Study Questions on Poems by Allen Ginsberg

Written and adapted from various sources
Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College

1. Allen Ginsberg was the leader of the hipster or “Beat” movement and the major spokesman for its “philosophy.”  How is the world of the hipsters represented in his poetry?  What view of the Beat generation do you acquire from Ginsberg’s poems?

2. In “Howl,” how does Ginsberg feel about “his generation”?  If the poem can be described as a protest, against what is he protesting?

3. One introduction to Ginsberg refers to his search for a “breakthrough of the barriers that enforce human isolation” and to Ginsberg’s “demand for an end to human isolation.” How does “Howl” express this spirit of communality?  Discuss section III of “Howl” in relation to this issue.  What has Ginsberg’s claim, “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland” (l. 94) to do with what is discussed in sections I and II of the poem?  What enables Ginsberg to declare, “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe” (l. 71)?  What does Ginsberg mean by this statement?

4. “‘Howl’ is a wasteland poem, but its roots reach not to Eliot’s tradition of European culture but back . . . to the native leaves of Walt Whitman. . . . he has measured the nation’s fall from grace and sounded his own barbaric yawp of pain and disappointment.”  The writer William Carlos Williams wrote to introduce Ginsberg’s poem, “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”  In what ways do “Howl” and “America” depict America as a “waste land” or a hell?

5. In what way are Ginsberg’s vision and his poetic techniques similar to Walt Whitman’s?  In what ways does he differ from Whitman?

6. What is Ginsberg’s relation to Walt Whitman in “A Supermarket in California”?  Why does Ginsberg envision the older poet in such a setting?  Is the setting relevant to Ginsberg’s understanding of his own poetry?

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