Howl Essay Questions

  • 1

    Discuss the context that served as inspiration for much of Ginsberg's poetry.

    Ginsberg wrote much of his most influential poetry in the 1950's and 1960's, a time of great turmoil in American culture. The 1950's and 60's saw the rise of counter-cultural movements such as "The Beats" and "Flower Children" which represented a protest against political, social, and sexual conformity that American culture of this time demanded. Ginsberg's poetry sought to both narrate and categorize the experiences of these counter cultural movements - such as in "Howl" - as well as to join in the protest, such as in his poem "America."

  • 2

    How did Allen Ginsberg's political beliefs influence his poetry?

    Ginsberg retained a lifelong commitment to leftist political ideals such as communism and socialism. Much of this was an early education in communist belief from his mother. Ginsberg's political beliefs are best seen in his descriptions of the oppression caused by conservative, industrial society. This is a society that creates poverty and stymies creativity and free thought. The hipsters and "best minds" of "Howl" were both figuratively and, in some cases, literally driven insane by their quest to release themselves from the holds of the political culture of the United States.

  • 3

    What kind of vision does Ginsberg see for modern society in "A Supermarket in California?"

    "A Supermarket in California" is an example of Ginsberg's economic vision of modern society. In this vision, Ginsberg compares the commodification of the natural world with Walt Whitman's vision of the beauty of nature and the individuality of mankind. Ginsberg uses a picture of the mythological River Lethe to describe how modern society has detached the natural world from its history and original environment. A peach, when bought in a supermarket, no longer means the same thing that it did when it was picked from the tree by those that would eat it. Whitman, whose ferocity for all things natural, is a forgotten hero of a world that existed before the coming of industrialization.

  • 4

    According to "Howl," who are the "best minds" of Allen Ginsberg's generation?

    Ginsberg's "best minds" were the fallen heroes of "Howl." They were, in Ginsberg's estimation, geniuses because they recognized modern society for what it really was: a manipulation of freedom that cast a false vision of conformity. The "best minds," however, could not help but be destroyed by their discovery, however, for modernity would never allow anyone to live outside of the rules and regulations that it prescribed. Instead, many of these "best minds" were driven to insanity or suicide by both their inability to live in the modern world and their inability to escape it.

  • 5

    Who is Moloch and what does he represent?

    Moloch is traditionally a term associated with a Middle Eastern god of sacrifice. In modern language, the name is often given derisively to anything that demands a high price or sacrifice. In Ginsberg's poetry, Moloch represents the facets of modern society that demand the high sacrifice of freedom and expression. Moloch is the modern industrial state which exacts low wages for its workers so that others might have more luxury. Moloch is the model nuclear family which sacrifices sexual freedom and pleasure for a sense of normalcy. Moloch is the modern security state, which sacrifices freedom for increased security from outside threats.

  • 6

    Explain why Ginsberg saw an ultimate hope in humanity despite his generally bleak picture of the world.

    Ginsberg, though his poems are filled with scenes of industrial wastelands and social injustice, saw a glimmer of hope in the constitutional and idealistic values that represented the American dream. This is best represented in his poem "Sunflower Sutra" where Ginsberg sees an ideal of in the earlier Romantic poets such as William Blake and Walt Whitman. These were poets who rejected the cold science of the Enlightenment and embraced an outlook of the miraculous natural world. Creation, thus, was perfection and it was humanity's goal to become as closely allied with that perfection as possible. This is what Ginsberg meant he suggested that America, through its values and hope, could become "angelic."

  • 7

    Discuss the images of plants and fruits in Ginsberg's poetry.

    Images of plants, fruits, water, and other things of the natural world played a large part in several of Ginsberg's poems. These were the ideals of the natural world - the vision of the Romantic poets and the hope for a renewal in American and in the world.

    Yet, there is also a dimmer understanding of such objects. In "A Supermarket in California," a peach becomes a sad object because it has been separated from its natural state. Because it now exists in a neon lit sight of consumerism and commercialism, the people that buy such fruit forget that it was once part of the natural world. It has become commodified and now contributes to the economic immorality of society.

  • 8

    How does jazz influence Ginsberg's "Howl?"

    "Howl" was influenced by jazz music in two main ways. First, jazz represented an unaccepted form of music during the early and mid-twentieth century. It was an African-American style of music not listened to by the "respectable" white middle class. It represented grime and seedy clubs and behavior. But this was the exact context that Ginsberg's "best minds" were forced to inhabit because of their isolation and status as outcasts from that respectable society. However, the Beats were not there by force but by choice. They identified with African-American culture and the injustice heaped upon that community.

