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Conformity is a fundamental aspect of which society as we know it has been built upon. Since the beginning of mankind, people have tended to conform to behaviours that are common among other people. Systems of control, societal and political, use conformity as a tool to maintain order. Individuals copy other people’s choices, even when they know that those people did not make their choices freely, and when the decision does not reflect their own actual preferences. From a very early age, we tend to worry about what other people think, so much so that we adapt and conform so that others will accept us. We adapt to fit. Everyone is secure in their own knowledge, assuming something everyone’s doing has been tried and tested and therefore it must be right. Most people remain uninformed and do not have the time to become informed, so they conform. However, as society operates, there have been those that rejected the norm and dismissed the ideals of their society. This ideology of not conforming is perfectly exemplified during the 1950s by the social dissenters know as the The Beatniks. The Beat Generation reinforced the ideology of non-conformity by questioning the pre-existing state of affairs and questioning it through poetry and other forms of literature, certain issues at time that were currently being ignored or condemned were brought into the light by the Beats. Ultimately, pushing boundaries in an otherwise conservative 1950s American society. I have chosen to explore the hypothesis that:the poem, ‘Howl’ is a social commentary. I will also be reflecting on the time of the Beat Poets, particularly reflecting on Allen Ginsberg. A poem that underwent several trials and was completely censored can only be described as an anthem of self-expression. Howl is an unapologetic exportation of illicit drugs, sex and conformity that ultimately lead to Ginsberg being the declared voice of the Beat Generation. I have chosen three framing questions to focus my inquiry: 1) What does the poem contain? 2) What was the political and social climate of the time? 3) How was the poem received? 4) To what extent does the poem provide a social commentary? I extrapolated on these issues and then consulted several reputable critics: Greil Marcus, Mick Brown, Jonah Raskin, Julie Aelbrecht, Allen Ginsberg, Joel E. Black, Nada Alabdullah and Dagmar Van Engen (academics with justified responses) to create a critical response.
The Beats’ constant stoic exploration of drugs and sexual practices stirred up a moral panic within the establishment, who viewed the publishing of Beat writing as swamping the country with filth and obscenity. Their relentless challenging of the status quo against the backdrop of a deeply conservative and sexually repressed milieu led to a mixed critical reception of ‘Howl’.
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Howl in its own name was a protest a cry for all exploitation, repression and subjugation. Throughout the text Ginsberg asks people to cry against capitalism, exploitation, repression and subjugation. Howl presents a picture of a nightmare world, the wasteland of its generation. The purpose and movement of the poem stems from; protest, pain, outage, attack and lamentation to acceptance, affirmation, love and vision-from alienation to communion. As the poem progresses, Ginsberg descends into an underworld of darkness, suffering and isolation and then ascends into spiritual knowledge.
Ginsberg used obscenities in his poetry. The strong, shocking language was an expressive tool that related to his reader his resentment towards the new America. Ginsberg allowed himself to push boundaries and expel his non-conformist values though Howl by becoming naked so as to challenge the mainstream culture. By going to the Negro streets and looking with anger; anger of nothing but the expression of indictment against American culture. By looking with nothing but frustration. Society birthed him and distorted him. He freely challenged the society that gave birth to him, but not the accommodation.
Question One: What does the poem contain?
“We are blind, all of us, blind and naive to the realties of this world. All but the poet, the poet is blessed with the gift of sight”. This quote serves to exemplify the unmistakable nature of the writing by the poet, Allen Ginsberg. Standing as one of the most influential poets of all time, you don’t have look further than the impetus for his success, ‘Howl’ (published in his 1956 collection, Howl and Other Poems).
Howl is a seminal text that explores Ginsberg’s world view and perception of American society. Key aspects of the poem that allows the audience to understand and interpret Ginsberg’s views are; repetition and anaphora – to create imagery and address the evidence, the use of epithets – to criticise the American government, and structural features such as the free verse climax of the footnote – to inform the audience of reverential figures and features of his life that Ginsberg was surrounded by.
The techniques used throughout the text further allowed readers to flow from the image to image whilst being able to understand the central themes and counterculturalist criticism of American society. An example of these techniques can be seen in part one of the text where Ginsberg introduces each segment of imagery with the word, “Who”, in order to symbolise the broad spectrum of insanity that he has observed in his life. Ultimately, this use of repetition ties back into the opening line of the poem, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked”.
