The poems, “Howl” (1955) and “America” (1956), written by Allen Ginsberg puts forth the ideals of the beat generation that spread anti-institutional standards and was known for its counter cultural values. Both the poems are about America. The poems, written in free verse, present the voice of common people who have been censured as uncouth and suppressed throughout their life. The poems have often been described as “counter culture”, and therefore, believed to be dissident. Counterculture opposes aspects of mainstream culture like mass culture, middle class values, and norms. Both the poems are strong protest poems and stand against institutionalized capitalism prevalent in American, which limits the expression of average Americans.
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In his poems, “Howl” and “America”, Allen Ginsberg protests against the institutional hegemony of America and any of its microcosmic institutions within the boundaries of the country, have over its average citizens. However, the poems are apparently unpatriotic as they directly abuse the institutional machinery of the country, but essentially speak on behalf of the downtrodden, the silenced voices, and the middle-class drowning in capitalist excess. In this essay, I will argue that even though Ginsberg deliberately jibes against the oppressive institutional system that stifles freedom of expression of the minority, he essentially tries to give voice to the oppressed minority that is being stifled by the capitalist and institutional discourse in America.
“America” is a poetic response of Ginsberg to Cold War America. The space that he addresses is the temporal space that has been occupied with no freedom for creative expression. The poem is strewn with political point of view of the poet who definitively is frustrated with the endless wars in the nuclear age. In the poem “America”, the speaker not only criticizes capitalism in America but the whole system followed in America, or rather, the way in which America is operated. In the poem the speaker, at one point asks, “America when will you be angelic”, which means when will America be worthy of being the nation of its Angels (“America” par. 8).
Here Angels are the people like the poet – idealistic, truly caring of America, anti-Moloch, and believer in the ideals of a just society. Similarly, “Howl”, describes an adolescent’s Ping-Pong game, which assumed greater and darker meaning. In part one, Ginsberg uses the poem as a means to satirize the medical system through which Carl Solomon has to go through during his stay in a mental asylum in America, in order to portray the struggle of an average American for self-expression (“Howl” par. 1).
Through the description of the repetitiveness and monotonousness of the game, Ginsberg establishes the moral baseness and spiritual emptiness of Solomon while in the asylum. In the third part, Ginsberg returns to the metaphorical Ping-Pong game to describe the cycle of life and death that Solomon undergoes in the asylum. Thus, even in this poem, Ginsberg deliberately points out the ineffectiveness of the mental institution to treat its patients and deliberately equates it to a game that is tedious and recurring.
Hence, Ginsberg, in both the poems goes against established institutions to demonstrate the futility of modern life of an average American. In “Howl”, the mainstream culture the poet rejects is that of capitalism and everything that capitalism stands for. According to the poem, Moloch is destroying America in many ways and the only people who can see the destruction are the “angel headed hipsters” who have prophetic vision to see the truth but because they tell the inconvenient truth, they are perceived as threats to the establishment (“Howl” par. 3).
Essentially, both “Howl” and “America” demonstrate the negative and anti-traditionalistic view point of the poet, suggestive of his deliberate defiance of authority and convention. Both the poems point at the average American’s loss of sense of unity and self, propelled by institutional forces. Both the poems profess that the institutional structure and system of modern America was deliberately driving its men mad.
The criticism towards the institution is evident in both the poems – “Howl” towards the mental institution while “America” towards the whole country. The implicit reference to Trotsky shows the affiliation of the young rebellious men of the country towards communism and Russia, even though they were the enemy of the country during cold war. This shows a direct attack on the capitalist ideals of the American way of life that the institution was imposing on the middle class Americans.
In “Howl”, Ginsberg diminishes the modern method of treatment to a mere game; he mocks the effectiveness of the prevalent modern system. Ginsberg points out in the poem, “and who given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy Ping-Pong and amnesia” (“Howl” par. 1). The poem while describing the asylum where Solomon was admitted, points out that the adoption of the mental conditioning (psychotherapy and occupational therapy) and the use of fewer physical form of treatment (insulin and Metrazol), indicates a monotonous, non-inventive system in which the patients were kept.
The extension of the non-inventiveness of the system was indicated through the only amusement that the patients were allowed, the Ping-Pong game, representative the stereotypical nature of the environment. Ginsberg indicates the presence of a “concrete void” at the heart of the mental institution which is established through the presence of “Amnesia” that erases ones own self thus losing ones own identity (“Howl” par. 1).
Ginsberg dehumanizes the treatments by deliberately, not separating the treatments from one another with comas, thus, creating a sense of meaninglessness and void. When Solomon rebels against this monotonous system, Ginsberg presents the need for self-expression and spontaneity in face of human need of institutional order. The recurrence and repetitiveness of the game demonstrates a spiritual death of the patients as they are subjected to a mundane life.
In “America”, Ginsberg points out the erosion of the average American’s individuality due to the Cold War. According to Ginsberg, war demands denouncement of individuality of the average people, which is mostly done to make them believe in the nonexistence of individuality of the enemy. The aftermath of war is the erosion of the self and the feeling of nonexistence among individuals. The loss of individual identity becomes enormously prominent in the poem.
In both the poems, Ginsberg stresses on the institutional system that steals individuality from people, in order to create a man who losses self-identity. The institutional hegemony creates an individual that is mundane, stereotypical, and has no identity. The poem expresses this loss. In “Howl”, Solomon becomes a victim of the subversive rules of the asylum that, instead of treating its patients, turns them to mere machines with no individuality. In “America”, the hegemony of the governmental machinery suppresses the voice of the minority, leading to a voiceless class. In both the poems, Ginsberg rebels against the suppression of the average American voice by the institution.
In its essence, both the poems protest against the destruction of the voices that is defiant of the institutional system. Solomon in “Howl” and the speaker in “America” represent the minority who dare to think differently. Solomon is possibly considered mentally ill and is admitted to a mental hospital while the poet himself is a homosexual communist within the capitalist American system, and therefore, minority. The suppression of the minority voice within the American institution is expressed in both the poems. Hence, though they may apparently sound unpatriotic, they are infused with nationalistic feeling towards the average American who is subjugated into a system that thwarts its freedom of expression.
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Ginsberg, Allen. “America.” 1956. University of Pennsylvania. Web.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” 1955. Poetry Foundation. Web.