Study Guide

"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg in Queer Theory

"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

Beware: the Beats are coming, the Beats are coming. The Beat Generation will shatter all of the rules, leaving society's bits and pieces scattered on the ground of history. Things are about to get a bit ugly.

Influenced heavily by Surrealism and the Modernist works of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and his Beat colleagues really shook things up. They cast out Modernism and laid the groundwork for what we now call Post-Modernism, creating their own little category of literature that's wedged in between those two Goliath-like movements.

So, Beat Literature is really a transitional style that throws the traditional rules of careful narration and masculinist, heterosexist perspectives out the window. Then it lets other authors clean up the mess.

In the early '90s—thirty-five years after "Howl" was published—queer theory had finally gained enough political and intellectual power to start making something out of the disturbance Ginsberg initiated.

The term beat refers to a person who's down-beaten, or beaten up; someone who's been pushed around by normative culture and has had just about enough of all that. This idea resonates strongly with queer theorists and all people who live at society's margins.

You beat me and I'll beat back, eh? While language can be a weapon to hold people down, it can also be used to lift people up. The Beat Generation pushed back against an oppressive society with raucous irreverence. They wrote to the beat of a different drummer, like queer theory thinks to the beat of a different drummer.

And for once, it's not just house music and disco…