Its frenetic syntax telling the jolted tale of, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient connection to thestarry dynamo,” reveals a marginalized segment of America fed up with listening to the, “scholars of war” and hearing the, “crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox” every night. “Howl” offers radical alternatives to 20th Century ennui: The answer to conformity is nonconformity, the answer to sober-minded mechanical thinking is drug addled craziness and the answer to capitalism’s, “sexless cloud of hydrogen” is reckless bisexual promiscuity. And more than anything it exposes the madness of a world poorly concealed by the thin veil of a halcyon illusion consisting of smiley-faced nuclear families, Chevrolet convertibles and Coca-Cola. “Howl” was Allen Ginsberg’s rock hurled out of frustration at a wall of erroneous placidity, and who could have predicted that this wall would break like glass and shatter into a thousand pieces.
When I suffered a psychosis at the age of 16 in 1992 I did not have the fortune of reading “Howl” to assure me that other people--even very brilliant and artistic people like Allen Ginsberg--experience insanity in ways similar to how I was experiencing it at the time. I did not read “Howl” until I was in my twenties when, by then, I had grown an appreciation for what books can do and had developed a love of--and dependence upon--them. In many ways, my thoughts were as scattered and psychotic during my teenage years as the voice in Ginsberg’s ranting poem.
“Howl” spoke directly to me the first time I read it. My childhood evenings were spent watching the world kill itself on the nightly news as my mom cooked casseroles or meat loaf while she asked me about my days at school. Later, the bombardment of war stock footage I witnessed during these formative years would haunt me as a teenager on afternoons I spent lying in bed listening to heavy metal CDs. Images of executions, tanks exploding and common graves would play through my brain to a discordant soundtrack of lacerating guitar solos and rumbling drums. My mind became one continuous heavy metal video after another on those bygone afternoons. Being more fascinated by the images and pictures of the news broadcasts as a boy, these scenes replayed in my mind with no context to accompany them. To me they were a meaningless montage of chaos that spoke of humankind’s penchant for senseless brutality.
This left me believing that mankind must be intrinsically evil. As a result, I distrusted large institutions and became skeptical of everything that they stood for. I was like a lot of seventeen and eighteen year-olds in the mid nineties; Marilyn Manson made more sense to me than Bill Clinton did. This nihilism lingered into my early twenties and affected my first reading of “Howl.”
Because of this quashed optimism that I carried on my shoulder (a healing scar that stood out as a vestige of my tumultuous adolescence) I could identify with part II of “Howl.” My inner voice chanted along with Ginsberg’s as he cried, “Moloch!” I could easily grasp his belief that there is an evil so prevalent in the world yet so mysterious that it can only be expressed by a strange, chanted invocation. “Moloch whose love is endless oil,” the verse shouts. “Moloch who entered my soul early!” “Moloch!” with its “Robot apartments,” and, “invisible suburbs.” While I was already beginning to become part of Moloch in my early twenties, I still had enough iconoclastic spirit left over in me to feel like Ginsberg was speaking directly to me in these lines. Furthermore, lines in the verse from part I denouncing, “the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of/ advertising & the mustard gas of/ sinister intelligent editors,” hit home with me as well.
Allen Ginsberg is at war with the world in “Howl,” but like the truest of all rebels, he is also at war with himself. He is no stranger to the, “pingpong & amnesia” of mental hospitals which he recalls, “returning years later [to] truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East.” I laughed along with him when I read how he, “in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table.” It made me recall times during my adolescence when all I could do to protest the injustices of the world was to flip over the nearest desk or chair. Despite the insignificance of these acts, however, I felt like I could have been the famous man who boldly blocked the path of a tank during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China.
If my past experiences have benefitted me in any way, it is that they have allowed me to better empathize with the frustrations Ginsberg exhibits in his masterpiece poem. Rather than just being an offensive, paranoia-invoking rant, “Howl” is a testament to the modern human struggle to reconcile our mostly peaceful and mundane lives even as we face the constant threat of annihilation. The verse clearly shows that annihilation can come from a myriad of different sources, and oftentimes--as the author was clearly aware of--destructive forces originate from deep within us. Ginsberg dedicates his poem to Carl Solomon, “losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss” in Rockland where he keeps saying, “I’m with you.”
It is a sad thing for a person to lose their mind, but the greatest travesty--the one that humankind is still trying to extricate itself from--involves failing to find the great equalizer amidst the frenzy surrounding the roads our lives take. This is the truest message “Howl” leaves in its wake and its ripples can still be felt today, howling America’s naked mind.