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  • Writer's pictureSiena Swire

'Howl' by Allen Ginsberg and the raw reflection of a 1960's political climate

The 1960’s has always been perceived as a decade of vibrant explosion, psychedelia and spontaneous autonomy. However, amidst the crowd of ecstatic liberation, ominous air emanating from the Vietnam war lingered, proving hard to dismiss. Cardboard signs and frantic blasphemy is typically understood to highlight such rousing liberalism of the time. Nevertheless, Allen Ginsberg proves hugely valuable in providing darker undertones of reality to the previously assumed climate.

Ginsberg was born in 1926 New Jersey and served as an American poet, philosopher and writer. He was an extreme pacifist towards war, disapproving of mass consumer cultures and arguing against sexual repression of any kind. Subsequently, he fitted into the current political climate without hesitation and eventually turned out to be one of the most influential writers of the time. His most distinct poem, Howl, is divided into three key parts, with the first standing as the longest. Whilst part one covers the question of who, the second illuminates what, and the third where. Despite the fact that this trio encapsulates a varying rhetoric, the overall theme stands persistent: destruction.

Via the poet commencing his work with the question of who, the readers are instantly placed in a position of instability and confusion. In fact, the text initially commences: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked’. Such threatening and catastrophic language dawdles in our minds, whilst offering no solace as to the source of annihilation itself. The retrospective nature of this opening line remains of high significance, as the speaker has just awoken from a month-long bender. He is a disorientated and lately pessimistic witness of reality. The poem’s sporadic syntax consolidates the narrator’s position, emulating the effect of a narcotic influence or mental illness. Ginsberg progresses to various characterisations, heavyweight with imagery and symbolism. Alas, a particularly notable branding of his effect on such a work, is underlined through the definition of ‘best minds’. Whilst during the 1950’s and 60’s, the presumption would encapsulate middle class doctors and lawyers, the composer here has twisted the generic and monotone uniform. This now unexpectedly consists of: once castigated drug users, travellers, poets and musicians.

The second extract of this poem answers the question of what with religious connotations. The use of the name ‘Moloch’ resurfacing thirty-nine times, in an indisputable frenzy, acts as evidence towards this. ‘Moloch’ as a Hebrew symbol, represents Ginsberg’s passionate despise towards the broader sense of authoritative structures. According to Hebrew scripture, the iconised figure conformed to a lexical field of torture and pain, targeting sacred entities of both youth and love. Moreover, upon the reader evoking emotions of abhorrence towards such a being, Ginsberg craftily reverts this back to the poem’s primary aim. ‘Moloch’ transcends into everything wrong with 1960’s society: capitalism, government, war and mainstream culture. Subsequently, the poet strips any gilded association of this decade. He successfully re-sculpts hippie archetypes of peace and love, to reveal a harsh and twisted cry of the past – a genuine reality: ‘Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!’

Finally, Ginsberg provides us with an answer to where, through introducing his great friend Carl Solomon. The pair had met in the waiting room of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, after Ginsberg had been arrested for owning stolen goods in his vehicle. It was Ginsberg who egged on Solomon, and this finally resulted in his fame. According to Howl, the site is converted to ‘Rockland’ and somewhat reminisces on the pair’s relationship there. The repetition of ‘I am with you’ at the commence of each line, dictates the unison that the duo shared, despite one of their mental instabilities harbouring a menacing impact. Ginsberg overlooks his companion’s lunacy as an ode to mar traditionally conservative values, and disrupt the status quo. He will remain loyal, in a position of solidarity, despite the prospect that ‘fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again’.

Overall, Howl by Allen Ginsberg surfaces many issues of a superficially harmonious climate. Here, authority is intrinsically negative, with influences alike war and capitalism a product. Ginsberg’s vivaciously liberal minded views may appear a perfect fit for such an anarchic society initially, yet this is not the case in a deeper sense. The true craving conveyed in this poem is that of friendship. Alas, this is an unfortunately derelict prospect due to such venomous influences engulfing any chance of true flourishing. Nevertheless, despite such destructive overtones surfacing throughout the work, I cannot help but evoke emotions of longing towards such a decade. A time involving fanatic and burning craze, fury and courage to stand up in the name of political belief and culture. Perhaps the saddening cause emanates from an age of consensus politics involving influxes of career politicians, numbing majorities into one social conditioning and drowning any change of individuality. Depressingly, the age of raw democracy involving yearning and revolution has disintegrated. The question now? How to get it back.

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