Lesson No. 2: From Yawp to Howl: Lineage and Songs of Selves in the Beat Movement


Is a Howl a Yawp?  Looking at lineage and sacred shouts.


Welcome back, [userinfo field=”first_name”]{{empty}}[/userinfo]! This week we will focus on lineage, check out Allen Ginsberg’s epic Beat poem HOWL more deeply, and consider writing in a way that is both a song and a rant, and links from past to present, word to word, in a conscious chain.

How does a writer create something new and fresh while also being aware of what has become before her or him?  I think most writers began as readers, and understand fully (and find sacred) that deep conversation that can happen between a reader and a writer.  It is only through the written word that we can get SO intimately inside another person’s thoughts, while still in silence (unless you’re reading out loud and if so, more power to you 🙂  Reading/writing allows us to communicate in a rich way regardless of space and time.  Many of the writers I love feel like family, even if they lived eons ago and in a remote part of the world.  That soul transmission, that inner discourse shared, that song, is magic if you ask me!

Think about your personal literary lineage:  what writers do you deeply relate to?  Whose work do you turn to for comfort in hard times, or to find additional joy/entertainment in the good times?  Who seems to be made of the same stuff as you?  Though your blood lineage might be something you’re born with, artistic lineage is often something that finds you.

“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

-Walt Whitman


“yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars…..

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed…”

-Allen Ginsberg


We could have a whole in-depth four week lesson just on the relationship between Walt Whitman’s work and Allen Ginsberg’s.  Certainly Ginsberg felt himself to be in the lineage of Whitman.  But for the purposes of this course, let’s zoom in on Whitman’s Song of Myself next to Ginsberg’s HOWL. (you’ll find links to both work below)


Even just reading a few lines of each you’ll notice:

the lines!  (both men used long, run-on type lines, list lines, gathering all things possibly in the long breaths of these sentences)

repitition (notice repeating phrases but, more markedly, the same word repeating at the start of lines)

passion (in Whitman’s work we have a lot of praise.  In Ginsberg’s there is some praise next to a whole lot of bewilderment and despair, but in both the long lines come rushing at us with a speed and intensity of feeling)

themes (as you read deeper into their work and into their lives, you’ll see other parallels:  both writers are homosexual American men, grappling with their identities alongside the identities of their shifting Americas)

*what else do you see?


Ginsberg’s HOWL is in the lineage of Whitman.  This does not mean derivative, but rather there is a deep family feeling between the work, a nod from poem to poem in shared understanding, across space and time.  While Whitman spoke of a yawp yelled across rooftops, it feels like Ginsberg howled back.  It’s also Ginsberg’s way of coming to terms with a lot of things, including his own mother, who was in an asylum much of Ginsberg’s life.




Reading Assignments

A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg (direct address to Whitman)

HOWL by Allen Ginsberg

Footnote to HOWL by Allen Ginsberg (NOTE:  often folks just read the main HOWL text, listed above, when reading HOWL….but this footnote is SO important!!)

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

 HOWL: how the poem came to be, how it made Ginsberg famous (addresses the controversy, also)


Break It Down:

Look at HOWL (I’m including the footnote here as I argue it should always be included) as realms of experience.  I also think of it as “Hell Realms”:

Part 1:  looking out at a “generation”

Part 2: focusing on the Moloch, a sort of dark god, a person or thing demanding or requiring a very costly sacrifice

Part 3:  looking specifically at Ginsberg’s friend Carl Solomon, who was housed in an asylum for some time (as Ginsberg’s mother was, too)

Footnote:  finally, the footnote, in which, in my read, a sort of resolution is reached, a list-praise, a dissolve into all being HOLY, even the madness and the pain, all being sacred.  Seeing as holy all things, even those painful things that cannot be explained or understood (listed earlier in the poem, includes Ginsberg’s mother)….here I feel a particular meeting with Whitman-type fervent real praise.


Listening Assingment

Listen to Patti Smith sing the footnote to HOWL:  praise! praise!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0hRSCzUcio]

Writing Assignment

Take some more time to think about lineage.  
Many of us read so we can find connection. We are looking to feel less alone, less odd. We are looking to better connect with ourselves.  In reading we find our brothers and sisters, in word.

Who is in your personal lineage?  Write a list.  Then, pick one literary family member.

Try writing a response to one piece from that writer.  You can try borrowing from their structure, or replying to their theme.  This might come out as a letter, a poem, an essay, a story.  This can be as direct or sly as you wish, just really feeling we’re all in this together.

 *if you need more guidance with the shape of your submission, or just want to try something new, think LINKING:

Start with one line or phrase.  Then pick a word in that line/phrase to begin the next line/phrase.  And so on, and so forth.  In this way, we can consciously create a lineage within our very words, linking one thing to the next in a way that echoes the substance of what we are creating here.

Guidelines, Submissions & Formatting

  • Due Date: Sunday, 6 pm.
  • Submission Link: Submit to the FORUM.
  • Submission Format: Attach an MS Word document in Universal Manuscript Format with the following format (this format is firm and universal). Double-spaced, 12 point font, Times New Roman, 1 in margins, heading with name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number. 
  • Word Count: 1000 words or less (this is firm)
  • First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising.
  • Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism.  For the BEATS course in particular, see if you FEEL the poem/story/essay/words the way you want to.  (rhythm)
  • Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve pacing, tone, and cadence.
  • Forum: Upload your course-created work to your course and month forum so that other students in the course can read your work and give you feedback on your story. MAKE SURE YOU ARE UPLOADING YOUR STORY TO THE CORRECT FORUM AND COURSE. Group feedback runs on the honor code. Submit only one work by the due date, next Sunday 6 pm. Your feedback given on each story need be no more than a paragraph or two and should include elements that are working and elements that require further work. 
  • Submissions to the Instructor: The last week of class, you will choose one favorite piece from the works you’ve created in this course for submission to Sarah. You will be given the chance to flesh it out and make it longer. Your peers will give feedback on your story in short paragraph form. Sarah will give you specific copy editing and contextual feedback.  
  • Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology.  sarah.herrington@gmail.com



Feel free to use the below discussion area to discuss some ideas regarding your work and investigation this week.


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