Tag Archives: Allen Ginsberg

Revised Essay: “Insights from ‘Footnote to Howl'”

Insights from “Footnote to Howl”

Alan Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” is an ecstatic, emotional, drug-charged, and sensual description of the Beat generation and their opposition forces in the world. Ginsberg takes the reader on a world through the American underbelly, revealing the traits, dreams, and fears of those who identify with the Beat generation. The epic poem is gritty and wild, touching on various themes in the lives of the Beats including homosexuality, drug usage, vagrancy, and art. The appendix to “Howl” seems at once both perfectly in accordance with the original work and an anomaly straying from the established themes. Upon close reading, however, “Footnote to Howl” can offer the reader insight into the complexity of the original poem and additionally the complexity of Ginsberg’s view of humanity. The appendix acts as a microscope by which the reader can examine the true nature of Ginsberg’s message. Through “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg suggests that, while the world is plagued by the evil of Moloch, such a society is necessary to grasp the holiness of life, and that those who identify with the Beat generation are the only ones who can take advantage of this evil world to uncover its true beauty.

The style and rhythm of “Footnote to Howl” maintains the exclamatory, lively pace established in the original poem, causing one to question whether it is really a separate poem at all. In describing the rhythm of “Howl,” Ginsberg once stated that each line is to be read as “one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of one breath.” This meter is maintained in the footnote, as each additional line presents a new thought, and diverges from the line preceding it. The footnote, like the preceding poem, is full of repetition. It opens with fifteen proclamations on the holiness of everything: “Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!” (Norton 1363) This introduction is at once exhausting and intriguing, conjuring the image of a religious lunatic howling in the streets. Furthermore, through such repetition, Ginsberg seems to be desanctify the concept of holiness. The reverence of the word is lost when juxtaposed with such sacrosanct images as the “bum” and “cocks of the grandfathers.” In some ways this is the effect Ginsberg hopes to have, as he continues the poem with a declaration of all that is truly, yet gruesomely, holy. As with the word “who” in Part I of “Howl” and the phrase “I am with you in Rockland” in Part III, the word “holy” is used to hinge the rhythm of the poem and allow Ginsberg to experiment with the long verse style. Unlike in the original poem, this base word is not the beginning of every line, but is scattered throughout the poem. Such a distribution of the apparent base word implies that the speaker is bursting with anticipation to express his thoughts, whereas he seems more collected in the first three parts. In the rhythm and meter of “Footnote,” Ginsberg preserves what was established in “Howl,” and yet he provides a variation on what is expected in ways that make the footnote a poem all its own.

After the vivacious opening lines, “Footnote” becomes a list of things Ginsberg and the Beats dub holy, but at which the majority of the world would scoff. “The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! / … the bum’s as holy as the seraphim!” (1363). In this way, Ginsberg continues with his religious association, but completely reverses the concept of sacredness. The body parts listed as holy are ones perceived as dirty and vile by the majority of the world. The sexuality of “Footnote” is apparent in these lines, as it is throughout the original poem. Here, however, Ginsberg intricately unites sexuality (specifically homosexuality; there are no female-specific body parts referenced) with religion when he compares a “bum” to be as holy as a “seraphim.” The homosexual images conjured by the so-called holy objects create a dissonance in the reader’s mind, as what is perceived as proper is incorporated with what is often deemed lewd and sinful. While this may be shocking out of context, when read after “Howl,” the homosexual images are not all that surprising, as there are several other references to such images in the original poem.

If the first half of “Footnote to Howl” is concordant with Ginsberg’s already established opinions, the second half of the footnote deviates strikingly from the norm. After spending nearly all of Part II of “Howl” condemning the industrial, militaristic society in which the Beats find themselves, Ginsberg retracts on this and claims, “Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! /… Holy the lone juggernaut! / … holy the Angel in Moloch!” (1364) It is through these images that the ultimate message of Ginsberg comes to light. While he does accuse the devilish Moloch figure in Part II of “Howl” of being the destroyer of “the best minds of [his] generation,” (1356) he clarifies his position by insisting that these destructive forces are in fact holy. For Ginsberg, it is only through these forces that the true nature of the world can be seen by those destroyed minds. In this light, the destroyed minds no longer carry a negative, tragic connotation, but rather a joyous one, because only once the mind is destroyed can it truly appreciate all that is holy. Evidence for this is provided in the middle of “Footnote to Howl” when Ginsberg lists the holiest minds he knows, the leaders of the Beat generation: “Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac…/ holy the hideous human angels!” (1363) These are the destroyed minds, and yet these are also the insightful and intense minds. Additionally, the Beat generation only came about because of these destructive forces. The destroyed minds met amongst the skyscrapers and factories of Moloch and gave birth to the philosophies of the Beats. For Ginsberg, without Moloch there is no Beat generation, and because of this, there is still an angelic force about the ugliness of Moloch.

