David Bergman argues that New York is “a place of and for the imagination” (The Queer Writer in New York 1) that is central to what Bergman calls the American “Queer Imaginarium” (3), and because of this, has attracted many overlapping and contradictory depictions of and through queer identity. For queer writers like Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Emma Lazarus, New York is a somewhat magical and carefree site of queer expression. However, when one enters the Queer Imaginarium of New York through the eyes of Allen Ginsberg, one finds the queer city of America full of hardship, of New Yorkers with “their shoes full of blood” (Ginsberg), who live in a wild world of “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls.”
In Ginsberg, we find queerness in a world that does not feel so carefree or accepted by the normative American culture it finds itself in, but a yearning to find New York and America in more radical expressions of self, one that must make room for the difference of disability and sexuality. Unlike other poets, which put America under a utopian lens, Ginsberg finds his America through the embrace of chaos, and self-destruction, letting queer and disabled bodies drag the United States down to hell where they might be free.
Ginsberg’s expressions of queerness start with the body, but not the body under heteronormative, neurotypical, and physically abled representation in American culture. The bodies of Ginsberg’s focus are bodies so often “destroyed by madness” and “cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully” (“Howl”). Ginsberg’s bodies are ugly and bloody and suffering, and always seem to be searching for something in the journey across America that the poem depicts.
When the poem first reaches New York City and America as a whole, it reaches to represent a grim city and a grim America. It reaches for those rejected from establishments like “academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes” (“Howl”). In “Howl,” we find a kind of tribute to those who feel rejected, to those whose rejections have fostered anti-establishment sentiments, and to self-destruction. Howl’s deviation away from a shining and hopeful America comes in the midsts of what Loni Reynolds described in “The Mad Ones” and the “Geeks”: Cognitive and Physical Disability in the Writing of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as a “dynamic cultural moment that medicalized and pathologized deviations from an impossible, idealized norm” (154). These were cognitive as well as heteronormative norms.
Though Ginsberg and Beat poetry—to which he belongs—found a very literal home by being published through Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Business Relationships in San Francisco, New York still played an essential role in creating for Ginsberg and other 20th century queer writers. New York became a central hub of queer writing if only because so many queer writers were living in New York that those “outside of New York [would] pass through the city [and] find themselves thrown into contact” (Bergman 6) with each other.
Carl Solomon, to whom Ginsberg dedicated “Howl,” was one of these bodies, both of queerness and cognitive difference, that Ginsberg could only encounter in New York. Ginsberg and Solomon first became friends in 1949 when Ginsberg “Spent eight months in Colombia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute” (158) where Solomon was also staying. While the bodies of queerness and cognitive disability serve as the subject and backdrop of Ginsberg’s image of America, psychoanalysis of cognitive disability (which Ginsberg underwent several times) also served as an “alternative mindset that provid[ed] creative insight and poetic inspiration” (158) to poets like Ginsberg. Though “Howl” is full of queer imagery, the idea that so many of the queer bodies Ginsberg seeks to depict makes itself clear from the beginning, with even the opening line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Though the language is often problematic, I do not think that the poem seeks to demonize those “destroyed by madness” as much as it does the institutions which reject and punish the suffering figures in the poems.
Ginsberg’s more apparent tribute to Solomon in part III pays tribute to the mistreatment of mental illness in the America of Ginsberg’s experience. Ginsberg’s America is one where “fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body” (“Howl”). The body Ginsberg preaches for, both his own, and Carl Solomon’s, and his many other nameless figures is a body whose disabilities were not bestowed on them by America, but whose bodies were at least mistreated by the systems that claim to care for them.
In Rockland, Ginsberg seems to paint an image of America as a flawed, imperfect relationship. Ginsberg, and his companions and lovers “kiss the United States under our bedsheets” (“Howl”), the country that “Howl” seeks to celebrate, even while they acknowledge that it is this same “United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep,” (“Howl”). Ginsberg’s America is a place of imperfect care and imperfect love for those that “Howl” identifies. In reference to Bergman’s idea New York as a writer’s capital, I think we can see the contradiction of what New York might represent in “Howl”. Without New York, Ginsberg would never have found so many other queer writers, including Solomon. Nevertheless, at the same time, New York is also the site that imprisoned and tortured Ginsberg and continued to torture Solomon. New York may have embraced their sense of difference, but also punished them for it.
