Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is coming to theaters. And if that makes you want to hide your children, hold off for a moment. The movie isn't an incarnation of the watershed poem itself, it's based on the obscenity trial that the poem sparked.
"Howl" was first published in 1956 by famed poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books (which still operates in downtown San Francisco). Ferlinghetti, concerned about possible obscenity charges, initially had the poem published in London. But, after some legal maneuvering by City Lights and the San Francisco Police Department, he was arrested and charged with "willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and selling obscene writings."
Ferlinghetti's subsequent trial garnered a great deal of media attention, with the ACLU even stepping in on his behalf. It ended as a victory for Ferlinghetti, when Judge Clayton Horn--who will be played by Alan Alda in the movie--ruled that Ginsberg's poem should not be considered obscene, as it had "redeeming social importance." The event drew attention to Ginsberg's beliefs and to his ability as a poet. "Howl" criticizes society for expelling its best minds "from the academies for...publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull," and those lines, essentially, played out in the real world.
What made "Howl" potentially obscene? The poem relentlessly references drugs, sex and even (gasp!) homosexual sex in an effort to illuminate and break through the veneer of conformity that Ginsberg felt typified 1950s America. It celebrates people whom most viewed as delinquents (it's dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met at a mental institution), and a lifestyle that mainstream America looked down upon, to put it mildly. Ginsberg did this with an unleashed free verse style (the poem's lengthy first section is a single sentence) which has had a lasting impact on American poetry. In case you aren't familiar with the poem, here's a taste:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels
staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkan-
sas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes
on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in
wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt
of marijuana for New York,
You can read the poem in its entirety here.
Howl, the movie, has a terrific cast. Actor James Franco -- recently of Milk and Pineapple Express -- plays Ginsberg. I've always thought of Franco as something of a stoner -- which isn't entirely inappropriate for Ginsberg -- but Franco takes writing very seriously. He attends graduate courses in creative writing at NYU and Columbia (Columbia, coincidentally, is where Ginsberg went to college), though, as TMZ dutifully reports, he isn't always awake. He also recently signed a deal to publish a book of short stories with Simon & Schuster. The movie will also feature the aforementioned Alda, along with Jeff Daniels, Paul Rudd, David Strathairn, and Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker.
When the movie is released, and a new -- if more benign -- wave of protests against "obscenity" begin, I'm sure that Ginsberg, somewhere, will be smiling.