All in all, Ginsberg gives a valuable insight into his perception of his surroundings. Although Ginsberg’s significant perceptive may seem unique due to the fact one might see the contemporary 1950s society as significantly more liberal than Ginsberg, a large portion of the American society at the time was able to still widely identify with the piece. Ginsberg’s unique stance against the conventions of both, literature and society allowed the audience to identify with him. “The proof is seen among the blind, one can see that Ginsberg was the songbird among the mute, he provided a song that the disenfranchised and rejected could rally behind and sing themselves”.
Critic One: Greil Marcus, 2006 (Classic Beat)
Greil Marcus quotes Luc Sante, “Was ‘Howl’ the last poem to hit the world with the impact of news and grip it with the tenacity of a pop song? The language is burning, the ideas are jumping and, finally, you are brought into the adventure of the poem”. This brings context to how powerful and seminal the text really was, the appreciation of the poem in Sante’s words also further englightens us on how effective the text was at capturing it’s readers and forming a connection to allow them to identify with the piece. This is further reinforced by Marucs as he proceeds to quote Sante, “you could feel the poem giving you supernatural powers, the ability to punch through brick walls and walk across cities from rooftop to rooftop”. He continues to say, “…because finally I could reconcile it with my own experience. ‘Poverty’ and ‘tatters’ and ‘hollow-eyed”. This gives a further insight on how influenticial Ginsburg was with the disenfranchised rejects of conventional society and those that rejected conventional soceity by their own volition. This overbearing idea of Howl is a song that the disenfranchised and rejected could rally behind and sing themselves is explored by Marcus in the following, “If ‘Howl’ is a catalog of flameouts and collapses, it is ecstatic in its lamentation. And that is the basic measure of its strength: it is a list of . . . leprous epiphanies as redoubtable as Homer’s catalog of ships, but rather than stopping at that, it seizes the opportunity to realize all the botched dreams it enumerates. It envisions every broken vision, supplies the skeleton key that reveals the genius of every torrent of babble, reconstitutes every page of scribble that looks like gibberish the next morning.” (Marcus, 2006)
As Bob Rosenthal (Ginsberg’s secretary for 20 years), writes in perhaps the plainest lines in The Poem That Changed America, “only a fool pretends to know what might happen when a poem finds a reader”.Howl helps young people realise their actual ambitions: not to become a poor poet living in a dump but maybe to become a teacher when you were expected to become a doctor, or maybe to become a doctor when everybody expected you to fail at everything, Howl gives hope to the hopeless.
Critic Two: Mick Brown, 2011 (Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’)
Mick Brown cites Ginsberg, “I thought I wouldn’t write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, Ginsberg would later reflect. Let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind … writ for my own soul’s ear and a few other golden ears. The result was “Howl”. This highlights the true nature of the poem: an unapologetic exportation of illicit drugs, sex and conformity, an anthem of self-expression, a song to rally behind. Ginsberg was one of the first of the time to be the maverick for the crowds, even after being oppressed as a write Ginsberg wrote without fear, let his words flow onto the page without a doubt in his mind. This is perhaps what made Ginsberg so successful and perhaps highly influence the reception of the poem. The statement also further reinforces how although it seemed like it, Ginsberg wasn’t alone, the golden ears were listening. (Brown, 2011)
Brown proceeds to enlighten regarding the contents of Howl, “The theme of “Howl” is the struggle of the individual in the face of the crushing conformity of Eisenhower’s United States. But its references are very personal – incidents drawn from Ginsberg’s life as a student and penurious poet, and the lives of his friends and acquaintances, the “angel-headed hipsters” of the poem”. This allows insight into the purpose behind Ginsberg’s writing and what and why the poem entails. Alluding to the fact that the poem is primarily derived from we can begin to further understand where the heart of it comes from. Allen Ginsberg was a mystical and messianic poet with suicidal wishes and persistent self- doubts, one can only imagine what his life experiences would have entailed. (Brown, 2011)
‘Howl’ does affirm its author’s capacity to survive an agonizing ordeal; yet the poem is charged with equally strong feelings of personal and literary failure, isolation and, most powerfully, loss, and many other feelings like it. ‘Howl, is a promotion of frankness, about any subject’.
