James E. B. Breslin

James E. B. Breslin: On "Howl"

"Howl" links the visionary and the concrete, the language of mystical illumination and the language of the street, and the two are joined not in a static synthesis but in a dialectical movement in which an exhausting and punishing immersion in the most sordid of contemporary realities issues in transcendent vision.  Ginsberg is still uneasy about life in the body, which he more often represents as causing pain . . . than pleasure; but in this way he is . . . "pained" into Vision.  At the close of "Howl," having looked back over his life, Ginsberg can affirm a core self of "unconditioned Spirit" and sympathetic humanity that has survived an agonizing ordeal.

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[T]he poem begins by immersing us in the extremities of modern urban life, overwhelming and flooding us with sensations . . . [of] modern civilization's indifference and hostility[, which] provoke a desperate search for something beyond it, for spiritual illumination.  Again and again, the young men are left "beat" and exhausted, alone in their empty rooms, trapped in time--at which point they gain glimpses of eternity.  "Howl" constantly pushes toward exhaustion, a dead end, only to have these ends twist into moments of shuddering ecstasy.  In one of the poem's metaphors, boundaries are set down, push in on and enclose the self--then suddenly disintegrate.  At such times terror shifts to ecstasy; the "madman bum" is discovered to be the angelheaded hipster. . . .

As the catalog of Part I moves through gestures of greater and greater desperation, the hipsters finally present "themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy"--an act that frantically mixes defiance and submission, clownishness and martyrdom.  What they want is immediate release from their heads, from suffering; what they get is prolonged incarceration, "the concrete void of insulin" shots and therapy aimed not at liberation but "adjustment," their "bodies turned to stone as heavy as the moon."  At this point, in the longest and most despairing line, the poem seems about to collapse, to "end":

with mother finally ******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4am and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the 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--

With all communication broken off and all vision denied, the self is left in a lonely, silent, empty room--the self is such a room--the room itself the culmination of the poem's many images of walls, barriers, and enclosures. . . .  At this climactic moment of Part I, . . . temporal reality is experienced as a series of unbridgeable gaps, a void populated with self-enclosed minds.  Ordeal by immersion leaves the self feeling dead and walled-in; the body, heavy as stone, lacks affect and becomes a heavy burden, while the spirit incarcerated inside the "dead" body finds itself in no sweet golden clime but a "concrete void."

. . .  [A]t the limits of despair--with the active will yielded up--Ginsberg experiences a sudden infusion of energy; the poem's mood dramatically turns and the concluding lines of Part I affirm the self's power to love and to communicate within a living cosmos.  Immediately following the poem's most despairing lines comes its most affectionate: "ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you're in the total animal soup of time.". . .  Ginsberg does not seek a cautious self-insularity, and he here endorses vulnerability to danger and a tender identification with the victims of time and history.  "I saw the best minds of my generation," Ginsberg had begun, as if a prophetic and retrospective detachment exempted him from the fate he was describing; but Ginsberg now writes from inside the ordeal, as if the aim of writing were not to shape or contain, but sympathetically to enter an experience.  By his own unrestrained outpouring of images and feelings Ginsberg exposes himself as writer to literary ridicule and rejection, and he does risk the annihilation of his poetic self in the released flood of raw experience and emotion.  But by risking these dangers Ginsberg can achieve the kind of poetry the describes in Part I's last six lines, a poetry that bridges the gap between selves by incarnating the author's experience, making the reader, too, feel it as a "sensation."