While there is not much information on Ginsberg’s motivation for writing a separate poem as an appendix to his epic description of humanity, it is fair to assume that “Footnote to Howl” was composed to provide clarification for Ginsberg’s original poem. “Footnote” was written upon Ginsberg’s learning that “Howl” was going to be published. Part summary and part resolution, “Footnote” gives the reader an opportunity to understand “Howl” in a completely different context. Stylistic and thematic similarities between the two distinct poems ensure the reader that they are to be understood in the context of one another, while the differences between the two provide clarity on Ginsberg’s ultimate message in “Howl.” Without “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg’s message in “Howl” is one of despair and insanity, but when the two are taken in context, the message is altered so that the reader understands the necessity of the destruction and the redemption such insanity provides.

Insights from “Footnote to Howl”

Alan Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” is an ecstatic, emotional, drug-charged, and sensual description of the Beat generation and their opposition forces in the world. Ginsberg takes the reader on a world through the American underbelly, revealing the traits, dreams, and fears of those who identify with the Beat generation. The epic poem is gritty and wild, touching on various themes in the lives of the Beats including homosexuality, drug usage, vagrancy, and art. The appendix to “Howl” seems at once both perfectly in accordance with the original work and an anomaly straying from the established themes. Upon close reading, however, “Footnote to Howl” can offer the reader insight into the complexity of the original poem and additionally the complexity of Ginsberg’s view of humanity. The appendix acts as a microscope by which the reader can examine the true nature of Ginsberg’s message. Through “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg suggests that, while the world is plagued by the evil of Moloch, such a society is necessary to grasp the holiness of life, and that those who identify with the Beat generation are the only ones who can take advantage of this evil world to uncover its true beauty.

The style and rhythm of “Footnote to Howl” maintains the exclamatory, lively pace established in the original poem, causing one to question whether it is really a separate poem at all. In describing the rhythm of “Howl,” Ginsberg once stated that each line is to be read as “one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of one breath.” This meter is maintained in the footnote, as each additional line presents a new thought, and diverges from the line preceding it. The footnote, like the preceding poem, is full of repetition. It opens with fifteen proclamations on the holiness of everything: “Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!” (Norton 1363) This introduction is at once exhausting and intriguing, conjuring the image of a religious lunatic howling in the streets. In some ways this is the image Ginsberg hopes to portray, as he continues the poem with a declaration of all that truly is holy. Like the word “who” in Part I of “Howl” and the phrase “I am with you in Rockland” in Part 3, the word “holy” is used to hinge the rhythm of the poem and allow Ginsberg to experiment with the long verse style. Unlike in the original poem, this base word is not the beginning of every line, but is scattered throughout the poem. Such a distribution of the apparent base word implies that the speaker is bursting with anticipation to express his thoughts, whereas he seems more collected in the first three parts. In the rhythm and meter of “Footnote,” Ginsberg preserves what was established in “Howl,” and yet he provides a variation on what is expected in ways that make the footnote a poem all its own.

After the vivacious opening lines, “Footnote” becomes a list of things Ginsberg and the Beats dub holy, but at which the majority of the world would scoff. “The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy! / … the bum’s as holy as the seraphim!” (1363). In this way, Ginsberg continues with his religious association, but completely reverses the concept of sacredness. The body parts listed as holy are ones perceived as dirty and vile by the majority of the world. The sexuality of “Footnote” is apparent in these lines, as it is throughout the original poem. Here, however, Ginsberg intricately unites sexuality (specifically homosexuality; there are no female-specific body parts referenced) with religion when he compares a “bum” to be as holy as a “seraphim.” The homosexual images conjured by the so-called holy objects create a dissonance in the reader’s mind, as what is perceived as proper is incorporated with what is often deemed lewd and sinful. While this may be shocking out of context, when read after “Howl,” the homosexual images are not all that surprising, as there are several other references to such images in the original poem.

