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Howl, Part III

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you’re madder than I am 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you must feel very strange 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you imitate the shade of my mother 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you laugh at this invisible humor 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses 
I'm with you in Rockland 
   where you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you pun on the bodies of your nurses the harpies of the Bronx 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the 
   actual pingpong of the abyss 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal 
   it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from 
   its pilgrimage to a cross in the void 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist
   revolution against the fascist national Golgotha 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living 
   human Jesus from the superhuman tomb 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where there are twentyfive thousand mad comrades all together singing 
   the final stanzas of the Internationale 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the 
   United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes 
   roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital 
   illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    O skinny legions run outside 
   O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here    O victory 
   forget your underwear we’re free 
I’m with you in Rockland 
   in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across 
   America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

—Allen Ginsberg

Mary Jo Bang on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl, Part III”

Transcription of Commentary

It’s sometimes interesting to look at poetry through the lens of history. In 1955, the year 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg wrote the poem he titled “Howl,” Marian Anderson became the first African American singer to perform with the 71-year-old metropolitan opera company in New York City. That same year, 1955, rock ‘n’ roll debuted in a film called “Blackboard Jungle,” an adaptation of a novel by Evan Hunter about inner-city teaching. The movie featured the song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. When the film was screened, teenage audiences began dancing in the aisles. Steve Jobs was born in 1955, the visionary entrepreneur who would introduce the personal computer and desktop publishing to the world, and set in motion a global, technical revolution. In November of 1955, America increased its military involvement in the conflict between North and South Vietnam. Having just won their struggle for independence from France, the two had decided to go to war against one another.

It’s rare that a single event results in permanent social change, and more rare, yet, when that single event is the publication of a poem. “Howl” is one of those few poems. Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met when he was visiting his mother in a mental hospital, “Howl” famously begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked . . .” It goes on from there to become a sustained, high-energy complaint about social hypocrisy. The poem’s essential argument is that America in 1955 had so narrow an idea of what is considered “normal,” that there was no room for any diversity or creativity. For a man, “normal” in 1955 was someone with a nine-to-five job who intended to marry, or had already married, a woman who wore short-waist dresses and high heels. Homosexuals like Ginsberg risked not just social alienation, but imprisonment. In every state of the union, sex between consenting adults of the same sex was punishable by a jail or prison sentence.

In “Howl,” Ginsberg celebrates all of those whose lives fell outside what was considered mainstream. He celebrates those who are marginalized because of their sexuality, or their race, or because their political ideas were considered radical, or because they were artists or musicians, or because they were drug addicts. He registers his objection to the fact of their social outcast status, and highlights the contradiction between a country that says it welcomes difference but then fails to protect the rights of those who are different.

The poem, written in long lines, has four parts—the last of which is titled “Footnote for Howl.” The long-line free verse form was first used 100 years earlier by another American poet, Walt Whitman. In Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” those long lines celebrate Whitman’s individuality, and invite all readers to likewise celebrate theirs. Whitman’s argument is that we all belong in the same universe. Because both poems are written in long lines, the music of the two poems is in some way similar, and yet is also very different. Both poets use a poetic strategy called “anaphora,” where the poet creates a sound pattern based on repeating one or more words at the beginning of several consecutive lines. In Whitman’s poem, the use of anaphora gives the poem an expansive, oracular quality similar to Protestant sermons in the King James Bible. In Ginsberg’s poem, the use of anaphora also has echoes of a sermon, but the sound is more like a sermon delivered by a zealous, ecstatic, almost manic revival tent preacher.

In spite of the tonal difference, both poets are widely inclusive, folding into the poem anything and everything American, and of their moment: Whitman’s vast pastoral landscape becomes Ginsberg’s mean-city streets. While Whitman slyly gestured toward both homosexual and heterosexual practices, Ginsberg’s sexual references are explicit, slang-based, and sometimes graphic. While both poems argue for freedom, and for belonging, Ginsberg’s poem is much more confrontational. There’s a persistent sense in “Howl” of an explosive charge about to be detonated, as if the narrow confines of 1955 were so narrow they were bound to give way.

After the poem was published in 1956 by City Lights Books, the publisher, poet, and City Lights bookstore owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested and charged with disseminating obscene literature. The “Howl” obscenity trial came down to the question of who has the right to speak, and who has a right to read that speech. Academics were called to the witness stand, with some speaking for, and others against, the poem’s literary merits. The deciding judge, Clayton Horne, found that the poem was not obscene. He wrote this in his decision:

The authors of the first amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance.

He went on to say:

I do not believe that “Howl” is without redeeming social importance. The first part of “Howl” presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive to the best qualities of human nature—such elements are predominately identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war; the third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives of as a general condition; “Footnote to Howl” seems to be a declamation that everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body by name—it ends in a plea for holy living.

“Howl,” fueled by the publicity from the trial, became one of the most famous poems of the 20th century. It’s the artifact of a moment when the young poet Allen Ginsberg decided to take a stand to support and protect the freedom that democracy promises. There was no poem like “Howl.” He invented it out of his youthful desire to be rebellious, both in his life and in his poetry. Rebellion is part of the American identity, and “Howl” embodies rebellion. It calls into question limits on sexuality, and on art.

By reprising Whitman’s long poetic line, Ginsberg linked his poem to existing poetic tradition, but he shifted the focus and revved the speed to make it better represent his own historical moment. In doing so, he ushered in a new music in poetry, just as the music of rock ‘n’ roll was being born, and racial barriers were coming down, and the contentious Vietnam War was beginning. The continual effort to reinvent the past for one’s own era is very American. We’re charmed by changes in fashion, cars, and architecture. We tell time by evolving styles. “Howl” defines a certain moment when the beat generation refused to behave, but its greatness lies in the fact that it is timeless in its concerns, and the way it takes its stand for lasting principles. That’s what makes it a great poem—and a great American poem.

From "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, from Collected Poems: 1947-1997 by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright © 1956, 2006 by Allen Ginsberg, LLC, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

Mary Jo Bang

Mary Jo Bang

Read “A Calculation Based on Figures in a Scene” by Mary Jo Bang

Mary Jo Bang (1946- ) was born in Cool Valley, Missouri. She attended Northwestern University, the Polytechnic of Central London, and Columbia University, where she received her MFA in creative writing. She is the author of six collections of poetry, including a new translation of Dante’s Inferno. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Book Critics Circle Award. She currently teaches at the University of Washington in St. Louis. Photo Credit: Mark Schäfer

Learn more about Mary Jo Bang at The Poetry Foundation

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at Columbia University. He is the author of over 30 books of poetry, including Howl and Other Poems (1956), which was the focus of a series of public obscenity trials. Ginsberg was a recipient of a National Book Award for Poetry, and honored with a National Jewish Book Award and a Frost Medal.

Learn more about Allen Ginsberg at The Poetry Foundation