Allen Ginsberg, the “beat” generation and prophetic imagery



Here I am posting an essay from my third year in College. Any input of feedback/constructive criticism welcomed.


Conor Ryan



For the attention of Dr. Jack Fennell

Date of Submission: 1st May 2014



  1. Kenneth Rexroth described Ginsberg’s “Howl” as ‘prophetic’: “There are the prophets of the Bible, which it greatly resembles in purpose and in language and in subject matter.” Discuss the imagery of “Howl” with reference to the idea of religious, mystical or spiritual revelation.


Allen Ginsberg was a literary radical who was interested in visionary consciousness, in particular working on developing his own brand of mysticism and philosophy. He was a poet who was part of a particular cultural movement during a period of change, a literary radical who wrote with purpose, making a conscious effort to use metaphorical dream-like imagery to illustrate spiritual revelation. This poetry cannot be understood without some understanding of the greater context that it emerged from. His name is now synonymous with the “Beat Generation”: a group of writers central to the literary renaissance that surfaced alongside the counterculture during the 1950s and 60s in San Francisco. His poetry used imagery portraying the counter culture: a side of society that was shocking to the censored mainstream society of the time. His seminal piece of poetry was not only prophetic in a spiritual sense, but also radical both politically and culturally: addressing his expectations of the developing counter-culture movement that was emerging.

Micheal True refers to similar works, and the impact they can have on how people live their lives: “Whatever its limitations as a political theory, at least as many Marxists view it, American literary radicalism offers some concrete suggestions about reconstructing the social order to guarantee the principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (27). The “Beat Movement” was a reaction to the way society was heading, and cultural developments were seen from different perspectives: a part of the subject to be interpreted through new emerging experimental forms. In a literary form this often arose through using spontaneity in methods of writing literature. “Beat” suggested rhythm or music, or weary alienation in a social context (“Beat” is slang for tired). Disillusionment at the direction that society was heading gave rise to particular writing forms and language being used to describe all sorts of subject matter. But in a spiritual sense, the name came from beatitude. Allen Ginsberg tried to see what kind of connections he could make with his unconscious mind rejecting realism and introducing spirituality with dreamlike imagery, which offers some hope to those who suffered for their beliefs- expressed in the final lines of Part III:

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” (28).

Critics like Carl Jackson “date the birth of the ‘Beat Generation’ to an evening in March 1955” (51) Ginsberg specifically addressed several people at the first reading of “Howl” at a poetry reading at the Six Club in San Francisco. Among these were fellow poets including Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen and Micheal McClure. These figures were contemporaries of Ginsberg, interested in similar ideas and fellow visionaries of a movement. “Like any spiritual innovation, this new vision included a rejection of dominant spiritual norms and established religious institutions” (Prothero, 209). Part I investigates individual cases somewhat reminiscent of an avant-garde montage sequence of experiences described by Ginsberg’s friends and contemporaries, depicting scenes through flashing imagery with a hallucinatory quality. Prothero asserts that Ginsberg’s poetry explores the unorthodox spiritual search of the youth of this era “…the beats flight from the churches and synagogues of the suburbs to city streets occupied by whores and junkies, hobos and jazzmen never ceased to be a search for something to be believed in, something to go by” (210).

 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 (9).

Prothero describes “The beats were liminal figures who expressed their cultural marginality by living spontaneously, dressing like bums, sharing their property, celebrating nakedness and sexuality, seeking mystical awareness through drugs and meditation, acting like ‘Zen Lunatics’ or holy fools and perhaps above all stressing the chaotic sacrality of human interconnectedness or communitas over the pragmatic functionality of social structure” (210-211). Ginsberg’s poetry was a conscious effort to capture spiritual and religious revelations or experiences of him and the people around him. Ginsberg described the experiences of those around him who used drugs, drank and searched for any vice they could find.

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels

staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkan-

sas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war (9).

Ginsberg experimented with parataxis: a technique for the syntactic subversion of meaning so the revelations are not always clear, being metaphorical and alluding to concepts through associative techniques. The hallucinatory style of writing is effective, describing swift and fleeting revelations through portrayal of individual cases and experiences emphasising the interconnectivity of each and every thing on earth. “Howl” is peppered with a myriad of cultural and personal allusions and references that allude to different possible meaningd. Ginsberg believed that everything in the world is interconnected, having reached this conclusion after having auditory hallucinations of readings of William Blake that led him to develop his vision of mysticism and philosophy.

Ginsberg was particularly interested in eastern religions, which he played a large part in introducing to the Beat Generation. As Jackson remarks “Asian thought was an essential element in the Beat view of the world” (51). In Part II society is symbolically embodied as a Moloch, the role of which is to confine and limit individual experience: putting pressure on conformity. Moloch is a popular mythological devil type figure from eastern religions that Ginsberg used to characterise the negative aspects of an industrial society as a force of consumption and destruction. This was supposedly conceived during a peyote trip, or possibly by the similar characterisation in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jail-

house and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judg-

ment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned govern-

ments! (20).

