From Modernism to Subversion: William Carlos Williams and the Beat Poets
Although shocking for its time, Beat poetry was not unanticipated. It developed from modernist antecedents it readily acknowledged, most significantly William Carlos Williams. Among the original Imagists, Williams consciously broke with his European counterparts to achieve a distinctly American voice in modernist poetry. Williams’s voice gave the Beat poets a vehicle well-suited to express the solipsistic inner rebellion that characterizes their poetry – a voice that would have profound impact on American poetry through the present.
I. Historical Context
The Beat Generation coalesced in the decade following the end of World War II – a time of fear and paranoia. The wake of a major war ordinarily see a bleak outlook on life – for example, the decade or so following the Napoleonic Wars or the years following World War I. But the end of World War II ushered in the age of nuclear warfare, and the Soviet Union’s detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949 initiated the four-decade standoff of the Cold War, with its ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.
In the United States, the Cold War triggered an official reaction, supported by Democrat and Republican officeholders alike, to the perceived internal threat that communism posed. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), constituted in 1945, was charged with investigating suspected threats of subversion or propaganda attacking “the form of government as guaranteed by our Constitution.” Most famously in 1947, the committee conducted nine days of hearings on Communist Party influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry, resulting in the major studios boycotting some 300 artists, including Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.
The result of this official scrutiny was a counter-reaction among America’s artistic community to the official reaction against communism. Even artists who were not card-carrying communists resented the government censorship as a restriction on expression more generally, and lived in fear that their own expression would result in them being hauled before a Congressional committee to testify.
This attitude is perfectly captured by Tennessee Williams in an essay originally published in the New York Sun in 1948, under the title “On the Art of Being a True Non-Conformist,” which he later republished as the introduction to his one-act play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” under the title “Something Wild . . . .” (Williams, xii.)
Williams begins his essay by describing a visit he had with a successful community theatre group and noting, “It seemed all so respectable. . . . The men in their conservative business suits with their neat hair-cuts and highly polished shoes could have passed for corporation lawyers and the women, mostly their wives, were impeccably lady-like.” (Id., vii.) He counters this observation with his thesis: “art is a kind of anarchy, and the theater is a province of art.” The problem with the scene was that it was missing “is a benevolent anarchy . . . in the sense of constructing something which is missing, and what it constructs may be merely criticism of things as they exist.” (Id.)
Williams then states his criticism of his society:
Today we are living in a world which is threatened by totalitarianism. The Fascist and the Communist states have thrown us into a panic of reaction. Reactionary opinion descends like a ton of bricks on the head of any artist who speaks out against the current of prescribed ideas. We are all under wraps of one kind or another, trembling before the spectre of investigating committees and even with Buchenwald in the back of our minds when we consider whether or not we dare to say we were for Henry Wallace. Yes, it is as bad as that.
After noting, “And yet it isn’t really as bad as that. America is still America, democracy is still democracy,” (Id.) Williams concludes with a call to arms:
For God’s sake let us defend ourselves against whatever is hostile to us without imitating the thing which we are afraid of! Community theaters have a social function and it is to be that kind of an irritant in the shell of their community. Not to conform, not to wear the conservative business suit of their audience, but to let their hair grow long and even greasy, to make wild gestures, break glasses, fight, shout, and fall downstairs! When you see them acting like this—not respectably, not quite decently, even!—then you will know that something is going to happen in that outfit, something disturbing, something irregular, something brave and honest. The biologist will tell you that progress is the result of mutations. Mutations are another word for freaks. For God’s sake let’s have a little more freakish behavior—not less.
According to Williams, the “something brave and honest” can only result from the “benevolent anarchy” of the arts world, which is incompatible with “the conservative business suit.” To him, only anarchy produces true art. Everything else is a reaction – indeed, it is totalitarian. This is the view that the Beat poets would ultimately express through their work and through their very lives.
But the regime of official repression against which Williams railed was only a prim and proper veneer, beneath which a revolution in social norms was already brewing. In 1946, the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which was the first major work to apply psychoanalytical techniques to child-rearing. Its call for parents simply to “trust their instincts” immediately influenced a generation of parents rearing their children in the post-war “baby boom.” In 1948, Dr. Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which he followed in 1953 with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which established the field of sexology as an academic subject. In 1953, Playboy, which would hugely influence the purveyance of sex to the public, launched its publication in Chicago. And in 1957, the United States Supreme Court in Roth v. United States narrowed the long-standing definition of obscenity. (354 U.S. 476.) Contrary to the popular image of the staid and conservative 1950’s, the reality was that the revolution that would burst forth in full flamboyance in the 1960’s was already underway.
