America had already been made aware of the Beats when John Clellon Holmes' novel Go was published in 1952. (Click here to reserve a copy.) But when Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem "Howl" (read it here) was first unleashed in 1955, the country suddenly realized that the Beats were more than just a group of malcontents, but instead represented a powerful literary force with tremendous social and political influence.
After "Howl", followed by Kerouac's On the Road and Burroughs' Naked Lunch, among others, came along, most of America was rocked out of it's complacency and comfort zones.
But what was IN "Howl" that shook up "the folks"? It may be out of my depth, but I'll try to sum up, as best as I can, how to interpret Ginsberg's classic work.
"Howl" is comprised of four parts. The first part is largely autobiographical, with Ginsberg. um, howling against the marginalization by society of "the best minds" of his generation. Ginsberg and his friends (there are shout outs to fellow Beat figures Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady, among others) represent the "lost', post-WWII generation who want more than just a job and a nice house in the suburbs with a wife and 3.2 kids. But American society isn't tolerant of any view that isn't in the majority, which explains why so many of Ginsberg's peers wind up "destroyed by madness" .
Part two, written by Ginsberg while fueled by peyote, tears into the crushing oppression of American society, specifically its industry and bureaucracy. Socially and otherwise, this source of despair is represented in the poem by the hateful figure "Moloch". Moloch is the "incomprehensible prison" of shortsighted beliefs and biases that exists in all of us. As long as Moloch hold sway over us, we're unable to fully act upon our dreams and desires, let alone get along with each other.
Ginsberg's friend, Carl Solomon, whose struggles with authority both gave the poet the idea for "Howl' forms both the center of part three and also inspires the sense of society coming together. Ginsberg's declarations of solidarity with Solomon ("I'm with you in Rockland") enable the poet to see eventual recociliation between the disparate views of Americans. The "Footnote" that follows is a plea by Ginsberg for us to see everyone and everything as "holy" and to be treated with love and respect. In short, there's hope for all of us. But we have to make the first step.