Overall Judgement Call (Question One)
Marcus and Brown both provide insight into the contents of Howl, how it was formed and what it means to the audiences. Both critics develop on Ginsberg’s charismatic gifts and his ability to bring people into his orbit which in turn greatly influenced individuals to follow his vision of blazing new paths for spiritual, communal and artistic expression, and ultimately lead to the expansion of personal freedom in the America of the 1950s. This coupled with the constant outpouring of energy and patronage sheds light towards the careers and lives of others Ginsberg impacted and subsequently helped to turn Ginsberg into a leader able to bring together audiences to sing a song of self individuality. Marcus focuses more on the literary side of Ginsberg and Howl, whereas Brown concentrates more on the influences that lead to Howl being written the way it is – both, in conjunction allow us to gauge a better understanding of the contents of Howl. The truth behind it is, a poet’s actions and style will always be intertwined within their roots in a particular home, environment, and upbringing. Ginsberg very clearly his background with him to the social milieux into which he ventured and on which he left his mark. His political stances and his advocacy of avant-garde, in-your-face, revelatory, often dissenting, poetry could be traced to the atmosphere and personalities he had encountered around him growing up and ultimately lead to him writing a poem that grants one ‘supernatural powers’. Although Ginsberg and many other Beats had a middle class upbringing, they chose to live their lives in a different way and portrayed the lives of outcasts, degenerates, and criminals in their art. In using the perspectives of social outsiders, these writers such as Ginsberg, succeeded in showing the bleakest and most alienating sides of the industrialized world they lived in. All in all, further understanding the contents and origin of Howl, a strong allusion that Howl could in fact be a social commentary is formed. (Ariel, 2013)
Question Two: What was the political and social climate of the time?
As early as the 1940s, the writers of the Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, were starting to articulate views in regard to post-war American society that subsequently reached a peak of expression in the 1950s counterculture. The Beats by nature were not so adamant on defining a political or economic position as they were on escaping from one, following a strict collation of values stemming the penultimate vision, detachment from the existing society.
Ultimately, the restructuring and societal background at the time completely opposed the Beat subculture and movement…promoting technological and scientific development to such an extent that life had become increasingly totalised as a mean of production and consumption. As a product of mass production, culture itself becomes becomes ensnared in the repetitiveness, the self sameness and the ubiquity of modern mass culture, generating automatised reactions that weaken the forces of individuality. In the eyes of the Beats, the society they faced was massifying and de-individualising, while the state, the workplace, the media, and consumer culture appeared to be appeared in tandem to require ‘conformity’ at all times and in all places. This by nature directly contradicts the desire the Beats felt to escape from socioeconomic conditions and their non-conformist nature.
Critic One: Jonah Raskin, 2004 (American Scream)
Jonah Raskin writes, “Howl was a product of the Cold War. During World War II, American writers were, on the whole, enthusiastic about the global battle to defeat fascism. Most novelist, poets, and playwrights were patriotic and optimistic…Allen Ginsberg was only seventeen in 1943, but he cast himself as the voice of his generation, and in high school wrote poetry that looked forward to the defeat of the Axis powers and the birth of a better world. When the war ended in 1945, there was a sense of euphoria and liberation among writers and intellectuals as well as in the population as a whole. The troops came home, Families were reunited. Overt U.S. government censorship ended. The promise of peace and prosperity at home instilled an infectious sense that a new day was dawning. The euphoria was short-lived, however. In the aftermath of the war, citizens began to realize that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only had ended the war but also had ushered in a new and frightening era. The horrors of the German concentration camp were revealed. The Iron Curtain descended on Europe and the Cold War began. As Americans become more aware of the dark side of the postwar era, and the dark side of humanity too, the mood in American shifted and writers reflected it”. Raskin offers a window into the views of Ginsberg and the Beats at the time. The bunch of dissenters at the time would have been rather young, Ginsberg, a mere nineteen years of age, an individual’s environment can be rather influential at that age. Raskin proceeds to note, “In the midst of unprecedented prosperity, American Culture turned increasingly commercial, and writers turned increasingly to conformity”. This statement gives insight into how Ginsberg’s and the Beat’s were influenced to form their non-conformist values and want to escape socioeconomic conditions. (Raskin, 2004)
Raskin proceeds to provide further insight on the environment surrounding writers at the time and the lead up to the Beat generation, “The U.S. government – from the State Department to Congress – regarded writers as dangerous. Hollywood directors and screenwriters were jailed. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was investigated by the FBI and begrudgingly issued a visa, Arthur Miller was denied a passport and not allowed to leave the United States for years…In academia and in the leading literary magazines of the day, teachers and critics were warned against innovation and radicalism”. He then progresses to cite W.H Auden, “It was not the time for revolutionary artists or significant novelty in artistic style. Before any new literary works could be written there would have to be a cultural revolution”. Raskin allows us to understand the most crucial time in literature by providing an insight into the world of writers in the 1950s. (Raskin, 2004)
