The 1950’s probably bring to mind an image of a nuclear family sitting in a pastel dining room, the perfectly primped mother grinning with pride at a jello mold salad, the kids just the right mix of endearingly rambunctious and obedient. According to Allen Ginsberg, one of the most well known beat poets, 1950’s life wasn’t always as clean or as pleasant as the suburban fantasies that surround the decade. In fact, Ginsberg had such a deep disdain for the state of American society at this time that he wrote what is considered one of the most provocative, controversial poems ever published in America. Banned in 1957 for obscene language and imagery, this poem is called Howl, a fitting title for a piece that reads as shouted, desperate ramblings, somehow made beautiful by Ginsberg’s unique use of language. The ban was quickly overturned on the grounds that the book featuring the poems, Howl and Other Poems, had “redeeming social importance” and therefore could not be categorized as obscene.
Howl is the sort of poem that leaves you feeling raw, exposed, and deeply affected after reading it. It’s also the sort of poem that you can’t help coming back to again and again, its effect never weakening and the shock it delivers more revelatory after every reading. Essentially, the poem is a three part slap in the face to mainstream 1950’s society. The first section begins with the often quoted line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked”. Ginsberg spends the rest of section one describing the “best minds” as the often scorned drug addicts, artists, vagrants, and poets of the time rather than the white collar workers or esteemed intellectuals that the public was more likely to praise. The second section is a bit more confusing, as it attempts to explain what exactly destroyed the people described in the first. Ginsberg provides no simple answer, only a jumbled list of society’s many pitfalls, loosely tied together with a biblical reference to false idols and brutal sacrifice. The third and final section of Howl is directed to Ginsberg’s close friend, Carl Solomon, who had, at the time of the poem’s publication, been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Overall, the poem paints an intentionally confusing, filthy, disheartening portrait of American society and mainstream culture.
Ginsberg is undoubtably a master of language, and with Howl he creates an incredibly clear aesthetic vision that allows the reader to effortlessly visit the shadowed alleyways and smoky hiding places that beat-era poetry is known for depicting. Inspired by Walt Whitman, it’s no surprise that Ginsberg often forgoes commas and capitalization. That being said, much like Whitman, the absence of punctuation only enhances the urgency and confusion that readers of Howl are meant to feel.
Much of what was considered obscene in 1957 wouldn’t raise any red flags in the literary world today, but it’s important to understand that Howl’s unabashed exposure of such an intense, chaotic counterculture was meant to (and succeeded in) shocking the American public when it was first published. Ginsberg’s personal history with drug abuse and mental illness heavily informed the poem, as did his often loudly proclaimed distaste for capitalism. It’s these grittier subjects, when paired with the frequent religious imagery, that make Howl so intriguing. It literally places society’s outcasts on a level with angels, forcing even today’s readers to reevaluate their own ideas on who truly possess the “best minds”.
In short, it’s Howl’s obscenity that makes it the enduring classic that it has become. It’s a poem that’s meant to disturb, meant to challenge society’s norms, and to draw attention to the darker side of life that mainstream culture likes to forget about. The American public’s initially disgusted reaction and subsequent ban are understandable when you consider that Ginsberg was using his poetry to attack the same culture which so many other pieces of art and literature at the time were glorifying. That being said, a thorough reading of the piece is sure to convince most anyone that Howl is in fact one of the most “socially important” texts of the 20th century and beyond.