The birth of Beat Poetry fits right into this trend, with Allen Ginsburg’s 1955 recitation of Howl regarded as its official beginning. As much as the Beat poets would epitomize Tennessee Williams’s call to ditch “the conservative business suit” and “let their hair grow long and even greasy” and for “a little more freakish behavior,” they were responding to his call of rebellion along with society at large.
Indeed, the Beat poets were very much products of their Modernist predecessors. It was another Williams that would serve as their literary catalyst in a much more profound way.
II. The Precursor: William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was one of the leading pioneers of the Imagist movement, along with Ezra Pound and H.D. (“William Carlos Williams,” para. 1.) Unlike Pound and other American expatriate poets, however, he lived a remarkably conventional life, practicing for 40 years as a medical doctor in his native Rutherford, New Jersey. (Id.)
He was born to an English father from the Dominican Republic and a Puerto Rican mother, and his first language was Spanish. (Id.) As a youth, he drew inspiration from John Keats and Walt Whitman, in whose frank, free verse he found “an impulse toward freedom and release of the self.” (Id., para. 4.) When Williams was in his first year at university, however, he met Pound, who became his friend and mentor and profoundly influenced Williams’s poetry – so much that Williams later said, “Before meeting Pound is like B.C. and A.D.” (Id., para. 5.) While Williams’s first volume, Poems (1909), was a “conventional work,” his second, The Tempers (1913), adopted Pound’s Imagist aesthetic. (Id., para. 6.)
Williams applied the Imagist principle of “direct treatment of the thing” fairly rigorously, which led him to “stress that poetry must find its ‘primary impetus’ . . . in ‘local conditions’” – for him, practicing medicine in Rutherford, New Jersey. (Id.) His work, which included witnessing births and deaths and all states of the human condition, served as inspiration for his poetry, but also enabled him to write as he pleased, free from any financial pressure. (Id., para. 7.)
His emphasis on the local also led him in a “lifelong quest to have poetry mirror the language of the American people,” experimenting with innovations in the American idiom. (Id., paras. 9-10.) This led, however, to him falling out of favor with his contemporaries, including Pound, who criticized his later work as “incoherent” and “un-American.” (Id., para. 10.) As a result, he became increasingly defensive and resolved to persist in his style with or without allies. (Id., para. 11.)
The publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in 1922 influenced Williams just as deeply as Pound a decade earlier, but its influence would be antagonistic. (Id., para. 12.) Williams wrote of The Waste land, “‘I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years and I’m sure it did. Critically, Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit.’” (Id.) “‘It was a shock to me that [Eliot] was so tremendously successful,’” he later said. “‘My contemporaries flocked to him – away from what I wanted.’” (Id.)
Williams’s response to Eliot was his volume Spring and All, published in the same year as The Waste Land, regarded as containing his finest poetry. (Id., paras. 14, 16.) In it, Williams set himself apart from Eliot; rather than reacting against the new, post-World War I world, he saw it as an opportunity for new growth. (Id., para. 14.) As he wrote in one of the volume’s prose passages:
imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it a description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it—It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but—. (Id., para. 15.)
Here, Williams affirms the absoluteness of concrete reality and asserts that poetry neither depicts nor alters reality but “affirms” it. However, that affirmation “creates a new object,” not a “mirror up to nature,” but something different entirely.
One of Williams’s most famous poems comes from Spring and All, and illustrates the concepts he discusses in his prose:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
Here, Williams’s localist and Imagist tendencies are on full display. He describes exactly what he sees in front of him. The immediacy of the object is paramount. All capitalization and punctuation – relicts of Eliot’s “schoolroom” – are omitted. Nothing interferes with the raw image. But what makes the poem is the opening line, “so much depends” – all work the wheelbarrow performs, though undepicted, is the real subject of the poem. The detail “glazed with rain” adds a further layer of time and circumstance only hinted at. The described serves as only the introduction to the unsaid. Interestingly, the poem also approximates a subtle use of form, with each stanza consisting of a line of four (or for the second stanza, three) syllables and a line of two syllables.
