Ginsberg Lecture

1855 & 1956 -- I started by comparing AG's Howl to Whitman's "Song" of his self, beginning with the differences between Whitman's opening lines & Howl's -- both poems start with "I," but when AG says "I saw," he's acknowledging the way he must begin outside the self, with the force of external circumstance, just as when he adds "my generation" he locates that self & those circumstances in history, history as a superior force. Like Whitman, the program of the "I" is to achieve oneness with the cosmos -- the ancient heavenly connection (p. 1805), but at the outset there is not even yet a self, just those "beat-en" minds. That's the pun in the label of the "Beat" movement -- it gestures toward all that history & society have done to "beat" them down, but it also holds on to the possibility of "beatitude," blessedness, regeneration of the spirit (and ultimately of society).

You can read Howl as AG trying to write "Song of Myself" from inside Eliot's "Waste Land." I talked about how there is no way for those "best minds" in Part I to access nature, which was Whitman's source of redemptive energy. They're trapped in a kind of endless city, a dark American night, where they must go to extreme measures to achieve anything like psychic or spiritual freedom -- jazz, drugs, defiantly unconventional sexuality (especially homosexuality), and madness. Part I ends on two notes. One a very down beat: the insane asylums of the east, "the visible madman doom" (lines 65-72). This is the first time "I" has appeared since the opening line, but the self has hardly emerged -- "I am not safe" is how it appears. The second note suggests a way out -- through the imagination, the poem itself, the "saxophone cry" of America's suffering naked mind, "the madman bum and angel beat in time" may find a means of transcendence (p. 1811).

I played a tape of Ginsberg reading Part II, and talked about his prophet's voice & prophet's office. In many respects Howl is a jazz version of the Jeremiad, a form America's Puritans in the late 17th century appropriated from the Old Testament, used themselves, and then bequeathed to American literature. In a Jeremiad, the speaker exhorts the American promised land/chosen people to return to God, to live up to the nation's ideal meaning, or face the wrath of judgment. Whitman's Democratic Vistas belongs in this category. In Part II the poet names the demon that has possessed America -- Moloch, spirit of materialism, exploitation, conventionality, and so on. In line 8, he prophetically renounces Moloch ("Moloch whom I abandon"), but it isn't until Part III that the possibility of a new world emerges.

In Part III, as the anti-strophes or second lines after "I'm with you in Rockland" keep getting longer & longer, an "I" emerges, and with it the possibility of finding within the self some means to destroy the destructive culture of American modernity -- paradoxically, through embracing both an other (Carl Solomon) and madness. By descending down into the depths of madness the poem locates a version of Whitman's Me Myself -- our own souls' airplanes that can drop angelic bombs and knock down the walls of the asylums that confine us (p. 1813). At the very end, then, Ginsberg can reach the point "Song of Myself" begins with -- going outside, becoming naked ("forget your underwear") and free ("we're free").

Howl is a deliberately upsetting poem, full of words that got it tried for obscenity in 1956, and full of passages that can still make readers wince. But on the one hand shock is part of Ginsberg's prophetic strategy. In the midst of what Lowell calls "the tranquillized Fifties," AG seeks to break readers free from the hold of conformity & restore them to their own demonic/divine selves. And on the other hand, the poem's apparent radical unconventionality shouldn't keep us from noting its familial relationship to a lot of American literature. The idea of taking on the burden of being true to what America is really supposed to be, of rejecting American society but in the name of the true America, is another similarity between AG and Whitman. And the idea that the most meaningful social change, even revolutionary change, has to start inside the individual's consciousness links Whitman and AG up with generations of American writers and thinkers and prophets of change.

Back to Syllabus