Howl

Issue section: 
(355)

Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Release date: 25 February

Poets and socialists alike should be delighted with Howl, a dramatisation of poet Allen Ginsberg's obscenity trial in 1957 for the collection Howl and Other Poems. "Howl", the poem, dealt with issues such as sex - both heterosexual and homosexual - and drug use, leading Ginsberg onto a collision course with the morality of the US ruling class.

Ginsberg was a great artist, but he also had a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He was there at the birth of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 20 years later led the first hippy gathering in San Francisco. In 1958 he joined mass anti-fascist rallies in Paris. Ten years on he was crowned king of the May Day parade by rebel students in Prague.

The film is a dramatisation made from court records, recorded interviews and readings from the poem. The poem is performed by James Franco, who plays Ginsberg. His recitation of "Howl" for Carl Solomon, a writer incarcerated alongside Ginsberg in a mental institution, is brilliant, bringing the strange, unpunctuated poem to life.

This underlines the poem's artistic breakthrough. The dominant trend in pre-war poetry was modernism, which emphasised the external, pictorial value of language. As Ginsberg explains in one of the interviews, his poetry came from an internal impulse which "rises up...comes forth as a croon, a groan or a sigh... If you try to put words to that you...articulate what you're feeling."

The sections set in court act almost as comic relief, particularly the pretentious prosecution witness "experts" - one who spent three years rewriting Faust (Goethe didn't do a good enough job) and another who gets in a muddle over his three-part "objective" measure of artistic value. Perhaps the most telling moment is the response to the prosecutor when he asks a defence witness to explain the meaning of some of the language: "Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose; that's why it's poetry."

My only objection is to the particular period the film deals with. The focus on Ginsberg during the writing, performing, publishing and persecution of his most famous work is too narrow - he deserves a full epic. "Howl", the poem, is ultimately portrayed as Ginsberg's artistic and personal realisation. He spent his twenties in various states of unhappiness and denial. Once he accepted his sexuality he found true love, his eventual life-partner Peter Orlovsky.

I defy readers of this magazine not to be moved by the anti-capitalist climax of the poem, Ginsberg's ecstatic affirmation of humanity: "Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland."