How "Howl" changed the world.

What really happened.
Sept. 24 2010 2:29 PM

How "Howl" Changed the World

Allen Ginsberg's anguished protest broke all the rules—and encouraged a generation of artists to do the same.

Read Dana Stevens' review of Howl, the movie.

"Howl".
James Franco in Howl

Howl may be the unlikeliest movie ever to come out of Sundance with national distribution: a translation of a poem—the substance, spirit, and cultural heft of a poem—into film.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, also writes widely about culture. His latest book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, is now in paperback. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

The poem is Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"—written in 1955, published in '57—and it's probably hard for anyone born long after those years to grasp just what a cataclysmic impact that poem made (or perhaps any poem could make) not just on the literary world but on the broader society and culture.

Even many of those who have never read the whole poem know its white-heat opening lines: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. …"

Advertisement

It was an anguished protest, literally a howl, against the era's soul-crushing conformism and a hymn to the holiness of everything about the human body and mind, splashed in verse that breaks free from standard meter but speaks instead in the long lines and jangling rhythm of natural breath and conversation, a style inspired by the expressive poets who went ignored in the ivory towers of high modernism—Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud *—fused with the urban syncopation of the bebop jazz that Ginsberg and his pal, Jack Kerouac, went to hear in the clubs of Harlem while they were students at Columbia in the mid-1940s.

Howl the movie doesn't capture this entire milieu. Probably no 90-minute movie, shot in 14 days on a shoestring budget, could. But, as far as the film reaches, it's an evocative, at times compelling portrait of an era and of the radical changes that some of the era's spokesmen—Ginsberg included—foresaw, and to some degree galvanized.

Ginsberg gave his first reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in the North Beach district of San Francisco the night of Oct. 7, 1955, with what he later described as "a strange, ecstatic intensity"—his friend and literary soul mate, Jack Kerouac, who was passing around the jugs of wine, would refer to the event as that "mad night"—and the film re-creates it with a properly hushed thrill. James Franco, as Ginsberg, is stunningly spot-on. Not only does he look quite a bit like the young Ginsberg (before he went bald and grew the shaman's beard), but he has his clipped mannerisms down perfectly and, more remarkable still, he reads poetry like a poet (something few actors do at all successfully), so much so that I wish the filmmakers would have just shown Franco reading during those scenes and not cut away now and then to a cartoon dramatization of the poem; the animation is too literal and distracts from Ginsberg's language. (For more on the re-enactment of the reading, click here. For more on the animation, click here.) In real life, the reading caused a sensation—the image of the San Francisco Renaissance, a.k.a. the Beat movement, was pretty much created on the spot, and this part of the film lets you see why.

When Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights Books two years later, Ginsberg sent a copy to his one-time mentor, Lionel Trilling, writing in a cover note, "I think what is coming is a romantic period … a reassertion of naked personal subjective truth." (Trilling, the moral stalwart of Columbia's English department, detested the sentiment and didn't like the book much, either.)

But Ginsberg proved prophetic. The same year that he wrote "Howl," Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were breaking free from the cage of Abstract Expressionism. Over the next few years, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis would free jazz from the structure of chord-changes; Norman Mailer would smash the barrier between literature and journalism, the subjective self and the world; Allan Kaprow would stage the first "Happenings," which blurred the boundaries between spectacle and spectator, art and life; Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl created a new stand-up comedy that rejected mere jokes for jazz-inflected monologues on politics, race, and religious hypocrisy.

All these experiments played out before a public jolted by the first trans-Atlantic jet flights and the first launchings of rockets into space (the promise of breaking free from the planet!) into a sudden, even giddy, appetite for the new. Yet this thrill was at once tempered and intensified by an undercurrent of dread, brought on by the testing of intercontinental missiles and the explosion of H-bombs. It was this twin precipice—the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation—that gave the era its distinctive swoon and ignited its creative energy.

Ginsberg was a pioneer on this schizoid New Frontier, and"Howl" was his manifesto-jeremiad of personal exuberance and sociopolitical doom. Howl the movie doesn't trace this larger context. Again, I'm not sure how it could have. But it does dramatize the role the poem played in shaping the new world ahead.