I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
The poem is written in a groundbreaking style that has become synonymous with Ginsberg’s name and the writing of the Beat Movement. His style and format are likely to challenge most readers, the first part of the poem in particular, in which he uses a collage and list-like format to describe his friends’ madness.
‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg is an indictment of modern society and celebrates anyone who lived outside its standards.
The poem explores the poet’s “mad” friends in the first section. He describes their drug use, sexual habits, and how they sought meaning in their everyday lives. The second section deals with what drove his friends mad. Then, the third section is very clearly devoted to Carl Solomon and what he, and other men like him, endured in mental hospitals at the time.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of madness, contemporary society, religion, rules, and more. He challenges the standards of his time, promotes rebellion against capitalism, and elevates his “mad” friends who suffer from drug use and unfulfilled artistic desires. The poem is regarded as a landmark in the LGBTQ liberation movement.
The famous ‘Howl’ speaker represents the poet himself. He makes his connection to the poem very clear from the dedication. It reads:
To Carl Solomon
Carl Solomon was a personal friend Ginsberg met in a mental hospital and who the poet repetitively references throughout the poem. He also refers to other friends he had throughout his life, many of whom are noted in the poet’s notes on the poem.
It’s important to note that although this poem is based on Ginsberg’s experience, many of its elements are fictionalized. One of the best examples occurs in the third section, where Ginsberg refers to “Rockland State Hospital.” Ginsberg never spent time there nor did his close friend Carl Solomon to whom he dedicated the poem.
The clarity of the speaker’s position is sometimes hard to come to terms with. Ginsberg’s use of first-person pronouns appears and disappears throughout the entire poem. Sometimes, he prefers to use words like “they” or “we” instead.
Structure and Form
‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg is a free verse poem divided into three long sections, separated by headers. In total, the poem consists of 112 lines and around 3,000 words. The lines are long and look more like paragraphs than they do stanzas of a poem.
Famously, Ginsberg composed the line lengths with specific intentions—to be read in one breath. The first line is a great example. Readers can handle the first line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” before taking a breath and moving to the next line. The poem is filled to the brim with imagery and a variety of rhyme schemes (rather than one specific pattern).
Within this poem, Ginsberg drew on the work of famous American free-verse poet Walt Whitman. Whitman’s often long, collage-like verse is well-known for avoiding specific rhyme schemes (but that doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of rhyme in his poems).
Throughout this poem, Ginsberg makes use of a number of literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same words or phrases at the beginning of multiple lines. This is one of the many techniques that Ginsberg drew from Walt Whitman’s verse. For example, the third section uses “I am with you in Rockland” numerous times.
- Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats a specific element of the poem. This could be an image, word, phrase, technique, etc. In this case, the poet repetitively returns to his same distressed and mournful, often angry as well, tone and imagery.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. Ginsberg used this literary device throughout much of his poem. But, due to the lengths of the lines and the very different versions of the poem available, it is often hard to tell where one line ends, and one begins.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “minds” and “madness” in the famous first line of the poem.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
The first five lines of ‘Howl’ grab the reader’s attention with a powerful hook. That is, the assertion that the speaker, Ginsberg himself, has seen the “best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” This shocking opening phrase has become one of the most famous lines in American poetry.
Ginsberg is at once referring to Solomon, to who he dedicated this poem, as well as to the other friends and associates he knew throughout his life. They succumbed to “madness,” something that the first line suggests was not their fault.
Ginsberg continues into the second line, informing readers that he saw his friends dragging themselves through the streets at dawn “looking for an angry fix.”
This poem was written during the Beat Movement, in which writers like Ginsberg were heavily influenced by African American culture, specifically jazz music. These men and women Ginsberg knew throughout his life were searching for drugs, an angry fix, to take their minds off their situations for a brief period. He creates an example of juxtaposition here. The poet contrasts the power of Black culture in America at the time with a search for drugs, the madness his friends were suffering, and their genius.
He refers to his friends as “angelheaded hipsters” in line three. During this period, the word “hipster” perfectly described the friends Ginsberg has already mentioned. They were interested in jazz, African American culture, and drug use. They had something angelic about them, a type of “ancient heavenly connection” to the “machinery of night.” Here, Ginsberg creates a metaphor that compares the sky to a machine, specifically a power plant.
