“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg – A Stylistic Analysis by Momina Masood
[The selected poem could be found here. This is an analysis of the III section of the poem.]
Allen Ginsberg was a representative poet of the Beat Generation—a counterculture literary movement which revolutionized the creative process, and developed a major cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond. Ginsberg wrote his magnum opus, Howl, addressed to his friend Carl Solomon, a friend he met at a mental institute. This essay will look at the linguistic features of the third section of Howl, and will try to excavate meaning through stylistic techniques.
The third section of Howl uses a consistent semantic field of madness and insanity, and words like
“madder”, “strange”, “hospital”, “nurses”, “imaginary”, “coughs”, “dreadful”, “murdered”, “insanity”, “coma”
create the ambience of the inside of a mental institute, and perhaps also represents the interiority of the mind of the mentally insane, in this case, Carl Solomon himself. The vocabulary is simple, but is highly specialized as it uses the jargon associated with asylums like “shocks” and “straightjackets”—words that are commonly associated with “madhouses”. Ginsberg’s use of specialized lexemes, therefore, prepares the reader for a journey inside the mental asylum of Rockland. Phrases like “faculties of the skull” and “worms of the senses” again give a picaresque view inside the mind of the mentally insane, and are appropriate choice for a poem of this subject-matter.
The language is very descriptive as it keeps using the sub-clause beginning with the relative “where….” and so on, through which the poem tries to describe the living conditions inside Rockland, as well as to describe Solomon’s deteriorating state of mind. The poem uses the technique of apostrophe as it is addressed to a person whose point of view is absent from the poem. Collocation is used in phrases like “your condition has become serious”—words like “condition” and “serious” are used often together in collocation, which goes to show that Ginsberg’s lexical choices make the poem conversational and colloquial. His style is not overtly poetic or difficult, but uses ordinary and simple words which make his works accessible for the reader.
“I’m with you in Rockland,”
The entire poem uses the present tense so verbs are hardly ever inflected into another tense except for two instances where Ginsberg uses a past and a future tense. The only instant of past tense inflectional morpheme is in the phrase “you’ve murdered”, and future tense is used much later on in the poem like in “where you will split”.
Most of the verbs are stative and intransitive where the action is not being carried over to another object, and the chosen verbs simply denote a state of being. This is because inaction and passivity is usually denoted with mental patients. Adjectives like “catatonic” are once again indicative of the state of Rockland itself where even the piano remains unplayed, and the state of Solomon himself. It is for this reason that verbs like:
“feel”, “imitate”, “laugh”, “drink”, “pun”, “scream”, “accuse”, “wake up”
denote Solomon’s condition who seems to be in mental limbo. The use of present tense is important because through the repetition of “I’m with you” he seems to be creating a sense of intimacy with Solomon, that despite everything, and despite the fact that both of them have moved on in their lives, Ginsberg still feels that he is still with Solomon in the mental asylum in which they met. Distance and time are overcome through the use of the present tense.
Inflectional morphemes are used much more than derivational morphemes which are scarce like “skinny” and “imaginary” which are used in the last section of the poem. Compound morphemes are also used like “typewriter”, “starry-spangled”, “underwear”, “madhouse” and “straightjacket”, whereas Ginsberg uses affix in “ungodly” which in totality becomes a derivational morpheme which is indicative of the absence of divinity in the mental asylum, and in American society as a whole.
As the poem progresses the verbs show more dynamic action, thus endowing the subject addressed with more agency and power. Verbs like “walk”, “bang” and “run” are used to show Ginsberg’s vision of the future in which the walls of the asylum will collapse, and the oppressed and marginalized will taste freedom.
Plural inflectional morphemes are used in abundance like “nurses”, “secretaries”, “harpies” and “bodies”. As indicative from the morphological analysis of this poem, the poem is written in a straightforward manner with few derivational morphemes and only commonplace inflectional morphemes, as the poem situates itself in the present tense.
