Gregory Stephenson: On "Howl"

A number of the incidents in the first section are autobiographical, alluding to the poet's own experiences, such as his travels, his expulsion from Columbia University, his vision of Blake, his studies of mystical writers and Cezanne's paintings, his time in jail and in the asylum.  Some of the more obscure personal allusions, such as "the brilliant Spaniard" in Houston, may be clarified by reading Ginsberg's Journals.  Other references are to his friends and acquaintances--Herbert Huncke, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, William Cannastra, and others. . . .

The personal nature of the references in "Howl"[, however,] do not make it a poem a clef or a private communication.  Nor is the poem reduced or obscured by its personal allusions.  To the contrary, as images the persons, places, and events alluded to have great suggestive power.  They possess a mythic, poetic clarity.  We need know nothing of Ginsberg's experiences at Columbia University to understand the poetic sense of the lines

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

And we do not have to know that the line "who walked all night with their shoes full of blood . . . " refers to Herbert Huncke before we are moved to pity and terror by the picture.  For Ginsberg, as for Whitman, the personal communicates the universal.  The images are ultimately autonomous and multivalent engaging our poetic understanding by their very intensity and mystery.


Title Gregory Stephenson: On "Howl" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Gregory Stephenson Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation
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