55 years after the fact, culture still cries out for Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl'

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; C03

From Washington to Hollywood, once again those crazed stanzas echo and howl, drunk on adjectives yet oddly dispassionate, like a newspaper dispatch, dateline surreal:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . .

Fifty-five summers after Allen Ginsberg wrote his shocking masterpiece "Howl," the poem still provokes, inspires, sells.

There's a bit of a "Howl" boomlet going on -- books, photographs, an upcoming movie starring James Franco and, most immediately, a "Howl in the City" series of readings and music Friday and Saturday in Washington.

The timing of the convergence is mainly coincidental, the fruit of projects launched around the 50th anniversary of the poem, which Ginsberg first recited to spellbound hipster audiences in the fall of 1955, at the age of 29. He published it in 1956. Then came the obscenity trial in 1957, which Ginsberg's publisher won, a free-speech landmark. Ginsberg died in 1997, at 70.

"When he first read this poem, it was a cultural intervention, and it continues," says poet Anne Waldman, a friend and collaborator of Ginsberg's. "It's a time bomb, and it's a time piece."

Ginsberg had a complicated relationship with his own creation.

"I don't read it often because it's too much of a bravura piece, and I don't want to get hung up on it," he said when he and Waldman were onstage together in the mid-1970s at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, the writing program they co-founded at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.

"On the other hand," Ginsberg continued, "I also want to present my best."

For the next 26 minutes he conjured "Howl," in that voice of his -- stately, nasal, incantatory.

Over the decades, he would unsheathe "Howl" like a weapon, when necessary. Three years before his death, he stood in a black suit outside the U.S. Court of Appeals on Constitution Avenue NW and declaimed "Howl" in protest of federal broadcast decency rules that kept "Howl" and other works off the air.

Waldman, 65, whom Ginsberg called his "spiritual wife," will recite "Howl" and some of her own work at two performances Friday evening and one on Saturday at Busboys and Poets at Fifth and K streets NW. A string quartet under the direction of Matthew Hemerlein will improvise an accompaniment to Waldman's delivery. Saturday's event will close with a concert on the restaurant's patio by Kyp Malone, guitarist and singer with the band TV on the Radio.

The affair was launched by the National Gallery of Art, where an exhibit of 80 photographs taken by Ginsberg of his Beat friends -- Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, etc. -- continues through Sept. 16. The show includes several portraits from the years when Ginsberg was writing and publishing "Howl." The gallery enlisted Split This Rock, the Washington poetry promoters, to help organize the readings and music.

"I love the idea because even though I had read the poem however many years ago, when I reread it, it was just striking how relevant it continues to be, and how powerful, and how shocking," says Sarah Browning, co-director of Split This Rock.

Fans of any work of art will say it's enduringly relevant, but "Howl" does seem to have a special way of sticking around. It pops up in unsettling, unexpected ways. This month the obituary pages carried farewells to Tuli Kupferberg, 86, poet and founder of the underground 1960s band the Fugs. Kupferberg was also one of those "best minds of my generation," whose unsuccessful suicidal leap was chronicled in "Howl":

who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer . . .

In May, Ginsberg's muse and companion Peter Orlovsky, 76, also died, another figure who got a shout-out in "Howl":

Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady . . .

The Beat goes on.

Published earlier this month was "Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters," wherein Kerouac praises "Howl." Coming next month, "Howl: A Graphic Novel," the poem visualized by artist Eric Drooker.

Drooker's animations also figure in "Howl," the film in which Franco (he of "Milk" and the "Spider-Man" trilogy) stars as Ginsberg. Coming to Washington on Oct. 1, the movie "is a heady flight into not only a particular poem but also the act of creativity itself," said the Hollywood Reporter after the film kicked off this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman built the film around the obscenity trial and an "interview" with Ginsberg as played by Franco. The script is based entirely on the trial transcript, statements Ginsberg made over the years and, of course, the text of the poem -- as recited by Franco's Ginsberg, argued over by trial lawyers, animated by Drooker.

Still Howl-ing after all these years.

"I don't think it has anything to do with nostalgia, but rather a hunger for the authentic," Epstein says. "It's paradoxical; we live in an age where so little is held back, and yet so much feels fake or inauthentic or shallow at best. In contrast, when you read 'Howl,' there's something that feels very authentic and essential and truthful."

For that reason, maybe, "Howl" is never quite laid to rest. More than a million copies of "Howl and Other Poems" have been printed since 1956, according to City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, whose co-founder, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested for publishing "Howl," the prelude to the obscenity trial.

About 25,000 copies are sold each year. A member of the new generation of readers is Hemerlein, 26, who has been studying "Howl" in preparation for the classical jam he will offer in homage to Ginsberg's words.

"I would be reticent to be that candid and that transparent," Hemerlein says of Ginsberg's depictions. "It's fearless. Or maybe there is fear, but it's honest. It's fearless honesty -- that's what I take away from it."

Ginsberg may have foreseen this afterlife, as he scribbled: the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company