E222 ALLEN GINSBERG QUESTIONS, CSU FULLERTON
Note: see the Journal Schedule and Instructions Page for the details on how to keep your journal.
"Howl" (Vol. E 492-500); "Footnote to Howl" (Norton Vol. E 500); "A Supermarket in California" (Vol. E 500-01); "Sunflower Sutra" (Vol. E 501-03).
"Howl" (Vol. E 492-500) and "Footnote to Howl" (Norton Vol. E 500)
Section 1 (Vol. E 492-97)
1. "Howl" begins with the words "I saw" and continues for more than 75 very long free-verse lines with a catalog of perceivers and experiencers mostly circumscribed by the pronoun "who." Reflect on Ginsberg's technique here: the first-person speaker immediately opens out to a third-person series of experiences, feelings, and visions. If we try to put all of these together, what emerges -- what can you identify as at least a couple of key realizations and moments and what seems to be the direction and purpose of the collective consciousness described in the first section as a whole?
2. The last several free-verse lines of the first section of "Howl" seem to comprise a sense of sacrifice on the part of all the perceivers mentioned in the section. To what end or with what success has that sacrifice been tendered, as you interpret the ending of this first part?
Section 2 (Vol. E 497-98)
3. The second section of "Howl" is devoted to naming and further delineating the unholy social and political system that the first part of the poem references. The name that the poet gives this system is Moloch. You're Norton Anthology note tells you that Ginsberg himself annotated this figure as "the Canaanite fire God…." Do a little research on the Internet and set down what you can about the history and significance of this god. What are some of the institutions and qualities referenced in both the first and second sections of "Howl"? Why does Moloch turn out to be perhaps the best possible characterization for these institutions and qualities: how do his nature and the actions of those who worshiped him in ancient times serve as a reference point for the modern age that Ginsberg is calling out?
4. The second section of "Howl" ends with a reference to many people heading down to a river. The purifying or salvational power of this traditional image should be obvious, but what is it doing here in the present poem? Does it indicate genuine liberation from the torments and bondage of Moloch? Explain your interpretation.
Section 3 (Vol. E 498-99)
5. The third section of "Howl" is specifically addressed to a friend of Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, and thus it takes on a more personal and intimate cast than the first two sections (which are also dedicated more generally to Solomon). Check out the back story of hwo Ginsberg met Solomon and what their dealings were with mental institutions, and go on to discuss how this information affects your reading of this section of the poem, which deals at least partly with a sense of liberation and reconciliation.
Footnote (Vol. E 500)
6. The Footnote to "Howl" begins with the word "Holy!" and then catalogs the things we should label as such. This part of the poem is surely inspired by William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, with its grand conclusion, "every thing that lives is Holy" (see Plate 27). The entire poem has been a vision, and if we register Blake's influence on Ginsberg, we may look for a conclusion that involves more than bearing witness to painful experience and un-denying what the age's official morality and "story" has denied (though those accomplishments are important, too) but to a sense of redemption (for Blake "redemption" would be a process, not a one-time event) or at least the possibility thereof. To what extent does Howl gesture towards a redemption of or liberation from the repression and cruelty that it has been raging against? Do you find the poem's overall effect satisfying in that regard – i.e. by means of its diverse and multifarious perspectives, does it achieve clarity and purity of vision at the end? Explain your reasons for responding as you do.
"A Supermarket in California" (Vol. E 500-01)
7. In "a Supermarket in California," the speaker takes Walt Whitman as his inspiration, and has a dream wherein he goes "shopping for images" in a supermarket. What is the ghostly figure of Whitman doing in this grocery store, and how does the modern store serve as a metaphor of the elder poet's vision of America?
8. In "A Supermarket in California" in what sense is the speaker comparing himself to Walt Whitman and measuring the difference between Whitman's America and the America of the 1950s?
"Sunflower Sutra" (Vol. E 501-03)
9. In "Sunflower Sutra," when Jack Kerouac points out a dead sunflower surrounded by industrial blight, the dead flower becomes the object of the speaker's meditation. How does the speaker build up for us a sense of what the sunflower looks like and associate its appearance with its blighted surroundings? What insights about the flower and the human spirit emerge from this meditation?
10. In "Sunflower Sutra," it is clear that the poet's meditation draws its inspiration from William Blake's brief poem "Ah! Sun-Flower!" from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. read the Blake poem available at the link I just provided or use your own copy, and reflect on how Ginsberg's insights in "Sunflower Sutra" relate to the meaning of his predecessor's effort.