Much of the poem is constructed of complex assertive sentences where the poet simply declares and makes statements without wishing or expressing desire. Only the last section of the poem has imperative and exclamatory sentences like:
“O skinny legions run outside [imperative] O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free [exclamatory]”
A large part of the poem is constructed of complex sentences, with the independent clause which is repeated throughout is connected to the dependent clause through relative pronouns. The adverb phrase “in Rockland” is repeated throughout the poem, and the adjective sub-clause “where…” is used to describe Rockland itself and Solomon’s condition. Mostly the phrases used are verb phrases denoting action, and adverbial phrases qualifying that action. Noun phrases like “we are great writers” are used but very rarely. There are instances of noun clauses like:
“faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses”
As well as “harpies of the Bronx”, and “the soul is innocent and immortal”.
And long adjective clauses are used as well like the following which is qualifying the noun “tea”:
“of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica”
Participle clause is used in the latter half of the poem like “living human Jesus” where “living” is used as an adjective. Adjective phrases like “that coughs all night” and “electrified out of the coma” are used to describe vividly the decrepitude of American society as well as Solomon himself. Infinitive phrase “to drop angelic bombs” is used as well.
Most of the phrases in the last half of the poem are prepositional phrases which occasionally serve as adverbials and as adjectives like:
“under the bedsheets” (adverb), “in the Western night” (adverb), “in my dreams” (adverbs), “in tears” (adjective), “on the highway across America” (adverb).
Through a grammatical analysis, it is evident that the poem is comprised mostly of adjectives and prepositional phrases, both of which are used to describe objects and states and give accessory information about the subject. There are two subjects: Rockland and Solomon himself (denoted by “you”), and the poem is written in second person. The verbs, as mentioned earlier, are stative but increase in dynamism in the last half of the poem.
This poem is rich in figurative language. It is highly metaphorical and symbolic as Solomon’s condition is used as a metaphor to provide commentary on postwar American society.
There is an early use of hyperbole in the phrase:
“you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries”
which is, of course, untrue, but such exaggeration is used to give insight into the extent of Solomon’s insanity which is later reinforced by another use of hyperbole in the clause:
“your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio”.
Metaphors like “worms of the senses” stand for unpleasant thoughts from which a mentally ill person cannot free himself; the mind appears entangled in thoughts which, like, worms seem to creep in unnoticed. The metaphor “pingpong of the abyss” is very important as it shows Solomon’s dwindling between moments of clarity and then consequent madness; Solomon is battling life and death, oblivion and insanity, and this perpetual pingpong defines his life in the asylum. Another metaphor similar to this is the line:
“fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void”.
This is a metaphor for Carl’s mental state; it’s like he’s gone to a pilgrimage in the void or a state of nothingness, oblivion and insanity from which no amount of shock therapy can bring him back.
A metaphor which is indicative of urban middle-class American society is
“tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica”
which is a metaphor of New York urban middle-class lifestyle. Also spinsters are symbolic of infertility and thus they literally cannot produce milk but can only serve tea—this phrase indicates infertility and middle-class lifestyle. Another reference to American society is “nurses as harpies of the Bronx”—harpies are monsters from Greek mythology (this makes this an allusion as well) who were half-women and half-monsters. The nurses of Rockland appear to Solomon as monsters as he hallucinates inside the asylum, indicative of the state of the mentally insane.
In phrase “imaginary walls collapse”, Ginsberg makes use of a synecdoche as walls represent the mental asylum, as well as the confines and strictures of society itself. Words like “straightjacket” metonymize a mental institution which is further personified in the phrase “armed madhouse”. The madhouse being armed shows that it is fenced in and closed off from the rest of society which makes the mentally insane alienated and positioned at the margins of American society. Personification is further used in the line:
“the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep”
The idea of a country coughing shows its worsening state under “stunned governments” (a phrase Ginsberg uses elsewhere in his poetry), and this idea of a society dying is reinforced and repeated especially in the last verses where there is mention of “planes dropping bombs” which is a reference to the memory of the Second World War. In “mercy the eternal war is here”, Ginsberg uses an antithesis where “mercy” and “war” are used close together.
In the last line of the poem:
“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”
There is a proper sense of climax developed that Carl Solomon has finally escaped from the asylum, and the poet dreams of him coming to meet him, after the nightmare of illness is over and behind him. This is also a metaphor for utopian vision for a better future, a healthy American society which opens itself to the “skinny legions” which is a metaphor for the marginalized and the oppressed living on the peripheries of American society.
