“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:
- 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?
- 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?