The drumming of the Beat.

Apr 9, 2022
Dimitris Passas

"There is no Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published".

The above cynical, rejective statement was uttered by one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called San Francisco Beat Movement, or the San Francisco Renaissance, Allen Ginsberg, the man who created some of the most emblematic poems that marked U.S. literature in the Post-War era. Heavily influenced by Dadaism, an artistic movement born after the First World War advocating intentional irrationality while denying the fundamental values and ideals of art, the group of writers including Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Lucien Carr turned their attention to the destitute and unwanted who lived in the margins of society and they aspired through their writings to give voice to the scrawny, impoverished people who drifted around America in a futile search of meaning that was never acquired. Vagrants, prostitutes, homosexuals, drug addicts, and the mentally ill were the people to whom the Beat Movement owed its existence. Their squalor has become the source of inspiration for several works of art that attempted to shake the foundations of the American social structure and make the natives more sensitive to the problems of the excluded minorities.

Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956 by City Lights Books, and the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, immediately fell in love with Ginsberg's unique style and choice of morbid themes and hailed him as one of the most promising writers in the country. The poem Howl is divided into three parts, each one addressing a separate issue: in the first one, the poet attacks the inherent conservatism of America that, in Ginsberg's perspective, led to the demise of "the best minds of his generation". In the second one, Ginsberg outlines a portrayal of "Moloch" a creature that symbolizes totalitarianism and oppression with the individual always ending up defeated, desperate, and lamenting his own fate. The third one is devoted to Ginsberg's friend, writer Carl Solomon, whom he met while being in a mental illness facility for eight months because of his homosexuality. Ginsberg and Solomon formed a close bond and in many verses, the poet addresses his friend directly, evoking the readers' emotional engagement and creating a more dramatic effect.

In 1957, the publisher of Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his partner Shigeyosi Murao were charged with obscenity in regards to the publication of the "cursed" poem. Many people from the world of arts, literary critics, and other authors took the stand and testified their own view on the poem and assessed whether or not it should be considered as obscene. According to the U.S. Supreme Court obscenity is defined as: "Material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest, utterly without redeeming social importance". Furthermore, a subject that has also been extensively discussed was whether Howl as a work possessed any literary merit or value. The majority of the witnesses stood against the attempt at censorship, a hot issue in America as there were novels such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover that have been banned from publication because of their profanity and explicit sexual scenes. Thus, the case against City Lights Books acquired a more universal character as it was a matter of honor for the artistic world to defend the freedom of speech and artistic license.

Finally, the defendants were acquitted as the court ruled that an author should be real and honest when treating his subject, while as a witness in the movie says "we can't translate poetry into prose". The poetic language is filled with metaphors, ambiguities, and paradoxes, so a singular interpretation of a poem is just one of the many interpretations of a collection of cryptic verses which are polysemous and resist intransigent theories and explanations. Ginsberg uses strong language in his works and sometimes the profanity of his poems may seem hyperbolic to an unsuspected reader, nevertheless both his choice of themes and his purpose as an artist deem their use essential to the creative process. There is no way to describe the monster of Moloch using euphemisms, the subject itself demands a more raw, immediate language expressing the overwhelming feelings of despair that the individual senses in the sight of it. Ginsberg's 1956 contains one more poem that is considered classic within the Beat Movement, that is "A Supermarket in California". There, Ginsberg narrates a story in which he goes shopping to a supermarket and there he meets two giants of literature and poetry, Frederico Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman. It should be mentioned that Whitman's poetry had a significant influence on Ginsberg's experiments with form and many believe that Whitman was Ginsberg's "poetic model".

The movie Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman aspires to bring the audience closer to the idiosyncratic persona of Ginsberg and James Franco, the actor embodying him, gives a memorable performance having studied all of Ginsberg's mannerisms, both associated with body language and the way in which he enunciated his speech. His presence on screen is captivating and the audience at times becomes convinced that this is the real Ginsberg talking on screen. The directors chose to adopt a non-linear narrative, supposedly emphasizing on the Howl Obscenity Trial, but at the same time putting the protagonist in a position from which he can talk freely about his early years and the first attempts at writing, recount crazy stories from his life beside shady characters who nicked whatever they could get their hands on, reminisce his relationships with people who marked his life such as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and, of course, Carl Solomon, and to contemplate on his homosexuality, a hot subject for the American poet as it constituted a source of plenty of sorrow and led to his 8-month admission in a psychiatric facility.

In order to fully grasp the social, political, and cultural milieu in which Ginsberg grew up and lived as a young man and aspiring writer, we should bear in mind that moral conservatism that was prevalent among Americans tended to stigmatize and turn homosexual into outcasts for the sole reason of being homosexuals. In the film, Ginsberg, played by Franco, says that he got released from the mental institution when he promised the doctors that he will live the rest of his life as a heterosexual. Thus, we all understand the torment that must have been for Ginsberg to reconcile with his sexuality and the persistent feelings of otherness that accompanied him throughout the course of his life. The film stresses that factor and its importance to the American poet in the sequences in which he speaks to an unseen interviewer while sitting relaxed in what is, presumably, his house. This is the first narrative thread of the movie. The second is the scenes from the court where we witness each testimony and observe the arguments employed both by the prosecution and the defense. Finally, we watch Ginsberg reciting his poem live in front of a young crowd that seems to hang on his every word.

Despite its limited lengths, the total runtime doesn't exceed the 75 minutes, the film succeeds in drawing a comprehensive portrait of Allen Ginsberg and also making a comment in the grim reality of the threat of censorship hanging above the new voices in arts and literature. The acquittal of the defendants can be considered as a victory against cultural fascism and Howl was permitted to continue its journey to the bookstores around the world and gained plenty of hardcore fans in the decades that followed its original publication. Many have pointed out that the absence of Shigeyosi Murao, Ferlinghetti's partner and co-defendant in the obscenity trial, from the film is reprehensible as Murao was the only one who actually went to jail for selling Howl in San Francisco. Apart from that black mark that taints the assessment of the film as a whole, Howl is a motion picture that will make you wiser by exposing you to the mysterious allure of one of the most indecipherable works of modern American poetry and getting you acquainted with the movement of Beats that, despite Ginsberg's satiric remark that I quoted in the beginning of this review, remains topical even today thanks to the authenticity and humane character of its works.

NOTE: If you want to learn more about the Beats, you can check out the 2001 documentary The Source: The Story of the Beats and the Beat Generation, with Johnny Depp as Jack Kerouac, Dennis Hopper as William S. Burroughs, and John Turturro in the role of Ginsberg. There are scenes where Turturro recites Howl enlivening the primordial potency of the verses with his flawless delivery.


Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Written by
Rob Epstein ... (written for the screen by) & Jeffrey Friedman ... (written for the screen by) Allen Ginsberg ... (poem)
James Franco, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Aaron Tveit, Jon Hamm, Andrew Rogers
Production Companies
Werc Werk Works Telling Pictures (in association with) Rabbit Bandini Productions (in association with) Radiant Cool
84 min

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