“Howl” is one of the most instantly recognizable poems of the 20th century. Poet Allen Ginsberg debuted the earliest version of “Howl” in 1955, at a San Francisco poetry reading, to a rapturous audience response. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a patron of the nonconformist Beat Poetry movement, took interest and published Howl and Other Poems a year later. The poem led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest on obscenity charges that he eventually beat in court. “Howl” went on to inspire not just Ginsberg’s fellow Beat poets, but future generations of poets, even up to the current day. Buckle in: you ain’t the finest mind of your generation until you learn about “Howl.”
By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on “Howl.”
“I SAW THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION DESTROYED BY MADNESS”
The opening line of “Howl” leaps off the page. Ginsberg’s long, breathless lines recall Walt Whitman in their scope and their evocation of the divine. Ginsberg describes these best minds—social outcasts in the straight-laced America of the 1950s—as “Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection.”
The rest of the poem’s first stanza describes Ginsberg’s fellow outcasts. Ginsberg attributes many actions to these individuals. Among these actions is the throwing of “potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism.” Sometimes these actions seem to defy logic. Ginsberg writes of individuals who “journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver.”
MOLOCH The second stanza of the poem opens with a question: “what sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls?” Ginsberg answers in the very next line, introducing Moloch. Moloch is a representation of the evils of Ginsberg’s society. This monolithic, impersonal evil is alienated from the human ecstasy of the first stanza. Ginsberg describes Moloch’s mind as “pure machinery,” with fingers made up of “ten armies.”
“I’M WITH YOU IN ROCKLAND”
The third section of “Howl” directly addresses the poem’s dedicatee, Carl Solomon. Ginsberg met Solomon in the waiting room of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. In this section the poem repeats again and again the refrain: “I’m with you in Rockland.” This is poetic license on Ginsberg’s part; Solomon was never admitted to the Rockland Psychiatric Center.
“Howl” concludes with a footnote. This footnote is seen by most readers as a fourth stanza to the poem. The footnote ratchets up a sense of ecstatic unity. The entire first line of the poem is simply the word “Holy!” Ginsberg extends this holiness outward, calling the “groaning saxophone” holy, the towns of New York and San Francisco holy, and his fellow Beat Writers holy. Ginsberg goes as far as to call holy an “Angel within Moloch.”
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Carl Solomon did not write poetry himself, but he guided a young Allen Ginsberg.
“Howl” caused quite a stir when it was first published.
An early draft of “Howl” was sold for a very high price!
The second stanza of “Howl” excoriates Moloch for a long list of evils:
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