Let’s Look at This Thing About Howl
Howell here — and bear with me while I go on for a bit about my thing, OK?
Anybody who’s studied literature within the past 40 years knows T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins ... Shantih shantih shantih”). They also know that this threnody for contemporary civilization, first published in 1922, has since been paired with a later dystopian masterpiece, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” first published in 1957.
I have a thing about “Howl.”
It was Ginsberg who famously saw the best minds of his generation “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, naked.” Ginsberg it was who named us “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Ginsberg who said we “passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating
and Blake-like tragedy among the scholars of war.” Arkansas
There is no greater turn-on of our time than “Howl,” except, maybe, for the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (and Ginsberg’s on the cover of that).
Showing at Tropic Cinema is a film called “Howl” that tells the tale of this poem, covers the obscenity trial it generated, even illustrates its febrile, Hebraic verses in animated form. This is a wonderful film. I know because I was sent a preview copy by its distributors. When their package arrived with its label, Oscilloscope Laboratories, I thought it was some sort of sex aid or medical device.
Indeed it was.
But I’ve done this before, so watch out. Not so long ago, in these pages, I interviewed the author Robert Stone, who spends his winters in
with his delightful wife of 40 years or so, Janice. Stone had just published his memoir, “Prime Green,” about the hippie days he spent on the magic bus with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters in the mid-1960s. One of the tripsters was Neal Cassady, primary driver of the bus “Furthur” and, further, named in “Howl’ as the poem’s “secret hero.” Stone knew Cassady well but never dug him (I never met him) and dismissed Neal in our interview as a chattering car thief. Nevertheless I went on about Cassady in the story; my son Rafe, after all, got his middle name from the fellow. I knew that Cassady had become a huge draw over the years, ever since he died while on speed and counting the railroad ties outside of San Miguel de Allende in 1968. I knew, too, that he’d be a huge draw for a reading Stone was due to give at the Tropic that week. Key West
It was as I expected. On the evening of the reading, every middle-aged longhair and unreconstructed hippie in the Lower Keys assembled on
Eaton Street to fill the cinema. I sat in a seat at the very back, in case Stone caught my eye. For it was also as I feared. Stone never even mentioned Cassady but chose instead to read a chapter about his experience as a writer for a tabloid newspaper. “This is bullshit,” grumbled a white-haired, pony-tailed character in front of me.
Be warned, as I say. Just because I’m going on here about “Howl” doesn’t mean the movie will be whatever you think it will; I cannot be responsible for your reaction. For myself, I was in tears from the moment that Judge Clayton Horn, played to perfection by Bob Balaban, prepares the room to receive his judgement at the obscenity trial. As the music turns angelic and the judge declares his immortal horn on “Howl,” the waterworks began and the tears never stopped. It was, for me, one of the grandest and most gentle moments in all of moviedom and American life.
“Howl” the movie stars James Franco, who once upon a time played James Dean and in this film channels Ginsberg in every respect, from the look to the body language to the poet’s signature voice and sentence-length. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” was the opening night selection at this year’s Sundance Film festival but has had a mixed reception since then. That, I think, is because it’s simply too much, not because it’s way too little.
Let’s cut to the chase. The movie delivers, holy and completely, in two spectacular regards. One occurs when literary critic Mark Schorer, played by Treat Williams, explains to the courtroom that there is a difference between poetry and prose. “You can’t translate poetry into prose,” he says. Essentially, poetry goes where prose cannot. This is the argument that flows between the prosecutor, played by David Strathairn (who was nominated for an Oscar as Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck”) and the defense attorney, in real life the model for Perry Mason and played by Ian Hamm (of the TV hit, “Mad Men”).
The prosecutor keeps asking what Ginsberg’s inflamed words and phrases mean. The defense says he can’t answer that in prose.
Which begs a question that has haunted me for more than 50 years, back when my twin brother and I were 13. What does it mean when a poem is “prophetic?”
I understood even then, from what was called “divinity “ class, that prophecy meant literally “speaking for another.” But what does it mean that a poem can be prophetic — in the sense of sensing the future, good for a thousand years?
I never did get it until I got my own private DVD of “Howl” and watched it one night about a month ago. It didn’t take prose to explain it, naturally. It took Eric Drooker to convey the meaning of six long lines at the end of Part 1 of the poem that explore the alchemy of writing.
Drooker was a
Lower East Side friend of Ginsberg (Allen died in 1997) who illustrated his “Illuminated Poems” and has created the animation in “Howl.” His work somehow uncovered to this reader that those six lines at the end of Part 1 are literal in what they say. That when they speak of trapping “the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images,” it is in reference to the prophetic pairing of, say, the last two words in the poem’s 15th line about “the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” The words “hydrogen jukebox” cannot be explained in prose but they can clearly be read with an eye to the future.
Here are the six lines that illustrate to any writer how to be prophetic in words — and, too, come up with an ending of all endings:
and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane,
who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose incarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.
[from Solares Hill]
[from Solares Hill]