. . .  [I]n Part II, strengthened by his descent and return, he can confront his persecutor angrily, his words striving for magical force as they strike, like a series of hammer blows, against the iron walls of Moloch. . . .  Moloch is an ancient deity to whom children were sacrificed, just as the "brains and imagination" of the present generation are devoured by a jealous and cruel social system.  Moloch stands broadly for authority--familial, social, literary. . . .  Manifest in skyscrapers, prisons, factories, banks, madhouses, armies, governments, technology, money, bombs, Moloch represents a vast, all-encompassing social reality that is at best unresponsive (a "concrete void"), at worst a malign presence that feeds off individuality and difference.  Moloch--"whose mind is pure machinery"--is . . . pure reason and abstract form. . . .  Moloch is also "the heavy judger of men," the parent whose chilling glance can terrify the child, paralyze him with self-doubt and make him feel "crazy" and "queer."  Moloch, then, is the principle of separation and conflict in life, an external force so powerful that it eats its way inside and divides the self against itself. . . .  It is Moloch who is the origin of all the poem's images of stony coldness. . . .  Ginsberg's driving, heated repetition of the name, moreover, creates the feeling that Moloch is everywhere, surrounding, enclosing--a cement or iron structure inside of which the spirit, devoured, sits imprisoned and languishing. . . .

"Moloch whom I abandon!" Ginsberg cries out at one point.  Yet in spite of all the imprecations and even humor directed against this ubiquitous presence, the release of pent-up rage is finally not liberating; anger is not the way out.  Part II begins with bristling defiance, but it ends with the loss, futility, and self-contempt as Ginsberg sees all he values, "visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!"--"the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit"--"gone down the American river!"  And so . . . at the close of Part II, similar to the moment in Part I when the hipsters, with shaven heads and harlequin speech, present themselves for lobotomy, the mood here is hysterically suicidal, with anger, laughter, and helplessness combining in a giddy self-destructiveness. . . .  An outpouring of anger against constricting authority may be a stage in the process of self-liberation, but it is not its end; anger, perpetuating divisions, perpetuates Moloch.  In fact, as the last line of Part II shows, such rage, futile in its beatings against the stony consciousness of Moloch, at last turns back on the self in acts that are, however zany, suicidal.

But in Part III, dramatically shifting from self-consuming rage to renewal in love, a kind of self-integration, a balancing of destructive and creative impulses, is sought.  "Carl Solomon!  I'm with you in Rockland," Ginsberg begins, turning from angry declamatory rhetoric to a simple, colloquial line, affectionate and reassuring in its rocking rhythm. . . .  Part III's refrain thus establishes a context of emotional support and spiritual communion, and it is from this "base," taking off in increasingly more daring flights of rebellious energy, that Ginsberg finally arrives at his "real" self. . . .

Again, boundaries ("imaginary walls") collapse, in a soaring moment of apocalyptic release; and the self--which is "innocent and immortal"--breaks free of Moloch, of whom Rockland's walls are an extension.  The poem, then, does not close with the suicidal deliverance of Part II; nor does it end with a comic apocalypse ("O victory forget your underwear we're free"); it closes, instead, with a Whitmanesque image of love and reunion ["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"].  "Howl" moves from the ordeal of separation, through the casting out of the principle of division, toward unification, a process that happens primarily within the self.

James E. B. Breslin: "On "Skunk Hour"

The poem begins with an eccentric heiress who prefers "Queen Victoria's century" to the present but who is powerless to halt temporal and social disintegration. Her "son's a bishop," her "farmer / is first selectman in our village." She is a figure of rank or station, but she is "in her dotage." A "hermit / heiress," she yearns for "hierarchic privacy," a safely controlled existence; she tries to resist time by buying "all / the eyesores facing her shore," but then "lets them fall." She at least is "Spartan" and old-fashioned, but the town has lost even its modern, showy millionaire. The heiress has a certain integrity and character, but he "seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean / catalogue" -- an anonymous figure created by remote control. "The season's ill," Lowell coolly pronounces; "a red fox stain covers Blue Hill." The final phase of the town's decay is evoked by a decorator who converts real, functional objects of the town's past (a cobbler's bench and awl) into art objects (aimed at the tourist trade) by painting them orange -- a way of preserving the past that empties it of its reality.

