In the poem, “Howl,” by the great Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, Ginsberg delineates many motifs, and the one motif that sticks out the most in my opinion is the motif of geography, which permeates throughout each line of the poem. Ginsberg’s utilization of geography is very diverse, and may be divided into three main categories. The first category is urban geography and cities, which obviously were established by Ginsberg’s ardent affiliation with New York City, where he had first formulated his “Beat” perspective that he is very much connected to. This category can be subcategoried throughout the poem into Ginsberg’s references to New York City itself and into his references to typical aspects of urban and city life. The first subcategory of the first category, New York City, is frankly depicted throughout the poem: “with a belt of marijuana for New York,” “the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn,” “”for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx,” “storefront boroughs” (because New York City is divided into 5 boroughs), “the drear light of Zoo” (referencing the Bronx Zoo), ” “park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,” “off windowsills off Empire State,” “who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square,” “the Staten Island Ferry also wailed,” “woke on a sudden Manhattan,” “horrors of Third Avenue iron dreams,” “”waiting for a door in the East River,” “the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson,” “the rivers of Bowery,” “the sixth floor of Harlem,” “innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue,” “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge,” “the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & fire trucks,” “CCNY lecturers,” “Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s” (referencing the Pilgrim State Hospital and Rockland State Hospital, which were mental institutions where either Ginsberg’s mother Naomi or Carl Solomon had been institutionalized), “the heavens of Long Island,” and in Part III, “Rockland,” “Utica” (actually in central New York State), and “the Bronx” are referenced, especially the first mentioned, which is repeated throughout through parallel structure. Also, “submarine light of Bickford’s” and “afternoons in desolate Fugazzi’s” are places where Ginsberg and the rest of the Beats frequently hung out at in New York City. The second subcategory that Ginsberg references is typical aspects of urban and city life: “the negro streets,” “”coldwater flats,” “the tops of cities,” “tenement roofs,” “paint hotels,” “blinking traffic light,” “over the rooftops,” “ashcan rantings” (Also could reference New York City, where the Ashcan School was established, which was a realist artistic movement which depicted daily life in New York’s poorer neighborhoods), “subways,” “the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills,” “the Synagogue cast on the pavement,” “off the roof,” “the grass of public parks,” “rose gardens,” “cemeteries,” “out of basements,” “the romance of the streets,” “under the bridge,” “under meat trucks,” “the subway window,” “cried all over the street,” “the tenement window,” “the icy streets” (which could perhaps reference New York City or any other city where snowing is frequent in the winter), “in the parks,” “whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs,” “factories dream and croak in the fog,” “whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities,” “Robot apartments,” “demonic industries,” “pavements,” “the city to Heaven,” and “into the street.” “Moloch” references the industrial civilization itself, and moreover, the city, which is industrialism in it’s finest form, as it fervently evokes the overwhelming horrors of futurism, advanced technology, and capitalism that Ginsberg zealously abhors in “Howl.”
The second category of geography that Ginsberg references in this poem is basically every other area outside of New York City, that is, many different cities and states in America: Arkansas, Laredo, Paradise Alley, “nowhere Zen New Jersey,” Atlantic City Hall, and “Newark’s bleak furnished room” (Ginsberg was born and raised in New Jersey), Kansas, “streets of Idaho,” Baltimore, “the Chinaman of Oklahoma,” Houston, “America and Eternity,” “fire place Chicago,” the West Coast, “sirens of Los Alamos,” Colorado, “Denver-joy,” “empty lots & diner backyards, moviehouses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves,” “crosscountry,” Denver (numerous times), Alcatraz (San Francisco), Rocky Mount (North Carolina), Southern Pacific (railroad), Woodlawn (A cemetery near to where Ginsberg’s mother Naomi lived), “Greystone’s foetid halls” (Greystone State Hospital in New Jersey; once again, referencing a mental institution dealing with either Ginsberg’s mother or Carl Solomon), “the suffering of America’s naked mind,” “the American river,” and lastly, the United States is referenced twice near the very end of the poem.
The third and final category of geography that Ginsberg references in “Howl” are international places, that is, exotic and not-exotic places and facets outside of the United States: “poles of “Canada & Paterson” (Fellow Beat Generation writer and friend Jack Kerouac was French-Canadian and Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey), “suffering Eastern sweats,” “Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China,” ”Tangiers to boys,” and “Holy Tangiers!” (Fellow Beat Generation writer and friend William S. Burroughs had lived in Tangiers, Morocco), “so took ship to Africa,” “the volcanoes of Mexico,” “sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath,” and “who retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit” (Many of the Beat Generation members did drugs, hence, “to cultivate a habit”), and “final stanzas of the Internationale.” All of these international references may be attributed to the extensive traveling around the world that many of the Beats did during the time that “Howl” was written.
The meaning of the motif of geography changes gradually yet drastically in the poem, as Ginsberg changes his focus starting in Part II. In Part I, many of the geographical references, that is, all of the cities, states, and countries mentioned, correlate with the “angelheaded hipsters” and their various travels and activities, and more personally, Ginsberg associates many of the geographical references with people in his life, such as his mother Naomi (“Pilgrim’s State’s Rockland’s), his Beat Generation friends, such as Jack Kerouac (“Canada & Paterson”), William S. Burroughs (“Holy Tangiers!”), and Neal Cassady (“whoring through Colorado”) “and of course, the object of the entire poem, Carl Solomon (“threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers”). Furthermore, he frequently references geography in terms of his own life, such as “Canada & Paterson,” since he grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and “the sixth floor of Harlem,” which refers to an apartment that Ginsberg resided in. The change in meaning commences in Part II, when “Moloch” is introduced, and suddenly, the geography references aren’t so much a fantastic perspective of geography, but rather a foreboding perspective, especially pertaining to the city, like “Robot apartments!” The focus, which had always been on Carl Solomon, is now completely and meticulously placed on Solomon, as the repetitive parallel structure of “I’m with you in Rockland” and the lines in between, evoke a tone of escape, as if “Moloch” was some industrial monster destroying everything that Solomon, the Beats, and the “angelheaded hipsters” had stood for. Moreover, “Rockland,” “the Bronx,” and “Utica” are much more significant and aren’t just places to have hallucinations, do drugs, and be apathetic towards life—they were nostalgic sanctuaries that represented better, carefree, and non-industrial days. The exact reason why Ginsberg uses geography as a motif is because of just that—representation. Each city, state, country, and aspect of life that Ginsberg refers to in “Howl” represents a family member, a friend, or an activity that is very much inculcated in Ginsberg’s mind. This is true for all of us, as we very often correlate a location with a good or bad memory, an activity worth remembering, or a very important person in our lives. Furthermore, by repeating and developing this motif incessantly, Ginsberg wants readers, just like himself, to not easily forget the places we’ve been and traversed to, that is, to scrupulously remember every single detail concerning those places, and to fully comprehend that these places don’t always represent pleasant memories, but can also represent melancholic ones. These places aren’t static; they may seem like amazing places now, but could later seem like terrible places, due to some unforeseen circumstance or event. To finish, “Howl” establishes geography as a very crucial facet to our lives as it helps to keep us remember people and events, and thus, a location isn’t just another location, and a city isn’t just another city.