October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…
Archives For howl
By Michelle Rudolf
From Beatdom #14
The 2010 movie, Howl, an adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s classic Beat poem, by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein was largely successful because it involved approaches to adapting an artistic work that are uncommon in filmmaking. The directors had studied Ginsberg’s life, the process of writing the poem, and what happened in the aftermath of its publication, and ultimately succeeded in creating a unique and satisfying adaptation based upon a hybridization of the above elements, rather than a straight cinematic telling of the poem’s story or message. Additionally, heavy research resulted in an accuracy that made this Beat movie a more faithful representation than others. As a result, their interpretation has been better received than adaptations of the work of Ginsberg’s peers, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
It began about nine years ago, when Ginsberg’s estate called the two filmmakers to ask them if they could do a documentary about the poem, because the fiftieth anniversary of its publication was approaching. The estate deliberately chose the pair because of their reputation as in-depth documentary producers who had received many awards for their sensitive and intelligent approaches to the subject matter of their movies. Moreover, in this case their own homosexuality allowed them to understand the social pressures Ginsberg had to suffer. Friedman and Epstein are famous for their lifetime’s work, which includes films about homosexual characters, including Epstein’s groundbreaking documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.
Howl is centered on the poem both representationally and factually. In different sequences the viewer is presented with both historical context and biographical details about Ginsberg’s life at the time of the poem’s composition. Throughout, James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in a role that features the poet as an adventurer of the counterculture and chronicler of the Beat Generation. Franco had always been a huge fan of Ginsberg, and even though he knew certain things about the counterculture and Ginsberg, he renewed his interest and embarked upon a period of private research in order to find out about Ginsberg’s gestures, his mannerism, and his rhythm of speech at the time of the publication of Howl. Though some argue that Franco does not look like Ginsberg, in the movie he talks and moves and delivers the content just like Ginsberg did.
Right at the start of the project their plan was to do only a documentary on Ginsberg, but after they recorded several interviews with the poet’s friends and lovers, they realized that everyone talked about Ginsberg as he was in his 40s and 50s. It seemed to them as if no one remembered who he really was at the time he wrote Howl. That is why they changed their plan and deliberately fused the documentary style of filmmaking together with a reenactment of the past events in Ginsberg’s life, including animated sequences. The result was a film that was practically its own new genre.
The film consists of five different sections. One section is the trial of the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was indicted for distributing and publishing obscene work. The trial sequences of the film are based on the actual transcript of the trial, and so, although the scene is played out with actors, it retains its historical accuracy. For this section, they took the actual words spoken in court and, although it was edited and rearranged somewhat, the trial is faithfully depicted. Another section of the film produces a nostalgic image showing Ginsberg writing the poem on his old black typewriter, writing with his confessional, leave-nothing-out style, recounting his road trips and love affairs in search of liberation. The third section of the film is animated by Eric Drooker and Russell Barnes. Drooker’s work was collected by Ginsberg for over a decade, and so the producers thought Ginsberg would approve of Drooker’s animation style.
This animated section, which was both daring and effective in capturing the spirit of Ginsberg’s generation-defining cry, was included as there was a lack of footage of Ginsberg during that period. To a great degree, the animation lives in the film as a kind of modernized retelling of the poem, as it is the interpretation of the poem through imagery. The animation department did not want to literally illustrate what Ginsberg was talking about in the poem, even though it is obvious at times. According to John Hays, the head of animation, they tried to replicate the feeling of the fifties and what musicians, painters, sculptures, and writers were trying to do at that time.
In the fourth section of the film, Ginsberg is shown at his first public reading of the poem. Of course, this is the famous Six Gallery Reading, which turned Ginsberg into a celebrity overnight. His reading of Howl caused a sensation and earned its place in literary history. A modern audience had never before reacted so passionately. The filmmakers created this sequence as truthfully as they could by using the information they gathered from interviews they conducted with eyewitnesses, and also from the works of people like Jack Kerouac, who were in attendance and had previously described the evening. For this section, accurate research was imperative. James Franco wears the same kind of clothes in it as Ginsberg did and the people in the audience drink out of the same kind of bottle as the audience had done.
