Literary Shelf

The Howl of America

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Kubla Khan

What is a perfectly free person? Evidently a person who can do what he likes, when he likes, and where he likes, or do nothing at all if he prefers it. Well, there is no such person, and there never can be any such person. Whether we like it or not, we must all sleep for one third of our lifetime—wash and dress and undress—we must spend a couple of hours eating and drinking—we must spend nearly as much in getting about from place to place. For half the day we are slaves to necessities which we cannot shirk, whether we are monarchs with a thousand slaves or humble labourers with no servants but their wives. And the wives must undertake the additional heavy slavery of childbearing, if the world is still to be peopled. 

These natural jobs cannot be shirked. But they involve other jobs which can. As we must eat we must first provide food; as we must sleep, we must have beds, and bedding in houses with fireplaces and coals; as we must walk through the streets, we must have clothes to cover our nakedness. Now, food and houses and clothes can be produced by human labour. But when they are produced they can be stolen. If you like honey you can let the bees produce it by their labour, and then steal it from them. If you are too lazy to get about from place to place on your own legs you can make a slave of a horse. And what you do to a horse or a bee, you can also do to a man or woman or a child, if you can get the upper hand of them by force or fraud or trickery of any sort, or even by teaching them that it is their religious duty to sacrifice their freedom to yours. 

– George Bernard Shaw in the essay ‘Freedom’

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, 
angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, 
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

– Allen Ginsberg in Howl

Howl, whose howl is it? Is it the howl of the Americans or the Beats? Who beat it what? Whose Howl is it? Is it of the Americans or the Beats? Who beat it what? Bewildered with materialism and materialistic pleasures, fed up with policy and policy-making, where did they divert and digress from? What did they get from pleasures and what did they gain it? Was it not a complete loss? Marijuana, alcohol, disco, theatre, what could these give to? Sick sadism, melancholic pessimism, alcoholic stance, where did it take to finally? And in search of peace, hope and happiness, recuperation and rejuvenation, where did they move to? This too has a story of own. Modernity, post-modernity, what is it after? An American generation lost in marijuana, alcohol, depression, anxiety, sensuality and materialistic pleasure, how to relieve it, how to put it on the rails? Whose kaddish? For whom is he? Is it a narcotic’s or a Beat’s or a vagabond’s, a kaddish for the mother or for America? Or, a psycho babbling? Who is he? Why is he frustrated with, what is it that ails him? The fall of America, why does he want it? The reason is on the one hand America is prospering materialistically oblivious of what the present generation is thinking, unmindful of where the young generation going to, how its feelings, what its tendency and leaning towards. 

Before knowing Howl, we need to know something more about American culture, trend and tradition of the then times, the society of the fifties, the sixties. How was it America then? How were the Americans? Howl is but a protest poem denouncing American materialism, politics and hypocrisy, the policy-makers unmindful of what the young generation wants, how the sensitivities and swings of it, where are they going to, what do they want, in search of happiness they getting misled and digressed, deviating from the penultimate path. Why is this subjugation, repression and suppression? What this syndrome? Why this split? What does it pass over the heart and mind with whom to share? Can drugs give peace? Can marijuana and alcohol? Where will this too much alcoholism lead to? A dip into the psyche of mental patients, what do they think and what does the world about? They think it that the world is mad and the world thinks it that they are.

A Coleridge writing Kubla Khan afresh, a Whitman rethinking Leaves of Grass, Ginsberg tries to catch the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the young American minds, the vibes of the modern culture, the Eliotesque hollow men living a high-profile life, a cynic intellectual life destroyed by negative thinking and alcoholism going against the establishments with his communist, bohemian, gay, gypsy thoughts and ideas, a type of psychoanalytic and protest poetry in which rebels and revolts he, but behind his poetic space and protest is a realm of a different psyche taking refuge in drug, wine, marijuana, deviating and digressing far. His poetry leads us to the borders and fringes of darker aspirations and hallucinations luring with incantation to damn American culture and power, so Marxian, Freudian, Bergsonian and Lawrentine, so full of camaraderie and bohemian spirit he wants to resurrect it otherwise, but gets misled too, recuperating, and rejuvenating in homes.

While reading the poem, there conjure upon several images, thoughts and ideas which we seem to be asking about American mind and hypocrisy, but side by side his mental health also comes to our askance. Was Ginsberg a Jew? Was he anti-American? Was he a smoker? Was he an addict? Was he a bohemian? Was he a communist? Was he an idealist, a rebel and revolutionary like Shelley? Was he a woman-lover? Was he sensual? And above all, a question, which we need not know, was he a psycho? Was he a homosexual? Like Oscar Wilde who was jailed who should not have been which is but an error of judgement? Was he like O. Henry who should not have been jailed on defalcation charges? But the govt. does not consider it all, its men and people are ever ready to jail you, charge you with. Have we grown so much inhuman and cruel? Is law everything? Is everything in rule and regulation? Every work we cannot do it as per rule and regulation. There is something in pardon; there is something in compassion. There is something in mutual understanding and compromise. Try to forgive you, forgive you.

