The poem is dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man whom Ginsberg met and became close friends with during the eight months he spent at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute, from 1949-1950.
Ginsberg never intended Howl to become a mainstream success, so the poem is filled with personal references that only his friends and acquaintances would have known.
Ginsberg called Solomon "an intuitive Bronx Dadaist and prose-poet" (source).
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
The speaker says he has seen the "best minds of [his] generation" destroyed by insanity. If you know the background of the poem's dedication to Carl Solomon (which you now know), you might think that Solomon is one of these "best minds."
Above all, the word "minds" suggests intelligence. We're curious as to what made these people so smart. Did they do research in a laboratory to cure diseases, or discover complicated new laws of physics, or work in one of the country's top law firms? We'll see…
The "best minds of my generation" sounds like great students with top SAT scores and lots of ambition. At least that's what we might expect from reading only this first line.
It's surprising that these "best minds" would succumb to "madness." Even more surprising are the three words, "starving hysterical naked," which make them sound frighteningly and seriously ill.
These words are not separated by commas, which causes you to read them very fast, almost like one word: "starvinghystericalnaked." Ginsberg has said that each line of the poem should be read in a single breath, and the poem is full of disjointed phrases and run-on sentences that are designed, 1) to mimic the insane chatter of the "best minds" and 2) leave the reader breath-less (source).
The syntax (or the order words and phrases) in Howl might remind you of a fast-paced action movie where the camera angle changes every three seconds. There is no stable center to this poem. It constantly interrupts itself.
dragging themselves through the n**** streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
For simplicity's sake, we're generally going to refer to the "best minds" as "they" from here on. But don't forget that the word "who" in these section always refers to this group of people.
They obviously have trouble moving, because they have to "drag" themselves through the streets, as if their bodies were made of lead.
"N****" is an outdated term used to describe African-Americans, and "n**** streets" refers to the part of the city where African-Americas live. The phrase could also could refer to the darkness of the streets, which stands in contrast to the light of "dawn."
Although most of the Beat writers were white, they identified with predominantly African-American culture, and jazz in particular. They lived in the areas where the rent was least expensive, which was often in African-American neighborhoods.
The speaker says that the best minds are searching for an "angry fix," or drugs in an attempt to take the edge off their anger and frustration.
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
The speaker views the "hipsters" as religious figures who resemble angels.
In the 1940s and 50s, the word "hip" was associated with an interest in jazz and drug use.
These hipsters are trying to rediscover religious feeling – "the ancient heavenly connection" – in the modern age.
A "dynamo" is like an electric generator, so it's like Ginsberg is comparing the starry sky to a power plant.
The "religion" of the hipsters seems to be more about sheer energy and an immediate connection to a higher power than about rules and traditional kinds of organized prayer.
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
They are poor and wear "tattered clothing."
They are "high" on drugs and their eyes are "hollow" from drug use and lack of sleep.
They smoked cigarettes and probably also marijuana in small apartments ("flats") that lacked hot water.
They thought about jazz and imagined they were floating over the city, looking down on the buildings below.
The nighttime darkness had a religious or "supernatural" quality.
So far we have learned that the speaker's "best minds" include habitual drug users.
Also, we have learned that the speaker likes to use religious language in unconventional ways.
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
"El" is one of the Hebrew names for God. It's also the abbreviation for "Elevated Train," particularly the one in Chicago.
They "bared their brains" like other people might bear their souls, and they did it while standing under a train.
You might ask yourself: what kinds of people hang out under trains?
Apparently, "the best of minds" didn't limit themselves to one particular religion, because they also saw the angels of Islam, the religion of the prophet Mohammed. They saw these angels on the roof of very poor and shabby apartment complexes.