Cry, Exploration, Ceremony

Oppositional postmodernist literature is associated with the Beat movement and came about after the terrible, unforeseen destruction of World War II. While the modernists were positive about the human spirit and mankind’s ability to progress to an ever better future, postmodernists posited that there is creative power in negativity and opposition as well as destructive tendencies.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg / Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko / Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. Collage copyright Empty Mirror.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg / Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko / Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. Collage copyright Empty Mirror.

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg is a rush of desperate words giving voice to the unspeakable, the violent turbulence and injustices of the times (the United States under President Eisenhower), in which “whole intellects disgorged in total recall” (Ginsberg). As an extended metaphor, “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, works richly in relation to the women’s movements and cultural evolutions of the age. Ceremony revolves around a young man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who struggles to find both his identity and where Indians belong in the present-day United States. In “Howl” the long lines of negativity and despair critique the wrongs in modern society in shocking, highly stylized language, whereas in “Diving into the Wreck,” the writing exploring the ruins of the past is subtle and quiet—these poems question truth and meaning as conventionally understood. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, a novel celebrating contemporary Native American traditions and culture in an era of white oppression, shares striking, though perhaps not immediately apparent, and separate, similarities with the above poems “Howl” and “Wreck.” “Howl,” “Wreck” and Ceremony journey, literally and metaphorically, into a mysterious, bewildering realm of openness and brokenness; although all three works provoke numerous questions and end at a defined point, none finish in the sense of absolute resolution of the issue, or provide a complete set of concrete answers.

“Howl” opposes the commonly accepted concept of a productive society as the best form of an overall life ambition. Hailed as a pivotal, iconic work of the counterculture movement, the fact that it was confiscated by U.S. customs for being “obscene” demonstrates the poem’s controversial and provocative nature, its effectiveness in disconcerting conservative, staid convention. In an outraged indictment on behalf of society’s unheard, Ginsberg summarily and in great detail damns the elements and aspects of modern culture which have “destroyed the best minds of [his] generation …” (Ginsberg 1) and graphically describes them as “screaming whispering facts and memories” (Ginsberg #). By combining disparate elements and ideas, “Howl” raises the intense shock value, presumably Ginsberg’s intention, to wake the slumbering and complacent people and drive them to action. The depiction of drug use, violence and sexuality is expressed in such a fashion as to purposely appall, leaving an unforgettable if uncomfortable impression upon the reader. In a way (Ginsberg might not appreciate the comparison) “Howl” is similar to Old Testament hell-fire and brimstone sermons, not so much of the iniquities of mankind but rather what has caused people to become simultaneously disturbed, isolated, and alienated from what is supposed to be an inclusive community.

The dilapidated ruins which the narrator of “Wreck” has come to seek can be said to be the failed, submerged hulk of the old definition of the past. She searches for what can be salvaged, if evidence survives of what used to be. Rich’s interest in feminism is apparent in the equality of the line “I am she; I am he” (Rich), a transgender being embarking on a heroic personal quest, internal as well as external for authenticity. She/he wants to find “the wreck and not the story of the wreak” (Rich #), the reality behind the myth. The tools include both convention—“a loaded camera” and “a knife blade” and an initially incongruous “book of myths” (Rich 1-3)—all of which guide him/her on his/her quest. The ladder, “a piece of maritime floss” (Rich 20), provides security and a connection between the two worlds the narrator transverses, one of familiar air, the other of foreign water. “The body armor of black rubber and absurd flippers” (Rich 5-6) encasing him/her also cripple him/her, an indication of how heavy tradition also weighs down the wearer. Two major interpretations emerge: first is the theme of exploration in unknown territory, and the other is a merging and transformation of identity.

Ceremony follows Tayo on his quest to validate his own life while surrounding “family” and “friends” like Auntie and Emo attempt to further decimate his already pained soul; while more aware of himself and the dire situation, Tayo’s desperate plight represents the larger Indian society, the people who pass their time hostile and drunk, reminiscing on “that old feeling, that feeling they belonged to America the way they felt during the war … they blamed themselves just like they blamed themselves for losing the land the white people took” (Silko 50) Due to the segregationist attitude of the U.S. government, which holds its stance on a “separate but equal” policy by placing Indians on reservations and thinking that adequate recompense for taking the best and major part of the land, Native Americans have nowhere to go, and are as trapped within their tiny isolation as much as though they were cattle enclosed by steel wire fences. According to Ceremony, Indians perceive life as “filled with the intricacies of a continuing process, and with a strength inherent in spider webs … where early in the morning the sun becomes entangled in each filament of web” (Silko 46), and this entrapment is wholly unnatural to the Native American way of life. Therefore, Tayo sets out to rectify what has been bent to white whims and dictation by following the directions of Betonie and the woman, and finally enacting the sacred ceremony which will eradicate the evil that Indian witchery brought upon the world.

The story of “Howl” if so it can be called, is that people are trying to find fulfillment, going on a long and winding and  complicated quest, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” of the ever persevering soul, which Ginsberg praises in lines # with loving adjectives as “holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness.” This tentative spirit of possible beauty in a nightmarish world of overt apocalyptic overtones in part helps to declare “Howl” as a work of great social importance rather than a mere purposeless catalog of repulsive imagery. Likewise, though in less grotesquely charged language, Rich looks into the depths of the buried psyche, “something more permanent than fish and weed” (Rich #) as well as the symbolic history of society and our assumed understanding of it. The narrator finds “half-destroyed instruments” and “a water eaten log” (Rich #) these are the remains of conventional morality and other social mores. On the surface, ironically enough, “Wreck” would be nothing more than a simple glance into tides somewhat stranger than before experienced; a closer examination underneath reveals a complex look into the individual and his/her surrounding context.

Grounded in recorded history rather than tantalizing glimpses of reality, Ceremony is at times just as elusive in meaning—Silko mentions that though the text is in English, it is a translation of the old Laguna tongue, thus emphasizing the fact that the reader cannot grasp all the intricacies and details of the original language. “This [ceremony] has been going on for a long long time now,” old Betonie tells Tayo. “Don’t let them stop you. Don’t let them finish off this world (Silko 124).” By finding himself and his place in the world by the recovery of his uncle Josiah’s cattle, Tayo also grows to understand the meaning of Betonie’s words and what he must do.  “Ceremony, “Wreck” and “Howl” deal with conflict, a clash between two opposing forces which may eventually lead to a coalescing of differences: Ceremony posits the binaries of the naturalness of Indian culture in contrast to wanton white destruction, “Wreck” superimposes the present over the past in order to expose more nuanced and fuller meaning to the future, and “Howl” shrieks of the jarring between mainstream and counterculture. 
 
“Wreck” consists of beautifully layered images; for example, the woman lost in the depths of a patriarchal culture, while “Howl” is a great collective voice (in one breath) of traumatized people upsetting traditional codes. Ceremony stresses the importance of storytelling and of retaining old traditions in the wake of terrible trauma; in the relaying of Tayo’s life and the pitiful existence of surviving Indians, poems interspersed throughout the narrative continually point back to the cycle of orally transmitted founding myths of the past. The narrator simultaneously finds in one object, “the Wreck,” a treasure and a decayed corpse, suggesting the important yet outdated body of the past. The profligate, dissolute living of people who “Howl” for hope and are rewarded by “the soul illuminat[ing] its hair for a second” (Ginsberg #), is nauseating and frighteningly accurate at the same time. In both “Howl” and “Wreck” there are no easy answers, no explanations of the present state of things, which is only given, whereas in Ceremony the past and continuing destructive relationship between the whites and the Indians lies heavy on the story. Following “the path of excess to the palace of wisdom” (Ginsberg #), “Howl” is about a frenzied generation in search of something of existential significance in the style of Kafka and Dostoevsky. “Wreck” has an unearthly, surreal feel in that is a legendary underwater voyage undertaken to discover truth and meaning in opposition to the insincerity which so permeates the present society. Ceremony demands justice for the many awful crimes committed against Native Americans, not by condescending sufferance of the whites but rather the strength of the indomitable Indian spirit. Upon seeing the “wreck” of contemporary society, the perceptive individual “howl[s]” in just fury and straightaway embarks upon a journey with a cleansing “ceremony” as the destination.

Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg : The Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation. Web.
05 Nov. 2011. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Diving into the Wreck.” Poets.org – Poetry, Poems, Bios & More. Web. 05
Nov. 2011. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15228.

Share Button
About Winnie Khaw

Winnie Knaw is a creative writing MFA candidate at California College of the Arts whose work is featured in Passages North, Palooka Journal, The Philadelphia Review, Eclectica, The Daily Satire and others. She was waitlisted for the 2013 Lit Camp conference in San Francisco, and was Chapman University’s nominee for the Association of Writers award in fiction in 2011. But mostly, she spends her free time being silly.

What do you think?

*