Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy,
- It's not a good idea to throw potato salad at your professors if you want to stay in a class, but we have to admit this image is hilarious.
- "CCNY" stands for the City College of New York, and Dadaism was an avant-garde artistic movement in France characterized by absurdity and rule-breaking. Followers of Dadaism did things like put urinals on display in museums. The irony of this line is that the professor was supposed to be teaching the students about Dadaism, but throwing potato salad at a professor is a very Dadaist thing to do. This action shows that the students already understood the movement better than their teacher.
- After the potato salad incident, they show up at the insane asylum, or "madhouse," talking about suicide and demanding a "lobotomy," a surgical operation in which part of the brain is removed.
- Maybe you've read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or seen the Jack Nicholson movie, in which a character is given a lobotomy as punishment for misbehaving. Ginsberg and other members of the sub-culture in the 1950s and 60s were very worried about the treatments given to people with psychiatric disorders. They believed these treatments were often unnecessary and damaging. They were designed to make a person "normal" again – that is, fit for polite society.
- Howl is dedicated to Carl Solomon, who underwent another drastic treatment, shock therapy, while in a psychiatric hospital. Ginsberg's suspicion and downright hostility to such treatments comes through strongly in this poem.
and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia,
- This section of the poem deals with treatments for psychiatric problems. Instead of a lobotomy, they were given a bunch of other treatments, which are useless at best ("pingpong," anyone?) and dangerous at worst ("electricity" refers to the dreaded shock therapy).
who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table, resting briefly in catatonia,
- In protest of these psychiatric treatments, they overturned their pingpong table in the hospital.
- After they flip over the table, they go silent and remain perfectly still, a condition known as "catatonia."
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and fingers, to the visible mad man doom of the wards of the madtowns of the East,
- When they are released from the psychiatric hospital, they are bald and their head is bleeding, perhaps through the scars of their lobotomy.
- The speaker suggests that the truly insane people might not be in the hospitals, but rather in the "madtowns of the East." So, normal people might be the craziest of all.
Pilgrim State's Rockland's and Greystone's foetid halls, bickering with the echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to stone as heavy as the moon,
- The describes the disgusting or "foetid" halls of four fictional psychiatric institutions, "Pilgrim," "State," "Rockland," and "Greystone."
- Inside these halls, people talk to themselves and become motionless like stones.