Another of his best-known (and much parodied) poems he published later, in 1934:
This Is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Williams’s style here is remarkably consistent: the language is plain and direct; no line exceeds five syllables; and punctuation and capitalization are absent except for “I” and the key word “Forgive.” He also deviates slightly from the strict Imagist depiction of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Here he depicts not an object, but an interior psychological state – a dramatic monologue, of sorts. The poetic voice is empathetic, acknowledging that the addressee likely had another use for the plums. It also begs forgiveness by asking the addressee to empathize by understanding the temptation the plums presented. Again, the poem’s force lies in what is unsaid. The exact relationship between the speaker and the addressee is never specified (though it is often assumed to be a husband addressing his wife); the interactions leading up to and following this event are omitted, leaving them to the reader’s imagination.
In both “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just to Say,” Williams presents snapshots of scenes, freezing an instant in time, leaving each individual reader to supply a context. This technique is a variation of the larger Modernist approach. Modernism, as noted, rejects any meaning within the poem itself, and instead has each individual reader supply his own meaning. Whereas poets like Pound, Eliot, and Hart Crane adopted a cubist approach, presenting a series of images for each individual reader to assemble in his own way, Williams takes a minimalist approach, presenting only a single, bare-bones image, leaving each individual reader to supply context from outside the poem, rather than within it. While the technique is different, the approach is the same, seeing meaning as relative rather than absolute.
Despite his erstwhile friendship with Pound and commentary on Eliot, Williams remained a virtually unknown literary figure even after he had been writing for thirty years. (Id., para. 20.) Few in Rutherford even knew Dr. Williams as the poet. (Id.) It was not until the 1940’s that his work began to receive popular and critical attention. (Id.) In 1946, he burst upon the scene with his five-book epic, Paterson. (Id., para. 21.)
Williams spent two decades working on Paterson, which had its genesis in a short poem of the same title Williams composed in 1926 after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Mariani, pp. 204, 263.) What took Williams so long to complete it was his concern with The Waste Land and what he saw as both its overall sense of disillusionment and its British speech pattern, in stark contrast to the American speech patterns used by Whitman. (Id., p. 191.) Hart Crane, with whom Williams corresponded, felt similarly about The Waste Land, but Williams dismissed Crane’s own reaction to it in The Bridge. (Id., pp. 250, 328.) Williams wrote that Crane took “‘a direct step backward to the bad poetry of any age, but especially to that triumphant regression which followed Whitman” – referring to French symbolism – “. . . and came to a head in T.S. Eliot excellently.’” (Id., p. 328.) Thus, Williams spent great effort in developing an aesthetic apart from Eliot and Pound. (Id., p. 250.)
Whereas The Waste Land is an “anti-epic,” Paterson can be seen as a “pre-epic,” confronting the forces of disintegration but showing that they still contain a creative seed. (“William Carlos Williams,” para. 24.) It presents a mosaic structure alternating between verse and prose, criticized as a “difficult but intense” reading experience. (Id., para. 26.)
The following excerpt from Book V, subtitled “The River of Heaven,” illustrates the product of Williams’s labors to produce a uniquely American style:
Paterson has grown older
the dog of his thoughts
to no more than “a passionate letter”
to a woman, a woman he had neglected
to put to bed in the past
And went on
living and writing
and tending his flower
garden, cutting his grass and trying
to get the young
their errors in the use of words which
he had found so difficult, the errors
he had made in the use of the
“ . the unicorn against a millefleurs background, . ”
Here, while Williams maintains his terse, direct, conversational style, he deviates from strict depiction of the image. The narrative voice here speaks of intentions (“trying / to get the young / to foreshorten / their errors . . .”) and metaphoric observations (“the dog of his thoughts / has shrunk . . .”) – both quite uncharacteristic of his earlier works. Still, the austere style admits very little of context, leaving the reader to supply important details: the identity of the subject and the “woman he had neglected / to put to bed,” and the “errors” both made by “the young . . . in the use of words” and by himself “in the use of the / poetic line.” Clearly the reference is autobiographical, but Williams’s laconic, almost coy, vagueness still leaves the reader to supply important details. Thus, Paterson may be seen as a refinement of Williams’s style, the distillation of three decades of labor against The Waste Land.
In 1949, Williams was invited to become Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the United States equivalent of Poet Laureate), which he declined due to ill health. (“William Carlos Williams,” para. 27.) When he was offered the position again in 1952, he accepted, but the editor and publisher of Lyric accused him of communist sympathies, charging that his poem “Russia” spoke in “‘the very voice of Communism.’” (Id.) Few came to his defense, and the Librarian of Congress revoked the offer, then renewed it a few months before the term was to end without any offer to extend the appointment. (Id., paras. 27, 28.)
