Ginsberg “Howl”

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical Naked,
Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
Dynamo in the machinery of night”

I think the most important lines of this poem are the first few lines. These lines introduce the reader to the subjects of the poem and start establishing Ginsberg’s claim that he saw the “best minds” of his generation “destroyed” (1). The examples and images that Ginsberg brings in the first few lines are the basis of his claim, and therefore set the tone for the rest of the poem. They are a preview to the types of examples and descriptions that will make an appearance throughout the course of the poem.

Ginsberg discusses the “best minds of his generation” (1). One might immediately assume, as I did, that the people he is referring to are the doctors, the professors, the lawyers, or the otherwise upper or middle class white-collar workers of his time. However, interestingly enough, once I continued reading the rest of the poem, I realized that he as talking about drug addicts, school dropouts, bums, and the like. At first, I thought Ginsberg was being sarcastic, that he was poking fun at the lowlife behavior of these people. But then I realized that Ginsberg uses the word “destroyed.” This makes it sound as if these people originally started out as great minds, and then something happened to them that somehow prevented their growth and development. In other words, perhaps Ginsberg was mourning the loss of potential great minds. If these people had been given the opportunity to continue on a strong path, to go to school, to learn, and to develop their minds, talents, and abilities, they might have become the next doctors, professors, or lawyers.

The poem as a whole is written as a few very long run-on sentences, but the first line specifically has the words “starving hysterical naked” that are not separated by commas and can almost be read as one long word. I think the lack of commas introduces the poem as well as the actual words do, as this lack serves as a warning to the reader that the rest of the poem is just as fast-paced and just as jarring as the first few words; that the poem will leave the reader feeling almost breathless by the time they get to the end.

Questions for the class:

  1. Why does Ginsberg use the term “best minds” for the low class people that he is writing about? What is his intention – is he being sarcastic, or is he hinting that they could have become great, had they been given the opportunity?
  2. What image does the juxtaposition of “great minds” with “starving hysterical naked” bring to mind? Why do you think Ginsberg specifically chose these 3 adjectives to describe the subjects of his poem?


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7 Responses to Ginsberg “Howl”

  1. Rani says:

    It seems to me that Ginsberg is describing the “best minds of his generation” (1) as victims of circumstance. They seem to be living these lives of extreme hardship, subject to their environment. He describes them as “starving hysterical minds”. One can interpret this in multiple ways. For example, one can take his words literally and assume these people actually famished and haven’t eaten in quite some time. However, one must also consider the alternative that he means people “starving” in a mental capacity. Due to their limited finances and the responsibilities they have, such as their children, they may not be able to pursue the proper channels. Their minds crave knowledge, yet they have none; hence the term, “starving”. Because he refers to them as the greatest minds in society and describes them as living in these circumstances, it is reasonable to infer that Ginsberg believes limited by the environment.

  2. Rahul Roy says:

    Ginsberg’s whole poem, as I read it, reminded me of my thought process every time I would travel to high school in the city. It was a two-hour long bus/train ride and I witnessed hundreds of different types of people every day. The specific line referring to the bums “who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx” states Bronx as “holy.” Of course he does not mean holy literally; but what he does do is the same thing he does by saying “best minds.” His use of both these terms are expressions of his disappointment in his observations. As Kay says “he illustrates the unfairness of life” through his various belittling remarks. The juxtaposition illustrates the huge difference between the two terms. That huge difference and distance between those two terms help give us a sense of how great Ginsberg’s dissatisfaction is with what he sees.

  3. Conor McGuire says:

    i think Ginsberg is being sincere when using the term “best minds”. Ginsberg here is acknowledging his contemporaries. Furthermore, the term “starving hysterical naked” is Ginsberg’s way of describing his peers. He is able to realize that these people must abide to their minds and that calls for what Ginsberg describes as acts of what one would otherwise believe to be that of a junkie. However, these people he is describing seem to be victims of their own minds. Not until the person he is describing sees Baltimore, a city that has had a reputation for heroin addicts, “gleamed in supernatural ecstasy” does he realize he is mad; only to continue his addiction. i think “starving hysterical naked” is used here by Ginsberg to try to convey just how vulnerable these people find themselves in the world. Clearly these people he is describing are of a certain stature, as one can imply Ginsberg holds these people to a high esteem and assuming with merit, but their minds won’t allow them to get themselves out of their own way.

  4. Tara speaks of “the great minds” that Ginsburg describes as “destroyed by madness” and asks if this could be saying that possibly the best minds of the generation have been “destroyed by madness”. I think he meant this literally and believe that this is very possible true. If these young minds would have been given the chance to grow and develop they could have been great. But, as they have never been given the chance, they are instead “starving hysterical Naked”

  5. I don’t believe Ginsberg intended sarcasm in referring to these people as “great minds”; to me, this choice in description signifies sympathy for victims of drug addiction, as well as a lamentation for what could be considered the lost generation. He illustrates the concept of the unfairness of life, and the power of situational influences in this fragmented story. The juxtaposition between “great minds” as organized, controlled, and intentional violently contrasts with “starving hysterical naked” to read much more powerfully, emphasizing the chaotic, exposed, desperate conditions of life.

  6. I think that Ginsburg is lauding for being the “rebels” of this society. Not rebels in the typical way (as in a negative connotation), but rather because they clearly do not fit in with whatever was considered the norm then. I think Ginsburg really hates the norm and this shows in the poem. these are the people that were “expelled from the academies.” It what they are capable of that Ginsburg so admires.

  7. Deborah Shteierman says:

    I believe Ginsberg uses the phrase “best minds,” not in a strictly literal sense, but it;s not sarcastic either. Rather, Ginsberg uses this phrase in order to leave the reader with a glimpse into what could have been, a glimpse into the world of possibility. Were all of them geniuses just waiting to reach their potential? No, probably not. But it’s possible this is true for even just one of them, so that’s one great mind lost…In my opinion, that’s one too many. In this sense, Ginsburg is touching on a much larger theme- the value of human life.

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