From Brooklyn to Harlem and Back
Ginsberg notes that his process for the start of “Howl” is that he “wouldn’t write a poem, but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and
scribble magic lines from my real mind–sum up my life.” With the first section of “Howl” he shows what the “minds of [his] generation” hold and also performs an elaborate “lament for the Lamb in America.”
With each line that he seemingly throws on the page, it must also be considered that he realized the raving quality of his lines and found containing it within “a series of experiments with the formal organization of the long line” necessary. Ginsberg specifically notes this aspect of “Howl” in his “Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl,” showing his respect for a formal tie in his self-proclaimed wild writing.
In the article (“Notes Written…“), Ginsberg answers his somewhat vague limitation he has given himself via line length with a specific reason, and cites Whitman as an example: “I realized at the time that Whitman’s form had rarely been further explored (improved on even) in the U.S.–Whitman always a mountain too vast to be seen.” He then goes on to proclaim that no one has used Whitman’s style “in the light of early twentieth century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures.”
With that, I feel that “Howl,” especially the first section I is a response to the Whitmanian style, including tone, line style, etc. It is easy to cross reference a Whitman poem with “Howl.” I tried doing so with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” specifically looking at the last stanza, which seems like an invocation of future poets/artists. The last stanza reads:
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside-we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not – we love you – there is perfection in you also,
You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.
Ginsberg’s repetitive “who” — his kind of rhetorical question style plays with performing Whitman’s tricks, but also elaborating on them, extending and answering them. In a general sense Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” seems almost like a call, and Ginsberg’s “Howl” the response. Ginsberg’s extensive catalogue of his generation are the “dumb, beautiful ministers” of Whitman. The perfection of the otherwordly people described in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” are given a full and generous sermon in “Howl.”