Study Guide

Howl Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Allen Ginsberg

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Madness

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 The poem contains lots of historical references to psychiatric hospitals that seem straight out of the Jack Nicholson movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (based on a book written by Ginsberg's friend Ken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.

Drugs

Howl describes the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics, and though these folks might be "angelic" for other reasons, the consequences of their drug use are not pretty. Most of the imagery of drug use occurs in the first section, before Howl shifts toward a discussion of Moloch and mental illness. As William Carlos Williams wrote in the original introduction to Howl: "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell."

  • Line 2: To have a "fix" is to take enough of a drug to tide a person over until the next craving. A person looking for a "fix" necessarily suffers from addiction. Many of us need our "fix" of caffeine in the morning, for example. The fix is personified as angry, when in fact the addicts are angry because they had to wander the streets in order to find drugs.
  • Line 9: They get arrested for trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico with marijuana strapped to their waist. In a metaphor, their beards are described as pubic hair.
  • Line 10: The speaker turns the religious concept of purgatory into a verb that describes the effect of drugs (among other things) on the body.
  • Line 13: This line contains various images of drug use, including a complicated metaphor comparing the clarity or "light" of the mind to a "king." Peyote is a hallucinogenic drug originally used in Native American rituals.
  • Line 14: The subway ride from the Battery to the Bronx might have felt "endless" to a person high on benzedrine, but for us sober readers, we know this is an exaggeration, or hyperbole.
  • Line 21: They wait out the agony of "junk-withdrawal," when the body struggles to cope without drugs for an extended period of time.
  • Line 31: In this metaphor, the effects of Capitalism are likened to a drug that produces a "narcotic tobacco haze."

Sex

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!

Politics

Ginsberg was a leftist who (at least in the 1950s) supported Communism as an international worker's movement, if not its manifestation in the Soviet Union. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac named Ginsberg's character "Carlo Marx," after Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto. Howl provides ample evidence of Ginsberg's Marxist beliefs, which are often expressed in a playful and humorous fashion.

  • Line 32: "The greatest of minds" distribute Communist literature until they get arrested. The reference to the police as "wailing" sirens is metonymy.
  • Line 107: It's "us" versus "them," where "us" is the "Hebrew socialist revolution" and "them" is the powerful "fascist national Golgotha." The government is compared to Golgotha, where Jesus Christ was crucified.
  • Line 109: The speaker imagines that all the residents of the Rockland hospital are singing the "Internationale," an anthem of the Communist movement.

War

In keeping with his Marxist beliefs, Ginsberg was a pacifist who believed that war always serves the interests of the rich and powerful. Howl is freighted with images of Cold War anxiety, the Atomic age, and the military-industrial complex. The poem's heroes, such as the patients of Rockland psychiatric hospital, must fight back against society with their own "symbolic" weapons.

  • Line 46: This line contains a metaphor comparing the light of the moon to a "wartime blue floodlight." Floodlights were used in WWII to find enemy airplanes in the sky.
  • Line 56: An extended metaphor comparing the advertising industry on New York's Madison Avenue to a war zone.
  • Line 79: "Moloch" is a symbol of war and violence, among other things.
  • Line 85: A metaphor compares Moloch's fate to "a cloud of sexless hydrogen," which alludes to the invention of the Hydrogen Bomb several years before this poem was written.
  • Line 88: Moloch is a symbol of "monstrous bombs."
  • Line 111: Another extended metaphor, in which the struggle of patients to escape from a mental hospital is likened to a war, in which their souls are airplanes dropping bombs.

Religion

The speaker of Howl expresses interest in many kinds of religions but does not ascribe to one in particular. Along with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there are references to Native American spirituality and various mystical sects. Ginsberg belongs to the mystical tradition poetry, following his hero William Blake, who came up with far-out prophecies and visions using religious symbols of many kinds. Also, the speaker of Howl is hostile to organized religions or dogma of any kind.

  • Line 3: The "hipsters" have heads like angels, which could mean they have a halo.
  • Line 5: The phrase "bared their brains" is one of many examples of alliteration in the poem. Also, they imagine they see "Mohammedan angels" hanging out on rooftops. These angels are Islamic, not Christian.
  • Line 24: Features allusions to several religious mystical traditions, including Plotinus, a neo-Platonic philosopher, St. John of the Cross, and Kabbalah, a sect of Judaism that has recently become something of a Hollywood fad.
  • Line 77: An extended metaphor likening the transformation of poets into jazz musicians to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • Line 80: The name "Moloch" is an allusion to a sacrifice described in ancient Hebrew scriptures in which children are burned to appease a false god.
  • Line 83: The speaker creates an elaborate extended metaphor that explains what the various body parts of Moloch represent.
  • Line 108: An allusion to the Christian doctrine that Christ is part-man and part-God. The speaker predicts that Carl Solomon will "resurrect" the "human" part of Jesus, which has been overshadowed by the "superhuman" of the God-like part. He compares the superhuman element of Christ to a "tomb," a metaphor.

Machines

We think "Dynamo" could be the name of one of the X-Men. For the speaker in Howl, "machinery" can be a good thing when used as a metaphor for natural systems, or a bad thing when associated with war, authority, and technology.

  • Line 3: In two related metaphors, the stars are compared to a "dynamo," an awesome-sounding word for an electrical generator, which belongs to the "machinery" of night.
  • Line 33: A metaphor describing skeletons as "machinery." The people in the gymnasium are called "skeletons" because they are so skinny.

Windows

OK, so there really aren't that many mentions of windows in the poem, but it does make us think of how Ginsberg got kicked out of school for writing obscenities on the windows of his dorm room. In poetry in general, windows are a classic metaphor for the eyes.

  • Line 7: Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia University for writing obscenities on the windows of his dorm room. However, the "windows of the skulls" sounds like a metaphor for the eyes.
  • Line 84: And, sure enough, here windows are a metaphor for the eyes of Moloch.

"The American River"

The end of the section II is a long extended metaphor about a river that sucks up all the worthwhile things in the world. Traditionally, rivers symbolize the passage of time.

  • Lines 90-93: These lines offer an extended metaphor likening "Visions," "dreams," "epiphanies," "new loves," and other intense actions and experiences to the wreckage swept away in the flood of water in a river. They fall over a waterfall and get stranded on "the rocks of Time."