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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

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Activities: Author Activities

Allen Ginsberg - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: Why do you think Ginsberg chose the title Howl? What is the effect of the repetition of words at the beginning of lines (e.g., who, Moloch, I'm). To what does Moloch refer? Why does Ginsberg divide the poem into three parts?

  2. Comprehension: In "To Aunt Rose," Ginsberg refers to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Hitler, and Emily Brontë, a seemingly eclectic set of allusions. What is the significance of each reference? How is history treated here?

  3. Comprehension: "Sutra" is the Sanskrit word for "thread." It refers to Brahmin or Buddhist texts used for religious teaching. In Ginsberg's poem "Sunflower Sutra," what does the title mean? What does the sunflower symbolize?

  4. Context: In "A Supermarket in California," Ginsberg repeatedly addresses the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman. Why does he invoke this bard? What do these poets share? If Ginsberg is determined to forge a new poetry about life on the fringes of society, why does he invoke a traditional, canonized poet?

  5. Context: Compare Ginsberg's interpretation of the Beats' philosophy to Gary Snyder's. What techniques do the poets share, and where do they diverge?

  6. Exploration: Review the context on "Orientalism" in Unit 10. Many of the modernist poets, particularly Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, were fascinated by Asian art, architecture, and poetry. The Beat poets also share an interest in Asian culture, particularly Buddhism. How do these two generations of American poets differ in their treatment of Asian culture? What techniques do they share? Why do you think this fascination with the Far East continues throughout the century? You might consider Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" and "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"; William Carlos Williams's "Willow Poem"; Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra"; and Gary Snyder's "The Blue Sky."

  7. Exploration: Ginsberg begins "Ego Confession" with the line, "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America." How does that beginning affect the reader? What is the tone? What is the portrait of the poet represented here? How does Ginsberg's notion of the poet differ from that of his modernist predecessors, like T. S. Eliot (see The Waste Land) and William Carlos Williams (consider Paterson)?

  8. Exploration: Like William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and a host of other writers, Ginsberg struggles to create a uniquely American poetry. What does it mean to be an American to Ginsberg? What does he value most? How does his poetic voice differ from that of other poets you've read? How is it similar?

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