If the first half of “Footnote to Howl” is concordant with Ginsberg’s already established opinions, the second half of the footnote deviates strikingly from the norm. After spending nearly all of Part II of “Howl” condemning the industrial, militaristic society in which the Beats find themselves, Ginsberg retracts on this and claims, “Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements! /… Holy the lone juggernaut! / … holy the Angel in Moloch!” (1364) It is through these images that the ultimate message of Ginsberg comes to light. While he does accuse the devilish Moloch figure in Part II of “Howl” of being the destroyer of “the best minds of [his] generation,” (1356) he clarifies his position by insisting that these destructive forces are in fact holy. For Ginsberg, it is only through these forces that the true nature of the world can be seen by those destroyed minds. In this light, the destroyed minds no longer carry a negative, tragic connotation, but rather a joyous one, because only once the mind is destroyed can it truly appreciate all that is holy. Evidence for this is provided in the middle of “Footnote to Howl” when Ginsberg lists the holiest minds he knows, the leaders of the Beat generation: “Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac…/ holy the hideous human angels!” (1363) These are the destroyed minds, and yet these are also the insightful and intense minds. Additionally, the Beat generation only came about because of these destructive forces. The destroyed minds met amongst the skyscrapers and factories of Moloch and gave birth to the philosophies of the Beats. For Ginsberg, without Moloch there is no Beat generation, and because of this, there is still an angelic force about the ugliness of Moloch.

While there is not much information on Ginsberg’s motivation for writing a separate poem as an appendix to his epic description of humanity, it is fair to assume that “Footnote to Howl” was composed to provide clarification for Ginsberg’s original poem. “Footnote” was written upon Ginsberg’s learning that “Howl” was going to be published. Part summary and part resolution, “Footnote” gives the reader an opportunity to understand “Howl” in a completely different context. Stylistic and thematic similarities between the two distinct poems ensure the reader that they are to be understood in the context of one another, while the differences between the two provide clarity on Ginsberg’s ultimate message in “Howl.” Without “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg’s message in “Howl” is one of despair and insanity, but when the two are taken in context, the message is altered so that the reader understands the necessity of the destruction and the redemption such insanity provides.

Comparison between Ginsberg and Coover

“angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night” (Ginsberg p. 1356)

“From the other rooms come the sounds of a baby screaming, water running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance number—patterns of gliding figures come to mind)”  (Coover p. 206)

In these two stories, the beginnings are very important because not only are they the foreground for the variations to come, but they are also the last time the stories will be as clear as they are. Throughout Howl, we are given various and changing descriptions of the specific group of people talked about at the beginning. A description like “who got busted in their public beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York” (p. 1357) and “who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet tail borsht & tortillas as dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom” (p. 1359) seemingly have nothing or little in common. However, remembering that all of this relates to the group of people talked about at the beginning gives this story the only sort of structure one can hold on to while reading.

Likewise, in The Babysitter, we are presented with a variety of scenarios all of which relate back to the first section that tells that the babysitter has arrived. For instance, there are some scenarios that have Mr. Tucker coming back to find everyone having sex in the living room, while there are other scenarios where he walks in and nothing is happening. Each scenario is its own section, just as each new description in Howl is a new section, which makes the reader question the togetherness and order of the stories as a whole; which adds a sort of metaphysics like aspect both stories.

Comparison of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman

Ginsberg (p. 1356)- “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,…

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,”

Whitman (p. 40)- “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son. Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,

No sentimentalist, no stander above mean and women or apart from them, No more modest than immodest.

Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs!”

 

Stylistically, Allen Ginsberg commences “Howl,” in the same way that Walt Whitman commences Part 24 of “Song of Myself.” Ginsberg repeats the term “who” as he opens part I of “Howl” while Whitman repeats “no” and “unscrew” in his successive opening statements. In doing so, the authors have appealed to litany as it is used by the Church, consisting of a series of petitions recited by a leader and alternating with fixed responses by a congregation. As a congregation or the members of a Christian church have recited repetitively, “God, the Father of heaven, Have mercy on us… God, the Holy Spirit, Have mercy on us,” for example, Ginsberg and Whitman ask their readers to recite “who” and “unscrew,” words that serve as focal points of rhythm. Parts II, III, and the footnote of Ginsberg’s Howl, repeating the terms “Moloch,” “Rockland,” and “Holy,” beg the same purpose: to emotionally charge readers to join the cause of the authors. Ironically, the “litanic” language is used to ask Ginsberg and Whitman’s readers to join in the chant or “howl” for the rejection of traditional standards and the embrace of new standards.

