About ten years prior, Tony and I went to Paterson. New Jersey for a poetry festival, it was a celebration of William Carlos Williams. It was a fun day because after the poetry reading we took a bus into New York to see Robert Hunter play the Bottom Line. We were English Major types at the time and the poetry reading was billed as the first reading in Paterson by Ginsberg, who was reading with David Ignatow, a poet worth checking out. I got my copy of Howl signed, although I believe that has been lost. Ginsberg read with his harmonium, was accompanied by a guitar player. He was Ginsberg, hometown boy and world famous freak. There was a break for lunch. Tony and I found a secluded spot in Paterson to smoke a non-factory rolled cigarette. I saw Allen Ginsberg—he was wearing a read jacket—walking alone and I shouted Take It Easy Allen and he looked at me pissed off, angrily giving a two-handed, fed up wave. I remember feeling taking a back. I’m sure I just came off as an obnoxious teenager, which I kind of was. When I think about this though, I probably interrupted a reverie. The event was held in the heart of Paterson, by the falls. Ginsberg grew up here.
He died in 1997 and I went to his rather unspectacular and very bizarre public memorial service at St. John the Divine. I left during the reunion show of the Fugs—they hadn’t aged well let’s say. Before this though Patti Smith performed, a rocking set that included the band and some hits, Rock & Roll Nigger. A lot of echo, but it was fun to hear that song Outside of Society in this Episcopalian (or is that Anglican?) cathedral. Then she performed with Philip Glass. I adore Patti and abhor Glass’s music. Glass had done some kind of collaboration with Ginsberg, I think he set Howl to music or something like that. Patti read Footnote to Howl, where everything is Holy and in the middle of her read she broke down and lost it, weeping, wailing really. She had only recently lost her brother and husband, she had been through a lot of grief. I have rarely seen such a display of raw genuine emotion at a private funeral, much less at a public setting from a well known celebrity. Glass kept playing his monotonous piano melody during her break down, in memory it seems to have lasted fifteen minutes but probably in reality was shorter. Eventually she got it together and finished the reading. An unforgettable evening. It was held the same night as the last episode of Seinfeld, a really big deal at the time, a national 90s moment. Everyone else I knew was in front of their television set.
Around the same time when Ginsberg’s death was still news, an equally unforgettable moment took place in the gymnasium at William Patterson College. Myself and the Maloney brothers, Danny and Darren, went to see Bob Dylan. It was not the first we three saw Mr. D, but it was one of the best Dylan shows that I remember. Literally in the gymnasium, like a sock hop, no seats. Larry Campbell was in the band, it was the period where they were doing a Sun Sessions version of Watching the River Flow and he did a semi-acoustic rendition of Hard Rain. I actually “wrote” a review that through my presence on the Dylan newsgroup, was printed in a British Dylan fanzine. Anyway, during this period he was still doing Friend of the Devil, his tribute to Garcia, a personal friend of his who was only a few years dead. Dylan did a great version of this song, especially during this edition of his back up band—Campbell played fiddle. During the song, projections of black and white sketches of Ginsberg were shown on the screen behind the group. Nothing was said from the stage, and it was the only show where this tribute took place. As far as I know, Dylan's only public comment on his old friend's death, how approrpiate that it was subtle and in the bard's home town & state.
I’ve always been a big reader and a turning point took place when I was like 13 or so. My older sister had come home from Freshman year of college where she took a literature course. She had this box of books, that included Kafka, Hess, Camus and On The Road and Howl. Before this box it was like Tolkien, Robert Heinlein and H.G. Wells. I was on my way. I had read like all of Kerouac by the time I was 18, and a lot of Ginsberg and the other suspects, like Corso and Burroughs as well as the associated with but not quite part of the crowd—Bukowski and Kesey. Everybody reads (or should!) the Beats when they’re a teen. It’s the rebellion.
