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Allen Ginsberg and other "Howls" in music and literature

ALLEN GINSBERG (Newark, New Jersey 1926 - NYC, 1997)

Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” his landmark poem, shortly after moving from New York City to San Francisco. Ginsberg had left New York after being released from eight months of incarceration in a psychiatric ward.

This experience, along with the influence of the other writers who made up the Beat Generation, provided the conditions necessary for Ginsberg’s poem. More than anything, “Howl” is a fierce cry of lament for the decay of the American imagination.

The speaker announces this theme in the poem’s famous opening line, where he declares: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

As the words “I saw” suggest, the speaker of “Howl” offers an elaborate and apocalyptic vision of America on the verge of collapse. In particular, the speaker laments how mainstream culture has curtailed the spirit of freedom and creativity.

The result is that those who most fully embody this spirit have been reduced to little more than madmen, bums, and “angelheaded” (line 3) mystics.

Yet even as the speaker laments what has been lost, he also offers a celebratory prayer for all those artists, intellectuals, and activists who resist the calcifying effects of normative American morality.

HOWL (1956)

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of

cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,


Ho visto le migliori menti della mia generazione distrutte dalla follia, affamate isteriche nude, trascinarsi nei quartieri negri all'alba in cerca di un sollievo astioso, alternativi dalle teste d'angelo in fiamme per l'antica celeste connessione con la dinamo stellata nel

meccanismo della notte, che in povertà e stracci e occhi vuoti e fatti sedevano fumando nell'oscurità oprannaturale di appartamenti con acqua fredda galleggianti tra le cime delle città contemplando il jazz,

  • Who are the BEST MINDS of our generation?

  • What is “Madness”?

  • What or Who do you “contemplate”?


Beneath a boiling sky, aflame with yellow, orange and red, an androgynous figure stands upon a bridge. Wearing a sinuous blue coat, which appears to flow, surreally, into a torrent of aqua, indigo and ultramarine behind him, he holds up two elongated hands on either side of his hairless, skull-like head.

His eyes wide with shock, he unleashes a bloodcurdling shriek. Despite distant vestiges of normality – two figures upon the bridge, a boat on the fjord – everything is suffused with a sense of primal, overwhelming horror.

This, of course, is The Scream, by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch – the second most famous image in art history, after Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

There are different interpretations made for this painting but according to what Munch himself explained in his diary in an entry headed "Nice 22 January 1892”:

“One evening I was walking along a path; the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

  • Can the poem and the painting somehow be compared? Explain


New York Post journalist Al Aronowitz introduced Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat author, to the folk singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan in 1963, and a creative friendship like no other began.

However, Dylan’s introduction to Ginsberg’s – and the work of other Beat poets – happened before then. It was part of the reason why Dylan found his way to the city by 1961. “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected,” Dylan said in 1985.

Dylan shared that same hunger for the sacred and the mad. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars,” Kerouac wrote in the book. If Kerouac was the heart of the Beats, then Ginsberg was the brain. Dylan would never get to meet the former, and grew out of touch with Kerouac’s writing as he couldn’t relate to its machismo and self-destruction; by the mid-1960s, Kerouac began his slow but painful process of death by alcoholism. “I didn’t start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I first discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara and those guys,” Dylan said about his early influence of beat poetry.

After Ginsberg and Dylan met, the two hit it off instantly. They naturally became a dual face of a new underground New York City counterculture, a beat generation of the ’60s. “If Dylan was beginning to provide the soundtrack for the counter-culture, Ginsberg gave it both a face and the networks which were essential in sustaining its momentum.”


Johnny’s in the ______________

Mixing up the medicine

I’m on the pavement

Thinking about the ______________

The man in the trench coat

Badge out, laid off

Says he’s got a bad cough

Wants to get it paid off

Look out kid

It’s somethin’ you did

______________ knows when

But you’re doin’ it again

You better duck down the alley way

Lookin’ for a new ______________

The man in the coon-skin cap

By the big pen

Wants eleven dollar bills

You only got ten

Maggie comes fleet foot

Face full of black soot

Talkin’ that the heat put

Plants in the ______________ but

The phone’s tapped anyway

Maggie says that many say

They must bust in early ______________

Orders from the D.A.

