Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Politics of Candor--Why Howl Endures: A Review of Howl the Movie

The film Howl accomplishes much to convey the back story of Allen Ginsberg’s enduring appeal to generation after generation of readers. The film skillfully weaves original transcripts from the 1957 censorship trial, a recreated interview with Ginsberg in his own words (1959 & 1974) with an anonymous journalist, the Gallery Six reading of Howl, and animations of the poem’s text by Eric Drooker, a personal friend of the poet who endorsed his animations.

Not leaving the poem’s legacy to chance, Ginsberg on the occasion of its 30th anniversary in his 1986 introduction to the facsimile edition of Howl sets forth his aesthetic as a manifesto for the primacy of feeling or what Ezra Pound coined, “Only Emotion endures.” There, Ginsberg writes, "The appeal in Howl is to the secret hermetic tradition of art "justifying" or "making up for defeat in worldly life."

Film makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman shine a light on the single most turning point of Ginsberg’s fate as a writer, which was not whether or not his signature poem Howl would be blacklisted as ‘obscenity,’ but that Ginsberg would choose the life of his “hearts desire,” which was simply to be himself over the life of the “mad men” he was living at the time (marketing researcher in advertising) —a life of stylish deception, wealth and cultural acceptance over authenticity. With that defining gesture, Ginsberg chose a kind of perpetual freedom ride in the “green automobile”* of his heart’s desire, whether it be with Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky his new found love, or the eternal youths of later years. Ginsberg chose tenderness and likely social failure with what he would later come to call sacred friendships. Ginsberg's notion as portrayed in the interview portion of the film, "That if you could be frank about homosexuality, you could be frank about anything" is at the heart of his aesthetics of candor. The significance of this statement proves the springboard for arguments in favor of the poem's literary merits. The film’s treatment of his homosexuality skillfully conveys Ginsberg’s heroic unfolding to be true to himself which ultimately led to his avocation as a poet.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ginsberg did not crash and burn but mustered his considerable intellectual and poetic gifts tirelessly working on behalf of his friends—assembling their manuscripts,promoting the legitimacy of their writing and in some cases supporting them financially. While working for Ginsberg, every year we, his office associates, filed recommendations routinely for poets Gregory Corso and Amiri Baraka to that august institution, The American Academy of Arts & Sciences to join the ranks of Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder and Allen among the established. Ginsberg’s fraternal loyalty remained undying to the end as did his dedication to civil liberties. When I first came to work in his office in 1989, Ginsberg was compiling long affidavits for the ACLU to counter FCC regulations which then banned the poem from being read on public radio although it had previously enjoyed nearly 30 years airtime. On the occasion of the poem's 50th anniversary, WBAI, the most progressive of pacifica public radio stations refused to air the poem.

For me the most affecting aspect of the film is James Franco’s reading of Howl. He captures the subtle nuances of Ginsberg's speech, his tonality and gestures and those oh so juicy Semitic lips that convey, at times, Rabbinic wit and wisdom with the depth of the speaker’s clarion call to truth infused with a moral certitude that the truth sets one free. As a trained poet himself, Franco knows his speaker well and knows how to read a poem—deliberate, rhythmically, and with distinct enunciation entering into the body and mind of the text. He rides the ebb and flow of Ginsberg’s startling imagery as it hurls itself into crescendos of ecstatic speech. Where the human voice falls short, Drooker’s vibrant animation takes over in glowing images reminiscent of Disney's Fantasia that convey the complex meanings. But mostly, Franco gets the poem which is not so much an angry rant but an empathetic howl over the human condition. Howl is above all else a work of immense compassion and Franco conveys this affect perfectly. Like many close associates of the poet, I was prepared to cringe in anticipation of an off-key voice, but Franco pulled it off. I found myself close to tears a number of times. This movie will be around for a very long time.

Late in Life, Walt Whitman summoned the poet of the future.

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

Ginsberg the poet surely delivered on the ‘main things.” The movie, Howl, arouses us to justify the universal bardic voice of great poetry.

Some clips from the movie

As an after thought, there's one more aspect about the film that I very much appreciated. For many years, I worked with Allen's photos in his office. Almost all the set designs remain true to the original photographic record of the period down to every detail, even the texture of fabrics. Ginsberg's extensive archive of photography chronicles the magic of that moment in time before they were "Beats" with a clear and loving eye in homage to his friendships. The movie, Howl, captures hints of the magic for posterity.

