Somehow, despite holding a degree in English I had managed to only obtain passing knowledge of Allen Ginsberg. My main knowledge of “the beat generation” like many, I presume was Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” I’d had exposure to a few of Ginsberg’s shorter poems, and knew his style to be honest, raw, and often graphic, but I had never actually come across the poem that started so much; “Howl”.
“Howl” was written in 1955, a performance piece, not all that different from what one might hear at a Poetry Slam today. In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had published “Howl and Other Poems”, and in 1957 “Howl” and Ferlinghetti were in the middle of one of the most infamous literary censorship trials in history.
Making a film based on a poem, especially a modern epic like “Howl” does not come without challenges. The best way to experience the poem is to listen to a recording of Ginsberg himself reading/reciting his own work. However, if you are new to poetry, and want a little guidance to walk you through the experience of Howl, the movie winds up being a pretty good way to do that.
The movie follows four different paths. The first is the literal 1955 reading of “Howl” at the Cafe Med in San Francisco. The second is a re-enactment to the 1957 censorship trial. The third is a mock interview with Ginsberg, played by James Franco. And the last is a graphic animated sequence that gives a sort of visual “Cliff Notes” of the poem.
Using any one of these methods to portray the literary and societal implications of “Howl” would have come across as either too much, or not enough, but collectively, I felt it served it’s purpose well. “Howl” is a poem with much heart, an emotional portrait of Ginsberg’s life and challenges as a homosexual man and artist in the fifties. While it describes many harsh realities, as well as sexual imagery that was somewhat difficult to take being the modest person that I am, there is also much beauty and lyricism. Here are a few of my favorite passages.
- burned alive in their innocent flannel suits
on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse
- who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
- yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts
and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall,
Of course, with a poem as long and as good as “Howl” I could add many more snippets. As much fun as I have swimming in the language of Ginsberg, I’ll let you do that for yourself. I am thankful for the movie, which I enjoyed, because it led me to the poem which is far better.
For many, however, the sheer mass of the poem on a page, may be intimidating, and the movie does a lot to let a reader know what they are getting into before they dive in. But my is it worth the dive!
But just because I’m so excited about the poem doesn’t mean I think people should skip the movie. The 1957 obscenity trial for “Howl”, also has great significance. In the movie portions of the trial are re-enacted with witnesses played by Mary Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels. Some accounts will say these actors “co-starred” with James Franco who played Ginsberg. This is misleading as Franco does not share screen time with Parker or Daniels, and their roles as witnesses constitute little more than cameos. But this is not a film one goes to see for “star power” – not even if you are a big fan of Franco, who does very well as the poet. You go to relive a moment in time that has great historical significance, and to re-enforce your appreciation for the literary and other freedoms we hold.
Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” and printed poem Howl Movie Site