Look out kid

Don’t matter what you did

Walk on your tiptoes

Don’t try “No-Doz”

Better stay away from those

That carry around a fire hose

Keep a clean ______________

Watch the plain clothes

You don’t need a weatherman

To know which way the ______________ blows

Get sick, get ______________

Hang around a ink well

Ring bell, hard to tell

If anything is goin’ to sell

Try hard, get barred

Get back, write braille

Get jailed, jump bail

Join the ______________ if you fail

Look out kid

You’re gonna get hit

But users, cheaters

Six-time losers

Hang around the theaters

Girl by the whirlpool

Lookin’ for a new fool

Don’t follow ______________

Watch the parkin’ meters

Ah get born, keep warm

Short pants, romance, learn to dance

Get dressed, get blessed

Try to be a success

Please her, please him, buy gifts

Don’t steal, don’t lift

______________ years of schoolin’

And they put you on the day shift

Look out kid

They keep it all hid

Better jump down a ______________

Light yourself a candle

Don’t wear ______________

Try to avoid the scandals

Don’t wanna be a bum

You better chew gum

The pump don’t work

’Cause the vandals took the handles


Patti Smith has always had a reputation for saying exactly what she thinks. The American punk-poet laureate emerged from New York City’s downtown new wave and punk scene in the mid-1970s, quickly establishing herself as one of the most influential figures of that pioneering underground world.

After working on a factory assembly line on arrival to New York, she took to performing spoken word poetry in small clubs and venues, later forming the Patti Smith Group. She is an essential part of New York and, indeed America’s, complex musical DNA. Not only did she help introduce the world to punk, but she also toured with Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, a carnivalesque, self-generating musical road trip unlike any the world had seen until that point.

  1. I was dreaming in my dreaming

  2. Of an aspect bright and fair

  3. And my sleeping it was broken

  4. But my dream it lingered near

  5. In the form of shining valleys

  6. Where the pure air recognized

  7. And my senses newly opened

  8. I awakened to the cry

  9. That the people have the power

  10. To redeem the work of fools

  11. Upon the meek the graces shower

  12. It's decreed the people rule

  13. The people have the power

  14. The people have the power

  15. The people have the power

  16. The people have the power

  17. Vengeful aspects became suspect

  18. And bending low as if to hear

  19. And the armies ceased advancing

  20. Because the people had their ear

  21. And the shepherds and the soldiers

  22. Lay beneath the stars

  23. Exchanging visions

  24. And laying arms

  25. To waste in the dust

  26. In the form of shining valleys

  27. Where the pure air recognized

  28. And my senses newly opened

  29. I awakened to the cry

  30. The people have the power

  31. The people have the power

  32. The people have the power

  33. The people have the power

  34. Where there were deserts

  35. I saw fountains

  36. Like cream the waters rise

  37. And we strolled there together

  38. With none to laugh or criticize

  39. And the leopard

  40. And the lamb

  41. Lay together truly bound

  42. I was hoping in my hoping

  43. To recall what I had found

  44. I was dreaming in my dreaming

  45. God knows a purer view

  46. As I surrender to my sleeping

  47. I commit my dream to you

  48. The people have the power

  49. The people have the power

  50. The people have the power

  51. The people have the power

  52. The power to dream, to rule

  53. To wrestle the world from fools

  54. It's decreed the people rule

  55. It's decreed the people rule

  56. Listen

  57. I believe everything we dream

  58. Can come to pass through our union

  59. We can turn the world around

  60. We can turn the earth's revolution

  61. We have the power

  62. People have the power

  63. The people have the power

  64. The people have the power

  65. The power to dream, to rule

  66. To wrestle the world from fools

  67. It's decreed the people rule

  68. It's decreed the people rule

  69. We have the power

  70. People have the power

  71. We have the power...

Read the first stanza up to line 4. What sort of experience is the song about?

Lines 4 to 12: what did the artist picture and feel?

Lines 17 to 29: underline the images of peace.

Lines 34-47:what does the artist believe in?

  • Our dreams never come true

  • Our dreams are beautiful but can't change the world

  • Our dreams can change the world if we respect nature

  • Our dreams can change the world if we work al together

Riccardo Zambon - Babylon Lingue - 23 September 2023

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