Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

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.