The fourth line continues to describe Ginsberg’s associates with contrasting language, some of which is complementary and some of which suggests the suffering his friends are enduring. They took drugs, had hollowed out eyes from lack of sleep, smoked cigarettes, and spent the night “contemplating jazz.” There was something religious about the way they dealt with life. But, Ginsberg does not assign them a religion. Instead, the fifth line uses more vague religious imagery.
The word “El” in the fifth line is the Hebrew name for God. But, it is also a contemporary allusion to the poet’s surroundings, specifically the public transportation trains that ran through cities in the 40s and 50s.
They exposed their brains “to heaven,” saw God, and the “angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated.” They saw a Hebrew version of God and angels of Islam (“Mohammedan angels”). Here, the poet includes elements of multiple religions. Again, rather than assigning his friends a specific religion, he speaks about religion and spirituality more broadly. The fact that religion came to these “mad” friends in impoverished conditions in a poor part of town provides readers with another wonderful contrast.
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
Within the next lines, Ginsberg references William Blake, one of his favorite poets and someone who he describes his friends are studying in their small town schools. They studied “among the scholars of war.” It becomes clear quite quickly that Ginsberg has a negative view of these “scholars of war.”
His friends were kicked out of school for not conforming and for writing verses deemed “obscene.” Here, Ginsberg is likely alluding to his own experience. Specifically, he was expelled from Columbia University for writing a negative message about the university president on his dorm room window (he returned and graduated in 1948). This experience is one of several that likely imbued Ginsberg with a negative perspective on structured academia.
Ginsberg describes how the “best minds of his generation “were caught smuggling marijuana over the border from Mexico into America. They “ate fire in pain hotels or drink turpentine in Paradise Valley.” These phrases, which are commonly considered to be slang for various drugs in the 1950s or somewhat hard to distinguish from one another. Paradise Valley is a specific allusion to a hotel in New York City where the hotels are cheap and where people heavily reliant on drugs often stayed.
At the hotel in this area of New York, the friends Ginsberg continues to speak about throughout this poem with drugs, “alcohol and cock and endless balls.” This is one of the first references to homosexuality within this long, contemporary poem. Ginsberg was openly gay throughout his life, something he suffered for when institutionalized.
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind
who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall,
In the next lines, the speaker describes a vision. He depicts a street of storm clouds inside the mind, a “blind Street, “an allusion to a dead end. This image is usually interpreted as a metaphor and one that includes specific allusions to Ginsberg’s youth.
He goes on to describe where the “great minds” he calls friends go to do drugs, specifically mentioning “Peyote solidities of halls” and a series of other locations that are listed one after another in one very long line. Ginsberg likely meant these parts of the poem to feel overwhelming and confusing, creating a similar state of mind to that which his friends experienced as they tried to contend with their contemporary moment and their feelings of isolation from the rest of the world.
The drugs provide users with a “kind king light of mind,” which is juxtaposed against the image of the same people chained to “subways for the endless ride from “Battery to Holy Bronx.” Here, he describes scenes from New York and the endless path his friends are on. His friends suffer on this ride, and when they get out, they feel lost. The section of the poem includes many interesting linguistic choices. They have all been interpreted in different ways, such as the “hydrogen jukebox” at the end of line twenty.
His friends talk for hours, discussing philosophy and nonsense. They scream they vomit, they whisper, and they return to important memories of the “shocks” experienced in hospitals. This is an allusion to electric shock treatment, which is discussed more clearly in the third part of the poem.
Sometimes, the speaker’s friends disappear entirely. They leave a “trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic city hall,” a reference to an area of New Jersey.
suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room,
who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,
Ginsberg contemplates where he thinks all of these mad friends could’ve ended up. They might be suffering withdrawal somewhere or any other possible ailment. Perhaps they’re wandering around, “leaving no broken hearts,” lighting cigarettes, traveling in box cars, and seeking out lost family members.
His friends are smart people, he asserts. They spent their education studying history, literature, religion, and more. Many are from small towns, the poet specifically references Kansas. This connects back to his reference to Arkansas on the previous lines. These men and women were drawn to higher concepts from a young age, and as they searched for meaning, they eventually found drugs.
