From Academic Kids

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Howl and Other Poems was published in the fall of 1956 as number four in the Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books

Howl is a poem by Allen Ginsberg that was first performed in 1955 in the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It is noted for relating stories and experiences of his friends and contemporaries, its tumbling hallucinatory style, and the subsequent obscenity trial which it provoked. It is dedicated to Ginsberg's friend Carl Solomon, whom he met in a mental institution.


Overview and structure

The poem is in three parts, with an additional footnote. Part I is the best known, and communicates scenes, characters and situations drawn from his own experience, and the community of poets, artists, political radicals, jazz musicians, drug addicts and psychiatric patients which he encountered. Part II is a lament at the state of America, named as 'Moloch' in the poem. He was inspired to write Part II when he saw a hotel as a monster he named Moloch during a peyote vision, and much of the section itself was written while under that same peyote influence. Part III is directly addressed to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met whilst both were patients at Rockland, a New York psychiatric hospital, and relates shared experiences, hopes and fears. The footnote is notable for its repetitive 'Holy!' mantra and its optimistic outlook.

The frequently quoted (and often parodied) opening lines set the theme and rhythm for the majority of the poem:

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

Part I contains a mixture of the biographical:

who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa

and the abstract:

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensations of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

This last, Latin, phrase translates as ""Father Omnipotent Eternal God."


The New York Times sent poet Richard Eberhart to San Francisco in 1956 to report on the poetry scene there. The result of Eberhart's visit was an article published in the September 6, 1956 New York Times Book Review entitled "West Coast Rhythms." Eberhart's piece helped call national attention to Howl as "the most remarkable poem of the young group" of poets who were becoming known as the spokespersons of the Beat generation (Allen Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Editions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography, edited by Barry Miles [HarperPerennial, 1995], p. 155).

The 1957 Obscenity Trial

Howl contains many references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual. On the basis of one line in particular

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy

officials seized 520 copies of the poem on March 25, 1957.

A subsequent obscenity trial was brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran City Lights Bookstore, the poem's publisher. Nine literary experts testified on the poem's behalf. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won the case, the court deciding that the poem was of 'redeeming social importance'. The case was widely publicised (articles appeared in both 'Time' and 'Life' magazines) ensuring the wide readership of Howl, which remains one of the most popular poems by an American author.

Other interpretations of Howl


Writing in the magazine The New Republic in 1986, Christopher Buckley and Paul Slansky published a 1980s re-interpretation of Howl, entitled Yowl ( The poem was published to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Howl's publication, and was a parody, both of the Ginsberg original and of the Yuppie lifestyle which their version portrayed.

In 2000, at the height of the dot com boom, Thomas Scoville wrote a parody of Howl, called (, that was widely circulated via email and the web. It focused on internet technology, the new media business world and the emerging social structures that had accompanied the internet's rising popularity, such as open source development and technology celebrities.

Penny Rimbaud's How?

In January 2003 Penny Rimbaud, founder of the anarchist band Crass, performed Ginsberg's "Howl" as part of the first Crass Agenda event at the Vortex Jazz Club in London's Stoke Newington. After the gig Oliver Weindling, of the jazz label Babel Records suggested making a recording of the performance. However, Rimbaud was unable to obtain permission from Ginsberg's estate to use the work, and instead rewrote it, updating it as a critique of post September 11, 2001 American culture. Of this work Rimbaud states; "In "How?" I have attempted to confront the innate madness of the 'New World Order': It is, I believe, a madness that even Ginsberg could not have forseen in his wildest Nightmares". Whilst retaining much of the structure and spirit of the original work, "How?" includes some significant changes, including the substitution of 'Mammon' for 'moloch', and the word 'wholly' instead of 'holy' in the poem's celebratory 'footnote'. A recording of Rimbaud's "How?", performed live and unrehearsed with a jazz ensemble at the Vortex Club, was released in 2004.

List of Obscure Things Mentioned in "Howl"

Not all things in Howl are easily understood by the common reader. Here is a glossary of terms that help out in reading the text:

External links


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