It came as a surprise, then, when only a few years later the rising generation of poets would regard him as their “father in poetry.” (Id., para. 28.) Indeed, it was doubly surprising, for at the time Eliot’s academic school dominated poetry. (Id.) Williams’s influence on the rising generation cannot be overstated:
No writer of the older generation had a greater or more direct influence on the Beats than did William Carlos Williams. . . . He was the poet of the direct statement, the plain man who spoke plainly of the things that mattered most to him. He withstood the influence of Eliot, ignored the New Critics and the academic poets who followed their lead, and simply went his own way, his lines growing shorter, more austere, more pointed with each poem. . . . In this way, a whole generation of poets grew up looking to William Carlos Williams as an established poet who wrote simply and directly from the heart. (Cook, p. 18.)
Also like Williams, the Beat poets “were deeply conscious of themselves as American writers,” and developed their movement as distinctly American. (Id., p. 21.) As Robert Lowell announced, “Paterson is our Leaves of Grass. The times have changed.” (“Williams Carlos Williams,” para. 28.)
III. Ginsberg, Howl, the Beat Movement
William Carlos Williams’s connection to the Beat movement was much more than a distant source of inspiration. He had a personal friendship and served as mentor to the movement’s central figure, Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997). After being expelled from Columbia University, Ginsberg sought out Williams, and the two developed a friendship, going on walks around Paterson. (Cook, pp. 18-19.) Ginsberg’s first published volume of poetry, The Empty Mirror, “is written in clear imitation of Wiliams’ terse, short-line, free-verse style.” (Id., p. 118.) And the influence was mutual: Williams quoted passages from Ginsberg’s letters in Paterson. (Id., p. 19.)
Ginsberg’s other poetic influence was Walt Whitman. On a superficial level, Ginsberg saw in Whitman a kindred spirit based on their shared homosexuality. (Cook, p. 27.) And on a deeper level, Ginsberg admired Whitman’s vision of America as “the great land of the openhanded, where men could speak openly to one another without being thought gauche or vulgar.” (Id.) Whitman, therefore, “became for Ginsberg a kind of model as the great American truth-sayer, they man who never hesitated to speak frankly.” (Id.) And, in fact, Ginsberg became a sort of Whitman, with an openness and frankness that endeared him to reporters. (Id.)
Thus, when he arrived in California in 1954, Ginsberg saw himself as a distinctly American poet in the tradition of Whitman. (Id., p. 119.) Ginsberg moved there attracted by its bohemian atmosphere. (Cook, p. 53.) The city had all the “proper elements for a literary renaissance:” Lawrence Ferlinghetti had founded City Lights magazine in 1951 and Kenneth Rexroth operated the Six Gallery as “the Bay Area’s bohemian impresario.” (Id., p. 55; Raskin, p. 2). Based on a letter of introduction from Williams, Rexroth invited Ginsberg to read at the Six Gallery’s October 1955 reading. (Raskin, p. 2.)
That event would become remembered as the “pivotal moment when the subterranean world of dissident, nonconformist American writers defied the chilly climate of the Cold War and came out into the open.” (Raskin, p. 9.) It featured six young, obscure poets: Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Phil Whalen, Lew Welch, and Ginsberg himself as the final reader. (Cook, pp. 62-63.) The work Ginsberg featured was Howl, effectively the seminal work of the Beat poetry that galvanized the loose group of dissident San Francisco poets into a movement.
Howl was an immediate success; the audience at the Six Gallery enthusiastically received it, and Ferlinghetti published it. (Raskin, pp. 22-24.) What ensured its popularity, however, was a subsequent obscenity suit that initially blocked its publication. (Cook, p. 65.) Ultimately, celebrity lawyer Jake Ehrlich won the case, garnering “the first national publicity of any sort given to the Beats.” (Id.)
Ginsberg wrote Howl two weeks before its premiere, over a long weekend, under the influence of peyote for visions, amphetamines for energy, and Dexedrine for endurance – what he would later recall as “one of his earliest and most profound drug experiences.” (Id., p. 64.)
As the poet Denise Levertov observed, however, Howl was “of course” carefully composed, but “Ginsberg wanted readers to think of his poem as the distillation of ‘ten years’ animal screams’ – the screams of a madman.” (Raskin, p. 44.) Of course the influence of Whitman is inseparable from Howl. Ginsberg saw Whitman as a literary genius. (Id., p. 41.) “While his style seems loose and spotty, it shows careful planning,” he wrote, finding it similar to Herman Melville’s style, “like the style of the verses of the Bible, large magnificent strophes, building up to mighty climaxes, or like a massive Bach oratorio.” (Id., pp. 41-42.) Writing about Howl later, Ginsberg used nearly identical language to describe his own work: Melvillean, biblical, and Bach-like, with “large magnificent strophes.” (Id., p. 42.)
