Bryan was lecturing today about Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl (1955) and spent a portion of the lecture unpacking the poem’s figurative uses of the ancient Semitic god Moloch, who was associated with child sacrifice. Students helped him to tease out the idea that Moloch might represent capitalism or or what would come to be called the military-industrial complex or simply war itself. Bryan reminded the students that at the end of his chapter “Robert Moses: The Expressway World,” from All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman associates Moloch with Robert Moses: “When my friends and I discovered Ginsberg’s Moloch, and thought at once of Moses, we were not only crystallizing and mobilizing our hate; we were also giving our enemy the world-historical stature, the dreadful grandeur, that he had always deserved but never received from those who loved him most” (p. 311). Bryan pointed out that both Ginsberg’s Howl and Berman’s All That is Solid might be seen productively as jeremiads.
Bryan played an excerpt from Ginsberg’s 1959 Pacifica radio broadcast, in which Ginsberg does come across as a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness. You can get a sense of how Ginsberg would read the poem from this YouTube clip:
Shortly thereafter, Bryan played an excerpt from Ric Burns‘s New York about Moses’s program of urban renewal, which includes a reading of a portion of the “Moloch” section of Howl followed by some commentary from the master himself.
We e-mailed Ric to find out who was performing the lines, and he was kind enough to write back promptly (in fact, while the lecture was still going on): “That’s Josh Hamilton. He’s extremely gifted.” I wrote back, pointing out that Hamilton’s reading was rather than different from Ginsberg’s and asking whose idea it was to take that approach. Ric’s reply: “I directed him that way. I wanted people to hear the insides of the words, not the outside of the emotion. Also, there’s a spent quality, as if through repeated bludgeonings this world had worn him down.”
I think both approaches to the verse work very well, a testament (as it were) to the richness of the poem.
You can find links to many audiovisual materials related to Ginsberg and Howl at allenginsberg.org.