As Tennessee Williams outlined in 1948, he looked forward to the day when young people would discard conservative business suits and let their hair grow long…make wild gestures, fight, shout and fall downstairs. That day would be brave and honest he predicted. It took nearly a decade for the brave Beat Generation to flower in the hostile environment outlined previously, but from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s the Beats were under wraps. In the midst of a society the seemed cowardly and insincere, the Beats marked the start of a cultural revolution that would sweep across America. (Raskin, 2004)
Critic Two: Julie Aelbrecht, 2014 (Classical myth in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl)
Aelbrecht begins by citing John Tytell, “In the late forties and early fifties, the axioms of the upright in America were belief in God, family and the manifestly benevolent international ambitions of the nation. Americans still conceived of themselves as innocent democratic warriors, protectors of a holy chalice that contained a magic elixir of progress in technology, cleanliness and order”. This directly refers to the period after World War II had just ended, bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – there was a sense a euphoria. Homes were instilled with optimism that change was happening, the dawn of the new era had not hit them yet. Aelbrecht proceeds to further elaborate, “It is these characteristic, to which I would like to add consumerism and the homogeneity of mainstream culture, which to a large extent defined the 1950s middle-class American society that Howl takes a stand against”. Aelbrecht highlights and ties in the purpose of Howl whilst outlining the premise of the 1950s which gives further context to the desire the Beats felt to escape from the socioeconomic conditions and form their non-conformist nature. (Aelbrecht, 2014)
Aelbrecht later dwells on the American Dream in the 1950s, “In post-war America, the living circumstances of the average American citizen were shaped by a number of economic, social and political factors….as life in the United States changed, so did the conception of the American Dream”. Aelbrecht further develops on this by outlining, “In the two decades after World War II, the interpretation of the American Dream was changed by consumerism. Additionally, the Dream was challenged by phenomena such as persisting racism which made true equality of opportunity impossible”. What Aelbrecht refers to here is the American Dream that was masked by conformity, making it as best, bland. During this period of dramatic transition America was undergoing, it became a wasteland that can be described as; marginalized, disenfranchised, the dispossessed, black or white, clinging by broken fingernails. Howl in this instance serves as a celebratory cry to seek new truths and fresh hopes. (Aelbrecht, 2014)
Ginsberg’s impossibility to believe in American tradition, middle-class materialism and the protests resulting from it are evident from the works of the Beat Generation writers. While the subject matter of the works of the Beat writers is varied, the continent which all of them called their place of birth is always distinctly present. However, the relationship the Beat writers had with the United States and more specifically the attitude they bore towards their own culture and society, was far from uncomplicated. In essence, the Beat movement was a group of protesters contesting the ruling American traditions, values and classes. the Beat Generation was deeply rooted in a discontent with the state of their culture and society in post-war America. The threat of nuclear destruction that is apparent in Beat fiction. Instead of letting the perceived imminent demise of their society cause apathy or existential fatigue, the Beats took on a different strategy, that of protest and looking elsewhere for new spiritual and other values. (Aelbrecht, 2014)
Overall Judgement Call (Question Two)
Both, Raskin and Aelbrecht allude and believe that Howl was a product of it’s time, and that the surrounding environment the Beats were subjected to were highly influential. I tend to agree with the critics as the United States in the 1950s was a place and time of contrasts. Many people were content and comfortable, but others were less fortunate or felt ill at ease and searching for new ways of coping, they embraced religion and visited psychiatrists in unprecedented numbers. The most dominant element of the decade was the homogenized society, with its white, male, heterosexual, middle class and Eurocentric ideals. This brand of culture was propagated through the increasingly popular medium of television. Ideals of progress, freedom and fighting for democracy and consumerism were also important. Thus, it can be assumed that the poem was shaped by its socio-cultural environment and this may be the reason Howl was lauded for criticizing its contemporary world of mechanization, warfare and consumerism. The nation had become comfortable in their conformist values, fulfilled of the ideology of progress. But Howl undoubtedly shaped the 1950s, shocking many by the breakage of so many conventions, whether they were literary, sexual, aesthetic, social, political or religious. The beats lived in a homogenous society created by the Suburban Dream and a rejection of the rational, yet this didn’t stop the postmodernists. They were the first generation in American history that has grown up since the possibility of the nuclear destruction of the world has become the final answer to all questions. But instead of the cynicism and apathy which accompanies the end of ideals the Beat Generation was altogether too vigorous, too intent, too indefatigable, too curious to suit its elders. For these reasons we can further entertain the idea that, Howl is a social commentary.
