Howl by Allen Ginsberg is a poem published in 1956. In the 1950s, America was experiencing many conflicting changes after the end of world war 2 and most of the country became very conservative. Many social groups were marginalized, there was inequality between different races and genders, it was the rise of the middle class, the economic boom occured, cold war, threat of communism and the beat generation movement. The beat generation, was a group of writers that didn’t conform to the expectations and were against many of the social-political activity at that time. It was form of expressing the way they felt. The beatniks were members of the beat generation who did things out of the norms, expressed themselves through literature or jazz music, were a social outcast, were therefore marginalized for it. Allen Ginsberg himself was part of the beat generation (Huddelston, Diane M). In this poem allen ginsberg describes the beatniks as the best minds of his generation who are represented rebelliously as they struggle to meet social expectations and lack in freedom.
The word ‘howl’ can be associated with animals gathering together at night or when compared to humans, the poem Howl was a social protest and attention seeking to make a change in the materialistic culture. The beatniks were like animals also crazy, hunted for things that made them sane and were mostly active at night. Ginsberg starts off the poem by introducing the beatniks as “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving historically naked” (Ginsberg, Line 1). The beatniks were the best minds of his generation but as described throughout the poem it was materialistic environment and “Moloch” that destroyed them (the madness). The poem is a journey and the development of these suffering ‘minds’ to find their freedom and enlightenment in the world. The beatniks did a lot of different things which Ginsberg lists in his poem to try and accomplish this. Ginsberg uses “who” at the start of each idea along with many other linguistic language to create this sense of craziness and to describe the beatniks behavior in this secluded environment. This creates this overwhelming tone which accentuates the never ending suffering the beatniks experienced. By exaggerating certain behavior like when Ginsberg said that the beatniks were “starving historically naked” it brings greater meaning of who they actually were to the reader. As this imagery connects emotionally showing how they were victimised and left in poverty.
The american society at that time oppressed drug and alcohol usage. The beatniks of course broke that taboo. They took drugs and alcohol to get things of their minds. It was a way to drown their sorrows and calm their minds while living in such a closed environment. It also let them see the world in different way and escape relief. By saying “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” (Ginsberg, Line 2). The reader gets the impression that they have to force themselves down the streets to find drugs which will make them feel sane again. They suffer with an unhealthy addiction by constantly consuming or taking large measures to get the good. They looked everywhere from texas to new york as this is what makes them feel themselves during the day while everything is running. Just like the artificial light which is another repetitive motif described in the poem, drugs were a sort of source for artificial happiness for the beatniks. But just like light the more you use it the quicker it comes to an end and as the addiction increases the happiness comes to an end. The drug usage has caused a lot of negative effects to the beatniks as said “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars”(Ginsberg, Line 18). They ended up in more trouble do to crime, sickness and other bad consequences. Continuing the never ending suffering which they tried to escape through drugs/alcohol. Due to all the trouble they decided that running away was the only way out. So they started to travel and try other different things that could give them the enlightenment.
The beatniks were against many of the social expectations and didn’t like the restrictions that were put on them. For instance when they had to go to education they “passed through universities with radiant cool eyes” (Ginsberg, Line 6) so they were never really took everything in and put much effort into education. When they did put effort in they “were expelled from the academics for crazy & publishing obscene odes” (Ginsberg, Line 7) because they were expressing their ideas and views on things which weren’t accepted. Instead they played jazz music wherever they could along with other things that made them feel happy. Jazz music and writing literature are forms of art which have no rules, so a lot of their time was spent doing these activities which gave them the freedom to express different emotions. It is a very improvised form of expression which is spontaneous just like their travels and other activity. By listing “with dreams, drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (Ginsberg, Line 11) we learn that the beatniks also experimented a lot with sex and were endlessly involved with sexual activity while traveling, getting high and hallucinating.
In conclusion, we can see that despite the beatniks coming across quite rebellious, spontaneous and crazy, the beatniks were actually the best minds of the generation as it opened the eyes of many materialists and caused a counterculture in America. They had to act against the norms to find sanity and make a difference in the society. They just had different values, thought different about what was right and wrong and had different forms of expressions. So although they didn’t agree with many of the ideals at that time they did have the best minds.