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Symbol Analysis

There's lots of sex in this poem, both gay (see: line 37) and straight (line 42), and even, um, with inanimate objects (line 41). No widely distributed American poem had such graphic descriptions of sexuality before Howl, which was originally declared obscene by the U.S. government. Lines 36-42 were the primary focus of the famous obscenity trial that followed. Ginsberg wrote Howl after a long struggle to come to grips with his identity as a gay man.

  • Line 11: The speaker uses hyperbole by referring to the number of male genitalia encountered by the "best minds" as "endless." That's a whole lot of sex right there.
  • Line 36: They have anal sex with motorcyclists who are compared with religious saints. When Howl was first published, this line was very controversial.
  • Line 37: Sailors who engage in oral sex while on leave are compared to angels ("seraphim") using metaphor.
  • Line 38: An image of anonymous sex (for which "balled" is a slang term) in public parks.
  • Line 39: Are you catching on to the pattern here, where sexual partners are compared to religious figures? This line contains a metaphor in which a naked blond guy is called an "angel." And "sword" is a phallic reference.
  • Line 40: The comparison of (we think) money, pregnancy, and marriage to the mythical Three Fates is an extended metaphor.
  • Line 41: The word "copulate" is used symbolically. As far as we know, you can't actually have sex with "a bottle of beer."
  • Line 42: A "million girls"? Hyperbole alert!

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