It is indeed rare when I go to a first-run movie, but when the Drexel Theater in Bexley posted a Facebook notice that they would screen Howl I knew I had to be front and center before it left Columbus. (To those of you not familiar with Central Ohio geography, Bexley is east of downtown Columbus, the home of Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary.)
I had to keep reminding myself these were actors. The movie dealt with the obscenity trial caused by City Lights’ publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the fourth volume of its Pocket Poets series. Scenes taking place in the San Francisco courtroom were color, whereas an extended interview with Ginsberg in his cluttered apartment (taking place two years after the verdict) was in black and white, as were the flashbacks of the incidents he described. James Franco, the actor who played Ginsberg, did an excellent job, especially in the scenes depicting Howl‘s first public reading. (These scenes were filmed in grainy black and white, as if someone had brought an eight-millimeter camera to the reading.) I could have done without the surreal color animation interpreting the poem as it was read.
My late friend Adam Bradley was the person responsible for my interest in the primary Beat writers and poets, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. (William Burroughs is another luminary among Beat writers, but his fascination with hallucinogenic drugs and guns turned me off his writings.) I met Adam in the spring of 1986, when he was working on a doctorate in American literature at OSU. He was focusing on Kerouac for his dissertation.
Adam, especially when he wasn’t medicated properly, was quite manic when he talked, and could discourse for hours on end without even stopping to take a breath. Just so I could hold up my end in conversations, I began reading many of Kerouac’s novels (prior to meeting Adam, I had only read On the Road). I wanted to be able to jump in at appropriate moments and say, “That’s true, but by the time he wrote The Dharma Bums, Kerouac was saying…”
I was disappointed that the movie made no mention of the poem that is Ginsberg’s masterpiece. Its full title is Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg 1894-1956, a gut-wrenching memorial to his mother, who died in a Long Island mental hospital after years of insanity. Ginsberg brought plenty of guilt to the poem, because he had signed the paperwork authorizing his mother’s lobotomy, and because he hadn’t been present during her final illness and death.
One night, Adam and I were sitting in his apartment in University Village, drinking 12-packs of Olympia (and then I’d run over to Rick’s Beverages and replenish the supply) and listening to Marianne Faithfull and Gerry Mulligan records. When one LP ended, Adam said, “You gotta hear this!” He put on a record of Ginsberg’s tearful, high-decibel reading of Kaddish, recorded in 1964 at Brandeis University. Having grown up watching my mother’s descent into madness, prescription drug addiction, and alcoholism, the poem hit a nerve, and I made a tape of it that night after hearing the entire recording. (The Brandeis recording is included in Ginsberg’s boxed set Holy Soul Jelly Roll.)
A sad footnote–both Adam and Ginsberg died in 1997, while Steph was pregnant with Susie.
I highly recommend Howl, although a person totally unfamiliar with either the poem or the subsequent obscenity trial will have a difficult time understanding what is happening. When I came back from the movie, I took out my big copy of Howl, which contains annotations, pictures of the original drafts, contemporaneous correspondence, its legal history, and the poems (by Christopher Smart, St. John of the Cross, William Blake, and others) which inspired Ginsberg and his vision when he began the poem.
Looking over the pictures of the drafts, again I was thankful that the personal computer came only recently on the scene. I’ve felt the same way when I’ve seen the many incarnations of James Joyce’s Ulysses that predate its publication. You make a connection with Ginsberg seeing the words crossed out, or scribbled in the margin, or hovering between lines above penciled carets. (I remember an article in Newsweek in the 1980s about the future of rare manuscripts. The writer speculated if a floppy disk from Jimmy Carter’s word processor would eventually appear on the auction circuit.)
When I took out the book, I forgot that I saved a 2006 New York Times Book Review critiquing The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, and put the clipping between the pages of the book. A picture in the article jumped out at me. It showed a table at the Virginia Military Institute, where buzz-cut, gray-uniformed cadets sat, each poring over a Pocket Poets edition of Howl. The juxtaposition is glaring. Presumably Howl was an assigned reading, but I have to wonder how it would have made it onto the reading list. Howl grieves the destruction of lives, health, and sanity because of unfeeling conformity (symbolized by the “Moloch!” section in Part II), and many of these cadets were, undoubtedly, planning military careers, where their only chances for advancement lay in unquestioned, mindless obedience and unbending uniformity and regimentation.