America, mid-twentieth century. Wearied by civilization, excesses and ornamentation, complications and. All precursors to extinction: The drone of war, the machinery of death, the atomic bomb, crew cuts, grey flannel, and hydrogen jukeboxes. The Beats were the unholy and battered, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the trees of machinery, disturbed by the grime of death and human locomotives. Those who decided, however, that they were not dread bleak dusty imageless engines, but beatific, exalted in exhaustion, inside golden sunflowers, blessed by seed and hairy naked accomplishment.
Though academics of the mid-1950s too quickly dismissed Allen Ginsberg and the Beats as worshipping “blood and energy,” and as writing war-cries of inarticulate emotions, Ginsberg returns language to the body, as an instrument. Though outwardly, “Howl” might read merely as a mad ramblings, a random jumble of words, or vomit on a page, the poem’s mad rush is delicately controlled and balanced. In order to understand Ginsberg’s eloquence we need to examine the ways the jazz idiom of Bebop translates into language, as well as how the poem does not simply ‘mean’ or signify, but is.
Like the unpredictable rhythm patterns and flexibilities of bebop, easier to describe than define, Ginsberg syncopates his rhythms with alliterative dental and nasal sounds that function as lingual mirrors to the mad and exalted and exalted rhythms of Bebop.
“Howl’s” syncopated throbs and stops are jammed with improvised and “riffing” word play of like and unlike sounds. Long and tedious as it may be “Howl” “sponges on one’s toleration,”1 deliberately so. “Howl” is a mad rush, a tediously rhetorical barreling of solipsism as a means for self-preservation, or a means not to go mad. For the artists, writers, and musicians of the 1950s, all aims at “politics” had failed. Intellectual and artistic “academies” called for complacent and detached conformity amid the “crack of doom on the hydrogen juke-box”2. Where else was there for them to turn but to Bebop, to the exalted exhaustion of Charlie Parker’s horn playing? What else could one do but indulge in re-imaginings of sound as romantic protest to the real world’s machine?
Meant as a reflection to the mania of post-modern chaos, only the anaphoric metronome of the dispossessed is all that is seemingly rhythmic in the first part of “Howl”: Those “who ate fire in paint hotels/who lounged hungry and lonesome/seeking jazz or sex or soup/who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism.”3 However, within the anaphora, it is the variations on alliterative verse that fuels the poem’s rhythms: The constant scintillating lingual pushes between short accented vowels and dental consonants like the ‘i’ and ‘k’ sounds in lines like “the kind king light of mind.”4 Or the alliterative dental ‘t’ pushes that spark quickly against the durations of high hissing ‘s’ sounds in lines like “who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floating out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s.”5 Or the throbs that are created between the pulses of dental ‘t’ sounds and heavings of ‘h’ in lines like, “poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high.”6
Dizzie Gillepsie once said Charlie Parker had the uncanny knack of getting from one note to the next. Ginsberg’s bop, his lingual sweeps and swooshes, are created from the melodies created between like and unlike sounds as well as accented and unaccented syllables. For instance, in the lines “listening to/the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”, the sounds shift from iambic like ‘oo’ and ‘i’ accents of “to”, “doom”, and “listening”, to the like and unlike spondaic accents of “crack” “hydrogen” and “jukebox.” Even without the imagery and allusions, the sounds of the words would still articulate the meaning: Long accents haunt and push against hard spondaic cacophony into a heaving dental-nasal blithering that is at once surreally prophetic and ridiculous: “crack” “of” “doom” “hy-dro-gen” “ju-ke-box.”
Alternately, along with alliterative sounds and accents, Ginsberg’s thrusts and stops between Latinate and Germanic roots further create syncopated rhythms and sonic meaning. The line “who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition,”7 exemplifies how Ginsberg snaps and wiggles the sonic rhythms of his language like a whip, or a harmonium organ pumping a frenzied tempo. The dental ‘p’, nasal ‘n’, and hissing ‘s’ accents of the Latinate “partition” push and throb against the hissing and heaving ‘h’ and ‘s’ and ‘b’ accents in the Germanic “hiccupped” “endlessly” and “sob.”
It is little wonder why academics of Ginsberg’s era dismissed “Howl.” To study the nuances of the poem’s craft is to be affronted with blatant homo-eroticism, in image as well as rhythm. For example, the tonal rubbings between action words like the Germanic “scattering” and intellectual or formal sounding Latinate “semen” creates a bodily meter: The alliterative repeated ‘s’ sounds in “scattering” and “semen” allows the nasal “ng” sound in “scattering” to twirl and resonate off the “n” of semen, a Latinate word most in Ginsberg’s era, as well as now, would not rather see ringing off the page.
It is, however, the offending “obscene” line of the poem, “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,”8 that is pure exalted exhaustion, literally, as well sonically and rhythmically. It is the Latinate words of “joy” and “saintly” we are unaccustomed to hearing alongside the Germanic, and very crude words of “fuck” and “ass.” Aside from the derivative meaning of defining sodomy as saintly, it is the sound of these words that creates a cacophonous euphony of the crunching ‘k’ and ‘t’ sounds in “fuck” and “let” against the lovely whispering ‘s’s’ and ‘ly’s’ of “saintly,” and moaning vowel tremors of ‘a’ ‘oy’s’ in “joy” and “ass.”
The word “motorcyclist”, the icon most associated with rebels of the 1950s, most demonstrates this cacophonic euphony: The nasal “m” sound twists into a moaning “o”, then shifts to a dental “t”, before going back to the moaning “o”, then growls back into an “r”, hisses into a “c”, whines into a “y”, drips an “l” off the tongue” to conclude with a final nasal “ist.” Hence, the word “motorcyclist” is a holy litany of beautiful rhythms created by syncopated and twisting sounds. A word, clearly, carefully chosen.
Unfortunately, when the “authorities” deemed the contents of “Howl” obscene, they did not address how the sounds and rhythms of the poem enhanced its holy and homo-erotic protest. Like the music of Charlie Parker, whose complicated rhythms move so quickly they are difficult to decipher, Ginsberg’s “bop” overwhelms, and stirs the listener to share his exalted exhaustion.
1 Hollander, John. Review of Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. Partisan Review Spring 1957
2 “Howl” line 15
3 “Howl” line 31
4 “Howl” line 10
5 “Howl” line 15
6 “Howl” line 1
7 “Howl” line 39
8 “Howl” line 36