Now the question, where is it true happiness? What can drug culture give to? How to undo the pressures and tension of life? Give thoughts to at least, where can addiction take to finally, what it is freedom, is it good to give a wider space to freedom, should it be restricted? How much can one enjoy freedom? The other thing too is, why to intercept one’s freedom, why to interfere with, meddle into another’s affairs?

We do not know if it is a Hamlet’s song or Paglet’s song, or of a yogi or a bhogi’s? Whose persona is it in it? Whose psyche speaking it here. Is it a song of a Beatle? The world calls them psycho neurotics, but they call the world equally neurotic, so full of disorders. God knows, who is but a neurotic patient? The song of America, how to sing it? How to hum it the song of modern culture and society? The untold saga of life, the poet seeks to divulge it here through the unusual lines moving like prose, but so full of sentimentality and sensitivity touching the chords of the heart.

The poem seems to be a gazette of a neurotic patient talking about his mind and heart so emotionally. How the heart of a man? How the mind of a man? How to read the sentiments and feelings of the heart? How to read one’s mind? What it happens to whom how to say it? How the impressions passing! How are these received and transmitted to! None can say it where will the mind of a mad man go to? Pagal manna, how to analyse it? The poet tries to leak out the things of America. Let us see his American song from an anti-American stance. He is but a singer of American, but of the unconscious layer of the mind, what it goes underneath, what lies it in the making of a persona. His spokesman is a spokesman of the suppressed, oppressed people whose rights have been denied, whose voices have not been heard; his mouthpiece is a mouthpiece of the undermined people. We just go on thinking about ourselves, not about the others, forgetting it they too are men, they too have some rights, something to enjoy and appreciate, they too are not devoid of at least.

In Allen Ginsberg find we the vision and dream of Blake, the revolt, propaganda and passion for new ideas and thoughts of Pound and the idealism and revolutionary zeal of Shelley. How the military build-up, atomic power, police force, detective department of it, does it not sometimes turn into autocratic, arbitrary and inhuman? As a super power, how has it dealt with the spies, how the police of it pounding upon? How was it the tussle for power, how the enmity with the communists? How the immigration laws and what did the immigrants do to?

To enjoy this piece is to know about the society, culture, trend and tradition; fashion and fads. How the musical bands of the time? The operas and the theatres, how the night parties?

Standing under the shadow of William Blake and Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg has written it Howl, the Howl of the Age and Times, the American Time and Its Splitting Into, peeping into the Psychic Time of It. What did it tear it apart, the heart of it? Under the shadow of Abraham Lincoln celebrates he, sings he the songs of freedom in a Bernard Shawian tuning, in a George Orwellian post-colonial pattern taking lessons from John Galsworthy’s comprehension of law and justice. What did it annihilate it? Unmindful of the younger generation and their tender minds, they went on making policies going against the common sentiment and feeling just for power sharing. How could it be, could it be? Just after being lost in materialistic pleasures, the youths wanted to be wanderers, adventurers, travellers, lot in drugs, alcohol, love, romance and sensuality, deriving from bhoga, wanting to be vagabonds, bohemians, half-nudists, naturalists and romantics. But could the things of addiction peace to them? Could they? And in search of mental peace and recuperation, where did they wander, wander unto?

If the constitutional charter of liberty and independence is given to some psychiatric patient, he too will explain it in an incoherent but nice way, so full of logic and reason, questioning as well as incongruities which but is a state of our and consciousness as we distil the things when we present it keeping the social strata in order. The raw things come out from our abnormal manna, is but the hidden truth which we know it not. We do not know who is but a mad man, either you or me. It may be that I am not, but you are, but you are not in life. We do not know who is a criminal, who not, who a justice, who a policeman? One who had not to be a criminal has been proved, this too may be, one who had not to be a justice is he now. Why can the things not swap? None can say about the circumstances of life.

Allen Ginsberg is a Beat poet, a poet of the Beat tradition, but who beat it what, why was he called a Beat? Is there anything that he owes to young romantic notions lured away by drugs, alcohol and other narcotic things? In search of happiness, where did the youths wander to from there is no return, which but we know it all, but irrespective of it, the establishment was lost in framing policies. The rock bands, the jazz, the blues seconded by love, romance and sensuality, where did they take to? His poetic journey is a journey to a mental asylum and recuperating from the same; his journey is a journey of a rock band rocking and rollicking, but where will it all thrill and sensation take to? Have you thought, thought about it?

With whom is he in the Rockland? Where is that Rockland? Is it the Rockland of a young romantic lost in merry-making and psychedelic drugs and as thus ruining his life? This is the Rockland, the psychiatric hospital where he meets his friend undergoing treatment and he is none but Carl Soloman. Such a poetry one can enjoy it if one had tryst with the maniacs and the schizophrenics.