Repetition is not the only style of language common to both Ginsberg and Whitman. It seems that Ginsberg has also derived his use of free verse with no need for rhyme or fixed meter from that of Whitman. “Madness, starving hysterical naked,” is strikingly similar to the phrase, “Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.” The incomplete sentences and the sporadic use and sometimes disuse of punctuation serve to point to Ginsberg and Whitman’s rejection of traditional rules of language. This rejection of traditional language is reflected by Ginsberg and Whitman’s historical rejection of traditional institutions. Whitman believed in transcendentalism where institutions such as religion and political parties corrupt the purity of the individual and only fully independent individuals can comprise a community. Similarly, Ginsberg was an integral part of the “Beat” culture that involved experimentation with drugs, homosexuality, an interest in Eastern religions, etc. This is evident in the quote above where Ginsberg confronts drugs through “smoking,” worldly religion with “El and… Mohammedan angels,” and “poverty.” His readers will come to accept the obscene.

However, while Whitman too confronted the “sensual, eating, drinking and breeding” taboos oh his time, he did so by asking the individual to “unscrew the lock from the doors!” “Song of Myself” asks the individual to become independent before joining any community through Whitman’s own self-realization. On the contrary, Ginsberg uses the word “who” in reference to “the best minds of [his] generation” to ask an entire community or collective to reject traditional standards altogether. It seems that Ginsberg extended upon Whitman’s free verse of the 1850s to create a larger counterculture more relevant to the 1950s.

Introduction to Allen Ginsberg

AllenGinsberg

Allen Ginsberg was an influential Jewish American poet with great prominence within the Beat Generation, a group of poets of the post-World War II era disillusioned with the militarism, economic materialism, and social conservatism that appeared following the war. His personal opinions against such concepts are strikingly evident in his works, particularly in Howl his most renowned work that contains frequent references to taboo topics.

Born in Newark, New Jersey on June 3, 1926 into a Jewish family, Ginsberg’s relationship with his parents is a recurrent theme in his writings, particularly with his mother. Naomi Livergant Ginsberg suffered from an undiagnosed psychological illness, and was plagued with paranoid delusions. Ginsberg’s constant exposure to his mother’s mental suffering developed within him a great tolerance, sympathy and understanding of mental illness and its sufferers. He would find himself briefly admitted to a psychiatric hospital too in the future, and would write by drawing on experiences with his mother and his own hospitalization.

Ginsberg attended Columbia University, and it was there that he met some of the fellow writers that would form the Beat Generation. They idolized the notion of American youth free from the restraints of society and conformity, and strongly advocated drug usage, open sexuality, and anti-establishment mentalities. His eventual move to San Francisco further enriched his connection with like-minded writers, where he would collaborate with his mentor, William Carlos Williams, and meet his life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky. Ginsberg would at times receive inspiration from visions, and maintained spirituality as a significant aspect of his life that would reflect in his writing. His style of free verse can be seen as a manifestation of his intense support for free speech, social liberalism and exploration. He also drew inspiration from Walt Whitman, in his free verse style. Ginsberg’s controversial poems with overt depictions of homosexuality and drug use served as groundbreaking works of free expression and visions of a different future.

 

Allen Ginsberg compared to F.T. Marinetti

Ginsberg (p. 1360)- “who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & were left with their sanity & their hands & a hung jury”

Marinetti (p. 796)- “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.”

Despite a significant difference in length, Manifesto of Futurism and Howl have quite a bit in common. Both poems are explosive. They lead the reader to read them quickly and with energy. Neither poem loses momentum throughout their texts; they keep chugging along like a train on tracks. There are many techniques that are used in each poem in order to create this explosiveness and energy. These techniques allow for not only fast, invigorated paces, they also create a beat. One could imagine the texts becoming lyrics to rap songs. This rap song like quality is evidenced in the themes as well. These poems deal with societal, cultural themes and praise the advancement of citizens and challenging of norms.

One of the elements that is utilized in both poems is repetition. Marinetti starts 7 of 11 stanzas with the word “we.” And Ginsberg starts almost all the sections of Howl with unique repeated words or phrases. The one most comparable to Marinetti is the repetition of “who” in the first section. Both the poets not only repeat words, but the words also refer to people. They both emphasize the people who are changing the world or being put down the the evils of it. And not only are they repeating these words, but they both describe these people with active adjectives, nouns, and verbs. Along with being active the words are also often aggressive. This is one way they make the poems so fast and energetic. By using words like “revolt,” “ecstasy,” “blown,” and “radiant” the poets energize the reader. The reader is no longer just looking at the page, he is running through it.

Even though Howl is much longer than the Manifesto, because it employs the similar active language, every line, every word is full of intention. Nothing seems misplaced or worthy of being left out. There is a purpose and a point to be made in each stanza. This is another way that the texts can be seen in the light of rap music. Rap started with a group of people who wanted to acknowledge topics that were often ignored and show a different cultural point of view. Also, rap tends to be very aggressive just as these two poems are.