

Whitman’s bardic celebrations of the visionary yet tender self into a prophetic chant

that is angry, agonized, fearful, funny, mystic, and affectionate—the prolonged and

impassioned cry of Ginsberg’s hidden self which had survived. "Loose

ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies of living men": this is how

Ginsberg, from "Howl" onward, perceives the literary past: haunting forms eager,

like Moloch, to devour the present. Searching instead for a language that would incarnate

the self, Ginsberg took the notion of form as discovery he had learned from Williams and

pushed it in confessional and visionary directions alien to the older poet. Form was no

longer self-protective, like "asbestos gloves," but a process of

"compositional self-exploration," the activities of the notebooks turned into

art. The Gates of Wrath had simultaneously produced an apotheosis and an

elimination of the author’s personality; the elevated formality of the language, by its

vagueness, confronts us with a poet who may be a grandiose figure but is also nobody, and

nowhere, in particular. In Empty Mirror, Ginsberg had tried to shed the eternal

self and descend to particulars; but his imitativeness of Williams had produced the same

self-annihilating result. "Howl" links the visionary and the concrete, the

language of mystical illumination and the language of the street, and the two are joined

not in a static synthesis but in a dialectical movement in which an exhausting and

punishing immersion in the most sordid of contemporary realities issues in transcendent

vision. Ginsberg is still uneasy about life in the body, which he more often represents as

causing pain (i.e., "purgatoried their torsos") than pleasure; but in this way

he is, like his mother in "Kaddish," "pained" into Vision. At the

close of "Howl," having looked back over his life, Ginsberg can affirm a core

self of "unconditioned Spirit" and sympathetic humanity that has survived an

agonizing ordeal.

Of the poem’s three parts (plus "Footnote"), the first is the longest and

most powerful, an angry prophetic lament. Its cataloging of real and surreal images in

long dithyrambic lines creates a movement that is rushed, frenzied, yet filled with sudden

gaps and wild illuminations; the poem begins by immersing us in the extremities of modern

urban life, overwhelming and flooding us with sensations. Generalizing generational

experience in Parts I and II, Ginsberg shows these "best minds" veering back and

forth between extremes, with the suddenness and intensity of an electric current leaping

between two poles; they adopt attitudes of defiance, longing, terror, zaniness, hysteria,

prayer, anger, joy, tears, exhaustion–culminating in the absolutes of madness and

suicide. Clothes and then flesh are constantly being stripped away in this ordeal; the

"best minds" are exposed and tormented, then cast out into the cold and

darkness. So they are at once hounded and neglected ("unknown" and

"forgotten" in the poem’s words). But modern civilization’s indifference and

hostility provoke a desperate search for something beyond it for spiritual illumination.

Again and again, the young men are left "beat" and exhausted, alone in their

empty rooms, trapped in time–at which point they gain glimpses of eternity.

"Howl" constantly pushes toward exhaustion, a dead end, only to have these ends

twist into moments of shuddering ecstasy. In one of the poem’s metaphors, boundaries are

set down, push in on and enclose the self–then suddenly disintegrate. At such times

terror shifts to ecstasy; the "madman bum" is discovered to be the angel-headed

hipster, and "beat" (beaten, exhausted) becomes "beatific."

As the catalog of Part I moves through gestures of greater and greater desperation, the

hipsters finally present "themselves on the granite steps house with shaven heads and

harlequin speech of suicide, instantaneous lobotomy"–an act that frantically mixes

defiance and submission, clownishness and martyrdom. What they want is immediate release

from their heads, from suffering; what they get is prolonged incarceration, "the

concrete void of insulin" shots and therapy aimed not at liberation but

"adjustment," their "bodies turned to stone as heavy as the moon." At

this point, in its longest and most despairing line, the poem seems about to collapse, to

"end":

with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement

window,

and the last door closed at 4am and the last telephone slammed at the

wall in reply and

the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental

furniture, a yellow paper

rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary,

nothing but a hopeful

little bit of hallucination–

With all communication broken off and all vision denied, the self is left in a lonely,

silent, empty room–the self is such a room–the room itself the culmination of the

poem’s many images of walls, barriers, and enclosures. In having the visionary quest end

in the asylum, Ginsberg is referring to his own hospitalization, that of Carl Solomon

(whom he had met in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute) and that of his mother. Moreover,

madness is here perceived as encapsulating the psyche in a private world. In a strikingly

similar passage in "Kaddish" Ginsberg emphasizes the way his mother’s illness

removed her into a private, hallucinatory world ("her own universe") where, in

spite of all his hysterical screaming at her, she remained inaccessible ("no road

that goes elsewhere–to my own" world). Ginsberg himself had found it impossible to

communicate his own visions, to make them real to others. At this climactic moment of Part

I, then, the condition of separation, division in time–a preoccupation of Ginsberg’s

poetry since The Gates of Wrath–has been taken all the way out: temporal reality

is experienced as a series of unbridgeable gaps, a void populated with self-enclosed

minds. Ordeal by immersion leaves the self feeling dead and walled-in; the body, heavy as

stone, lacks affect and becomes a heavy burden, while the spirit incarcerated inside the

"dead" body finds itself in no sweet golden clime but a "concrete

void."

Ginsberg’s state of mind at this point can be compared with his prevision mood "of

hopelessness, or dead-end": with "nothing but the world in front of me" and

"not knowing what to do with that." Here, too, at the limits of

despair–with the active will yielded up–Ginsberg experiences a sudden infusion of

energy; the poem’s mood dramatically turns and the concluding lines in Part I affirm

the self’s power to love and to communicate within a living cosmos. Immediately

following the poem’s most despairing lines comes its most affectionate: "ah, Carl,

while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup

of time." Unlike Wilber and Rich, Ginsberg does not seek a cautious self-insularity,

and he here endorses vulnerability to danger and a tender identification with the victims

of time and history. "I saw the best minds of my generation," Ginsberg

had begun, as if a prophetic and retrospective detachment exempted him from the fate he

was describing; but Ginsberg now writes from inside the ordeal, as if the aim of

writing were not to shape or contain, but sympathetically to enter an experience.

By his own unrestrained outpouring of images and feelings Ginsberg exposes himself as

writer to literary ridicule and rejection, and he does risk the annihilation of his poetic

self in the released flood of raw experience and emotion. But by risking these dangers

Ginsberg can achieve the kind of poetry he describes in Part I’s last six lines, a poetry

that bridges the gap between selves by incarnating the author’s experience, making the

reader, too, feel it as a "sensation."

Immediately following the poem’s most intimate line comes its most exalted and

grandiose, as if Ginsberg could rightfully claim a prophetic role only after acknowledging

his vulnerable humanity.

and who therefore ran through icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of

the alchemy of the use of the elipse the catalog the meter & the

vibrating

plane,

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed,

and trapped the archangel of the soul betwen 2 visual images and joined

the

elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together

jumping

with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

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,

the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what

might be left to say in time to come after death,

and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of

the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an

eli eli lamma lamma sabachthani saxaphone cry that shivered the cities

down to the last radio,

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies

good to eat a thousand years.

In biographical terms, the agonized elation of these lines may recall the emotional



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