His friends didn’t realize they were mad, and he says in line twenty-six until they saw “Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy. “This immediately transitions into a further discussion of how his friends acted, “hungry and lonesome through Houston,” and in a limousine with the “Chinaman of Oklahoma.”
Inspired mentions a number of cities in this section and eventually transitions into a discussion of Spain, Africa, and their disappearance into the “volcanoes of Mexico.” He is continually concerned with where his friends went in their journeys, physically or mentally, as they sort out meaning in the world. Finally, his friends make it back around to the “west coast.”
He includes allusions to the antiwar movement, one of several important movements that occurred in the 40s and 50s in the United States, through the line “investigating the F.B.I. and beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes.” They also protest “Capitalism” and the “narcotic tobacco haze” it was consumed by (a reference to the power of “Big Tobacco” during this period).
who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed,
the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom,
Interestingly, while later in the poem, Ginsberg describes Carl Solomon’s fear that the hospital is infiltrated by communists, he depicts his friends as distributing “Supercommunist pamphlets” in line thirty-two. They were arrested, taken to hospitals, and seen weeping and “undressing.” They screamed and cried, as the speaker appears to be in Part II and endured the abuse of the police and doctors.
These people were charged with “their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication.” “Pederasty” is an uncommon word in everyday language. It refers to a relationship, not necessarily sexual, between an older man and a younger. It was common in Ancient Greece among some of the best-known philosophers of all time.
Ginsberg uses traditionally “obscene” language in the following lines when he speaks about his friend’s sexuality and continual screaming, weeping, and “madness.” Ginsberg continues to use religious language in unconventional ways in the section of the poem. He also mentions more specific examples of sex. For example, relationships “in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks.”
Things changed though, and the men lost their lovers, women got pregnant, and the “intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom” were snipped. Fate had different things in store for Ginsberg’s friends.
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of
who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology,
As things change for Ginsberg’s friends, the poet moves toward lines discussing heterosexuality as a stand-in for more traditionally acceptable social practices. He focuses on sex, describing how powerful it is and how his friends can’t get enough of it. He uses slang language like “snatch” to speak about female genitalia while also employing literary devices like hyperbole.
His friends visited prostitutes, and Ginsberg uses further allusions to describe Neal Cassady (known for his over-the-top sex life), who he describes as the “Adonis of Denver-joy.” Ginsberg was infatuated with the man for a time, and he’s described as the “secret hero of these poems” in line forty-three.
Sex seems overwhelmingly positive in the previous lines. But, as with the rest of the poem, it transitioned into something more negative. They wake up from this period of life and pick themselves up. The men are back in New York, where they walk so much that their shoes fill up with blood. They head towards a drug field destination. Ginsberg describes it as “a room full of steamheat and opium.”
Here, Ginsberg inserts one of several references to suicide. The men consider killing themselves by jumping off of apartment buildings, something that the public would’ve been happy to see them do. But instead, they continue to suffer. They cry, they live cheaply, they eat bad food and listen to bad music. These men are so poor that eventually, they “sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge.” That is until they had enough money to move into a small apartment building and engage in their artistic practices.
Ginsberg’s mad friends are also sick and, in addition to being poor and addicted to drugs.
who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish,
who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity,
Line fifty-one describes how after a long period of suffering, Ginsberg’s friends scribble out poems and other literary creations. But, when they see them in the morning, they realize they’re gibberish. They had high expectations for themselves but ended up creating something that was far less than they wanted. This is compared to a vegetarian who eats rotten meat. The men eventually try to kill themselves, but it isn’t because they are unhappy. Instead, the speaker says they “thought they were growing old and cried.”
Ginsberg’s friends stepped out of their previous lives and entered into one marked by a different kind of struggle and warfare. That is the world of advertising and corporate greed. They were met with a new “absolute reality” that was far different from the lives they had been living.
The men trapped in this new reality tried to act out, kill themselves, break things as an act of rebellion, and more. They barrel down “highways of past journeying “and spent hours in the car hoping that it would take them to find out about “Eternity.”They continue to search for meaning despite the struggles they’ve been through and what it had led them to previously.
who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver & brooded & loned in Denver and (…)
last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination—
Again, the city of Denver plays a role in this poem. The men spent time there. But, they always left in a hopeless mood. The men met criminals, went to prison, and are described by Ginsberg as contrasting shades of light and dark. The men lived their lives in this manner until they retired. Even then, they traveled and indulged in their madness. They searched through North Carolina mountains for “Buddha,” traveled the southern Pacific, and accused the radio of “hypnotism.” In the end, despite knowing that the rest of the world is insane, they were the ones who were deemed mad.
