Post-class Recap: Ginsberg’s “Howl”

September 14, 2010

On a very personal note, when I first finished reading “Howl,”  I felt like death had his hand on my back.  I was filled with an over-whelming sadness, mournfulness,  hopelessness – and I was breathless, I hadn’t noticed how engaged I was, while reading silently to myself, until I stopped. The end felt like running ten miles straight then slamming into a brick wall.

I had to take a time-out.  I was too worked up, too guilty, too shamed.  I  took a ten minute time-out to calm myself down.           And then,     I read it again.

Was anyone else completely shaken by this poem?

Now, to discuss the point that Dr. Scanlon left us with:

Is the end of “Howl” victorious? Is it comforting?

The ending tone of “Howl” depends entirely on how it is read.  The fluid pauses dictate if the final note is of victory (Ginsberg and Carl Solomon proudly standing on the roof of Rockland, unstoppable, and underwear-less) or of a quiet, safe comfort.   Given the choice, I prefer the latter, which emerges if the last poegraph if read like so: “I’m with you in Rockland in my dreams / you walk dripping from a sea-journey / on the highway across America in tears / to the door of my cottage in the Western night”   This interpretative reading functions to separate the reader, who was formerly confronted as the “you” in this direct address, from Carl, who is an unfamiliar, ruined, and dangerous figure. This reading places him safely back into “my dreams,” where the violent, grotesque reality of everyday life cannot harm the reader.

Although the above interpretive reading places the frightening images of Howl-land behind glass, sanitizes them, the ending could also easily (possibly more truthfully) be victorious.  If read straight through, in one breath, the parting emotion evokes that of my above ridiculous image of Carl and Ginsberg. They have wrestled with the land of Howl, and they have emerged heavily scathed but still breathing.

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