In the 90s I went to a seminar given by the president of Grove Press, who publishes most of the Beat catalog. Most of the works, both major and minor, remained in print and he said the biggest audience for them are teenagers. I think he used the term Teenybopper, the dude was a bit of a douche. The audience consisted of MFA graduate students who clicked the tips of their tongues against the edges of their teeth at the very idea of reading the Beats. Kerouac, Ginsberg et al had fallen out favor in Academia, which is sort of enraging but it is my experience that graduate students are very ill read. They read what their teacher’s assign, ironically it is often the teacher’s book. They prefer a destiny of acolytes than that of lifelong lovers of literature.
The Beats were my entry point to literature (including philosophy, theology and history) and I went through a severe period of reading Beats and everyone suggested in their books. That’s one of the best things about their work, they have a lot of references, like Rimbaud or my favorite Faulkner, Spotted Horses, the favorite book of the couple in The Subterraneans. By my late 20s I was embarrassed that only a few years earlier I thought Junky was a great book. You know how that goes. But I never lost respect for Kerouac or Ginsberg even though they ceased to hold me in their thrall.
Ginsberg continued to publish through the 80s and 90s, and he was always doing weird things like singing on a Clash record. He produced a book Plutonium Ode in the early 80s during the height of the Anti Nukes movement. He came out with a collected works, which I still have and I have dipped into over the years. I keep Whitman by my bedside, he’s the poet I generally read the most these days. Ginsberg introduced me to those long, breath lines. Without Whitman, there would be no Ginsberg but without Ginsberg, I wonder if I could have ever understood Whitman; The grammar school nuns making us recite Oh Captain, My Captain didn’t quite cut it.
Ginsberg published a lot—the posthumous diaries and letters continue unabated. His literary reputation suffers from the drawback of being so prolific and so willing to exploit his celebrity to publish. The work is terribly inconsistent. The early work like Howl or Kaddish or America, you can read you entire life, are mainstays of American and World literature, but the majority is worth reading only a single time. Nonetheless, you always get his voice—he has such a unique way of phraseology, turning nouns into adjectives—his persona—he’s always autobiographic as well as his obsessions—death, homosexual encounters, getting high, leftist politics and America. A lot of the work in the late 60s can now read very tedious. They are basically diaries of various protests against Vietnam. It’s kind of entrancing, and since writing this blog something I’ve become quite cognizant of—writing as a compulsion. Craft was not high among his obsessions; he did not seem to hold it in a very high regard, which perhaps explains some of the disdain by writing students.
Whitman, Rimbaud and Blake utilized a literary version of persona to create their poetry and their work is more closely intertwined with their life story than many other writers. Ginsberg’s exploration of persona would have been familiar to them. They would have approved. Ginsberg took autobiography an extra step, taking persona in the poems making the writing a personification of the writer. Even though Ginsberg's great subject was himself, but he turned his song of the self into the a study of the collapse of the united states.
Whitman, Rimbaud (and probably Blake) used persona to erase the distinction between the objective and the subjective, but Ginsberg made the personal and political the same in a way no writer had previous. He could make us see the Nation as Self. We are everyone. We are everywhere.
Ginsberg lived in the media age, was a celebrity himself, which he used to sell books, to hang out with other celebrities of the underground like Ken Kesey and Bob Dylan—he was both On the Bus and part of the Rolling Thunder Review—and to gain attention for his political protests. This celebrity hood enhanced the persona, giving the poetry a dimension—for better and for worse—that Song of the Self, Season in Hell, or Songs of Innocent & Experience—could never acquire.
Ginsberg’s early work is consistently great. I think my favorite is Kaddish, his elegy for his mother, a communist organizer who was seriously mentally ill. She was institutionalized and eventually committed suicide. When Ginsberg is on, the images are fast, furious and indelible and the overall pieces are multi-layered. In Kaddish we get a collage of narratives—lower middle class mid-20th century New Jersey Jewish boyhood, industrial new jersey America at the time, the hope and failures of the communist movement in the U.S., a dysfunctional family, the glaring inadequacies of mental health care during this era, a boy’s grief over the passing of his mother, the impact of suicide on the followers—all sublimely interwoven by Ginsberg’s mastery of Whitman’s long breath poetic forms.