I think all of America is caught up in this conflict of the poem, the site of connection and abuse. Ginsberg identifies the connection between his two seemingly disparate bodies of difference when the poem pauses to whisper “Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time” (“Howl”) The America that punishes queerness will also always publish other kinds of differences, including the difference found through disability and mental illness. Queerness and disability have to form together the body that Ginsberg’s Howl seeks to embrace, the body that can reject the America that acts as an oppressor.
Ginsberg argued that the social image of “the body itself may be the by-product of a large scale conspiracy” (Ginsberg, “Gay Sunshine Interview” 123). For Ginsberg, the social construction of the body was that heteronormative and cognitively normative figure that American society so often promotes. In Howl, when we see queer and disabled bodies in a chaotic break from those hetero/cognitive norms. The wildness of Howl is necessary to construct a queer body as in line with Ginsberg’s argument that “from heterosexual conditioning or heterosexual, social/moral fixed formations” (“Gay Sunshine” 124). The Heterosexual America that Ginsberg feels he has to resist is wrapped up in the cognitive normatively as well, with the rigid construction of Heterosexual America existing as a body that limits not only sexual orientation but “appearances and apparent physical conditions” (“Gay Sunshine” 123) as well.
Further fusing the struggle for queer rights and rights for disability, four years before “Howl” was first published, The American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance. Queerness was demonized as a mental illness, as all mental illness was demonized
Jeffery Meyer, in their essay “Ginsberg’s Inferno: Dante and ‘Howl’” positioned “Howl” as a work of “revolutionary poetry of suffering” (Meyer 93). Suffering and the descent into suffering are stapled all through Ginsberg’s queer American bodies and queer New York bodies, always set “in opposition to the traditional values of society” (Meyer 93). However, in Ginsberg’s attempt to structure a queer body through acceptance of both disability and psychoanalysis, I would argue that Ginsberg at least partially embraces the Freudian concept of the Death Drive.
Initially, the death drive was made famous in psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” as the impulse to embrace a drive towards death and destruction, the idea that because inanimate matter predates living matter, living matter often years to return to inanimate matter, and that this “death drive” stands in opposition to the drives towards life and productivity that otherwise motivate human society, human pleasure, and all human interaction. However, queer theorists like Lee Edelman in the 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive offers a more positive reinterpretation of the concept of the death drive that can be applied to “Howl.”
Where Freud saw the “death drive” in opposition to the natural compulsion to life, Edelman would argue that the problem inherent in the politics of what Freud believed that compulsion to life had to entail. Freud’s “death drive” works to “affirm a structure, to authenticate social order” (Edelman 2-3) that the purpose of the body is heteronormative. Freud’s bodies are ones which can only surpass the death drive by “transmit[ing life] to the future in the form of its inter Child” (3). Edelman argues that the queer body and the politics of the queer death drive are the bodies of “those not fighting for the children [but fighting on] the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism” (3).
I think this fight against reproductive futurism—or the argument that the purpose of all couplings is to produce children is central in Ginsberg’s queer bodies. In “Howl,” Ginsberg sees bodies who “copulated ecstatic and insatiable,” bodies that engage in sex and consumption and exploration without the intentions that Freud would have put at those in opposition to the death drive. The bodies of “Howl” seek experience and pleasure and connection without the motivation of productivity of any kind, but can instead drive “cross-country seventy two hours to find if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out eternity.” The search for knowledge and pleasure without the motivation of anything to be gained at the end of the journey or experience except the journey/experience itself.
I think it’s worth noting that, like other American writers, Ginsberg’s unproductive bodies are not devoid of what we might consider poverty porn, with its gleeful depictions of “lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars rocketing through snow towards lonesome farms in grandfather night” (“Howl”) among many other portraits of bodies seemingly without resources all across America “protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of capitalism” (“Howl”). However, this celebration of unproductively and self-destruction easily slides into the queerness of “Howl,” Howl’s bodies seek sex and experience outside of the reproductive futurism that normative America demands of them.
