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Published: 08-12-2019

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Ginsberg’s Howl: A Barbaric Yawp

It is not a surprise that Allen Ginsberg aligned himself with Walt Whitman in his poem “Howl,” as the title page to his book of the exact same name reads, “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (Ginsberg 1). Nevertheless, the use of these lines as a preface to his poetry opens up the query: is Ginsberg attempting to contribute to the Transcendentalist movement that Whitman helped to define, or is he trying to challenge it? Even though Ginsberg’s heavy narrative appears a stark contrast to Whitman’s largely-joyous “Song of Myself,” his title is a dead giveaway of his intentions. A single of the most famous lines of “Song of Myself” reads, “I also am not a bit tamed . . . . I also am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” (Whitman 87). When read by way of the lens of Transcendentalism, it becomes clear that Ginsberg’s “Howl” is in fact Ginsberg’s ‘barbaric yawp.’

Structurally, Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s poem are quite related. Both rely on couplets with the second line practically usually indented, and intensity builds all through the poems in moments where the structure is broken and the lines improve in size. They generate settings in the poetry by way of seemingly endless lists of descriptions, utilizing an often repetitive and parallel syntax. Nonetheless, while emphasizing the similarities in between the two works, the mirrored structures also function to highlight the variations. For instance, on a single hand Whitman admires the atmosphere with stanzas like, “The smoke of my personal breath, / Echos, ripples, and buzzed whispers . . . . loveroot, / silkthread, crotch and vine, / My respiration and inspiration . . . . the beating of my heart / . . . . the passing of blood and air by means of my lungs,” (Whitman 27). On the other hand, Ginsberg opens his poem up with descriptions that concentrate on tragedy and deterioration: “who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their income / in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror via the wall, / who got busted in their pubic beards returning by way of Laredo / with a belt of marijuana for New York,” (Ginsberg 9). While both intend to describe life as they see it, Ginsberg paints a a lot dimmer image.

Ginsberg’s pessimism in relation to Whitman’s optimism does not entirely separate it from all Transcendentalist ideology, though. In spite of the fact that Ginsberg is locating despair in mankind?which Whitman finds beauty in?he is not directly critiquing the human beings themselves, particularly those that he refers to as the “best minds” of his generation (Ginsberg 9). Instead, he is attacked the societal forces “capitalism, mental institutions, disciplinary machinery” that he believes destroy these individuals. In this way, Ginsberg’s suggestions about life are not as well far off from Whitman’s, or even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. In Emerson’s Transcendentalist manifesto, “The Poet,” he writes, “it is the dislocation and detachment from the life of God that makes issues ugly,” (Emerson 245). Ginsberg’s poetry finds beauty in the “best minds,” those otherwise condemned by society as a complete, even though pointing out the man-created forces that taint them, or turn them ‘ugly’ in Emerson’s words. Whitman acts similarly when he aligns himself with socially-villainized groups of folks: “Through me several extended dumb voices, / Voices of the interminable generations of slaves, / Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons, / Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and / dwarfs,” (Whitman 50). Neither poet blames man himself for his position as the Other, but rather the social mechanisms that enable this Othering and separation of individuals to occur.

Another theme of Whitman’s that Ginsberg employs in “Howl” is identification. The Beat poem is a dedication to Carl Solomon, and the relationship between Solomon and Ginsberg becomes the main concentrate of section III of the poem. Whilst Whitman makes use of his poetry to align himself with each attainable person, Ginsberg speaks to just a single. He tells Solomon, “I’m with you in Rockland / where you’re madder than I am / I’m with you in Rockland / where you should feel really strange / I’m with you in Rockland / where you imitate the shade of my mother” (Ginsberg 19). In this way, he differentiates himself with Whitman, whilst also utilizing his fundamental methods.

With “Howl,” Ginsberg becomes the spitting image of the Transcendentalist movement’s Walt Whitman, but in the context of the Beat generation. In his poem, he is expressing his own ‘barbaric yawp’ (or his ‘howl’) of discomfort, of pleasure, of relief. Like Whitman, he travels all more than the globe, calling out all the indecencies he sees along his path (for Ginsberg, they are based in the treatment of the mentally ill, although for Whitman they are connected to the Civil War and the remedy of the black man.) Nonetheless, these lists of grievances do not come without having glimpses of hope and release. Each men convey these moments via explicit references towards sex and sexuality (it was not by coincidence that Leaves of Grass was referenced multiple times all through the infamous obscenity trial for Howl.) Probably the “Footnote to Howl” reads the most like a Whitman poem, as the whole section sounds like Ginsberg’s breath of relief. He ends the poem by reminding his audience, and himself, that there is something lovely and “holy” (Ginsberg 21) to be located in each and every knowledge, regardless of whether or not it is visible to the eye.

Functions Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Jeffrey S. Cramer. The Transportable Emerson. New York, NY: Penguin,

2014. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: And Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 2010. Print.

Whitman, Walt, and David S. Reynolds. Leaves of Grass. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
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