When Ginsberg’s on, he’s really on. He can be timeless, rich, satisfying and constantly surprising. You get a complete world reading him—when he’s on—a dense, gnarly and unforgettable world. The problem is you have to forget his celebrity and persona to fully appreciate the writing but because the narration within the poems relies so inherently on that same persona—the projection of the self—forgetting Ginsberg in order to read Ginsberg is a difficult challenge. Sometimes unattainable, other times reading him only makes sense in the context of Ginsberg, 20th century personality.
The film Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and starring James Franco not only accepts but fully overcomes this challenge. The reason it succeeds is that while the life of Allen Ginsberg—a poet coming to terms with his homosexuality at a time when such behavior was seen as both an illegal activity and a psychological disorder—is part of the film, as is the obscenity trial of Howl—the film is really about the text of the work. It is mostly about the poem, one of the greatest of the 20th century canon.
An experimental film with a non-linear narrative arc, the film mixes three components, one of which is a famous poetry reading where Ginsberg, in front of a group of his friends and peers, first publicly premiered this timeless counter culture manifesto. Even casual acquaintances with Beat lore know about this famous San Francisco event. The second is the actual obscenity trial, where Ginsberg does not testify or even appear (actually, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, publisher of the book, was the one on trial). Now, I had known about the trial of course; Howl was found not to be obscene. But I never anything more than that. The film reenacts the actual transcript of the trial. It is fascinating and believable, a grim reminder of the repression civil authorities were intent implementing throughout much of the 20th century.
It is also a snapshot of the literary world of this era, the controversy in those circles this work had caused. Jeff Daniels—an under appreciated actor, where is his Lebowski and Crazy Heart?—does a fascinating turn as a literature professor attempting to prove Howl has no value as literature. The scene made me think about how hard it is to articulate an objective criteria for literature since appreciation of the form is so utterly subjective.
The third component of this film is a recently discovered, in-depth, lengthy audio interview with Ginsberg recorded by a Time Magazine reporter for a piece on the then emerging Beat Generation. In this interview, only recently discovered for a story that never materialized, Ginsberg reveals his personal life and his years of psychotherapy where he came to accept his sexuality and realize that it is not he who is crazy, but the repressive American society of the era.
The core of the film is Howl. the poem itself, which is read in its entirety by Franco as Ginsberg. Part of the connecting tissue is some really fascinating, art deco-ish animation that bring to life some of the imagery invoked in the text, yet never distracts from the text. In the beginning was the word and in the end are the words. When most people talk about Howl, they mainly refer to the first section. I saw the best minds of my generation, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix—yes, I typed that from memory, swear.
This is the statement of a generation, depicting the bohemian lives of his literary buddies—drugs, sex and be-bop jazz—reckless, restless lives on the outside of America, and bouncing back and forth that America—New York, Denver, San Francisco, Kansas—jumping around so many levels—the personal, the national. I’m not sure if Howl is superior to The Sun Also Rises, Hemmingway’s statement of the lost generation living ex-pat lives in Europe—Fitzgerald’s under appreciated The Beautiful and Damned looks at the same generation stateside living lives of debauchery during the jazz age. Those novels may be beloved by some, but readers of subsequent generations don’t identify with the characters and stories as they do with Howl.
With Howl, the drugs and sexual experiences, the rootlessness have been relevant to each subsequent wave of young adult since its mid-50s publication. Young people still relate to Howl (and On the Road) in ways they no longer can to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Howl the film, unlike the critics, doesn’t rely merely on the tales of 50s bohemia to characterize the poem. Howl is in four parts. The second part is the Moloch section. Moloch is a demon or idol (it’s unclear) from the old testament to whom children were sacrificed. America is the Moloch in Howl The poet realizes that conformity, so rampant in the 50s, was the cause of the madness destroying his friends in the first stanza.
