Two poems can sound so alike and mirror each other almost identically, but mean
completely different when taken into account the context in which the respective poems were
written in. When Walt Whitman wrote his poem “Songs of Myself” in 1852 at its earliest edition”,
he was writing during a time of American Expansionism and the romantic ideas of the rugged
frontiersman in nature dominated the national consciousnesses. Such romantic notions are
portrayed by many verses in Whitman’s poem, and has a great impact on making it a classic
example like another great thinker, Henry David Thoreau. Literary styles in “Songs of Myself”
like realism, cadence, repetition, and the use of simple language had a major influence on
subsequent American literature. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” written in 1952 mirror many aspects
of “Songs of Myself” in its realism, cadence, repetition, and use of simple language. By all
accounts, it would seem like “Howl” is a secondary manifestation of “Songs of Myself” yet that
is not the case because the theme of “Howl” was not ingrained in romanticism. Instead Allen
Ginsberg’s poem conveyed a great deal of urban angst while Whitman’s poem conveyed and
captured the true sense of nature. Although the poems shared many literary similarities, they
were not completely alike in the sense that they both created their own respective contrasting
Both the Washington State University literature department and Shmoop defines realism
as this literary technique that shows situations without all the idealism that is portrayed in the
world. The use of realism is apparent in both Walt Whitman’s “Songs of Myself” and Allen
Ginsberg’s “Howl”, but what it accomplishes for each poem yielded different results. “Songs of
Myself” celebrates the uniqueness of the human experience and its ability to transcend beyond
consciousness. Whitman, in his writing, used many stanzas that described entirely new scenes as
if to symbolize a rebirth of the human spirit in every scene. However the use of realism, and in
stanza 15 he writes, “The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case.” In such a
poem meant for romantic idealization of the human spirit, Whitman’s inclusion of this line about
the realities of mentally ill people being confined to asylums definitely stood in contrast.
Although puzzling at first, this realism in Whitman’s work is utilized to show that the human
spirit is not perfect, and that there would always unwavering weakness to the human soul. As a
result of this, Whitman’s poem proceeded with an uncomfortable sense of caution even as he
continued writing about the romantic characteristics of the great American frontier.
In relation to “Songs of Myself” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” employed realism at every
turn, but the intentions behind his use of realism goes beyond just simple caution. “Howl” was
written during the prosperity of post war United States, under the shadowy threat of the Cold
War. The poem was also influenced by the counterculture in American society around this time”,
“Howl” utilized a more serious (or intense) version of realism in portraying an image of the
urban city. In part one Ginsberg writes, “who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the
subway window / , jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negros / , cried all over the street”,
danced on broken wine glasses / barefoot smashed photograph records of nostalgic European
1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans / in
their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles.” Ginsberg’s use of realism is simply
frightening as it portrays a scene of anarchy even though it was meant to be a realistic picture of
contemporary society. It is frightening because of the language he uses and how he uses that to
provoke fear, and t implies as if people who were successful in the big city still “sang out of their
windows in despair” and felt depressed about their lives. Meaning that even those who were
“successful and had financial support were still not happy, and implies that those who were less
fortunate were worse off. Ginsberg shows through his use of realism that human character was
extremely flawed even in cities. These cities were centers of human innovation where
technological was available; thus making life easier for those who lived in the city. If the human
character was flawed in modern cities, then what will happen when society fails? People in the
city are better equipped for this society, and if society does fall what does it mean for the less
fortunate? Both Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s use of realism highlighted the flaws of the human
spirit, both authors use realism to raise awareness and attention to warning that an inevitable
future may come sooner than we think. However the poet, Whitman, uses a more positive effect
to give us that warning, while Ginsberg vision has a darker and, ominous utilization of words.
The use of repetition or cadence was apparent in both Whitman and Ginsberg’s work, but
the results of their respective use was contrasting yet again. In Whitman’s “Songs of Myself” he
often uses repetition in many instances to highlight what he feels strongly about. For example, in
stanza 21 he writes, “Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees! Earth of departed sunset – earth of
the mountains misty topt! Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue! Earth
of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river! Earth of the limped gray of clouds brighter and
clearer for my sake!” The word “Earth” being mentioned several times at the beginning of each
line, clearly showed a theme in Whitman’s writing about the romanticism of nature. When taking
a closer to the poem, the sounds of these repeated words become more emphasized. Reading
these lines out loud reveals a certain carefree tone in Whitman’s poetry, and it sounds like a
humming song of life. Whitman’s use of repetition or cadence reflects his own carefree attitude
towards life, which was one of a curious soul finding meaning in the magnificence of nature.
