Friday, April 12, 2013

HOWL: Understanding a poem and why it matters

This week, I watched a film called "Howl," which is about the famous poem by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.  Howl is one of those poems that, for readers and writers, is often cited as a very important and influential American poem.  Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is often cited as the major work of the "Jazz Age," Howl is often cited as the major poem of the Beat Generation in America in the 1950s.

Over the years, I've read excerpts from Howl and enjoyed its inventive, frank style, its famous phrases like "angel-headed hipsters," its emotional punch.  But until watching the movie Howl, I'd never really grasped exactly why this poem was so important, what it meant for readers and writers in 1950s America, and what it still teaches us about the power and importance of poetry.

To truly understand a work of literature, I often tell my students, you have to understand its historical and social context.  The film Howl provides this with great effectiveness.  The film is a collage which cuts back and forth between various motifs.  One motif is Giinsberg, as a young man, reading Howl to a group of young people in a smoke-filled coffee house in Greenwich Village in New York.  

Another motif is animation sequences which visually portray the content of the poem--a young man (who might be Ginsberg, or Neal Cassady, or his friend Carl Solomon, or just an archetypal artist wandering through the weird world of mid-century Cold War America).  The animation sequences help us to see the abstract concepts of alienation, subcultures, fear, and freedom that the poem is ultimately about.

The third motif takes place at the famous obscenity trial which ironically helped make Howl a widely known and read poem.  Upon the publication of Howl by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Book Store in San Francisco (a hotbed of literary activity), American censors accused the book of being "obscene" and tried to ban its publication.  The trial, which was well-publicized at the time, put on trial not just this particular poem, but the whole notion of free speech and expression in American society.  

The obscenity trial reminded me of another obscenity trial that I've read and written about which took place in my home town of Fullerton in 1967 over the performance of a play called "The Beard" by another Beat writer named Michael McClure.  Ultimately, Howl is declared not to be obscene and this is a major victory for free expression in a free society.  This paved the way for other, later works to be published and distributed, especially amidst all the social change of the 1960s.

Another motif in the film is a bearded mid-30s Allen Ginsberg being interviewed about his poem, about the trial, about writing, and about his life.  I especially appreciated these parts because, as a writer, I felt like Ginsberg was speaking directly to me.  One of the main insights I took from these portions is the idea that a writer must write exactly how he feels and speaks.  A writer must be as honest as possible.  This, I thought, is what I try to do with my own writing.  When I write, I'm not interested in impressing people with my vocabulary or style or knowledge of literary tradition.  I try, in my writing, to communicate, as clearly as possible, exactly how I think and feel.

The final motif of the film are scenes from Ginsberg's life as a young writer and human being--his friends, his travels, his experiences--all of which shaped and informed the poem Howl.  One thing Ginsberg struggled with as a young man was tying to carve out a life of freedom amidst the very conventional and conformist society that was 1950s America.  He worked, for a time, at an advertising agency and was absolutely miserable.  It was a psychotherapist who asked him the question that we all must ask ourselves: "What do you really want to do with your life?"  He knew exactly what he really wanted to do: quit his soul-crushing corporate job, move into a small, cheap apartment with his lover, and write.  So that's what he did.  And because of that decision, America got one of its most important writers, and not just another advertising executive.

Ginsberg realized that what was preventing him from doing what was in his heart to do, was illusory fear--fear of what his family would think, fear of being poor, fear of failing.  But fear is no way to live, and thank God Ginsberg chose not to follow the path of fear.

Another theme which the film depicts is Ginsberg's coming to terms with the fact that he was gay.  If we think America is homophobic now, it was VERY homophobic in the 1950s.  At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and Ginsberg was sent to a mental hospital for eight months.  He was only allowed to leave when he said he was heterosexual, that he had been "cured" of being gay.  

Ginsberg's journey as a gay man in America mirrored his journey as a writer.  It was a process of challenging accepted norms, struggling to be a free and fully realized human being in a society that put up lots of barriers.  Ginsberg's journey was one of personal and literary freedom.

Throughout these various motifs run the words of Howl, giving insight and structure to all the fragmented parts.  One of the advantages of film is its ability to combine various media (text, music, images) to tell a story.  The film Howl combines all these elements to help us understand the significance of one of America's literary treasures…Allen Ginsberg's Howl.


  1. I found the part about his time in the mental hospital was especially interesting, it made me research all of the various "mental illnesses" of the 50s. It is crazy to consider how, only about 60 some years ago, these kinds of things were so widely considered reversible. Wow, no wonder Ginsburg was so invested in sticking it to the man!

  2. Rachael SchoonoverOctober 14, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    I agree with you, I think the film is a really good depiction of the poem and really helped me feel the emotions of the poem. As a viewer we are sucked in to Ginsburg's personal life and it feels like we are watching him go through the struggle of being gay and different, and the struggle of writing poetry for a living.

  3. One of the things I love about Ginsberg is that he was successful in doing his own thing. As the movie shows, he literally quit his day job, did what he loved and was successful at it. This is really encouraging for a college student. Also, after seeing Howl, and reading this blog post, it makes me wonder if we still have people like Ginsberg in our society. People expressing themselves, and changing society for the better. It's kind of alarming that the person currently best known for pushing social norms and challenging the media is Miley Cyrus.

  4. I think the thing I enjoyed most about the film was the animations that coincided with the "storytelling" of the poem. I think the animated visuals could be considered parallels to the views of those that think that homosexuality is something of the "imagination." The fact that it was considered a mental illness in Ginsberg's day made him question, at times, whether or not it was all in his head. The animations can symbolize the chaos of both the views of society and of Ginsberg's crowded mind. I think they definitely added a nice touch to "Howl" and made the poem come to life.