Ginsberg’s real conception of Howl, however, was as “a call to arms and a cultural weapon in the war against academic poetry, the literary criticism of the day, and the American poetry establishment.” (Id., p. 44.) Taking up Williams’s banner against T.S. Eliot, Ginsberg’s war against academia and establishment criticism was a war against the New Criticism. (Id., p. 182.) To Ginsberg, “[i]nterpreting a poem without placing it in a social and historical context, and without discussing the life of the poet – which many of the New Critics insisted on – made no sense at all . . . , and he used his own poem to make his point. In order to understand Howl, he explained, it was important to understand the Cold War and the warring impulses of his own character and personality.” (Id.)
With both these stylistic and interpretive frameworks in mind, we may now examine Howl within the broader context of modernist poetry:
The poem bears a dedication to the writer Carl Solomon (1928-1993), whom Ginsberg first met while both were checking in at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and who became a mentor to Ginsberg, introducing him to French Dada and Surrealism. (Raskin, pp. 96, 182.) Solomon’s status as a psychiatric patient figures prominently in the poem, which has madness as one of its central themes.
Howl is written in three sections, the first of which is a single, massive sentence consisting of 71 verses, the vast majority of which comprise an extended series of relative clauses, each initiating a new line and beginning with “who,” referencing the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” the subject and theme of the poem introduced in the first line.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
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,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
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,
The distinct style is immediately apparent. Its descriptions are direct, even raw; the voice rambles, emphasized by the length of the lines – an obvious and often discussed imitation of Whitman. It is rife with allusions, frequently to places, including Williams’s Paterson, and invents words like “purgatoried.” And even just these first thirteen lines are rife with drug references: marijuana, “fire,” turpentine, and peyote.
Further on, the relative clauses reference the atmosphere of official repression of communist and countercultural elements, the situation over which Tennessee Williams expressed frustration in his 1947 essay:
who reappeared on the West Coast investigating the FBI in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets,
who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,
who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed,
. . .
who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
Still further on, Ginsberg’s description ventures into territory that must have been shocking for the average reader of the 1950’s – and indeed received just that shocked reaction from the official censors who tried to block the poem’s publication as obscenity:
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,
who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom,
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come eluding the last gyzym of consciousness,
who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake,
who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too,
The depictions of sex here are both graphic and crude, making frequent use of slang terms for sexual organs and acts. Much of this material is no doubt autobiographical, and its use illustrates a key element of Beat poetry as expressed by Ginsberg himself: the centrality of the individual life experience to poetic expression.
After further similarly raw descriptions, the first part concludes with an address to Carl Solomon:
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time—
and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipsis catalogue a variable measure and the vibrating plane,
who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.
This conclusion resembles a swelling crescendo to a climaxing finale, in which the poetic voice loses all control and launches into a quasi-philosophical declamation on time and space, all while exclaiming in (incorrect) Latin and Hebrew. The impression this gives – and it is quite contrived – is one of total, utter madness, but a visionary madness, a madness meant to sound sane against the supposed sanity of the outside world.
The second part reveals that outside world, presenting it as a counter-idea. Whereas the first part portrays the “best minds” destroyed, the second part portrays the destroying force, which it represents as Moloch, the ancient Canaanite god notorious as the recipient of child sacrifice, and whose name derives from the word for “king.” Just as in the first, part, Ginsberg uses lengthy Whitmanian lines introduced with the anaphora “Moloch.”
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!
Towards the end of the part, Ginsberg likens Moloch to the “establishment” society of the time:
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!
Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!
Again, the frequent use of clipped phrases, often single words, punctuated with exclamation points conveys the impression of insanity, of the ravings of a madman shouting out the first idea that comes to him. But the ideas are coherent, building the picture of mid-twentieth-century America as filthy and cruel and its effect on the “best minds” as total, hopeless destruction.
