Life And Art

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.

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.

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. …”

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.

In later interviews (some of which are included in the movie), Ginsberg said that he wrote “Howl” not only as a paean to self-expression in general but also as a coming-to-terms with his own identity as a gay man. This was a daring thing to do, at a time when the medical profession deemed homosexuality a sickness and many states in the Union punished it as a crime.

The writer-directors of Howl the movie, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, focus more than most accounts of Ginsberg on his sexuality. (Their earlier films include The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about gay characters in Hollywood movies, and The Times of Harvey Milk.)

It’s more pertinent, I think, that nearly all the cultural rebels of the era were outsiders of one sort or another: gay (not just Ginsberg but many of the Beat writers, as well as Rauschenberg, Johns, and most of the Pop artists), Jewish (Mailer, Bruce, Sahl, Roth, and, in a double whammy, Ginsberg), or black (the vast majority of the jazz innovators). But even within this broader universe of outcasts and misfits, Ginsberg was the first to come out, not just openly but brazenly, to make something of it, to make it central to his voice, his art.

The filmmakers also focus on “Howl’s” eruptions of graphic profanity, devoting one-third of the movie to a re-enactment of the obscenity trial that greeted its publication.

A little background: On March 25, 1957, U.S. Customs officials seized 520 copies of Howl and Other Poems, as their shipping crates arrived from City Lights’ London-based printer, on the grounds that the book was obscene. (One of the inspectors told reporters, “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it.”) After two months, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute, and the copies were released.

Five days after that decision, on June 3, two undercover cops with the San Francisco Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau went into City Lights bookstore, bought a copy of Howl, then arrested the owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for publishing obscene materials.

The case came before Municipal Court Judge Clayton W. Horn on Aug. 16. Horn was no civil libertarian. One of the city’s four police magistrates and a regular Sunday-school teacher, he’d recently caused a stir by sentencing five women found guilty of shoplifting to go see the movie The Ten Commandments and to write reports on its moral lessons afterward.

The prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh, was an elderly assistant D.A. who in recent years had made a crusade of going after porn merchants.

Ferlinghetti’s saving grace may have been that he was defended pro bono by J.W. Ehrlich, nicknamed “Jake the Master,” the city’s shrewdest and most flamboyant criminal attorney, who represented such high-profile clients as the stripper Sally Rand, the kidnapper and death-row inmate Caryl Chessman, and, as one obituary put it when he died in 1971, “a seemingly endless stream of women accused of killing their husbands.”

The movie’s courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the trial’s transcript (much of which was reprinted in the highly entertaining 2006 book Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression). It all really did happen: the parade of prominent literary critics attesting to Howl’s artistic mastery and cultural wisdom; the prosecution’s pathetic troika of nobodies called to the stand to say otherwise (including the deliciously dotty Gail Potter, former educational director of a local TV station, who boasts of having rewritten the 40 versions of Faust into a single volume); and the battle between McIntosh, who builds his case on a count of the poem’s dirty words, and Ehrlich, who got by on a cool style, rhetorical agility, and a sheer mastery of the legal record.

Judge Horn, it turned out, did his homework, taking two weeks to render a verdict—probing the legal precedents, reading not only Ginsberg’s poetry but Joyce’s Ulysses (which   a federal court *  had much earlier considered exempt from obscenity laws, despite its many four-letter words)—and ruled that, because Howl had “redeeming social importance” and was unlikely to “deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire,” it, too, was “not obscene.”

I wish the courtroom scenes were played less solemnly. Jon Hamm, who plays Ehrlich, comes off smart and suave but not as scrappy or showboating as the real Jake the Master. David Strathairn plays McIntosh as more decent and less plain-dumb than he really was. (One crucial flaw in McIntosh’s case, the transcript makes clear, is that he wasn’t up to date on the legal definition of obscene.) News stories of the time suggest a rollicking tableau, the full-house crowd tittering when one of the lawyers recited the poem’s contentious passages (had the word fuck ever been uttered so many times in a courtroom?) and roaring with laughter when a defense witness scored a point off a prosecutor’s ill-informed question.

(It can’t be overstated how shocking these words were at the time. In fact, in an attempt to avoid an otherwise-certain Customs seizure, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti decided, before publication, to bowdlerize the poem’s most explicitly homoerotic passage to read “who let themselves be f ….. in the a … by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” In the trial transcript, but not in the movie, McIntosh tries to get several defense witnesses to fill in the blanks on those two self-censored words, but Ehrlich objects that any answer would be “speculative,” and Judge Horn agrees. Ironically, after Ferlinghetti won the case, he felt emboldened to insert the unexpurgated words, “fucked in the ass,” in all subsequent editions.)

The filmmakers are right in the larger sense, though: This was serious business. If Ferlinghetti had been found guilty, Capt. William Hanrahan, the juvie chief who arrested him, was going to send his cops to sweep the filth from every bookstore in the city—he’d drawn up a long list of titles—and San Francisco, which was just emerging as an avant-garde haven, would have retreated into backwater provincialism for years, if not decades.

The publicity surrounding the trial also turned Allen Ginsberg into a superstar—and the Beat movement into the aesthetic style of the counterculture to come. After word spread that this was once-forbidden fruit, Howl and Other Poems, which had been selling well enough for a thin paperback volume of poetry, flew off the shelves faster than Ferlinghetti could restock them. (By the time Ginsberg died in 1997, it had sold 800,000 copies.) He was written up in major magazines. His poetry readings on college campuses drew thousands of enthusiastic students. Ginsberg’s success also persuaded Kerouac’s reluctant publisher to put out On the Road, which ingrained the Beat style and ethos among restless young American men forever.

The decisive gust of fresh air for free speech wouldn’t come until 1959, when Barney Rossett, publisher of Grove Press, successfully challenged the federal obscenity laws in a U.S. District Court, lifting the ban on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and forever ending the power of postal clerks and customs agents to determine what Americans can and cannot read in their own homes. But “Howl,” in that sense as well as many others, landed the first blow and emboldened others to take a swing. The movie doesn’t tell the whole story (nor does it try to), but it does give a taste of the rhythm of those blows and the shattering of taboos that followed.

Correction, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010: The article originally stated that the Ulysses ruling was made by the Supreme Court; in fact, the case didn’t go up that far. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)  Clarification, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010: The sentence originally mentioned Baudelaire, but Rimbaud is a better example. ( Return.)

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