How to read ‘Howl’? | Chris Jones

I recently watched Howl, the 2010 film presentation of Allen Ginsberg’s era-defining poem. It was a text on one of the modules I was teaching with second year creative writing students. If it wasn’t on the teaching list I probably wouldn’t have got round to watching it. I tend to stay clear of any representation of poets on the big (or small) screen.

The film actually comprises a number of discrete but connected sections. There’s an animated version of the poem that comes in and out of view as the movie proceeds. There are sequences where the young Ginsberg – played by James Franco – reads from ‘Howl’ (quite possibly for the first time) in some underground venue in San Francisco. There are (verbatim) courtroom scenes that document the obscenity trial that came about when Laurence Ferlinghetti published Howl and other Poems (1956) through his City Lights imprint. On top of this, you see Ginsberg being interviewed while the trial is ongoing, discussing what prompted him to write the poem in the first place: again these episodes are all taken from recorded transcripts. His musings are given dramatic credence via scenes showing (a far too good-looking) Ginsberg moving from one youthful adventure to another.

The poem, as I have said, is presented mostly in fits and starts, constructed in fragments through the animated phantasmagoria and the ‘bar room’ reading. The trajectory of the poem is mainly chronological though there are gaps/chunks of text missing, and sometimes sections of the text are echoed back and forth in the two parallel versions. One could argue that this particular treatment of ‘Howl’ highlights a structural weakness of the work itself: sections of the text can be excised, particularly in part one, without a ‘briefed’ reader realising that he or she is listening to a depleted version.

And yet by making these editorial decisions the writers and directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, are actually interrogating different ideas of reading, authenticity and exegesis through the material they have assembled and shaped.

Ginsberg’s is obviously the voice of the movie. We are presented mainly with Ginsberg’s ‘excavation’ of the poem (though notably there are other interpretations of ‘Howl’ given in the courtroom scenes by ‘expert’ witnesses). In particular, Ginsberg returns continually to the idea of who inspired him to write this autobiographical coming-of-age opus. In the recorded interview Ginsberg tells the off-screen interviewer he wrote the poem ‘for Jack [Kerouac]’ – the first man/writer Ginsberg felt a close bond with, inspiring him to write in a more liberated fashion. In the poem itself Ginsberg highlights one ‘best mind’ ‘who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., / secret hero of these poems’. N.C. refers to Neil Cassidy, Ginsberg’s former lover. ‘Howl’ is actually dedicated to another man Ginsberg spent time with in his twenties – Carl Solomon – who was incarcerated with him in a mental institution. Ginsberg writes directly about Solomon’s treatment in part three of the poem. Ginsberg also goes on to acknowledge the importance of Peter Orlovsky in the poem’s making: apart from the shared drug-taking (we see them in one scene howling at a skyscraper), it is only when Ginsberg has settled down with Peter does he feel he can tackle such a transgressive work of art.

I think Epstein and Friedman are presenting Ginsberg as both a ‘needy’ and ‘promiscuous’ writer – needy in the sense that he is rubbing up to all of his mates in the poem, courting favour, telling all of them at once that each one is his main source and inspiration, and ‘look, please love me too’; promiscuous in the sense that he is being indiscriminate in his focus and is quite happy to leave the text ‘open’ to numerous readings that emphasise quite different relationships (I have not even mentioned the role of Ginsberg’s parents in the making of the poem). This, in a sense, is the nub of the movie. Ginsberg, after all, was courting another figure in the design of ‘Howl’: the shade of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s declaration of openness (‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes’)) could equally be levelled at Ginsberg and his adopted strategies here.

As I have already briefly mentioned, the courtroom scenes are all played around this main focus of interpretation: what does the poem mean? Is the language used in the work obscene? Each witness provides his or her own reading of the poem. Ironically, those who feel they have pinned the piece down most securely are shown to be the most censorious of judges. Near the end of the movie, Ginsberg is given time and space to declare what he thinks the poem is really about, though whether we buy the author’s shtick unreservedly is a moot point. Ginsberg was great at the self-mythologizing stuff. One story has the first draft of ‘Howl’ purportedly written while Ginsberg was under the influence of a whole whack of drugs: a great surge of electricity. Reflecting on Ginsberg’s role as interpreter in this film, it’s no coincidence that Epstein and Friedman have decided to play over the end credits the Dylan song ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ which has the rather pointed refrain: ‘If your memory serves you well.’ It took a while for the penny to drop, but I think I got the joke in the end.

Chris Jones

Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (City Lights Books: reissued edition 1986)
Howl (dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman: 2010)

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