Finally, the third part introduces another anaphora with a shorter line “I’m with you in Rockland” references Carl Solomon’s commitment in a psychiatric ward (though not actually located in Rockland, New York):
Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange
I’m with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother
I’m with you in Rockland
where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries
I’m with you in Rockland
where you laugh at this invisible humor
I’m with you in Rockland
where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter
The poem concludes on an overtly political note:
I’m with you in Rockland
where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha
I’m with you in Rockland
where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb
I’m with you in Rockland
where there are twentyfive thousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale
I’m with you in Rockland
where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep
I’m with you in Rockland
where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night
The overall structure of the poem presents a thesis-antithesis-synthesis sequence of ideas reminiscent of an extended sonnet – or Hegelian dialectic familiar to anyone, like Ginsberg, versed in Marxism. The predomination of anaphora through the entire poem resembles a Hindu or Buddhist mantra, in which a word of phrase of religious significance is repeated in a prayer or chant. Indeed, this device is characteristic of Ginsberg’s and the Beat Generation’s interest in Eastern religions and philosophies.
The rambling lines, discursive style, and free associations all give the impression of freewheeling spontaneity – although, as Denise Levertov noted, that was contrived. The references to drug usage, mental illness, downright vulgar description of sexual acts, and open criticism of United States policy and officialdom at the time convey a supreme irreverence – the glorification of all that “establishment” society condemned.
The “best minds” of the youth – presumably including Ginsberg himself – were “destroyed” by the “Moloch” of a repressive and reactionary officialdom, and the narrative voice finds catharsis in identifying with the clinically insane and realizing that his perceived insanity is really sanity – it is the society shaped by Moloch that is insane. The poem then ends with an allusion to coming Marxist revolution: “there are twenty[-]five thousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale.” Yet the poetic voice does not call for revolution. It is unnecessary, for – according to Marx – the revolution is inevitable, as is therefore the end of Moloch’s days. The forces of history – for Ginsberg, spiritual and not just material – will spell the end of Moloch.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Howl is that it started a movement. It coalesced the Beat Generation from a loose group of friends with vaguely shared aesthetics into an identifiable movement with national attention and a following. Howl tapped into the energy of the discontentment coursing under the surface of prosperity and stability in post-World War II America – exactly the discontentment Tennessee Williams described in 1947. Howl was the spark that initiated the eruption of that undercurrent into a coherent and influential movement – the beginnings of the Counterculture.
IV. Other Beat Poets: Kerouac, Corso, and Snyder
Ginsberg is unquestionably the towering central figure of Beat poetry, but as with any literary movement it had many adherents. Just as it would be unfair to characterize all of Romanticism or Symbolism with a single poem from Byron or Baudelaire, presentation of Howl, representative as it is, cannot give a comprehensive sense of Beat poetry. Thus, it is worth the reader’s while to explore the works of Ginsberg’s colleagues – actually, his friends.
Although Jack Kerouac is best known as a novelist, he spent the summer of 1955 in Mexico City, where he wrote an experimental book of poetry called Mexico City Blues. (Charters ed., p. 9.) Kerouac, along with Ginsberg, is the Beat movement’s other central figure, and his poetry therefore deserves presentation alongside Ginsberg’s. The following comes from Mexico City Blues:
Musically as important as Beethoven,
Yet not regarded as such at all,
A genteel conductor of string
In front which he stood,
Proud and calm, like a leader
In the Great Historic World Night,
And wailed his little saxophone,
The alto, with piercing clear
In perfect tune & shining harmony,
Toot – as listeners reacted
Without showing it, and began talking
And soon the whole joint is rocking
And everybody talking and Charlie
Whistling them on to the brink of eternity
With his Irish St Patrick
And like the holy piss we blop
And we plop in the waters of
And white meat, and die
One after one, in time.
Like Ginsberg, Kerouac adopts a subversive stance, asserting that the nightclub musician playing his alto saxophone is “Musically as important as Beethoven.” Kerouac then evokes the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (who died in 1955), accompanying the saxophonist from eternity. And just as the poem’s beginning its ending, though veiled in obscure language, is equally subversive. The “holy piss” juxtaposes the sacred and the vulgar, and represents that the concert, equal to Beethoven, will pass away forgotten, something holy disposed of like waste into the “waters of slaughter / And white meat” – referencing the Cold War and its militarization of American society at the time. As the audience members “die / One after one, in time,” the scene, though its importance should be recognized, fades into oblivion.
Kerouac here is reminiscent of Ginsberg, though with an entirely different voice. Ginsberg is prophetic and rambling, in the style of Whitman. Kerouac here is direct and speaks in the vernacular of the jazz club: “the whole joint is rocking” and “patootle stick.” Yet despite the stylistic differences, Kerouac effects the same subversion as Ginsberg, although in an artistic rather than a political sense and on an individual rather than a societal scale.