    The second way jazz influenced "Howl" is in its rhythm and beat. Ginsberg used the "long line" to construct "Howl." This line was meant to flow with a jazz style beat and was built upon how each line could be spoken within that varying and improvisational rhythm.

  • 9

    How is Ginsberg's sexuality expressed in his poems and what message is conveyed in his use of lewd sexual description?

    Ginsberg's sexuality is a chief example of the way in which the poet was censured and exiled from mainstream, respectable poetry, exemplified by the institutionalized academy. Ginsberg's homosexual lifestyle was a source of conflict early on. It played a part in his expulsion from Columbia and it created tension with his family. Ginsberg was, at first, afraid to publish "Howl" because he was worried that his father might read of his sexual life.

    But the use of course words and and the vivid and shocking descriptions of both homosexual and heterosexual acts served to distinguish his poetry from the staid academic poetry. His poetry was a work of the streets. It came from Ginsberg's inner consciousness and no topic was off limits. In fact, Ginsberg inspired a generation of poets that became unafraid to write of and deal with the emotionally potent facts of their lives and their work.

  • 10

    Who were the insane in Ginsberg's poems and why had they become this way?

    Ginsberg writes of madness in "Howl" and uses Carl Solomon as a chief example. Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while institutionalized for a brief time in an asylum, was driven mad because society had built structures and institutions that would keep him from expressing himself in art and speech. Solomon, in this way, came to represent all of the Beat generation who was forced to live underground and outside of the respectable world. In a way, Ginsberg suggests, Solomon's insanity is actually just a structure created by society and used to isolate and incarcerate those that do not think and act in a certain way.

  • Overview | How can poetry both reflect and transcend the era in which it is written? How can looking at a poem from multiple perspectives illuminate its meaning? In this lesson, students consider a film about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” study the poem and express their ideas about poetry, their generation and life in writing and on film.

    Materials | Full-text copies of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” computer with Internet access and projection equipment, video cameras and film editing software.

    Note to Teachers | “Howl” was banned after its publication in 1956 for obscene content. Though it prevailed in obscenity trials and has long been considered by many to be part of the canon, it may not be appropriate for all classes. This lesson can be easily adapted to explore any poem or poet.

    Warm-up | Ask students to write briefly about what they expect from a film based on a poem. Invite them to share their ideas. Then play the trailer for the film “Howl.”

    Discuss the following: Based on this trailer, what are your impressions of the poem, “Howl,” and the poet, Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco)? Did the trailer reinforce or challenge your ideas about what a film based on a poem might be like? What do you learn about Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” from this short clip? What gets your attention? What do you want know more about? What in the clip seems relevant to today? Why? Have you heard of the Beat Generation or the Beat poets before? If so, what is it? If not, what do you think it might refer to?

    Distribute or project the full text of “Howl” and read the first few lines of Part I aloud. Alternatively or additionally, play or project Allen Ginsberg reading his poem.

    Discuss student observations of the opening of the poem, including their understanding of the famous first line. Ask: Based on what you saw in the movie trailer and the poem’s opening lines, when do you think this poem was written? How can you tell? What other references do you notice and recognize? What confuses you? Does it speak to you, or does it turn you off? Why? Does it remind you of any other poetry you have ever read? If so, what? If not, how is it different?

    Related | In “Leaping Off the Page, a Beatnik’s Poetic Rant,” A. O. Scott reviews the 2010 film “Howl,” beginning with a takeoff on the poem’s opening lines:

    I saw the best poems of previous generations destroyed by sanity, well-fed, calm, neatly dressed, tiptoeing through lecture halls at 10 a.m. looking for a passing grade on a term paper.

    It is often the fate of the most radical works of literature to overcome scandal by becoming respectable, and this fate has hardly escaped “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s first published poem, a wild Whitmanian rant that has long since become a classroom staple. The wildness is still there, of course, but the apparatus of literary immortality — the paradoxical effect of which is to keep poems alive by embalming them — can make it hard to appreciate.

    Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film “Howl” sets out to correct this situation by reproducing a sense of what Ginsberg’s poem might have sounded and felt like at the moment of its creation, which is presented both as a specific point in recent history and an episode of transcendence. Not quite a biopic, not really a documentary and only loosely an adaptation, “Howl” does something that sounds simple until you consider how rarely it occurs in films of any kind. It takes a familiar, celebrated piece of writing and makes it come alive.

    Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.

    Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

    1. What do you notice about the opening of this review? What does the first sentence mean? (You might also point out the reference to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in the last line of the review.)
    2. Mr. Scott bemoans “the apparatus of literary immortality — the paradoxical effect of which is to keep poems alive by embalming them.” What does he mean? Does it remind you of anything else you have read in school? Why?
    3. What are the sources for the movie’s content and language?
    4. According to Mr. Scott, how does James Franco portray Allen Ginsberg?
    5. What does the film achieve, according to Mr. Scott? What does he mean when he calls the movie a “work of literary criticism”?

    Related resources:

    Activity | Distribute or project the full text of “Howl” and read aloud, play or project Allen Ginsberg reading the remainder of the poem.

    Discuss students’ impressions of the poem and address questions together, including the poem’s major themes and whether they consider it obscene. You might lead students through a basic explication of the poem or to encourage them to look at it through a reader-response lens.

    Draw students’ attention to the structure of “Howl,” noting important elements like repetition and discussing the relationship between structure and meaning. Discuss, too, the poem’s tone.

    (If students have previously read Walt Whitman, you might prompt them to compare the two poets’ work briefly, perhaps focusing on the opening of “I Sing the Body Electric” or Part I of “Song of Myself,” noting that Ginsberg is often referred to as “Whitmanesque.”)

    Next, tell students that they, taking a page from A. O. Scott, will be reworking the poem to reflect their own visions of their generation and contemporary times. Explain that they will not be tackling the entire poem by themselves, but rather writing their own versions based on Part I, II or III. They can even shorten the parts, as long as they mirror Ginsberg’s structure.

    Alternatively, assign small groups a section each of the poem to recast, so that the class as a whole does tackle the poem in its entirety.

    To get students started, you might have them do a copy-change exercise, using the poem’s basic structure and filling in the blanks with their own words in the same parts of speech, like so:

    I saw the _____ of my generation _____ by _____, _____ _____ _____
    _____ themselves through the _____ looking for _____,
    _____ burning for _____ connection to the _____ in the _____,
    who _____ and _____ and _____ sat up _____ in the _____ darkness of _____ floating across the _____.

    To begin their work, invite students to brainstorm what they would like to say to and about their contemporaries. One way to do this is with a two-column chart, in which they list what Ginsberg says in 1956 on one side and come up with comparable examples from 2010 on the other. Or have students brainstorm specific themes and topics, like digital devices and media, social networking, academic pressure or the economy.

    Finally, students craft their updates of “Howl,” perhaps even renaming their poems to reflect their ideas. Celebrate completed student poems with a Beat-inspired poetry reading.

    Going further | Using the “Howl” movie trailer as a model, students take a poem – the one they wrote, a poem by another Beat poet or Walt Whitman, or any favorite poem – and create a short video (two minutes or less) that makes it, its author and its time period “come alive.”

    Films should be grounded in and quote from the poem’s text, but may use visuals creatively, perhaps incorporating live acting, animation, photographs and so on. For inspiration, they might watch several Favorite Poem Project videos, which show “ordinary” people reading and making personal connections to poems they love.

    Advanced students might be interested in what Stanley Fish writes about literary criticism and the movies. In his Opinionator post, Mr. Fish discusses how Ginsberg acts as chief explicator of his poem, performing biographical, psychoanalytic and formal reader-response criticism in the film. Students might consider the poem they choose to bring to life from any one of these perspectives and create a trailer that illuminates the poem from any one of these (or another) critical stances. What new light does this reading shed on the poem’s meaning? How can this be conveyed in film?

    Hold a film festival to screen the completed movies.

    Standards | This lesson is correlated to McREL’s national standards (it can also be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards):

    Language Arts
    1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
    5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
    6. Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies for reading a variety of literary texts.
    7. Uses general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts.
    8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

    Arts and Communication
    1. Understands the principles, processes and products associated with arts and communication media.
    2. Knows and applies appropriate criteria to arts and communication products.
    3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings.
    4. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication.

    Life Skills: Working With Others
    1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group.
    4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.

    5. Understands how informal and formal theater, film, television and electronic media productions create and communicate meaning.

    Language Arts

    Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.

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