The final section of the film is a kind of flashback, an interview about Howl and the monologue Ginsberg gave to answer the question, “What makes good poetry?” In fact, this interview, which they used as the basis of the frame, is a fabled Time magazine interview. Time magazine had once flown Ginsberg from Tangiers to Rome, where a reporter recorded the interview in a hotel room. The interview was never published and so it proved the perfect device to drive the film. Friedman and Epstein let Ginsberg speak for himself to the audience out of the past, as they put together their favorite excerpts from this and other interviews from that period of time into a long defense of him, his generation, and his work.
Throughout the movie, the filmmakers, as documentarians, were concerned with accurately telling Ginsberg’s story, and so despite their unique blend of devices as described above for each section of the movie, Epstein and Friedman made sure that they didn’t just tell the story of Howl, but that they passed along its feeling and message, and took the audience back to the 1950s. The production designer, Thérèse DePrez, decorated Ginsberg’s room in the film with pictures of his close friends, and with furniture pieces of the thirties and forties that he owned. She even used the same desk lamp he owned, and wallpaper that matched with the photographs she found of his old apartment. In the courtroom sequence DePrez used the same light bulbs used back then.
Howl had its world premiere at the opening night of the Sundance film festival after the producers had gone through the struggle of making a film that would create something worthy of Ginsberg’s almost magical work. As with the recent release of On the Road, fans largely waited for a disastrous end product. They were, however, shocked to encounter a genuinely entertaining and informative movie. Through the right combination of filmmakers, and a delicate and unique balance of approaches, the movie version of Howl has become its own masterpiece – capturing the spirit and factual tidbits surrounding the poem that inspired it, yet at the same time decidedly different.
Date accessed: 10.10.2011
Epstein, Rob and Friedman, Jeffrey. Howl film. Making of Featurette. Soda Pictures Ltd. Artwork 2011
Fish, Stanley. ‘‘Literary Criticism Comes to the Movies’’. The New York Times (October 4, 2010)
Ginsberg, Allen. ‘’This is the Abomination’’. Columbia Review vol. 26 (May 1946), p. 162.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl And Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1956.
http://howlthemovie.com/poem/. Date accessed: 10.10.2011
Kramer, Jane. Allen Ginsberg in America. New York, Random House, 1970.
Sandhu, Sukhdev. ‘‘Howl, review’’. The Daily Telegraph (February 24, 2011).
Simpson, Louis. Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. London, Macmillan, 1978.
Ritch, Ruby. ‘‘Ginsberg’s Howl resounds on film’’. The Guardian (January 19, 2010).
A couple of days ago, Michael Stipe took the stage to introduce a night of celebrations of the life of Kurt Cobain and the music of his band, which arguably was a 1990s updated upon the Beat Generation, and gave a beautiful speech, dedicated “for the fags; for the fat girls; for the broken toys; the shy nerds; the Goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky; for the rockers and the awkward; for the fed-up; the too-smart kids and the bullied.”
He went on to say, “We were a community, a generation… in the echo chamber of that collective howl, and Allen Ginsberg would have been very proud.”
Indeed, Ginsberg would’ve been very proud. Nirvana came about, as Stipe said, at a time when people lost within a harsh society were in need of a voice. Where Ginsberg gave his voice to the millions in the fifties and sixties, Nirvana lent theirs to disaffected kids (and adults) in the nineties.
It seems sometimes silly to speculate upon what the dead would think of the living, but in this case it’s hard to imagine a man with a heart like Ginsberg’s not empathizing with today’s downtrodden.
The whole speech is worth listening to, but if you can’t be fucked, skip to 5:26.