Gregory Corso (1930-2001) spent a troubled youth in foster homes, orphanages, and eventually a boys’ home. (“Gregory Corso,” para. 2.) He spent several months in prison at twelve years old, then began serving a three-year sentence at the age of sixteen, during which he read extensively and first became familiar with poetry. (Id., paras. 2-3.) He was released in 1950, and that same year he met Ginsberg at a Greenwich Village bar. (Id., para. 3.) Ginsberg first introduced contemporary verse to Corso, who until then had read and written only traditional verse, and soon Corso adopted Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque lines. (Id.) Corso moved to San Francisco in 1956, after the famous Howl reading, but soon became identified as one of the leading voices of the Beat Generation. (Id., para. 8.)
Corso’s poetry is characterized as relying on “traditional forms and archaic diction,” yet having a contrived spontaneity that “can range from sentimental affection and pathos to exuberance and Dadaist irreverence toward almost anything except poetry itself.” (Id., para. 7.)
The following poem comes from Corso’s San Francisco years, published in his 1958 volume, Gasoline:
I Am 25
With a love a madness for Shelley
and the needy-yap of my youth
has gone from ear to ear:
I HATE OLD POETMEN!
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying – I did those then
but that was then
that was then –
O I would quiet old men
say to them: -- I am your friend
what you once were, thru me
you’ll be again –
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
and steal their poems.
Unlike Ginsberg’s and Kerouac’s pieces, Corso here is neither dense nor opaque. The poem reads as everyday speech and the description is remarkably straightforward. Characteristic of Corso’s “streetwise” background, the poem is shockingly direct. Overall, the tone is of subversion: Corso criticizes the gentility and circumspection of the established literary community, up to rhetorically ripping out their tongues. Yet the final line, “and steal their poems,” ends on an ironic tone: the poets he so vehemently criticized and found worthy of both muting and mutilating yet produce poems worthy of stealing. After all, only something of value is worth stealing. Corso’s ultimate critique, then, is of attitude, not of talent.
Gary Snyder (b. 1930) was born in San Francisco and raised on small farms in Oregon and Washington State, where the logging industry’s effects on nature and local Indian tribes made early impressions on him. (“Gary Snyder,” para. 3.) Later he developed an interest in East Asian cultures as an example of high civilization that maintained its bonds with nature, and immersed himself in Zen Buddhism. (Id.) He moved to San Francisco in 1952 and became part of what would become the core group of Beat poets. (Id.) Indeed, he was featured alongside Ginsberg at the 1955 debut of Howl. (Id.)
“[I]f Allen Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s Walt Whitman, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau.” (Cook, p. 28.) “His concern with ecology and the physical environment of America . . . is and has been as fundamental to his own thought and expression as it was to Thoreau’s a hundred years before.” (Id.)
Snyder’s first book of poems, Riprap (1959), reflects his experience as a trail crew laborer in Yosemite National Park in 1955, during which he laid “riprap,” a type of rock pavement set into an eroding trail. (Charters ed., p. 288.) The title poem is presented here.
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles –
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.
Snyder’s voice here is terse and laconic, but has an elusive quality quite different from both Ginsberg and Kerouac. If Ginsberg is the madman and Kerouac the mystic, Snyder here is the Daoist philosopher, seeing in the cobbled riprap a representation of the universe and its inhabitants similarly cobbled together, but with a transcendent order – the “four-dimensional / Game of Go.” It is the Daoist “way” – “all change, in thoughts, / As well as things,” to which the individual being must yield. Significantly, Snyder nowhere integrates the Western philosophical tradition. Not for him is Pound’s attempt at fusion of the Eastern and Western traditions; he turns only towards the East.
The Eastern flavor of Snyder’s verse is not only apparent in his message, but in his style, as well. His lines are short, and his language is stripped down only to bare functional words, resulting in a terse, yet dense composition. That strictness of style actually renders this poem very close stylistically to William Carlos Williams.
Central to the Beat poets’ rebellion is their radical individualism. Sounding throughout both Howl and Ginsberg’s extensive body of confessional poetry is a solipsism supreme. In many ways it is the direct heir of Whitman’s solipsism in Leaves of Grass, which wielded a profound influence over Ginsberg.