His poetry is among the various reactions reflecting disillusionment with a society that was becoming increasingly materialistic as consumerism took off at a time of economic boom during the Cold War. “Howl” brings problematic scenes of society to the attention of the reader, the counterculture developing as a reaction to the quintessential but unrealistic image of domestic bliss portrayed in 1950s pop-culture as military technology began to be used to develop household commodities like the microwave. The revelations are really concerned with the spiritual consequences of the social order and the falseness of this aesthetic materialistic society, and what it is built on.

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios,

tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! (21).

“Howl” features an existing martyr figure, Carl Solomon; to whom the poem is dedicated. The main emotional drive of the poem is sympathy for what he is undergoing. The line “I’m here with you in Rockland” is repeated many times in the final section, implying solidarity and support. Carl Solomon voluntarily went into mental asylum as a form of existential protest, and later wrote a book about the experience. This sympathy was probably related to feelings for Ginsberg’s recently lobotomised mother Naomi, a communist and political activist who probably have had undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia and was in and out of mental institutions her whole life. Often his mother and this character are rolled into one, being blurred together in the poem.

I’m with you in Rockland

where you imitate the shade of my mother (28).

At the time there was a kind of mania sweeping the American nation; paranoia at the idea of little understood communism infiltrating during the Cold War; very much suspecting anybody who lived a different lifestyle as being a potential threat and targeting the politically active with profiling. Mental asylums were used as a way to punish or silence dissidents. The sympathetic tone in the poem conveys empathy for Carl Solomon and his time spent locked up in an asylum with the implication that this is a rebellion against society’s standards. The persecution of new thought and ideas faced by the emerging counter-culture movement are likened to early Christianity’s martyred figures. There is certainly a sense of communitas emphasised in images of Ginsberg’s poetry, fellowship for the persecuted and the disillusioned in modern society.

where there are twenty-five-thousand mad com-

rades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale (28).

The original stepped triadic form showed the influence of his contemporary William Carlos Williams, but the style of writing is distinct in form: one long run-on sentence image-laden punctuated by breaks for the reader to catch breath, a characteristic that Ginsberg developed himself. The published version of “Howl” includes a fourth separate section entitled “Footnote to Howl”, a variation of the second part.. This features a repetition of the word holy fifteen times as a form of mantra-“especially preceding the names of Allen, Kerouac, Huncke, Burroughs and Cassaday” (Tamony, 276). Importantly, this underlined the purpose of the poem and the subjects depicted.

The imagery within “Howl” alludes to a social alienation that was felt by many of the time that resulted in spiritual search by some. Kenneth Rexroth was a well-known contemporary: notable scholar, poet and critic with many interests including a role in criticising early versions of “Howl”, taking on the role of Master of Ceremonies at its first reading. Several years later it was published. This led to trouble from the authorities with books being seized being shipped from England where it was published. This came to a head in 1957 where a seller of the book was arrested and Ginsberg’s obscenity trial went underway, with the publisher and venders of the book being brought to court. Rexroth served as a defence witness in the case. He described “Howl” as ‘prophetic’. The Bible was written as a reaction to a society that had developed after experiencing warfare, the verse that inspired a spiritual movement. The new testament of the bible was written in a period of rapid social change, setting down principles for living life through the use of metaphor. To whatever degree the similarity is, the verdict in the public trial was that “Howl” was not simply obscene as “the work was found to have some redeeming social importance” (Tamony, 276).








Works Cited


Ginsberg, Allen and Williams, William Carlos. “Howl.” Howl and other Poems: Pocket Poets Number 4. 1986, rpt. 2006. San Francisco: City Lights Books. 9-28. Web. Date of Access: 30 Apr. 2014


Jackson, Carl. “The counter culture look east beat writers and eastern religions.” American Studies 29. 1, (1988): 51-70. Web. Date of Access: 30 Apr. 2014


Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Paramount Pictures. 1927. Film.


Prothero, Stephen “On the Holy road: The Beat Generation as a Spiritual Protest.” The Harvard Theological Association 84. 2 (1991): 205-222. Web. Date of access: 30 Apr. 2014


Tamony, Peter. “Beat Generation: Beat: Beatniks.” Western Folklore 28. 4 (1969): 274-277. Web. Date Accessed: 30 Apr. 2014.


True, Micheal. “American Literary Radicals and Bicentennial: From Jefferson to Ginsberg, 1776-1976”. The English Journal 64. 6 (1975): 27-31. Web. Date Accessed: 30 Apr. 2014


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