In A Nutshell
Note: Before getting into the details of Howl, we believe it is important to provide the following disclaimer. We here at Shmoop agree with one of Howl's earliest advocates, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that the poem is a work of "redeeming social importance." In this guide, we do not sidestep or gloss over the most controversial parts of Howl, as that would detract from the experience of learning about it. If you find so-called "foul language" and frank discussions of sexuality and drug use to be offensive, this might not be the poem for you.
The story of the first public reading and publication of Howl has acquired mythic importance and may count as one of the major events in 20th century literary history. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg was living in Berkeley, California, having moved from New York. He had recently quit his job as a market research assistant. One of his major accomplishments in this field was the writing of a killer jingle for Ipana toothpaste (source). By this point in his life, Ginsberg had already traveled widely, been kicked out of school for writing obscenities on a window, taken many drugs, been arrested, graduated from Columbia University with a literature degree, come out as gay, had a visionary experience involving the British poet William Blake, undergone therapy at a psychiatric institute, lived with a mentally unstable mother, mingled with the most famous poets of the day, and much more. Howl is intensely influenced by all of these events.
Ginsberg dedicated Howl to Carl Solomon, a writer he met during the eight months he spent at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. Ginsberg had been deeply disturbed to learn that Solomon had undergone shock therapy to treat his depression (source). Ginsberg believed that madness was often mistakenly used by middle class society to explain genius or brilliance. The third section of the poem is addressed directly to Solomon.
Ginsberg recited Howl aloud for the first time at an informal event at Gallery Six, a small art gallery in San Francisco. The reception was overwhelming. More than 150 people showed up and drank out of jugs of wine distributed by fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac (source). (You can listen to Ginsberg read Howl on Poets.org.)
The buzz surrounding the event caught the attention of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet who founded the now-famous City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti published Howl in 1956, but it was declared obscene by the government, particularly for its depiction of gay men. Ferlinghetti won the trial, as the poem was declared to be of "redeeming social importance" (source). The controversy surrounding Howl launched the Beat movement into the public consciousness, and it was a major inspiration for the 1960s sub-culture. Along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road, it is the most famous literary work to come out of this movement. Ginsberg also wrote a "Footnote to Howl" in 1955 that is worth reading.
In terms of subject matter, Howl is exactly what the title suggests. It's a raw, aggressive, painful, sad shout directed at the culture that Ginsberg believed had destroyed many of his best friends. Chances are you have never read anything like it. The poem was never meant to be the kind of work that would be picked apart by scholars in universities. It was meant to be a shot of adrenaline straight into the listener's bloodstream. Many of the cultural issues it discusses remain controversial even today. For example, in 2007 a New York radio station was prevented from airing a reading of the poem because of worries that it would receive huge fines for each of the poem's "dirty words." What's even more ironic: the reading was set to mark the 50th anniversary of the Howl censorship trial, in which Howl was declared to be not obscene (source).
Why Should I Care?
Howl has been beloved by free spirits and political radicals ever since it was published. But what if you're not one of these types? What if you don't have any secret Communist leanings? Do you have to be a hippie, a hipster, or a Beatnik to enjoy this poem? We think the answer is a resounding no.
You can look at Howl as a history lesson in disguise. It throws you headlong into Beat culture, which, though small compared to the mainstream culture, was enormously influential. You've probably heard plenty about the 1960s, along with the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, Woodstock, and the Merry Pranksters. The Beats came before that time. They arrived at the party about ten years ahead of schedule and set the tone for the counter-culture. In Howl, you get a grand tour of the Beats' universe in a poem that seems to travel a thousand miles per hour. At a fraction of the length of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Howl nonetheless takes us to just as many places. Chicago! Arkansas! Paterson, New Jersey! Denver! Tangiers! Along the way, we meet all sorts of people and partake in religious visions galore.
As for the question of Ginsberg's opinions on sex, drugs, and politics, they definitely aren't mainstream. But you shouldn't feel like he's judging you, or that you should be judging him. One of Ginsberg's great poetic idols was Walt Whitman, who also had strong opinions but also said, "I contain multitudes" and who tried to identify with just about everyone in the world. Ginsberg's big problem with mainstream society was that he felt it demanded that people conform to some arbitrary idea of what's "normal." Howl isn't about telling people what to do or think. It's about creating a community that allows people to be themselves, without having to worry about being judged. Maybe for you, "being yourself" means traveling in boxcars and running naked through the countryside. Or maybe it means wearing a suit and taking classes in accounting. Either way, we think the poem's message is, "If you're cool with that, I'm cool with that."