“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

“who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering             mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light           of Zoo,”

 

The first section of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg takes us through an adventure that Ginsberg and his friends go through while they attempt to figure out the deeper questions in life.  Throughout this section, Ginsberg seems to make it as if his group of intellectuals were using drugs such as peyote and Benzedrine to connect “for the ancient heavenly connection”. (4)

At first I thought that Ginsberg was explaining that these hallucinogenic drugs were an influence to enhance their state of being and connect them more to their spiritual side. Lines 28- 32 seem to be telling a different story of how these “best minds” (1) ended up actually abusing drugs to bring them to a negative state. Ginsberg describes this scenario of him and his friends riding on the subway on Benzedrine. He uses imagery when he writes that they “chained themselves to subways for the endless ride.” (28) When Ginsberg used the word “chained” as the way his group is connected to subway, it made me visualize that his group had very little control over their state of being, similar to how in prison, the officers use chains on their prisoners. The prisoners have a small amount of freedom and chains give it a further negative connotation. This made me believe that Ginsberg recognizes that the drugs aren’t actually an enhancer, but actually a tool that would destroy their intellectual minds. He further proved this point when he said that his group’s brains “all drained of brilliance in the drear light of the Zoo”. (31-32) Ginsberg is saying that the drugs lessened the intelligence, or brilliance, of their brains. He also uses symbolism here when he says that they end up at a zoo. The zoo represents the fact that at the end of the subway ride, him and his friends ends up as mindless as animals.

Furthermore, Ginsberg uses a lot of poetic conventions to prove the case that the drugs his group was using were extremely negative. In lines 28- 32, there is a constant alliteration with the letter B, which is seen with the words Battery, Bronx, Benzedrine, brought, battered, bleak, brain, and brilliance. I think that all these words with the letter B were used to connect to the main drug in these lines: Benzedrine. Ginsberg also uses a clever rhyme with “brain” and “drain”. The rhyme emphasizes that the drug really emptied the brain’s brilliance. Another poetic convention Ginsberg used was assonance from the words “wracked” and “battered”.  Not only did the drugs mentally hurt them, but physically as well.

1. Why do you think Ginsberg points out that the subway ends at a “drear light of zoo”? Is it symbolism or it just happened to be that was the last stop?

2. Why does Ginsberg mention that the “noise of wheels and children” bring them down? Why would children be brought up?

 

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5 Responses to “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

  1. Stopping subway cars brings one thought to mind. The ear splitting screech that is the rapid cessation of motion by a rather heavy procession of metal cars. The sound brings even the most avid subway rider to cringe, if only slightly. I think that is what he is saying in this line. The comparison of the noise of children to the stopping train is a rather bold statement about children and their ability to take someone off a high of a rather potent drug. I think that he specifically had it end at zoo, but is unclear why as zoos are typically thought of as happy places. Perhaps it is a comment on his past that a zoo has a negative place in his mind.

  2. “who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,”
    When I read this I wonder if Ginsberg is criticizing the drug use, or if he is matter-of-factly explaining that something about the noise of wheels and children can cause them to react poorly. When I think “noise of wheels” on the subway, I think of the wheels screeching as it comes to a halt. An end to something, maybe even a death. Then that is sharply contrasted with the mention of children, of youth, of beginning and birth. Ginsberg’s friends find themselves somewhere in a place sandwiched between death and birth. And perhaps that place is what causes their harsh awakening to reality.

  3. Howl by Allen Ginsberg is a long and at first glance, overwhelming poem. The first section of the poem seems to describe (paraphrasing) “the best minds of the generation destroyed by madness.” This is noted by the first line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (I 1). The speaker then goes on to say “Who” before every following line; the “who” being the “best minds.” The second section describes what destroyed the minds. The first line being “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” (II 79). The speaker claims the answer to this question is “Moloch”. Moloch, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a Middle Eastern deity to whom children were sacrificed to. In each line in the second section the speaker describes Moloch and what Moloch has done. In the poem Moloch seems to represent a force that takes the youth from those described in section one. The entire poem is for a man named Carl Solomon. The poem itself seems to almost read as a letter. The first and second sections being as one would describe their current circumstances in a letter and the third where one would turn their mind to the circumstances of the one they are writing to.

    Max asks “Why do you think Ginsberg points out that the subway ends at a “drear light of zoo”? Is it symbolism or it just happened to be that was the last stop” in reference to Section I, Line 14;

    “Who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo”

    The Who of this line rode the subway from Battery in Manhattan to the Bronx on “Benzedrine.” Benzedrine, commonly known as “bennies,” is a stimulant drug. The speaker describes the Who as “shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance.” This description is probably due as resultant of the drug. Someone on a stimulant drug would be attracted to the sights and sounds of a zoo. Going back to the second section, viewing Moloch as a force that takes away youth; exploring a Zoo is a youthful activity. In this sense, the drug gives back youth to the riders.

  4. Debra Zarny says:

    I was also unsure as to why children were mentioned in the section of lines that Max quotes. Throughout the poem, Ginsberg describes his adventures with his friends as ones that allow him to learn about life, and he discusses their freedom to be able to travel all around New York, taking drugs and draining their minds of their brilliance. This freedom does not force him or her to think of anyone else, but only himself in having the best possible time. When they hear the “noise of wheels and children” I think it takes them away from this freedom and brings them down because they do not want to think of the responsibilities that are present in life.

  5. Bella Rubin says:

    I found Max’s explanation as to why they stopped at a zoo as symbolic very interesting. “The zoo represents the fact that at the end of the subway ride, him and his friends ends up as mindless as animals.” I agree that it is symbolism that it says the “drear light of zoo” that it was not by chance. They are experimenting with different drugs all over the place and I think in these lines Ginsberg is trying to portray the effects of benzedrine specifically. I think there was a “ Drear Light” which represents an alteration in their mood to a dull lifeless state which the drug is known to do. The Benzedrine has side effects to get people nervous just like people get nervous from certain animals, therefore choosing to end up at the zoo.

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