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 Comparing a “Song” to “Howl”

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  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. 

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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.

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 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