*In a class at Naropa, I think it was 1987's spring semester workshop "American Values," Ginsberg said that the poem "Green Automobile" (read here by John Turnbull) was the first poem he wrote in his own voice--a kind of wish list for his "heart's desire" and a precursor to Howl. In the poem with strange prescience he predicts founding a college in the Rocky Mountains.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cherche La Vache, Some Thoughts on Creative Writing Program Rankings and Advice to Prospective Applicants.

At last a response to the misbegotten rankings of MFA programs with David Fenza’s bold message on behalf of AWP (Associated Writing Programs). While I abhor at times the madhouse frenzy of AWP’s annual writers conference (anticipating 10,000 attendees in 2011), nonetheless, I appreciate AWP’s dedicated pursuit of professional standards for creative writing programs. Like any organization, it has its strengths and weaknesses. Some years ago, I called David asking him to arbitrate a faculty dispute in my MFA program. His response, off the record, was to initiate fair equity practices in hiring—unusual among low-residency MFA programs. He got right to the point about nepotism –friends of friends was no way to run a program.

Fenza’s message in AWP’s most recent missive reminds me of Evans Pritchard, the renowned anthropologist, who once said about studying the NuerCherche la Vache—In this case, look to the faculty. In regard to the culture of creative writing programs today, he encourages prospective students shopping for a program that meets their needs to look to the faculty, not the rankings (which do not consider faculty). And I agree with his raw assessment that such rankings are to writing programs what pornography is to love. You might get off initially but how good is it really. They also promote a ‘cash cow’ industry in academia for a few schools but leave many others worthy of consideration bereft of applicants or scrambling for an increased advertising budget.

As in any endeavor it serves us well to land in an environment where we are loved for whom we are, not what we aspire to be. If going to the #1 or the top-rated five schools, for that matter, means a lot to you, then by all means go for it. Once while I was working for the late poet Allen Ginsberg, I visited him at Lenox hospital after his gall bladder operation. While I was there, Robert Frank, the photographer stopped by. Allen launched into extravagant praise about his ‘great’ doctor. I’ll never forget Robert’s chuckling response—something along the lines I guess we’re all invested in thinking our doctor is “great.” Allen ‘s response was: “But my doctor loves me.” Faculty need not love their students but they certainly need to care about them. The relationship between mentor and student is psychologically sensitive as the act of writing carries a high degree of exposure of one's inner life. Try to land yourself where you and your aesthetic are appreciated, otherwise, as Fenza points out, you could be miserable. The illusion of being part of ‘greatness’ according to external criteria such as rankings (we're the best of the best) might very well be an unfulfilled waste of money. Sadly, the urge to rub up against greatness more often than not perpetuates a hungry ghost realm of forever seeking endorsement but rarely being sustained by it.

I can’t speak much for fiction or non-fiction writers but over 30 years working with poets—some famous others obscure-- what comes to mind is the primacy of community. MFA programs might lead to quantifiable success for some—prizes, publication, teaching jobs. For everyone MFA programs always offer some kind of community. So it’s also useful for prospective students to investigate the creative writing community one is applying to; some are riddled with competitiveness and toxic academic politics, while others are supportive, meeting the individual needs of their students. Some favor their “stars,” others are more egalitarian. There is something for everyone. And as Fenza points out, the burden of choosing a program should focus on the investigative skills of the individual writer, not on subjective rankings.

The hallmark of faculty/mentor excellence, in my experience, resides in their ability to enter into the students’ work in an unbiased way and to provide students guidance to achieve intended goals in their writing. Sometimes the last horse becomes the best horse. Good faculty know this. Over the years, I’ve seen some of the best students who are brilliant poets never go beyond that initial blaze. And then too, I’ve seen some rather hard-working graduates set forth on a path to launch themselves into the world community of writers by curating reading series, founding literary journals and small presses, engaging in guerrilla publishing and ultimately “arriving” as established poets. Ambition may be a great motivation for productivity but if misplaced can lead to unscrupulous endorsement of the dark side or “selling out,” in my generation’s nomenclature. Isn’t it better to get published or win a prize by an anonymous selection process rather than find yourself propelled by nepotistic practices? Great mentors make writers not careers. So choose wisely. Beware of programs or mentors who promise more than they can deliver.

To read David Fenza’s AWP response to MFA creative writing program rankings, click here.

An article from the Economist about MFA program rankings