In 1957 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were in the midst of the obscenity trials in the US surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. After being shunned by the clean-cut conservative American public, (who despised homosexuality and Ginsberg’s outspoken nature in the radicalised work) the pair went left to seek refuge in more liberal and artistic France. Eventually the couple sought exile with fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso in their very own sanctuary of creativity which happened to be a no-name, beaten-up hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin quarter of Paris. The cheap and tacky hotel was later to be christened the Beat hotel by Corso. Continue Reading…
While the name Herbert Huncke may not be well-known among the general population, it is certainly familiar to readers of the Beat Generation. You simply cannot tell the life story of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac without it, and he appears quite obviously in some of their most important works, including Junky, On the Road, and “Howl.” These three writers, among the most important in American literature, each befriended Huncke, learned from him, and came to be known by a label that was coined by him – “beat”. Continue Reading…
Howls of 9/11 attacks
Moloch skyscrapers stood looming monstrously large
Crowning the shining Battery of Manhattan
Two planes crashed south and north towers
Screeched morning sirens through city streets
Ignited jet fuel fireball syringe
Raging inferno, heat intense heat 2500 degrees Fahrenheit
Four winged horsemen
Terror, waken nightmare, hellish hallucinations
Heavy black mushroom squibs
Giant ash avalanche
Cascaded down Wall Street
Rained near Whitman’s Bridge
Wailed back to Hoboken and Weehawken
Wailed over the Hudson to New Jersey
Wailed in Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island
Jumped off screaming rooftops in bright clear sun
Cried seraphim and cherubim
Twin towers collapsed by suicide river
Left broken hearts
Released broken spirits
Mountains of idiot destruction
Melted steel and rubble
Cemeteries covered in Dostoevsky dust
Workers fell, jumped, leaped
We the people wept
Bended knees in cathedrals
Twisted metal beams
Exploded yellow red glare
Planes burst in blue air, over and over and over on television screens throughout the world
And in minds
Sage poet, to whom weeping came easily, you died in time
We felt your salty tears
And lost fragile flower power
Today, June 3rd, is Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. All around the world, people are raising a glass or otherwise celebrating the life and work of this great man.
In China, a country not known for its freedom of speech, Ginsberg’s epic poem, “Howl”, will be given its first bilingual public reading. There aren’t many English language links for this event, but here’s one. And here’s the cool poster to accompany it:
The Chinese social network, Sina Weibo, has a lot of information and translations of Ginsberg’s work in celebration of his birthday. Check out this post by Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, for more information. Also see Kerouac’s Chinese translation covers.
“What are you rebelling against?” the local girl asks one of the “saintly motorcyclists” in the
1953 movie The Wild One, and Marlon Brando drawls, “Whaddaya got?” That’s a biography in
brief of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who revolutionized literature and then abandoned it at
age nineteen. Continue Reading…
But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac Continue Reading…
William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,
I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.
Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.
This isn’t too different from Williams S. Burroughs’ claim about the origins of his own weird prose:
I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.
It should also be noted that Burroughs was supposedly unable to recall writing any of the original material for Naked Lunch. However, Burroughs – who originally leant Ginsberg copies of Blake’s poetry when they first met, not long before Ginsberg’s famous vision – was dismissive of the mystical idea of visions, claiming that Blake simply saw things that others couldn’t see.
Blake’s method of transcribing words from the ether also seems to bear a strong resemblance to Kerouac’s fabled Spontaneous Prose, which shunned traditional ideas of composition and sought to grasp something holy from within. Although Kerouac named numerous influences on his style, just months before he died he wrote to Philip Whalen and told him that “Blake’s Jerusalem…is worth a fartune” (“fartune” being a Blakean spelling of “fortune”). Jerusalem was one of the poems Blake claimed to have dictated from a voice.
But perhaps even moreso than Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, it was Michael McClure that took Blake has his greatest literary influence. Like Ginsberg, Blake also came to McClure in a vision, and the two men marveled over the difference in their perceptions of this visitor. McClure explained,
Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophecy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark Satanic Mills. My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision.