The Howl of the Faraway Father

06/08/2016 at 6:04 pm (Book Reviews, Novel Excerpts, Rose and Ken's Bookshelf)

This is the first (of many) book reviews of counter-culture classics that the adult characters in Bear would have read prior to the time when the action of the novel takes place: summer of 1976.

I chose Allen Ginsburg‘s epic poem Howl as one of the books Thomas O’Neill — the absent father of the story who left Berkeley for NY when Stephen was six, and Demian was barely two — would have most definitely read, dog-eared, carried around with him, and tried to emulate with his own poetry.

“He packed a U.S. Army duffel bag with a few belongings (ironically, he had dodged the draft and his duty to country, but used the military’s supplies to flee his family), borrowed some money from relatives in Omaha and headed out of our lives, never to return.”

And now, my review:

howl

 

While Allen Ginsberg’s three-part, long poem “Howl” is borne of a particular moment in American history — the Joseph McCarthy congressional witch hunts; the cold war with Russia (which includes, to a degree, the Korean War); social and racial unrest — it is still possible to read and appreciate the work without the context of the time. The staccato beats of the stanzas, the raw and potent language, as well as the cross-country travels in the poem are all worth exploring in detail outside of the realm of Ginsberg’s cultural experience. With powerful imagery, specific American locales, and references to John Milton, William Blake, Neal Cassady and The Bible, the 1956 poem ushered in not only the age of Beat poetry, but a lasting piece of fury, compassion and madness.

The opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” sets in motion a seemingly endless list of unnamed, but mostly male, people whom the narrator apparently knew who lost their sanity in the streets, subways, back alleys and bars of America. Written as a single, run-on sentence, the rhythm scheme is structured as mini-tales, each passage of a new, mind-blowing experience beginning simply with “who,” connecting back to that first line of the poem. The sense of dislocation within familiar terrain is the theme repeated throughout, with places in the heartland like Laredo, Texas and Arkansas as sinister and terrifying as Chicago and New York City. The people of the narrator’s generation come from and travel to all points on the U.S. map, but share the common states of sorrow and confusion, unable to feel grounded within landscapes that no longer hold the same security and dependency that they once did. When the “angelheaded hipsters […] / […] bare their brains to Heaven under the El” and “[drink] turpentine in Paradise Alley,” while others “whore through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars,” the America that once made sense is transformed into a jumble of seedy and depressed places where screaming at God, poisoning oneself, and having meaningless sex for an almighty, capitalistic dollar is the current norm.

Time, space, eternity, the universe and Plato are invoked throughout the narrator’s journey across America, allowing Ginsberg to delve into the big questions asked by man, albeit without attempting to directly answer any of them. He is ambitious in his reachings, detailing the concerns and experiences of an entire generation, his only judgments coming in the form of labeling the various acts performed as the actions of an insane group of people. He then follows the list of his generation’s misdeeds with a section devoted to Moloch, invoking the biblical Canaanite who also shows himself in poems by Coleridge and Milton.

The third and final section addresses Carl Solomon, a real-life friend to Ginsberg, to whom the poem is dedicated. It continues the societal course of madness to its logical conclusion, with Solomon in a Rockland, N.Y. mental hospital receiving treatment for the destruction of his, the best, mind.

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