But the next two stanzas turn on and subvert the first four, as "Skunk Hour" abruptly shifts from ironic account of disintegrating town to the "dark night" of a personal ordeal. The disintegration, it now appears, is Lowell's own, the changing of self into landscape. Instead of observing that "the season's ill," Lowell now speaks of "my ill-spirit" and admits that "my mind's not right." In fact, by presenting himself watching lovers in parked cars, Lowell uncovers his core self -- "unseen and all-seeing" -- and desperately in want, but while a withdrawn and helpless spectator, he projects himself onto the outside world -- a way of preserving self and other that empties both of their reality. The two stanzas thus culminate with a moving and crucial act of self-recognition: "I myself am hell; / nobody's here" -- the quotation from Milton's Satan defining the projecting as demonic self. All the sequence's images of sealed enclosures are really representations of the poet's own encapsulated consciousness; Lowell now confronts his own "air / of lost connections," his radical isolation.

"Skunk Hour" does not, however, end with a despairing perception of inevitable subjectivity; the poem moves from easy projection, through inward ordeal, toward authentic connection with otherness; "nobody's here -- // only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat." The skunks seem to wander into the poem, seen out of the corner of the poet's eye and qualifying his sense of isolation, and they are viewed with a literal realism that reveals an opening of the locked self. . . . The pun on "soles" (for "souls") emphasizes that these are literal, physical animals. Juxtaposing them against the dry, dead aspirations of the Trinitarian Church, Lowell places the skunks in a flat, mythless, modern ("Main Street") world where things lack the vertical extensions of meaning they possess within a Christian mythology. . . . The skunks, swilling sour cream from a garbage pail, manifest the persistence of a fiery life in a corrupt, disintegrating, ordinary world. The poet includes, but does not tame, them.

James E. B. Breslin: On "Skunk Hour"

The poem begins with an eccentric heiress who prefers "Queen Victoria's century" to the present but who is powerless to halt temporal and social disintegration. Her "son's a bishop," her "farmer / is first selectman in our village." She is a figure of rank or station, but she is "in her dotage." A "hermit / heiress," she yearns for "hierarchic privacy," a safely controlled existence; she tries to resist time by buying "all / the eyesores facing her shore," but then "lets them fall." She at least is "Spartan" and old-fashioned, but the town has lost even its modern, showy millionaire. The heiress has a certain integrity and character, but he "seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean / catalogue" -- an anonymous figure created by remote control. "The season's ill," Lowell coolly pronounces; "a red fox stain covers Blue Hill." The final phase of the town's decay is evoked by a decorator who converts real, functional objects of the town's past (a cobbler's bench and awl) into art objects (aimed at the tourist trade) by painting them orange -- a way of preserving the past that empties it of its reality.

But the next two stanzas turn on and subvert the first four, as "Skunk Hour" abruptly shifts from ironic account of disintegrating town to the "dark night" of a personal ordeal. The disintegration, it now appears, is Lowell's own, the changing of self into landscape. Instead of observing that "the season's ill," Lowell now speaks of "my ill-spirit" and admits that "my mind's not right." In fact, by presenting himself watching lovers in parked cars, Lowell uncovers his core self -- "unseen and all-seeing" -- and desperately in want, but while a withdrawn and helpless spectator, he projects himself onto the outside world -- a way of preserving self and other that empties both of their reality. The two stanzas thus culminate with a moving and crucial act of self-recognition: "I myself am hell; / nobody's here" -- the quotation from Milton's Satan defining the projecting as demonic self. All the sequence's images of sealed enclosures are really representations of the poet's own encapsulated consciousness; Lowell now confronts his own "air / of lost connections," his radical isolation.

"Skunk Hour" does not, however, end with a despairing perception of inevitable subjectivity; the poem moves from easy projection, through inward ordeal, toward authentic connection with otherness; "nobody's here -- // only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat." The skunks seem to wander into the poem, seen out of the corner of the poet's eye and qualifying his sense of isolation, and they are viewed with a literal realism that reveals an opening of the locked self. . . . The pun on "soles" (for "souls") emphasizes that these are literal, physical animals. Juxtaposing them against the dry, dead aspirations of the Trinitarian Church, Lowell places the skunks in a flat, mythless, modern ("Main Street") world where things lack the vertical extensions of meaning they possess within a Christian mythology. . . . The skunks, swilling sour cream from a garbage pail, manifest the persistence of a fiery life in a corrupt, disintegrating, ordinary world. The poet includes, but does not tame, them.

From From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry 1945-1965 (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983), 137-139.