Unlike the singing of Whitman’s cadence, Ginsberg’s use of repetition had the opposite
meaning. Instead of promoting a carefree attitude, Ginsberg’s use of cadence highlighted the
growing angst in his poetry. In part 3, Ginsberg writes, “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in
Rockland – where you’re madder than I am. I’m with you in Rockland – where you must feel
very strange…” Ginsberg actually repeats the phrase “I’m with you in Rockland” many times
over, and at first it does not sound like anything negative, but under further investigation”,
“Rockland” refers to the name of a psychiatric hospital! With this, Ginsberg’s phrase about
“Rockland” suddenly becomes extremely worrisome, and it feels like the repetition of this one
phrase highlights the poet’s descent into madness and deterioration of his mental health. In a
way, the pressure of urban life and contemporary society might have been too overwhelming.
Overall, the use of repetition and cadence in Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s poems achieve different
results based on their own respective contexts.
The use of common language by both poems was used to appeal to the masses of readers”,
but what this achieved for each poem was different. In Whitman’s poem, he often uses very
simple english to write his verses. In one instance in stanza 20, he simply states, “What is a man
anyhow? What am I? What are you?” The majority of words here are no longer than four letters
and they are simply just asking very simple questions. Whitman was asking very simple
questions that anyone would be able to answer . Clearly, not every line in his poem does not need
to be dissected, but has a very straightforward meaning. In this way, Whitman’s poem touched
greater audiences during that time, and it allowed many to enjoy his works. I think that this was
reflective of Whitman’s own themes about nature, because nature is so pure that it is not
corrupted by a more authoritative figure. Throughout “Songs of Myself” Whitman observes
nature as it came more natural to him in order to get more of a feel for it. The use of common
language was also used so readers could just read it with pleasure and to have the poems reach
more people. Whitman was not an elitist, but someone who genuinely cared about people reading
his work. On the other hand, Ginsberg’s use of the common language included many depictions
of violence and depressing images. For example, Ginsberg uses words like “war, sobbing, death”,
and burn” that are on page 9 line 3 page 10 line 18, page 13-14 line 43, page 14 lines 56, page 14
lines 61. The use of the common language in this case had the opposite effect because instead of
finding any joy, the simple language immediately connected readers to the angst that Ginsberg
was feeling. Simple language has an effect on immediately bringing the author’s intention to the
forefront easily, and under the different contexts of both poems, it was easy to understand how
Ginsberg’s use of common language shocked readers more so than how Whitman’s use resulted
What truly sets the two poems apart despite their literary similarities was the grand theme
behind each poem. Even though both poems employed similar styles like realism, repetition”,
cadence, and common language, the tone of the poems reflected a different mood. Whitman’s
poem was written during a time of vast American Expansionism and the climate of this time was
one of Romanticism. The image of the frontiersman became a heroic figure, and the contents of
Whitman’s “Songs of Myself” show a leaning towards that perspective. In contrast, Ginsberg’s
mood in his poetry was full of uneasiness and uncertainty, and there were many scenes of
random disturbances that seem to make no sense individually. However, when taken under the
context of the cold war and the many civil rights issues of the 1950s, Ginsberg’s writing of
“Howl” during this time clearly showed a trend in urban angst. As a result, the similar uses of
literary styles by both writers in their poems achieve different results even though the poems
themselves might have seemed eerily similar on the surface. Underneath the surface however”,
both poems represented the manifestation of two very contrasting movements. Whitman’s
“Songs of Myself” was aimed towards creating a romantic group of people who strove to enjoy
the mysteries of nature and discovering the human spirit. On the other hand, Ginsberg’s “Howl”
was aimed towards warning people about the failures of society and the urban angst that resulted
from a possible collapse of control.
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January 26, 2019. Accessed April 22, 2019.
● Shmoop Editorial Team. “Howl Summary.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11
Nov. 2008. Web. 22 Apr. 2019.
● N/A. “Howl Summary.” Super Summary. Accessed April 22, 2019.
● “Howl – Summary” Masterpieces of American Literature Ed. Steven G. Kellman.
eNotes.com, Inc. 2006 eNotes.com 23 Apr, 2019
● Shrestha, Roma. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg: Summary and Critical Analysis.”
BachelorandMaster, 31 Oct. 2013″,
● Davis, Lane. Chazelle, Damien ed. “Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry “Howl”,” Part I”,
verses 1 – 76 Summary and Analysis”. GradeSaver, 31 December 2009 Web. 22
● Jönsson, Linnea. “HOWL by Allen Ginsberg -analysis & Discussion -.” Sonoloco.
Accessed April 22, 2019. http://www.sonoloco.com/txt/howl/howlenglish.html.
● Shmoop Editorial Team. “Realism.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov.
2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2019.
● Chase, Richard, and Washington State University. “Realism in American
Literature.” Public .wsu. September 07, 2015. Accessed April 26, 2019.