Study Guide

Howl Section I, Lines 11-15

By Allen Ginsberg

Section I, Lines 11-15

Line 11

with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,

  • Here's the list of items that they "purgatoried" their torsos with repeatedly.
  • The first item on the list, "dreams," doesn't sound so bad.
  • Other items include drugs, booze, "waking nightmares," and male genitals.
  • Ginsberg was openly gay, and this poem has a lot of references to homosexuality. The gay men in this poem generally do not seem to be involved in monogamous relationships with one other person (thus the comment about "endless balls"). Keep in mind that this poem was written before the HIV epidemic.

Line 12

incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,

  • Here comes a vision. The speaker imagines a street consisting of storm clouds inside the brain. A "blind" street, by the way, can mean a dead-end.
  • The clouds send out bolts of lightning toward Canada and Paterson, New Jersey, where Ginsberg grew up as a kid. Maybe the street is a metaphor for the mental connection that exists in the speaker's mind between these two separate places.
  • In addition to spanning different geographic spaces, this connection also spans "Time," which becomes a "motionless world." Wouldn't it be great if you could freeze time? In Ginsberg's world you can, using only your thoughts, which travel as fast as lightning.

Line 13

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,

  • Lines 12-13 seem to continue the list of things with which "the greatest of minds" "purgatoried their torsos," though the items on the list seem to have little to do with one another, aside from their frequent connection to drug use. In this line, the speaker cites a bunch of different places where they have consumed drugs of various kinds.
  • "Peyote" is a plant that makes people hallucinate and have visions. Native American communities use peyote as part of their religious rituals, but it has also been used recreationally, though many Beat writers might say that they were attempting to enter a spiritual state (and not just using peyote for recreation).
  • In a nutshell, they have been high everywhere you could imagine: in cemeteries, on rooftops, in the street, in Brooklyn.
  • The drugs cause a sensation of "light" in the mind, both in terms of illumination and of a lack of weight.

Line 14

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

  • While high on Benzedrine, they took the subway from "Battery" in Lower Manhattan to "holy Bronx," another borough in New York.
  • Ginsberg experimented with Benzedrine prior to writing this poem. It's a stimulant that causes jitters and a mild feeling of euphoria.
  • They rode the subway at night until it reached the Bronx Zoo, at which point they were awakened by the noise of people getting on and off the train. They were very groggy by the end of the ride.

Line 15

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

  • Bickford's was a chain of all-night diners in New York City, and Fugazzi's sounds like a dive bar where a person can pass a lazy afternoon drinking "stale beer." In other words, they spend a lot of time hanging out in cheap bars and restaurants.
  • It should be clear by now that one of Ginsberg's poetic techniques is to combine words that don't seem related to each other. "Hydrogen jukebox" is a good example.
  • The word "hydrogen" is suggestive of the Hydrogen Bomb, which was first tested in the early 1950s. No wonder the jukebox sounds like "the crack of doom."
  • Howl is filled with such vague, unspecified associations. As a reader, you should feel free to interpret them multiple ways.