Question Three: How was the poem received?
When Howl and other poems was first published in 1956, it was almost immediately seized by the authorities and the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was prosecuted for publishing obscenities. Since that moment, the idea that it were the critical notes in the collection’s title poem, rather than its four letter words that sparked the authorities’ discontent, has been put forward by fellow writes, critics as well as the author himself. Howl was introduced to the world, or at least to San Francisco, during the so called “Six Poets at Six Gallery” reading on 7 October, 1955. The poem used “the rhythms of speech from the American street – black speech, phrasings overheard on street corners and in bars – and the rhythms of bebop and jazz, of sports commentators and the cool DJs on the all-night jazz programs. It had a new rhythm and used new language”. (Ginsberg, 2006)
At the end of World War II, everyone came home feeling disconnected from American life. It was a time of born-again optimism, but there were new elements in the smelting pot of postwar America. However, it took until the Beat Generation for this to coalesce into a new cultural synthesis. At the time obscenity laws were concerned with prohibiting lewd or sexually charged words or pictures, and in regard to determining what role the government should have in regulating what people should read and see, the U.S. Supreme Court always held that the First Amendment does not protect obscene material that would present a clear and present danger to society. The problem is that there have always been disagreements to what constitutes obscenity. There is still a lack of clarity around the meaning of the words, ‘indecent’, ‘filthy’, ‘lewd’, ‘lascivious’, and ‘obscene’. (Ginsberg, 2006)
Critic One: Julie Aelbrecht, 2014 (Classical myth in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl)
Aelbrecht provides insight in regard to the reaction the poem received by citing Poet Michael McClure, “Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases”. This shows how reverential and seminal Howl really was. To the poets in the room, the literature was ground breaking and unapologetic, which made the experimentation and breaking of taboos all the more shocking to the average American. (Aelbrecht, 2014)
Aelbrecht proceeds to quote Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who in the obscenity trial defended the collection, “In some sense it is a gestalt, an archetypal configuration of the mass culture which produced it. If it is also a condemnation of our official culture, if it is an unseemingly voice of dissent, perhaps this is really why officials object to it. In condemning it, however, they are condemning their own American world. For it is not the poet, but what he observes which is revealed as obscene. The great obscene wastes of Howl are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms, billboards and TV antennae”. Howl was lauded for criticizing its contemporary world of mechanization, warfare and consumerism”. Ferlinghetti suggests here that it were not especially the four-letter words which made the authorities seize Ginsberg’s debut, but rather, that its transgressions and obscenities were also political and social. (Aelbrecht, 2014)
‘Howl was a denunciation against the evil in American society and because of that it was of social importance’. It was established in trial that Howl’s aim is to praise the humanity and expose the greed for power and money which leads to conflicts. Howl is not only a poem denunciating evil, but also offering a solution and a way of salvation through love. It is also an ode to existence, a search for the divine while at the same time being the journey to hell. It is inspired from life, especially suffering and is made up of a series of data and prophetic statements and a wide range of thoughts, experiences and feelings. (Makovec, 2017)
Critic Two: Joel E. Black, 2012 (Ferlinghetti on Trial)
Black outlines the arrests regarding the publication of Howl, “In late May 1957, Officers Russell Woods and Thomas Page of the Juvenile Division of the San Francisco Police Department entered City Lights Bookstore to purchase a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. They arrested Shigeyoshi Murao, an employee of the store who was its only occupant at the time, for distributing obscene material. Howl publisher and City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti surrendered to police a couple days later, upon his return to San Francisco from a visit to Big Sur…. The city of San Francisco’s prosecution of Ferlinghetti for violating obscenity laws by publishing Howl”. This statement gives further context to how officials viewed Howl and the reaction they had. Howl was seen as so challenging to officials they actively went out and prosecuted the publisher and anyone who would sell the poem. This sheds light to how it was not the obscene sexual content which made the authorities seize Ginsberg’s debut, but rather, its political and social standpoints. (Black, 2012)
