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Howl

Howl is a poem by Allen Ginsberg that was first performed in 1955 in the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It is noted for relating stories and experiences of his friends and contemporaries, its tumbling hallucinatory style, and the subsequent obscenity trial which it provoked. It is dedicated to Ginsberg's friend Carl Solomon[?].

The poem is in three parts, with an additional footnote. Part I is the most well known, and communicates scenes, characters and situations drawn from his own experience, and the community of poets, artists, political radicals, jazz musicans, drug addicts and psychiatric patients which he encountered. Part II is a lament at the state of America, named as 'Moloch' in the poem. Part III is directly addressed to Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met whilst both were patients at Rockland, a New York psychiatric hospital, and relates shared experiences, hopes and fears. The footnote is notable for its repetitive 'Holy!' mantra and its optimistic outlook.

The frequently quoted (and often parodied) opening lines set the theme and rhythm for the majority of the poem:

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

Part I contains a mixture of the biographical:

who lounged hungy and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa

and the abstract:

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 sensations of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

The 1957 Obscenity Trial Howl contains many references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual. One line in particular

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy

caused the published version of the poem to be seized by US Customs on March 25, 1955, having being published in Britain and imported into United States.

A subsequent obscenity trial was brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poem's publisher. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won the case, the court deciding that the poem was of 'redeeming social importance'. The case was widely publicised (articles appeared in both 'Time' and 'Life' magazines) ensuring the wide readership of Howl, which remains one of the most popular poems by an American author.

List of Obscure Things Mentioned in "Howl"

Not all things in Howl are easily understood by the common reader. Here is a glossary of terms that help out in reading the text:

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