Sunday, January 24, 2010

ANGLES ON ALLEN GINSBERG'S HOWL


"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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night..."


The first thing that strikes one upon reading Allen Ginsberg's epic 1955 poem "Howl," is that it really doesn't rhyme. It would have been much better had the poem started "I find the best minds" or "I saw the raw minds," or if it had paired "destroyed by madness" with a phrase such as "annoyed by sadness." Don't you think?

Okay, that's a ridiculous criticism. But perhaps only slightly more ridiculous than the criticism leveled against the publisher of the infamous poem in a 1957 obscenity trial. The attorney for the prosecution asked a professor testifying in defense of its literary merits to define the opening lines (cited above). The response, "Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry." 

Seems obvious to me--the richness of any poetic or other artistic work lies in large part in its openness to interpretation. But then, given how many so-called Biblical "literalists" insist on a certain reading of scripture, this is clearly not a widely agreed-upon point. That's what makes it all the more exciting that "Howl," its author, and the obscenity trial against its publisher City Lights are the subject of a new film of the same name by multiple Oscar- and Emmy-winners Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. (Between them, they've made "The Times of Harvey Milk," "Common Threads," and other films on gay themes. The new film premiered at Sundance last week, and should be in theaters later this year.)

The interpretability of language -- poetic, political, and/or otherwise -- is evident in everything from the reaction to President Obama's speeches to legal arguments over the Framers' intent to any work of literary criticism. To see this issue dramatized by these filmmakers is pretty damn cool. And all the more so because at the film's center is, as film critic B. Ruby Rich writes in this insightful article, a pretty explicit poem, even by today's standards. For me, its explicitness is not just because of its ultra-homosexual nature ("who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed," in one of the cleaner passages), or its talk of mental illness and drug use. Rather, it's because the poem contains so many jagged urban images -- fantastic and surreal but so utterly recognizable that they lead you, the reader, to see them incarnated in everyday life.  

And how to dramatize an issue like literary criticism? The filmmaking duo of Epstein and Friedman have ingeniously woven together four strands: Ginsberg's original reading of the poem, dramatizations of the obscenity trial and an ultimately unpublished interview Ginsberg gave to a Time magazine reporter, as well as animated sequences. (Ginsberg is played by James Franco, in the clips above.) I was fortunate enough to be at a staged reading of the work-in-progress a couple years ago, in San Francisco, and the mix of storytelling styles -- even in the roughest of forms -- was thrilling. I haven't yet seen the finished film yet, but this earlier incarnation was a look into the value of art in the form of a courtroom drama.

My one quibble with the project at the time was that the drama was not as pitched as it could be; that's not only because we know (or can deduce) the outcome of the trial -- of course 1950s straightjacket culture did not constrain this thunderous, bursting poem -- but because the prosecution's side was so patently weak. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are documentarians, so they're hardly ones to alter source material like that. As exciting as the amalgam of styles was, I found myself wanting the anti-Howl side to be pumped up a little bit, so there would be at least some question about who would win. Even lacking this suspense, however, the staged reading and samples of the animation pointed to a film that would allow this electric poem and its historical moment to charge viewers more than 50 years later. 

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