Subject Material

"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

Published: 30.06.2014, Updated: 05.03.2017
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Allen Ginsberg

The writings of the so-called Beat Generation became standard reading for the Hippie Generation of the 1960s. The literature evolved around "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" and pointed its finger at controversial issues in contemporary America. Some of the cultural issues - homosexuality for example - are considered controversial even today. Many of the books belonging to the Beat Generation were banned because they were explicit and seen as encouraging immoral behavior in young people. Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is considered the cornerstone of this literary movement. 

Read the poem and watch a film clip about the poem and the legal process against it.

Suggested Tasks

Discuss the meaning of these words:

  • Blasphemy
  • Obscenity

Make a project about issues related to "Howl"

See: They Said "No" - Project 

 

Resources related to the poem

"Howl" - literary resources 

"Skrik""Howl" Along with the American writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1973) is among the leaders of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The epic poem "Howl" is considered to be his signature work. There is no better way to promote a book than to ban it, and much of the publicity around the poem was attained by the obscenity trial in 1957.

Before writing "Howl", Ginsberg had left his family home where he grew up with a mentally unstable mother to travel the world. He had been expelled from school for obscene writing, spent time in jail and a psychiatric ward, come out of the closet as gay and tried his hand at many drugs. Nevertheless, he had graduated from Columbia University with  a degree in literature. "Howl" mirrors all these events.

"Howl" (1955/56)

The publication and public reading of the poem in 1955 is considered one of the most important events in the literary history of the 20th century, and the publisher had to meet in court to face charges of selling and publishing obscene writing. Many of the issues discussed in the poem are seen as controversial even today. In order to mark the 50 years that had passed since the obscenity trial in 1957, a radio station in New York wanted to record a reading of the poem. Due to worries about the "dirty words" and the prospect of receiving fines, they cancelled the reading.

 At first glance "Howl" appears as a poorly organized and confusing poem. This is far from true. It is divided into three sections elaborating on specific subjects. The poem in its entirety is dedicated to Carl Solomon (a fellow writer and friend from the psychiatric hospital).

In the opening line of the poem, we are told that the speaker has witnessed that "the best minds" of his generation have been destroyed. One could assume that what he refers to are scientists, lawyers and scholars. That is far from correct, however; "Howl" is an outcry addressed to a society that Ginsberg believes has destroyed his best friends; the ones on the lowest steps of the social ladder. In section 1, we are not yet told what destroyed them, but we are provided with many clues (look at the introduction).  

For Carl Solomon 

1

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,...

("Howl" by Allen Ginsberg)
Read the entire poem: "Howl" - the poem 

Watch a Film Clip

In the film you may listen to the poem recited, learn what inspired Allen Ginsberg to compose it and through the legal process about censorship see why the poem agitated and provoked the Establishment. Even today it raises questions; are the issues discussed still controversial, what is blasphemy, and what is not, and should there be any limitations to the freedom of speech?
Here is a clip from the introduction of the film.