The third section, the Carl Solomon, is about the narrator finding love, a person he can relates to, an end to the madness. I’m with you Rockland (a mental institution) where you’re madder than I am. Realizing that Moloch is the cause of madness—not his homosexual desires—the narrator falls in love. Like old fashioned myths, order is reestablished and wisdom comes to the universe within the tale.
The 4th section is that wisdom, the Holy section where the epiphany of the narrator is that all of God’s creation is divine. Critics (not to mention MFA students) usually fail to appreciate the very deep, eclectic, and consistent spirituality of The Beats. Kerouac saw a connection between Buddhism and Roman Catholicism only a theologian (or an open minded reader) can appreciate. Likewise Ginsberg, for period of his life, a practicing Buddhist, but his writing is replete with clever references to Jewish, Christian and Hindu scripture. In Howl he references both the Kabala and Saint John of the Cross.
In the film, when he gets to the last section, the revelation, it’s quite moving. First there’s the repetition of Holy, which is meant to be over the top and funny. But Beats does come from the Beatitudes—the Sermon on the Mount yee heathen, blessed are the, etc.—but the revelation that everything made by God is holy only the die hard cynics dismiss. Holy is the Angel in Moloch, he declares. He also names as holy the other Beats, most of whom were present at the debut reading, but were also getting published and noticed, thus personas and celebrities themselves. They are the characters who are frantic, escaping duress and seeking ecstasy in the first stanza.
I was reluctant to see this film because well, I’m over the Beats. I didn’t think I could learn something new about Howl. I mean, I’m over Howl. Either the 13 year old inside me still lives or the poem like so much else of great literature has something new to show you whatever age you approach, I did get something out this fantastic movie. One thing is that I never thought of it as a coming out story. There’s homosexuality acts—along with heterosexual acts—discussed, but it seemed part of the continuum of decadent adventure the poem depicts.
But, as the interview segments show, it was meeting Carl Solomon and finding a shrink who told him that being gay was okay because that was who he was, that allowed Ginsberg to grow as person, accept his mother’s fate, the way he was living life and what he wanted to do. Yet, I think of other coming out literature—Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima, A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White and Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet—and while they have great writing and can be moving and entertaining no matter your personal persuasion, Howl seems less limited. The coming out saga is universalized, the homosexuality is besides the point, the poem’s true theme is freedom, Ginsberg says in an interview scene. For somebody who found both short story and film of Brokeback Mountain trite and contrived, I appreciated that Howl the film compelled me to contemplate the homosexual story within the poem. It enriched the poem, something I thought impossible for me at this point.
Howl reminded me of John Houston’s The Dead, his remarkable film of the James Joyce short story. The director’s last film, it is basically an homage to the short story. The short story itself is a long anecdote—the action takes place at a dinner party, but the action is basically a woman telling a very long story about a lover in her youth who died. That’s the film, essentially a long and compelling monologue by Angelica Houston. The film seeks to deepen this literary masterpiece, not replace it. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to read Howl after seeing this film.
Franco’s performance is a stunning piece of acting, he is Ginsberg. The way he looks, his intonations, mannerisms. I’ve rarely seen such a seamless portrayal. You forget that he is the actor from Spiderman, which he was good in. This kid has acting chops likely equal to Rourke, Nicholson and Brando!
The film ends with the last line of Howl: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the Soul!”
For more about Howl, buy the damn book. For more about the film click here.
For more about Howl, buy the damn book. For more about the film click here.
Notice the jagged edges cut by pinking shears. My mom made this for me from a picture in either Rolling Stone or Cream magazine of the Rolling Thunder tour, which happened in 1975 and this was coverage. I was a Dylan freak and Beat enthusiast in my early teen years—the Dylan freakdom has so far been lifelong. My family is into crafts. Mom is still known to crochet; back then she had a period of decoupage. I’ve had this thing since then. Decoupage lasts. Dylan and Ginsberg are sitting here on Kerouac’s grave in Lowell Massachusetts, a destination of a famous road trip with me and my high school buddies.