Ginsberg uses depravity and obscenity to oppose the heteronormative structure that keeps queer bodies imprisoned. Ginsberg’s bodies revel in sex without the aim of reproduction, celebrate the act of experience and connection for its own sake. The social order that Edelman contends with, which is arguably the conspiracy of the heteronormative body and the nuclear family that Ginsberg has mused on how to resist, is repulsed by bodies “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed for joy” (“Howl”), not coupling for reproductive or productive ends. Though the imagery of sex with all genders is prominent throughout “Howl,” it is easy to read when the bodies involved are queer through the context, unorthodoxy, and imagery of the encounters. “Howl” celebrates bodies “balled in the mornings and the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come.” Homosexuality was still against the law in the time of “Howl”—and would be until decades later—and so spaces such as public parks and the others listed in the stanza above often became the closest to a safe space for queer encounters that many LGBTQ+ peoples could find.
For the bodies in “Howl,” to risk expressing queerness or openly living with disability was to submit oneself to prejudice, and often state-sanctioned violence. The attributes of difference in Howl were punished “for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication, who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts” (“Howl”). When the bodies of Ginsberg embrace the death drive or the Edelman’s queer death drive, they do because to embrace their identity is to face that endless violence. Edelman argued that “the death drive names what the queer, in the order of the social, is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability” (9).
“Howl” offers no escape from the brutality and oppression of the America Ginsberg depicts, except to embrace the chaotic rejection of normalcy. Ginsberg celebrates bodies that are celebration of their self-destruction. Part two of the poem ends in a kind of suicidal victory, with those bodies Ginsberg has so long watched seemingly reaching an endpoint that they can accept: “They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! To solitude! Waving! Carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!”
America the hopeful and upright, the America of Whitman’s endless lovers and St. Vincent Millay’s playful intrigue, the America of Emma Lazarus’ utopian hopes, has to die in order for Ginsberg’s America to thrive. The poet William Carlos Williams, who had served as a friend and mentor to Ginsberg around the time “Howl” was written, wrote in his preface to the poem’s first edition: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” (Williams). For Ginsberg’s “Howl” to create an America for Queer and disabled bodies to belong, he first had to drag America to the chaotic abyss.
If there is any solace or hope to be found, it is only at the end of part three of the poem. Here, Ginsberg seems to dream of an America empty of its previous abuses, a dream where after that long descent into hell, we can all come out onto the other side. “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.” Ginsberg’s “Howl” ends at last, not in violence, but a peaceful queer embrace on the other side of hell.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,
Bergman, David. “The Queer Writer in New York.” The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing, edited by Hugh Stevens, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 218–234. Cambridge Companions to Literature.
Reynolds, Loni. “‘The Mad Ones’ and the ‘Geeks’: Cognitive and Physical Disability in the Writing of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 9 no. 2, 2015, p. 153-169. Project MUSE.
Williams, William Carlos. “Preface to Howl.” Everyday-Beat.org, <http://www.everyday-beat.org/ginsberg/poems/intro.txt>
Meyers, Jeffrey. “Ginsberg’s Inferno: Dante and ‘Howl.’” Style, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012, pp. 89–94. JSTOR, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/style.46.1.89?seq=1>
Allen Ginsberg. “Gay Sunshine Interview.” College English, vol. 36, no. 3, 1974.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2007.
“LGBTQ Rights Milestones Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2019, <https://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/lgbt-rights-milestones-fast-facts/index.html>
About Ben Berman Ghan
Ben Berman Ghan is a Jewish Settler, writer, editor, and scholar based in Tkaronto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, working on his MA at Ryerson University’s Literature of Modernity Program. He has worked as an editor on The Spectatorial, The Goose, The Hart House Review, Terse Journal, The White Wall Review, and a book of non-fiction for Guernica Editions. His essays, poems, and stories have been published in various small journals and his fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke was published by Crowsnest Books (2019).
His research focuses on queer, post-colonial, and cultural posthumanist theory. Find him on Twitter @inkstainedwreck and at inkstainedwreck.ca