More profoundly, though, not only Ginsberg, but all of his Beat counterparts owe their poetic voice to Williams’s American vernacular verse. Indeed, the trajectory of William Carlos Williams formed the essential bridge between the generations of Pound and Ginsberg. Williams began as an imagist, yet none of his later development questioned the assumptions of the Modernist aesthetic. Williams’s approach is minimalist rather than cubist, but it still operates with the same basic assumptions and aesthetics as Cubism: the individual reader supplies the meaning. Where Williams added his unique touch, however, was in his poetic voice, both accessible and authentic-sounding. Without that voice, Beat poetry would have been little more than stilted neo-Romanticism.
In this way, the Beat Poets represent the culmination of the modernist experiment – except with the Beat poets, modernism completes the journey from aesthetic experimentation to outright societal subversion.
But in many other ways Beat poetry is the voice of reaction, the reaction of a group of young men who “didn’t quite fit in” in the conformist postwar society. Just as the Romantic movement formed a reaction of the emotions against the ultra-rationalist, heavily regimented “enlightened despotisms” of the Eighteenth Century, the Beat Generation was an emotive reaction against the well-oiled machine that was America after the Second Industrial Revolution and mobilized for World War II – and kept mobilized for the Cold War.
The Romantics, after an initial flirtation with the French Revolution, turned with revulsion from its excesses and embraced an introspective spirituality, often becoming reactionaries. The Beat poets followed a different trajectory, becoming the revolutionaries par excellence. Ultimately, they helped bring about the doom of the society they criticized, “going mainstream,” and becoming the poetic and cultural establishment. The beat poets who survived into the 1970’s and beyond, however, never changed their posture of rebellion. They became the proverbial “rebels without a cause,” living out their youthful rebellion long after postwar America had transformed into a radically individualist society along their own lines.
Certainly many aspects of American society in the decades following World War II deserved serious criticism. But the tone of the Beat rebellion is far from a sober call from reform. Rather, it is a scream – indeed, a howl – for a sweeping aside of the entire society. The Beat poets act according to Shelley’s maxim that poets are the world’s legislators, but they act not as lawgivers nor even as repealers of the law, but as lawbreakers – rebels against an order they decry. Put another way, the Beats remove poetry from “the pure aether of [its] spiritual essence, . . . uncontaminated by the pollutions of ages and generations,” as Schiller calls it, and place it in realms “which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it.”
The Beat Generation’s influence on contemporary poetry is profound. Its solipsistic individualism, its unbridled rebellion, and its unleashed, dithyrambic voice have become standard in mainstream poetry for the last fifty years. Indeed, with half a century of hindsight, and the only the nonagenarian Gary Snyder remaining of the original Beat poets, present observers can pass a dispassionate enough judgment. The Beat poets were masters of destruction. They tore down. Taboos, traditions, canons – nothing was off limits. But they built up nothing in its place. They offered nothing beyond vague notions of peace, love, and “consciousness.”
At least Pound and even Eliot had a vision for where they wanted modernist poetry to take society in the wake of the destruction wrecked by World War I. The Beat poets lacked any similarly convincing and cohesive vision, content instead to rail against the society around them. Like deconstructionists in philosophy, they sought only to tear down. This is profoundly nihilistic, and the success of the Beat movement has meant that much of contemporary poetry has nothing to say beyond criticism.
Ginsberg, who dabbled in Eastern mysticism, would likely deny it, but the movement he personified was oriented to destruction, and largely achieved its objectives. But the story of contemporary American poetry need not end there. Like all other modernist trends, Beat poetry flared magnificently in novelty and notoriety, then dwindled to smoke and embers. The destruction it left behind was not absolute, and enough remains of poetic tradition for the art to rise again.
Let this journey of poetry mirror that of Dante, who from the despair of the inferno rose through the self-examination and purification of purgatory, eventually to rise to paradise. As he rose higher, his climb became easier. So must it be with poetry today. Only through an honest understanding of what came before can poets of the present examine their own style self-critically and write with a view to an eternal poetic ideal, rather than as mere reaction to present injustices.
Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books, 1992.
Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. Trinity Univ. Press, 2016.
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Univ. of Calif. Press, 2004.
Williams, Tennessee. 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Other One-Act Plays. New Directions Publishing Corp., 1966.
The Poetry Foundation. “Gregory Corso.” Available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gregory-corso (last accessed Sept. 17, 2022).
The Poetry Foundation. “Gary Snyder.” Available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/gary-snyder (last accessed Sept. 17, 2022).
The Poetry Foundation. “William Carlos Williams.” Available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-carlos-williams (last accessed June 27, 2022).
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.