Tonight I attended the Boston premiere of Howl, the Allen Ginsberg bio-pic starring James Franco as the preeminent beat poet. I have been looking forward to this movie for about a year, and not only for the promise of seeing James Franco make out with Aaron Tveit.
It may not surprise you to know that I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Ginsberg. As a gay Jewish kid growing up in a town with few gay or Jewish (and no gay, Jewish) peers, I found both Ginsberg’s biography and his poetry resonated with me quite a bit when I first encountered it at age 14 or so. Looking back, I wonder if that’s entirely accurate, or if I knew that beat poetry was supposed to appeal to alienated youth, so I convinced myself I liked it. I do remember getting a thrill from “Please Master” that had as much to do with seeing a portrayal of my sexuality as it did with seeing any portrayal of sexuality.
The only time I skipped school in High School was to attend a reading Ginsberg gave at a nearby small college. I don’t remember much about what he read, but I knew I was in the presence of literary royalty. Just as one can tell whether a stage star has “it,” it was clear that Ginsberg had “it” in spades.
Senior year of high school, I gave away my copy of Howl to one of my friends at school. He was an honors student, but radiated a sense of danger, as though he’d as soon punch you as talk to you. I had been surprised that he and I had developed a friendship. I think he admired my chutzpah (or, as the gentiles might put it, my gumption). I might not have been able to beat anyone up, but I could usually shock them with a well-placed bon mot, and he appreciated that. I, in turn, sense a depth in him that he tried to conceal. I suspected he too would relate to outsider poetry, even if the gay sex stuff might not have been his thing (as far as I could tell).
I recently reread the poem in anticipation of the film. I received a review copy of Howl: A Graphic Novel, which is not a graphic novel at all, but rather an illustrated edition of the poem released to tie in to the movie. In the film, much of the poem is accompanied by animated sequences derived from the artwork of Eric Drooker, an artist who had collaborated with Ginsberg later in the poet’s career. The “graphic novel” (which is not a novel, but a poem, and really doesn’t use any of the conventions of comics) juxtaposes the poem with Drooker’s images from the film.
The poem still speaks to me, as much for its rhythm and language as for its message. It pulses with vitality even beyond the life of its creator. And in 2010, I hear not only the echoes of the beats, but the echoes of my own life and of the ways our culture has responded to Howl since its publication. (As a product of my generation and cultures, it’s impossible not to read the poem with They Might Be Giants, Rent, and a thousand other references swirling around Ginsberg’s words.)
I was disappointed in the film. The directors come from the documentary world and relied too heavily on documentary-style filmmaking. Too much telling, not enough showing. In the Q&A after the screening, an audience member asked them what they hoped to achieve with the film, how it might add to Ginsberg’s legacy. They responded that they hoped to introduce Ginsberg and the poem to a new generation. But do we need a film to do that? I think as long as there are disaffected 14 year olds with access to book stores (or, I suppose, the internet), new generations will continue to discover Howl. And that’s a good thing.