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Symbol Analysis

Howl shows madness to be a kind of elevated state filled with hallucinations and visions. But it can also be simply terrifying, as when Carl Solomon thinks he is losing "the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss" (104). The poem contains lots of historical references to psychiatric hospitals that seem straight out of the Jack Nicholson movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (based on a book written by Ginsberg's friend Ken Kesey): lobotomies, shock therapy, angry nurses, and more.

  • Line 1: The poem begins with an image of the speaker's "mad" friends as "starving hysterical naked."
  • Line 4: The repeated use of the word "who" at the start of many consecutive lines is an example of anaphora.
  • Line 8: An image of people suffering from paranoia. The rooms are personified as "unshaven," when in reality the people who in inhabit them are the ones who haven't shaven. They project their own appearance on the things around them.
  • Line 17: This line gives a short catalog, or list, of things (fire escapes, windowsills, etc.) off of which the conversationalists jumped.
  • Line 66: Dadaism was an artistic movement characterized by absurdity and rule-breaking. By throwing potato salad at their instructors, the students are "teaching" their teacher about the spirit of Dadaism, which is ironic. And probably quite messy.
  • Line 67: A list of treatments for psychiatric disorders.
  • Line 70: Pilgrim, State, Rockland, and Greystone are the names of fictional psychiatric hospitals. The speaker uses a metaphor comparing bodies to stone, and a simile calling the stone bodies "heavy as the moon."
  • Line 72: In this apostrophe, the speaker addresses his friend Carl Solomon, who suffers from mental illness.
  • Line 94: The entire third section of the poem is an apostrophe to Carl Solomon.
  • Line 96: The speaker's deceased mother, who also suffered from mental illness, is compared to a ghost or "shade" using metaphor.

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