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 Comparing a “Song” to “Howl”


  When I was reading Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, I could not help seeing the similarities between this poem and Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” It is true that they were written in completely different eras; “Song of Myself” was originally written in 1855, and “Howl” was completed about 100 years later, in 1956. I feel that “Song of Myself” is a poem written for and about America, or at least the America that Whitman experienced. “Howl” is, arguably, for and about the America that Ginsberg experienced. I feel it is possible that Ginsberg read, and was inspired by, Whitman, and was perhaps flooded with passion and disappointment and hope for the country that he saw in Whitman’s words. 


He wanted to have the same relationship Whitman had with his birthplace, but he also wanted to record his current version of the United States, which had differed so much from what Whitman described.

Just looking at the structure of the poems, without reading any words, allows one to see similarities. Long lines, two very long poems, no real rhyme scheme anywhere, and occasional repetition.

In “Howl”, Ginsberg writes, “and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane,” (I, 73). This is perhaps a reference to Whitman’s style of writing, and a line within “Song of Myself could be used as corroboration. “What living and buried speech is always vibrating here….what howls restrained by decorum,” (158, 159). Here, there may not only be a clue to the “vibrating plane” origin of Ginsberg’s line, but also a line that could have inspired the title of “Howl.”

Both poems mention suicides. Now, that isn’t all that shocking, but it is a comparison and I am making it. But, where Whitman writes of suicide in manner nearly journalistic (144, 145), Ginsberg’s mentions of suicide are more anguished, and, it could be argued, provide more intensity (46, 55).

Whitman writes, “My embryo has never been torpid” (1164) and “All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me” (1168). These lines, and the ideas surrounding them, might be the reason that led Ginsberg to write: “Moloch who entered my soul early!” (II, 9). America was bred into both of them, only it was something of delight to Whitman, and the evil, child-eating force of Moloch for Ginsberg.

Whitman had written a celebration of life, and Ginsberg may have felt cheated out of the joy that Whitman clearly felt in every line of “Song of Myself.” Whitman penned out promises to his readers, writing “It is not chaos or death . . . . it is form and union and plan . . . . it is eternal life . . . . it is happiness.” (1308). Almost in answer to this, Ginsberg wrote of his generation: “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand  years.” (I, 78). The happiness that Whitman imparted into his poem, that he must have nearly soaked through his skin, was not available to the “best minds” (1) that Ginsberg knew. He listed the myriad ways they sought it, but no drug or random sex act or suicidal thrill could bring it to them.


 Whitman creates an image of a person who has been “timidly” clinging to the “shore” (1228), and he wills that person to “be a bold swimmer” (1229) in the sea, “and rise again and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.” (1230). In the final line of Section III, Ginsberg alludes to Whitman’s lines. Here, Ginsberg presents an image of Carl Solomon, returning in a dream “dripping from a sea-journey” (III, 19).  Ginsberg hopes that this journey has allowed Carl to experience that baptism into happiness promised by Whitman. It is merely a dream, but it shows that there is still hope left in Ginsberg for himself.

Whitman’s vast poem, “Song of Myself”, was truly a song. It was a song of praise for the life that Whitman saw around him. Ginsberg took a similar approach, in both form and idea, with his poem, “Howl.” His work was truly a howl, of anguish, of fury. A song is meant to be sung, remembered, repeated. A howl is emitted without warning, and it immediately draws attention. Everyone, no matter how numb, turns to see where the “barbaric yawp” (Whitman, 23) has come from. 


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May 30, 2013 · 7:07 am

Reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in a Survey Course

ImageI am not going to say who I am talking about, but let’s just say that I know someone who got

Envy is Ignorance; Imitation is Suicide”

tattooed across her lower abdomen as a teenager. She picked the quote out of a book of previously-done tattoos compiled by the tattoo parlor. I’d love to see Ralph Waldo Emerson’s face when he found out that people are getting his words tattooed on their bodies, often without even knowing he wrote them. Is it better that they have no idea who wrote the words? At least they aren’t just doing it to be “literary.” The teenage girl I mentioned above was not making a literary reference; she was mad at her parents.


In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson is tired of people who do not think for themselves. It is actually rather hard to think about, because he wrote this in a way that sounds like he is trying to inspire people to think for themselves, but in order for that to happen, the readers would have to accept Emerson’s way of thinking. It hurt my head to think about it that way, so I stopped.

But then I realized that we were reading this in a survey course. These courses are often designed to make sure that students gain an understanding of the literary canon of a certain time period or writing culture. You can’t be a successful English major without being about to make an offhand remark about post-modernism, right? Isn’t there just something so Orwellian about that? Emerson would not be happy about survey courses, in my opinion. He writes, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (269). Yet here we are, reading the words of America’s early sages, Emerson perhaps the most well-known of them all.

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thought” (Emerson 269). How did Emerson know that one day in the early 2000’s, a teenage girl would have this exact thought? She would ignore it, thinking she was nuts, until she read Emerson and he felt the same way. On that day she knew she was onto something! Snark aside, it is interesting that it takes a reassurance by an American man of letters to let people know that their ideas are also worth something. This sentiment seems to really have taken hold in our current society. Think of the Facebook overshare, the Instagrams of lattes. Is this what Emerson wanted? What would Emerson think of the political meme?


Today, it is much easier for us to share our thoughts. Look what I am doing right now; my ideas are being posted to the internet as part of a class assignment. “I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson 271). Emerson’s Twitter would be hilarious. He would be ripping people apart without any concerns, as he did not care for the opinions of others. Although, he felt “man must be a nonconformist,” so perhaps he would hate all normal social media platforms (Emerson 271). He would just have his own ad-free blog.

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