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange
I’m with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother

– Allen Ginsberg in Howl

Ginsberg’s Rockland is not Rockland Orchestra, but the mental orchestra of a ruined youth, a romantic, a bohemian, a hippie, a wanderer, an adventurer whom pleasure-seeking and materialistic stuffs have ruined it, love and sensuality, drugs and so it all, recuperating in a psychiatric hospital.

To see it otherwise, there is something of Pope’s An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot in which the poetasters and petty rhymers rally against, trying utmost best to gather round his villa, searching his whereabouts to come upon for a preface, but the context is here different from that. Here the context is of mental patients, one that of a visit paid to a psychiatric hospital. However rich and big may be America, however be the shipways and highways of it, but his poor cottage lies it there, lies it there the poor poetic cottage welcoming it all whoever comes to meet him, the vagabond, the bohemian, the romantic, the lover, the loner, the wanderer, the adventurer, the mourner, the lunatic, the poetaster, the mendicant, the bandsman, the rockstar, the ragged patriot.

Let us see how Pope starts his satire:

Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said, 
Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.
The dog−star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt, 
All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land. 

What walls can guard me, or what shades can hide?
They pierce my thickets, through my grot they glide;
By land, by water, they renew the charge;
They stop the chariot, and they board the barge.
No place is sacred, not the church is free;
Ev'n Sunday shines no Sabbath−day to me:
Then from the Mint walks forth the man of rhyme,
Happy! to catch me just at dinner−time.

Is there a parson, much bemus'd in beer,
A maudlin poetess, a rhyming peer,
A clerk, foredoom'd his father's soul to cross,
Who pens a stanza, when he should engross?
Is there, who, lock'd from ink and paper, scrawls
With desp'rate charcoal round his darken'd walls?
All fly to Twit'nam, and in humble strain
Apply to me, to keep them mad or vain.
Arthur, whose giddy son neglects the laws,
Imputes to me and my damn'd works the cause:
Poor Cornus sees his frantic wife elope,
And curses wit, and poetry, and Pope.

To be over to Pope again in a different strain, note of tuning when he seems to be light and pensive too:

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown 
Dipp'd me in ink, my parents', or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame, 
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade, 
No duty broke, no father disobey'd. 
The Muse but serv'd to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life,
To second, Arbuthnot! thy art and care,
And teach the being you preserv'd, to bear.

The wail of a lunatic none could hear it, none could feel it, sympathize, what did it ail his heart, what did it strike his mind, what, what did it pass over his heart and soul, how was his pain, pain and grief which he could not, could not bear all that?

I’m with you in Rockland
where there are twentyfive thousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale
I’m with you in Rockland
where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep
I’m with you in Rockland
where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
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

– Allen Ginsberg in Howl

Om, Om, Guru, Guru, Om shantih shantih shantih, in search of Guru, Guru and Ginsberg loitering into the Himalayan ranges, visiting Aldous Huxley’s Benares, Kipling’s Buddhist stupas and Edward Morgan Forster’s Marabar Caves and hearing Vyom, Om, Om, is the case in hand.

Let us see how he says in Footnote to Howl:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!

To read him is to come to know the history of the orchestras, the musical bands, the jazz, pop, rock n’ roll; to know him is to know the hippie culture, the bohemian life. The pages from Kipling’s Kim, Emerson’s Brahma, Whitman’s Passage To India dance before the eyes. To read him is to go through the pages of James C. Coleman’s Abnormal Psychology. The same govt. which collects excise duties abandons the addicts and drunkards in such a way.

My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child: 
But I am black as if bereav'd of light.

– William Blake in The Little Black Boy

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls, 
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls 

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse 

– William Blake in London

We hear the same feeling of anguish and wail in The Chimney Sweepers of Charles Lamb.

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

– T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land

Even today after seeing the young boys and girls moving with smart phones with the wires plugged into the ears, listening to music, song and dance with so much rapt attention, taking liquor, drugs, cigarettes and marijuana, coming late into the night after so much of partying like some anchors and disco jockeys addicted to dance before the eyes, but without any job, employment and the govt too unmindful of their necessities and amenities. Where are they going after all, we think, and think? But who to answer it? Who to feel their pains? We are after all after our ends. Ginsberg recuperating in some Indian Baba’s ashrama also comes before the eyes when we read him, come to enjoy him. Allen Ginsberg whether you accept it or not is but a ragged patriot of Lady Gregory’s The Rising of The Moon play, but the sergeant too not less than him in his loyalty and obedience.

Let us end the poem hearing The Darkling Thrush of Thomas Hardy written on the last day of the nineteenth century:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

How will be the times lurking ahead is the thing of reckoning, how the predicament of man and his destiny, what lies it waiting for, the thing of deliberation. Hearing the thrush against the backdrop of a bleak and desolate winter when the frosty winds seem to be ruffling, winter seems to be biting, throwing the spikes all through with a shiver and cold chill, smiting with it all, he dreams of the days lying ahead and the times to go peeping into the misty, foggy shrouds of the forthcoming twentieth century. Is the old thrush not an image of Thomas Hardy himself and he singing in the voice of it?


More by :  Bijay Kant Dubey

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