But the last lines are ironical as well because Ginsberg views a free society where the insane will take over with their skinny sickly figures, without wearing underwear, and instead of endowing them with power, they’re escaping and taking over the world as they’re dying.
Another set of important metaphors which give insight into the poem’s meaning is the clause “reconstruct your living human jesus” which is slightly antithetical since the Christian concept of Jesus views him as the Son of God, a divine figure, so the idea of a “living human jesus” means that the faith Ginsberg is trying to resurrect is that of humanity and compassion, not of unreachable divinity, or a kind of god which is at a distance from man. The Christ who will return once again to earth will no longer be the Son of God, but one of mankind.
Another biblical allusion is in the clause
“plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha”.
Golgotha was the place Jesus was crucified, and the entire clause could be a metaphor for a search for freedom against bureaucracy, capitalism and urbanity. There is also an allusion to communism as Ginsberg makes use of the word “Internationale” which was the communist anthem. This is important to show the paranoia American society had for communism entering its borders unnoticed, as the later McCarthy trials would later go on to prove.
Through a figurative level analysis of this poem, it is evident that this poem deals with more than just Solomon’s illness, but it is a mediation upon postwar American society, and the threat capitalism and urbanity poses to the individual who might, in fact, simply lose his mind.
Deviation and Parallelism:
All kinds of parallelism are used in the poem. Graphologically, the poem uses the similar structure of one short and long line alternatively. There is graphological deviation only in the last lines of the poem which have a series of lines, instead of the (iI) structure.
Anaphoric repetition of the first line “I’m with you in Rockland” is the most obvious feature of repetition in the poem. The syntactical structure of a complex sentence [one short main clause + one short sub-clause] is repeated throughout the poem. Deviation can only be found in the last few verses of the poem:
“where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free”
This entire section uses graphological deviation. No punctuation and capitalization is used, and only spaces are left between sentences, and all of this shows how the mental patient actually thinks. The fragmentation of conscious thought is graphically shown through the breakdown of structure in this section.
Apart from this obvious instance of deviation, the poem does not use appropriate punctuation and lexical deviation is used in words like “twentyfive” which is written like a compound word without a hyphen, and semantic deviation in phrases like “split the heavens of Long Island” which is logically impossible but is used as a metaphor for the reconstruction of a better society.
There is only one instance of register deviation in “pun on the bodies” which is a slang expression for the sexual act. Through the study of deviation and parallelism, it is evident how the poem creates a sense of cohesion, and where that cohesion is broken for poetic purposes.
There is no fixed rhyme in this poem, though the anaphoric repetition of “I’m with you in Rockland” does create rhythm in the poem. Cases of alliteration are scarce like in the phrase “breasts of the spinsters” and “fascist national”. Overall the poem makes use of hard phonemes, and there are several uses of [d] and [t] sounds, which adds into the ambience of the poem. The lack of musicality is justified as the poem is an unflinching treatment of insanity and societal degeneration.
Coherence and Cohesion:
Through repetition and parallelism, cohesion is established in the poem. Since the subject of the poem never changes, the reader can sail through the poem smoothly. It is never doubted what the poem is about through its simple language. Semantic cohesion and coherence has been achieved by making use of collocation and semantic field which uses specialized vocabulary according to the subject matter. Cohesion only breaks down at the end of the poem and it becomes fragmented but this breakdown of cohesion is important as it reflects upon the state of the mind of the mentally ill.
The knowledge of Ginsberg’s personal struggle with mental illness can help the reader in analyzing this poem, as well as the context in which the poem was written. But even without knowledge of the context, the poem remains coherent and cohesively bound.
Stylistics is an important linguistic technique in analyzing literature as it brings to light the mechanics of language, the way meaning is created through language use, and how that meaning can be attained simply by a deconstruction of language use. By analyzing the lexical choices as well as the grammatical structure of a poem, the meaning comes floating to the surface. Ginsberg’s Howl remains one of the most important poems of the 20th century, and any kind of analysis is a contribution to the study of the Beat poets, as well as an exploration of postwar American society.