While Beat poetry and prose can be understood as a counterpoint to the larger cultural movement that developed in the 1960s, and while protecting juveniles became a cover for conservative protests, the trial revealed shifting conceptions of freedom that connected individuals as politically diverse as Ginsberg and Ronald Reagan over the dangers of censorship. (Black, 2012)
Overall Judgement Call (Question Three)
Aelbrecht and Black both allude to the fact that as a whole the poem was received well by the public and presented as intimating to authorities. I tend to agree with the critics as it is distinctly clear that Howl was lauded for his obscene nature and unfiltered commentary. Furthermore, it is also very clear that the authorities were intimated due to the fact they seized and arrested associates of Allen Ginsberg and censored his poem for 2 years. This is directly due to the fact that in the midst of a society the seemed cowardly and insincere, the Beats marked the start of a cultural revolution that would sweep across America, and authorities didn’t want that. All in all, ‘censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime. Long ago, those who wrote the First amendment charted a different course for their country. They believed that a society can be truly strong only when it is truly free. In the realm of expression, they put their faith, for better or worse, in the enlightened choice of the people, free from the inference of a policeman’s intrusive thumb or a judge’s heavy hand. So it is that the Constitution protects coarse expression as well refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance. A book worthless to me may convey something of value to my neighbour. In the free society of America, it should be for each individual to choose for themselves’. (Ginsberg, 2006) I believe that this statement embodies the power and freedom of literature whilst all referring the the journey of Howl and how it was received. Both critics make clear comments that it is highly probable hat Howl was seized for its social and political obscenities, not its sexual obscenities…which further alludes to the fact that Howl is a social commentary.
Question Four: To what extent does the poem provide a social commentary?
Social commentary is the act of using rhetorical means to provide commentary on issues in a society.
Allen Ginsberg’s poetry always challenged the social norms of America that constrained the individual. Howl represented Ginsberg’s stance on how he regarded his society as being a force that choked individuality, forcing them to be swallowed by emptiness.
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This new country had erased individualism and marked each person as being the exact replica of one another. The Beat Generation, a group of people who decided to stand and represent the muffled sound of individuality, tell people of their generation enough is enough, and they should not let society dictate how they live their lives. This fixed personality complex forcefully shaped Americans and turned them into an exact replica of one another. Thus, they should not let “madness” destroy them into little pieces of their selves.
Critic One: Nada Alabdullah, 2014 (THE BEATS)
Alabdullah begins by outlining the presence social commentary within the Beats, “The Beats always had a continuous concern for the human soul; therefore, at every given opportunity, Ginsberg would tackle such issues. His poetry questioned the cultural issues of his era because he believed that they crushed the soul”. This statement indicates that Ginsberg did provide a social commentary in his work due to the fact that he would comment on issues of his era. (Alabdullah, 2014)
Alabdullah then proceeds to highlight some specific issues Ginsberg tackled as well as providing evidence, “Ginsberg’s poetry presented taboo subjects, such as gay and religious issues, to further demonstrate how society silenced the sound of individuality, that the societal restrictions have blocked the person’s individuality. Ginsberg mocked the societal issues in Howl by stating:”
“The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy!
