Allen Ginsberg

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”

Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) like his fellow poets of the Beat Generation existed on society’s parameter fighting its most conforming Post-War forces: sexual repression, militarism, and capitalism. Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems is a collection of his most influential work.

Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl,” published in 1956 (and introduced in this publication by Ginsberg’s mentor William Carlos Williams), was an era-defining poem for those who had survived the War but struggled to survive the aftermath.1

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow0eyed and high sat up
smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

The poem is highly autobiographical, Ginsberg assumes the role of witness, confessor and victim. There is a personal redress, a mournful cry for his life and platonic love for Carl Solomon, a friend Ginsberg had met while in a mental institution.

… who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa.

Rachel Kneebone's sculpture "399 Days"
Artist Rachel Kneebone’s towering sculpture, “399 Days”, is a porcelain tangle of straining limbs and struggling bodies. It evokes a state of unease, flux and power. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Referring to Ginsberg’s poetry as “Era-defining” is limiting. There is a rotational nature of humanity and most eras are not without precedent.

In Ginsberg’s case, an all-too-powerful government structure, the repression of certain individuals, a society scarred from war and that life-ennobling sound that begins from beneath the gut, ignites the soul, and forces the last vestiges of action. It seems familiar, doesn’t it?

…who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment of cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion.

But of course, “Howl” was highly unique when it occurred. It launched an obscenity trial because it described then-criminal homosexual acts. The judge ruled for Ginsberg: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

Freedom of speech will always be tested, today is no different, it seems everyone wants to limit or expand it to their own means.2 Ginsberg’s work calls attention to this preposterous fight and the isolation one feels when deeply part of it.  From “Song”:

The weight of the world
is love.
Under the burden
of solitude.
under the burden
of dissatisfaction

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems also includes the deeply mournful “Transcription of Organ Music,” one of my favorite poems. It constructs a virtual prison of pain, the only antidote a momentary existence among flowers.

My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use – my words piled up, my texts, my manuscripts, my loves.
I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in the heart of things, walked out into the garden crying.
Saw the red blossoms in the night light, the sun’s gone, they had all grown, in a moment, and were waiting stopped in time for the day sun to come and give them…
Flowers which as in a dream at sunset I watered faithfully not knowing how much I loved them.

Ginsberg’s place, path and time diverge from mine, from yours too I imagine, but his pain is familiar. Because pain connects everyone. 

More writing from this nerve, the personal diaries of the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky capture a man in such great pain as he slips out of consciousness and into a schizophrenic psychosis. Or visit the self-portraits of Ginsberg’s contemporary, Francis Bacon, and understand what drove Bacon to direct such emotion into people’s nerves.