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.


  1. Brava! Excellent review, Jacqueline. I was very interested in your take on the movie, and you did not disappoint! You should give a lecture at one of the residencies on your first-hand experiences with Ginsberg. Blessings, Terry

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.