Allen Ginseng was a popular poet of the Beat Generation, a non-conformist free thinker who belonged to a group of people who dared to express his ideals and change mindsets.
The post-World War II period was characterized by unreasonable, blind faith in the institutions of America, a faith that accepted everything without questioning. This was because after having been on part of the allies during the war and having won it, lent America many economic benefits on the back of which America increased its might in world. At the outcome of the war, America was in a much stronger position among the allies as they had been spent militarily and economically in winning the war. Therefore, America was at its peak as a superpower after the War, and its own people had developed unwavering trust in their country and its leaders, being patriotic to the extent of not being able to accept that their country or their leaders could be at fault. (McChesney)
But these groups of people belonging to the Beat Generation dared to think differently, and Allen Ginseng was among the pioneers. Although this movement was different from the hippie movement in some ways, the basic objective was to question norms. The poem Howl is also one such questioning piece of work, that speaks of the 'best minds' being destroyed by madness.
The poem is written in three parts, the fourth part was written as a footnote to these three parts which are treated as one poem, but all three parts were written at different times in the poet's life. (Carter)
Concerns of the Movement
A major theme of the poem is madness, addressing concerns such as conformity, popular culture, and civil rights. It also alludes to eastern religions in its verses, referring to Jewish terminology for god, EL and to Islam, using the term 'Mohammedan angels'. The name of the poem itself describes an animal instinct to cry loudly at night at the moon. For the purposes of the poem, the howling animals are the protagonists, shrouded in the darkness of the traditional, ignorant society, and are crying out the truth, which is the moon, a sliver of light in the dark. The moon on the other hand, in popular culture is taken as a symbol of madness, implying, in case of this poem, that insanity had pervaded into society as the moon's light had, and it was the animals that instinctively sensed this.
In a sense, howling is not only about animal instinct and madness; it is also about not taking atrocities and injustice lying down, but to raise awareness and protest.
The poem begins with the protagonists who are the 'best minds' who have passed through conventional educational institutions, or universities, not having influenced it, nor bearing their influence. The poet, talks of these people's lifestyles where they experimented with drugs, sex and the philosophy of life. The first few verses describe the lives of these intellectuals, who experimented with drugs and then,
"Suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark's bleak furnished room" (Ginsberg, Part I verse 14)
The line describes the situation in the aftermath of taking drugs, where the intellectuals suffered by feeling extremely hot and experienced pain after the effects of the drugs vanished.
The poem also goes on to describe their sex lives, and how they experimented with their heterosexual and homosexual desires, declaring the vulgarity of their acts in a manner meant to defy the sensibilities of the common American man, who at the time was known for being conservative. Food was a secondary motive for them, so that they survived on whatever food they could find, or whatever was handed out to them, living in a state of trance, going against all orderly human activity.
The second part of the poem talks about urbanization having impacted the intellectual capabilities of man in those urban jungles of cement and aluminum, stating that they had sacrificed their innocence for 'unobtainable dollars'. (Ginsberg, Part II, verse 2)The Semitic King Moloch is referred to in these verses, used as a symbol for his demands of child sacrifices in order for the parents to get what they desired. Here in this poem, the child is 'innocence and intellect' which are sacrificed for the sake of material gains.
Moloch also refers to the government in this poem and describes it as "whose love is endless oil and stone." (Ginsberg, Part II, verse 7) alluding to the American lust for oil and precious stones to keep capitalism alive. This verse also goes on to define American capitalism as a deity of American culture, a deity that is upheld by a certain kind of genius, a genius that enriches only a few by impoverishing the masses, not only of their economic wealth, but also of their intellectual wealth.
The last part of the poem talks about Carl Solomon, to whom this poem is dedicated. Solomon was a person Allen met at a mental institution in Rockland. Allen says in his verses that "I'm with you in Rockland, where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter." (Ginsberg, Part III, verse 6) This indicates the true extent of Ginseng's feelings where he believes that intellectuals as well as mentally insane people are at the same juncture, at a point in their lives, where they have the same faculties and are treated the same by ordinary people in their routine lives. The same typewriter refers to the American system of governance within which both the mad person and the intellectual both lead their lives, and the same system delivers them shocks to wake up, to force them to conform.
This part empathizes with Carl Solomon and how strange he must be feeling there. Carl is used to represent the intellectuals who are stuck in the world resembling a mental asylum. The poet talks of the conditions that might have led Carl to become mad, such as murdering his secretaries, making him end up in the place where he is put in a straitjacket to control him, and where Carl is aware that he is losing his life.
Moreover, Allen alludes to the state of the government mental institutions, calling it an 'armed madhouse'. (Ginsberg, Part III, verse 12)The term madhouse is used to refer to the institution as a chaotic place that is armed with weapons that kill the innocent soul in an 'ungodly' manner.
He insinuates that Carl and he love their country, loving it where no one sees their act of love, and yet it is the same country, and the same government that has brought them to this state, where if the place is attacked by the government, it might destroy the physical structure, but also bring down the imaginary walls of constraint, leaving them truly free.
This last part is an adieu to Carl, a person, used as a symbol for all the victims of the restraint and the cruelty that the government institutions of their country impose on them, restrictions similar to 'underwear' holding their animal instincts in confines.
Allen Ginseng's poetry is similar to a prose and yet runs like freely flowing thoughts with political insinuations at its core, defying laws and their existence. The poem uses expletives and language that is meant to incite those he seeks to offend through this piece. Some of the verses use strongly worded sentences to define his anger and his frustration at being a part of the system.
Although Beat writers were apolitical and did not participate in any reforms or protests that their predecessors, the hippies, got involved in, they were vocal and abusive in their writings in their complaints and reservations with the system.