In the passage from Ginsberg's "Howl":

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war

How should the hyphen in Blake-light be interpreted? Is the speaker hallucinating about Blake-light tragedy? If yes, what does that mean?

Or is the speaker hallucinating about Blake, and using the hyphen to pause before commenting that his hallucination is a light tragedy when compared to what the scholars of war are doing?

2 Answers 2


It's a hyphen, not a dash, so its function is not to mark a pause.

At first glance the word "light" might be taken to mean "intellectually or spiritually less than profound", in the sense that one might write of "Shakespeare-light" or "light entertainment". That is the usual meaning of appending "-light" to a word. But here I think the poet is calling up an image of hallucinated tragedy illuminated by the experience of reading and taking in works by William Blake, or in a material world that one sees illuminated in a way that is comparable to how Blake saw it. So to summarise, the idea is of seeing in the light that is given by Blake's work and of viewing the world lit the way Blake saw it lit.

By the way there is a literary magazine called "Blakelight".


Many erroneously assume that Blake-light tragedy is a reference William Blake, who was indeed an enormous influence on Ginsberg and whom Ginsberg does make allusions to elsewhere in other works.

However, it is actually a reference to an obscure incident which occurred in Denver, CO where Blake Street is found. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady spent time in Denver, which features numerous book stores, restaurants, murals, and even apartment buildings that all pay homage to the Beat Poets as a result. Ginsberg makes this more explicit in the following passage: "who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back to Denver and waited in vain, who watched over Denver and brooded and loned in Denver and finally went away to find out the Time, and now Denver is lonesome for her heroes".

I work at the Denver Art Museum and five years ago met Ginsberg and Orlovsky's personal chauffeur during an exhibition on women artists in the abstract-expressionist movement who confirmed to me that Ginsberg was talking about this street as he had brought it up to him while being driven around the city in the '80s.

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