HOWLING AMERICA'S NAKED MIND
HOWLING AMERICA’S NAKED MIND
MY OWN PERSONAL REFLECTIONS OF GINSBERG’S HOWL
In his poem “Howl” Allen Ginsberg says he is “con- fessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of/ thought” in an effort to delineate “America’s naked mind.” This poem that was published in 1956, and which was the subject of an obscenity trial upon its release, approximately marks a watershed moment in American History. Ten years after “Howl“ appeared on bookshelves, revolutionary changes began to swell across the American landscape. These changes would do much to dissipate the long cherished, old-fashioned conservatism that marked the first half of the 20th Century. Prior to Ginsberg, writers like Hemingway and Mailer were already abandoning the jingo in their fiction about World Wars I and II and were beginning to question some of America‘s attitudes. But “Howl” reads like a pornographic jeremiad, and the language is so graphic and shocking that even today’s readers will flinch at some of the lines.
Its frenetic syntax describing “endless cock and balls” and rooms “full of steam heat and opium” reveals a marginalized segment of America fed up with listening to the “scholars of war” and hearing the “crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox” every night. The answer to conformity is nonconformity, the answer to sober-minded mechanical thinking is drug addled craziness, the answer to capitalism’s “sexless cloud of hydrogen” is reckless bisexual promiscuity. And more than anything, “Howl” asserts that the madness of the world can only be combated by equal madness.
When I went through a crazy teenage phase in the early and mid ‘90s, I did not have the fortune of reading “Howl“ to assure me that other people--even very brilliant and artistic people like Allen Ginsberg--experience insanity in ways similar to how I was experiencing it then. I did not read “Howl” until I was in my twenties when, by then, I had grown an appreciation for what books can do and had developed a love of--and dependence upon--them. In many ways, my thoughts were as scattered and psychotic when I was a teenager as the voice in Ginsberg’s ranting poem. I was fighting a war back then. I was fighting a war against the world and a war in my mind. I smoked pot and took acid so I wouldn’t be like everybody else. I wanted to free my mind from what I saw as the myopia of suburban California, and more than anything, I thought I was being cool by taking drugs.
My rebellious drug use, however, would ultimately have consequences. Like Allen Ginsberg, at my high school I “broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the/ machinery of other skeletons.” When I read this line in “Howl” for the first time I thought Allen Ginsberg and I must share the same spirit. It took me back to a time in my Sophomore year when I smoked pot before a pep rally and felt exactly the same way--like I was naked and everybody was laughing at me. In reality, I was thronged with the stoners in a corner of the gym and nobody probably even noticed me amidst the sea of scraggly hair and beanies. “Howl” glorifies drug use but it does not eschew the damage drugs can cause. Drugs may offer instant gratification, but the user always comes down, “shuddering, mouth-wracked and battered/ bleak of brain all drained of/ brilliance.” Having learned this lesson the hard way too many times, I eventually gave up drugs before I finished high school.
“Howl” also spoke to me in another way the first time I read it. My childhood evenings were spent watching the world kill itself on the nightly news as my mom cooked casseroles and meat loaf and asked me about my day at school. Later, the bombardment of war stock footage I witnessed during these formative years would haunt me as a teenager on afternoons I spent lying in bed listening to heavy metal CDs. Images of executions, tanks exploding and common graves would play through my brain to a discordant soundtrack of lacerating guitar chords and rumbling drums. My mind became one continuous heavy metal video after another on those sunny afternoons. Being more fascinated by the images and pictures of the news broadcasts as a boy, these scenes replayed in my mind with no context to accompany them. To me they were a meaningless montage of chaos that spoke of humankind’s penchant for senseless brutality.
This left me believing that mankind must be intrinsically evil. As a result, I distrusted large institutions and became skeptical of everything that they stood for. I was like a lot of seventeen and eighteen year-olds. Marylyn Manson made more sense to me than Bill Clinton. This nihilism lingered into my early twenties and affected my first reading of “Howl.”
Because of this quashed optimism that I carried around as a vestige of my adolescence, I could identify with part II of the poem. My inner voice chanted along with Ginsberg’s as he cried “Moloch!” I could easily grasp his belief that there is an evil so prevalent in the world yet so mysterious that it can only be expressed by a strange, chanted invocation. “Moloch whose love is endless oil,” the verse shouts. “Moloch who entered my soul early!” “Moloch!” with its “Robot apartments” and “invisible suburbs.” While I was already beginning to become part of Moloch in my early twenties, I still had enough iconoclastic spirit left over in me to feel like Ginsberg was speaking directly to me in these lines. Furthermore, lines in the verse from part I denouncing “the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of/ advertising & the mustard gas of/ sinister intelligent editors” really hit home with me as well.
Allen Ginsberg is at war with the world in “Howl“, but like the truest of all rebels, he is also at war with himself. He is no stranger to the “pingpong & amnesia” of mental hospitals which he recalls “returning years later [to] truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East.” I laughed along with him when I read how he “in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table.” It made me recall a time when I flipped over a desk at an alternative school I attended for a semester after failing out of regular high school in my Sophomore year.
Having spent time in inpatient psychiatric hospitals myself, I can empathize with Ginsberg’s frustration at the futility of fighting a reality that may not always be the reality we want it to be. He dedicates his poem to Carl Solomon “losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss” in Rockland where he keeps saying “I’m with you.”
My troubled teenage years were not easy for me or for my family. I hated going to school and my brothers suffered from guilt as my broken mind stagnated from 1992 to 1995. My parents were forced to pick and choose their battles with me, allowing me to smoke and watch the Playboy channel in exchange for more stringent restrictions on some of my other freedoms. All I could think while all this was going on was “What’s the big deal? There’s nothing wrong with me.” Ten years since graduating from high school those years seem like a distant reverie. Sometimes I wonder if they even happened, if maybe I wasn’t possessed all that time by a foreign spirit. When I read “Howl” it takes me back to those times and everything becomes fresh in my mind again.
After having my college career truncated in 1998 by another psychotic breakdown, I finally resumed my studies three years ago at a four year college in my community. I am a senior now and expecting to graduated in less than a year. I have read “Howl” twice in the last year for two different college courses and I even did a presentation on Allen Ginsberg for a poetry class. Each time I read “Howl,” I pick up on nuances that I did not know existed before. It is as if my reading of the poem evolves as I evolve.
For a person to lose their mind and their sanity is a tragic thing, but for the whole world to lose its mind and its sanity, that is an even sadder thing. This is the truest message “Howl” leaves in its wake, and its ripples can still be felt today, howling America’s naked mind.