The poet mentions the City College of New York and the Dadaism art movement. The students throw potato salad at their professor, demonstrating a reactive and anti-structure means of expression that was crucial to the Dadaism, anti-art movement. The poet includes further references to insanity and the inhumane treatment that men, like Sandberg himself and Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated, endured in mental hospitals.
Then turned over their ping-pong tables, a common sight at mental hospitals, in protest against what they had to endure. Then, they go silent, entering into a period of catatonia. Finally, when they are released from the hospital, they’re bald and inflicted with scars from possible invasive treatment like lobotomies. He includes specific references to three different mental hospitals in this line. The hospital that’s used as the place where Ginsberg and Carl Solomon met, the hospital where Ginsberg’s mother and Solomon were both patients, and the hospital where Ginsberg’s mother died. The world is falling apart, Ginsberg suggests in these lines.
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time—
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.
In the final lines of the section, the poet speaks directly to Carl Solomon. He notes that he’s not safe, and no one is within the “total animal soup of time.” They’ve hit rock bottom and are unsure of how to proceed. Ginsberg speaks about poetry, Solomon’s situation, and the way that the poet has thus far composed ‘Howl.’ That is, as a catalog of experiences and descriptions.
He suggests that poetry has magical properties, likely a reason why the “friends” he has spent so much time talking about turn to it as one of their means of expression. Poetry is central to existence, he suggests. When one writes it, they want to “recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” and create a stream of consciousness style poetry and which one confesses the nature of their soul.
Poets write in order to find the meaning of things and the “beat” of the “mad man bum and Angel.” Writers hope to be relevant after they pass away and come back to life as their poems are read by generations to come. The last line of the section suggests that poets create poetry and, in doing so, remove a part of themselves. It’s a kind of sacrifice. The mad friends are creators. They’re poets and musicians and men (and women) who are doing anything worthwhile in the world.
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
The second part of ‘Howl’ starts off with a question. It is followed by a long series of exclamations and the repetition of the word “Moloch,” which represents ugliness and all the worst parts of the world (many of which are described in this section). The strange word is used repetitively as if the speaker is desperate to get his words out into the open.
The second section is based on the speaker’s exploration of what exactly caused his friends to go mad in the first part of the poem. Specifically, he blames the mysterious creature “Moloch.” It is made out of cement, aluminum, and other parts of the contemporary world. He thinks that this “sphinx of cement and aluminum” bashed his friend’s minds open and ate their brains and imagination.
While many of these lines can be hard to break down into their parts, it becomes clear as one considers the poet’s examples of repetition and allusion that he feels as though contemporary American society destroyed the young and brilliant who he considers his friends. The lines of the section are often cited as an explanation for why the poem is titled as it is. The speaker’s anger and passion, his “howl,” comes through clearly and powerfully. Ginsberg asserts that the mind itself has become hell-like because of what Moloch, a symbol for modern American society, has done to the “best minds of [his] generation.”
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!
The following lines contain numerous examples of exclamations in which the speaker describes how Malik has been with him throughout his life. It entered his soul at an early age, and no matter what he does, he still “wakes up in Moloch.”
He struggles with government policies, society’s hostility to sex, specifically homosexuality, capitalism, and the political structure of the country. American society, “they” in line 89, broke their backs, elevating this version of society. It exists “everywhere about us.”
Capitalism, violence, and the unaccepting nature of American society generally are negatives. The poet considers dreams, alterations, illuminations, and “religions” the good things the world has to offer. The “river” that the poet previously introduced is headed for a waterfall. The world is at a point where “new loves” are being sucked over a huge waterfall and landing “on the rocks of Time.” It’s here, battered and broken that the only good things in society are going to end up, the speaker suggests.
The poet describes the “best minds” as near the waterfall’s edge and as their situation worsens, they “bade farewell” and jump over too. This allusion to suicide is a powerful part of the poem. They toss away life, “solitude,” and travel down the river.
Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you’re madder than I am
where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses
The third part of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ is quite different from the two proceeding sections. Here, he leans on techniques inspired by Walt Whitman, like anaphora and repetition, in order to create a very rhythmic, jazz-like pattern of language. Specifically, he repeats the phrase “I’m with you in Rockland” more than fifteen times.
He directs these words very specifically to Carl Solomon. He tells Solomon that he’s with him in Rockland, a mental hospital that neither of them spent time in but, as Ginsberg himself noted, was rhythmically more interesting than the truth. Like Ginsberg’s mother, Solomon was institutionalized along with other “great writers” all dealing with the same conditions. He uses “I’m with you in Rockland” like a chant, something to return to over and over.
Throughout the section, Ginsberg also provides readers with a few examples of Solomon’s seeming insanity. This includes his “invisible humor,” his belief that he murdered his “twelve secretaries,” and more. His condition is so serious that it has been “reported on the radio.” This last line is clearly hyperbolic.
I’m with you in Rockland
where you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica
where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha
In the next part of the poem, the speaker refers to Solomon’s nurses as “herpes,” makes a reference to the previous “ping-pong” game of the previous sections, and describes Solomon banging on the “catatonic piano.” Also, within these lions that Ginsberg references the electro shock treatment that men like Solomon suffered.
He suggests that the man was never the same again. That his soul “will never return…to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void.” The treatments did nothing to help Solomon. In fact, Ginsberg seems to suggest that they made his situation worse.
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.
It also seems that Solomon suffered from hallucinations, paranoia, and specifically the belief that the hospital was filled with communists. Ginsberg also includes an allusion to a potential relationship the two shared where they hugged and kissed “the United States under our bedsheets.” 111 is incredibly long, often spanning three visual lines on a page.
He tells Solomon that he’s with him in Rockland, where together they wake up electrified “out of the coma” by our “souls’ airplanes.” It’s in these lines that Ginsberg imagines a future in which the oppressed have the power to stand up against the society that has imposed this horrifying confinement upon them. In the future, in which the hospital becomes a war zone, the patients or the “skinny legions” are set free and are able to fight back.
The poem ends with another fairly long line in which Solomon walks from a long “sea-journey” across the highway of America with tears in his eyes to Ginsberg’s cottage in the “western night.” But, it’s only a dream in which the two are reunited.
To understand ‘Howl’, it is important to have a clear grasp of Ginsberg’s contemporary moment and what so angered him throughout this piece. It was written after the Second World War and during an economic boom. Despite this more positive environment, American society was still broadly unaccepting of people deemed “other.” That is, those who did not conform to the mainstream religious, ethnic, and social standards of the time. The poem was penned during a period in which a variety of equal rights movements, like the LGBTQ liberation movement, were just getting off the ground.
This period also saw the criminalization of homosexuality which was considered a psychiatric disorder. The inhumane treatment of men and women deemed “insane” is detailed throughout this poem. For example, in line 106 in which, the poet describes “shocks” that will “never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void.” The poet also references the practice of “instantaneous lobotomy.”
Ginsberg himself was institutionalized from 1949 to 1950 in a hospital where he met Carl Solomon, to whom he dedicated his poem, and where doctors tried to cure him of his homosexuality.
The message is that people are suffering under the oppressive and exploitive modern society Ginsberg was living in. The creative and artistic are driven mad by the demands of contemporary society and its unwillingness to accept them.
Allen Ginsberg spends the lines of ‘Howl’ talking about his friends, many of whom were (as he was) gay. He explores their creativity, seeming madness, and specifically the suffering his friend Carl Solomon endures.
‘Howl’ was so controversial because of the language Ginsberg used, his willingness to challenge contemporary social and literary standards, and his elevation of “madness.”
The poem ‘Howl’ celebrates those who live outside of society’s norms. The men and women who are gay, artistic, or different in any way due to who they loved, how they lived, or how they looked.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Allen Ginsberg poems. For example:
- ‘A Western Ballad’ – is a non-traditional ballad in which the speaker expresses his love and the sorrow it brought him.
- ‘America’ – deals with the turbulent times in America. It was written during and focused on the period after the Second World War.
- ‘Homework’ – depicts the environmental degradation in the modern world.