Confessing Within the Stories of Others: How the Long Lines in “Howl” Allow the Speaker to Confess, by Hannah Dane

Confessing Within the Stories of Others: How the Long Lines in “Howl” Allow the Speaker to Confess, by Hannah Dane

About Hannah Dane:

I am in the Literature Profile of the ALC program. I wrote this essay for my Confessional Literature class, which centred on nonfiction works of personal revelation. Amongst the pieces we read, “Howl,” a poem published in 1956, written by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, intrigued me the most. A strenuously long and controversial piece, the length of the lines in “Howl” inspired me to analyze how a specific form choice could play with the central theme of confession. As I continue studying literature, I hope to one day write and publish poems and novels of my own.



In 1950s America, a blooming and industrializing society was moving into a new era of post-war need for comfort, stability, and convenience. As traditional values prevailed, the nuclear family living adequately in the suburbs with the white picket fenced house and white-collar jobs became the image of the perfect life. The Beat Generation, a literary movement that evolved in parallel to this conformist way of life, rebelled against these strict ideals, aiming instead to explore human life, sexuality, philosophy, and community. In 1955, one of the greatest beat generation poets, Allen Ginsberg, composed “Howl,” a poem deemed highly controversial for its explicit sexual language and references to homosexuality. As the speaker dissects post-war America, the use of long lines in “Howl” offers the speaker the space to confess within the immensity of the poem.

        From the very beginning of the poem, the length of the lines plays into the initial idea of madness, the “who” of the poem’s first section, through which the speaker can indulge in unfiltered and uncensored confessions. In the first line of the poem, the speaker addresses the “best minds of [his]  generation destroyed by madness” (1. 1). As he elaborates, the speaker dives into a series of long lines, extending far beyond the usual length of poetic lines, which tend to stay within the limits of a regular page. As he writes to these “best minds,” he speaks of those “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy, / and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & amnesia” (1, 66-67). In this passage, the speaker illustrates that he does not wish to cater to the general public, to whom a simply structured poem might be more appealing, but rather to the insane, to whom and about whom he will write in great, overbearing length. This structure, heavy in content and often difficult to follow along, mimics the description of these “mad” experiences. Throughout the first section, there is an anaphora with the word “who.” With every “who,” the speaker introduces new information, and, with it, new visuals depicting the insanity of his lost generation. As the reader follows these lines, with new experiences, places, people, and anecdotes, the rhythm of the poem follows a drawn-out, seemingly never-ending beat, pulling the reader both into the storylines and into their own sense of madness. As the speaker is ending the first section, he describes those “who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed … / to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” (1.75). Here, the speaker references himself writing the poem, riddled with “images juxtaposed,” “confessing out the soul” through lines that are continuous, wide, and excruciatingly specific and detailed. He is illustrating that these lines do not remain between the norms of how one should live or write, within the “conformity of thought.” Instead, they follow their own rhythm and pace, much like his mad mind. As this unconventional structure stands apart from the traditionally shorter-lined poems, the speaker can express himself without censorship, writing as he truly feels or what he truly sees, in as much length and with as much insanity as he pleases, instead of focusing on maintaining a steady, recognizable format through which he must filter and rearrange his thoughts.

Throughout the poem, this format also allows Ginsberg to write with less restriction, the boundaries of the usual page no longer limiting his speech. As the lines do not follow carefully determined rhyme patterns or line lengths, the speaker’s speech does not have to remain within the limits of what the structure of the poem demands of him. He does not have to pay particular attention to which word might rhyme with the previous line or what series of words could fit within the type of line length needed. He does not restrict his descriptions or thoughts to a delimited amount of physical space. Instead, he allows himself to freely write beyond the width of the page, ending the lines only when he has said what he intended to say. As he describes a variety of experiences, he mentions those “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer” (1. 57). The speaker does not edit his sentence to fit within the allocated space of the page or divide it into multiple shorter separate lines. Instead, everything he means to say about this one experience gets kept in one united line, side remarks such as “not even one free beer” and “this actually happened” included. As the speaker continues, the lines go on and do not stop for anyone. They do not cut themselves short to give the reader a chance to read a cleanly structured poem that only represents a simplified version of the speaker’s truth. This allows the speaker to bring himself into the narrative of the poem, as nothing holds him back from adding in whatever he may feel he needs to say. As he concludes the first section, he ends with “the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death, / with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years” (1. 76-78). In these final lines, he is expressing this need to write as a release, the poem “butchered out of their own bodies.” What he writes is thus written to express and confess intimate thoughts and feelings and not simply describe or pose commentaries or criticisms. As the poem’s lines carry on far beyond the width of a page, Ginsberg has the physical space to confess these raw parts of himself, each new experience taking up as much room as he needs it to, without restricting himself to poetic rules he must follow.

As he jumps into sections two and three, the untraditionally long lines allow Ginsberg to express his own place within the expanse of the “outsider” experience in America. As a nation with hundreds of millions of citizens, spreading from ocean to ocean, America is both geographically and demographically immense. The length of the lines in “Howl” mirrors this physical immensity. Furthermore, by going into deep detail, each line diving into a new story, these long lines highlight the vastness of the experience of the social rejects. As Ginsberg wrote this poem in 1955-1956, the lines in “Howl” reflect what it was like to step outside of the social norms of the era. Laced with rigid, conservative ideals, the American mindset of the time rejected anything that countered the “white picket fence image.” In the second part of the poem, the speaker dives into the reasons behind the insanity described in the previous section. Continuing with the patterns of the long lines, he expresses: “Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs! Skeleton treasuries! Blind capitals! Demonic industries! Spectral nations! Invincible madhouses! Granite cocks! Monstrous bombs!” (2. 10) Here, the speaker condemns modern society’s dehumanizing industrialization and alienating capitalization, damning the institutions that have shattered community and care. By naming Moloch, he is alluding to a deity referenced in the Hebrew Bible associated with child sacrifice, a personification of how modern society has sacrificed youth in the name of progress and industrialization (“Moloch”). He is going against ideas of what it means to be a sane citizen, denouncing this way of life that has destroyed his generation and estranged them as outcasts. Yet as these lines and this poem extends, the speaker places himself within a community formed by rejection. Although these “mad minds” are outcasts, the magnitude of their shared experiences as they set them apart from the time period’s designated norm brings them together. In the third section of the poem, the lines illustrate this idea of unity in contrast to the previous sense of alienation. As he writes “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,” (3.19) the drawn-out lines unite the “outsiders” of America. This is an experience that the speaker is part of, claiming again and again, that he is “with you in Rockland,” a mental institution, as well as “across America.” Though the speaker includes several different anecdotes and characters, the length of the lines allows him to imitate the unity within the shared experiences of the American rejects, while also being able to place himself and his own thoughts and experiences within the narrative.

As Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” explores themes such as America’s capitalism, industrialization, overconsumption, and mental health crisis, the nonconformist use of prolonged, extended lines allows the poem to be confessional through its creation of a raw, unadulterated, and inclusive structure. With three separate sections and never-ending stories, its exceptional length, though initially daunting, allows these to come together to form one cohesive image that makes “Howl” a poem for both the outsider looking in and the insider looking out.

Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.”  English 103 with Shalon Noble: Handout. Dawson College, 2022.

“Moloch.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

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