Every day is in eternity! Everyman’s an Angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! The madman is holy as you my
soul are holy!” (Alabdullah, 2014)
Ginsberg mocked the religious and cultural views of America at the time; the belief that the holy or angelic person was the person who follows them, and anyone goes against them is regarded as unholy. The culture at the time branded homosexuality is an evil sickness, and therefore an outcast of society. Ginsberg called into consideration that all Americans have the freedom to follow what their hearts desire. Whether one is a bum or a madman, one is holy in their own way, society should not allow anyone to hold them back from what they are expected to be, to stand for what they are and what they hold dear. (Alabdullah, 2014)
Ginsberg believed America was worse than it appeared globally or nationally. Poetry represented an outlet for him, and he started to display this social commentary in the form of his bitterness towards what America was doing. So this intense feeling of dislike was a way for Ginsberg to show that the had it with the constant wrongful representation. Ginsberg addressed the other side of America that was the cause behind so much suffering. He did not like the truth about his country’s ability to create a “dehumanizing” machine Ginsberg was fighting America and what it had become through poetry.(Alabdullah, 2014)
Critic Two: Dagmar Van Engen, 2011 (Howling Masculinity)
Van Engen praises how influential Ginsberg’s poetry was in relation to societal issues, “Ginsberg’s achieves social change in the city spaces of Howl by violently and joyfully staking out queer territory. Rather than simply liberating, their performativity cites gay masculinity subversively enough to do useful political work. These poetic representations of gay masculinities avoid the essentialist concept of repressed but previously existing subjects and demonstrate a useful opportunity for converging queer and gay work. By envisioning the disruptive power of repetitions of performative gender, Ginsberg’s poetry queers gay masculinity of the American 1940s and 50s and prompts us to a more complex public discourse today”. This statement serves as a testament to how influential of a social commentary Howl really was. Howl has remained such a popular work through the decades that Ginsberg’s lines extremely important even for current gay politics. (Engen, 2011)
Poetry has the unique ability to reach into otherwise isolated lives and lead a discussion. Howl undoubtedly redefined queer spaces in the 1950s, breaking taboos on public representation and performance of sexuality. (Engen, 2011)
Overall Judgement Call (Question Four)
Both Alabdullah and Van Engen strongly outline and entertain the premise that Howl is a social commentary. I tend to agree with both critics on the basis that. Regarding the premise of Van Engen statements: sexuality, Ginsberg freely provided social commentary on the issues surround sexuality. He addressed society and the American generation of his time by expressing his openness towards the “natural way of life” which was sexual intercourse. Ginsberg called for the openness of sex and that everyone had the right to choose their life partner. He argued that the generation, like him, had the right to speak or act the way they saw fit. Each individual had the freedom to an open sexual life, where he/she had the choices to have a relationship with whomever they wanted. Ginsberg and the Beats stood guard for their generation, speaking for freedom to act and speak no matter what happened and that’s one reason why I think the extent to which Howl is a social commentary, is high. Furthermore, regarding Alabdullah statements, I tend to agree that, “The Beats always had a continuous concern for the human soul”. Ginsberg’s usage of the expletive words was the people’s right to speak what they believed in. Telling his generation to speak up for what they held dear to them, whether homosexuality, or the dislike of any political or cultural norm, he made it fine to verbalize those feelings with no fear. The Beats’ poetry spoke about personality and how vulnerable they were after the War and the changes it had brought upon the Americans. Life no longer represented the white fences and happy families; instead it started to be open for ridicule towards such ordinary life. All in all, Ginsberg’s language captured the true essence of the Beats’ beliefs, and it pushed his readers to go beyond the words to the real meaning behind them ultimately, providing an impactful social commentary.
The rapid change in American literature paved the way for contemporary poetry, especially in the 1950’s. This transformation was the result of the constant struggle of placement where Americans continuously questioned where they belonged, and who they were as persons. With a continuous search for inner personality, styles, techniques, and genres diversified in marking the uniqueness of contemporary literary scholars from the 1950’s. Thus, contemporary literature tackled cultural and political issues with a firm stance. Whether it was their blunt discussion of sexuality or the usage of strong language, contemporary poets proved to be honest and free spirited persons. Those groups of individuals were known as the Beats.
Poetry is a view of reality; it is a speech act that represents humanity. The Beat Generation called for love, equality and freedom of individuality. They called forth to their generation to speak up for what they believed in with no fear of how society would perceive them. To Ginsberg, and the Beat poets, poetry stood for beauty; it is the universal language that could relate to anyone and help guide them to reach fulfilment. Ginsberg’s strong belief in the power that poetry holds made him want to share this knowledge with the world. He called to people to search for their inner fulfilment, to prevent anyone from erasing their true self.
The literary life of Allen Ginsberg has proved him to be the most enlightened of poets. His state of serenity made him see right through the fog of hypocrisy that his country was erasing and choking individualism. He stood for love, freedom, and individualism when society, cultural and the political government decided to repress individuality. Ginsberg was a bright light against repression and called for his generation to step forward and express their individuality. His poetry was an example to stand and face any kind of injustice that is being inflected by society or government without fear or remorse, because once they do that they will reach a clarity and thus fulfilment.
Through critically analysing my questions of 1) What does the poem contain? 2) What was the political and social climate of the time? 3) How was the poem received? 4) To what extent does the poem provide a social commentary? I am able to comprehensively support my hypothesis that the poem, ‘Howl’ is a social commentary.
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