Howl

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,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating accross the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated…

– Howl, Allen Ginsberg

It’s been a long time since I engaged with Howl in its entirety. Those first few lines, sure; if you’re into poetry in any way, there’s pretty good odds you can reel off the first line and half of Howl from memory. They’re among the most well-known in American poetry, and there’s no getting around the fact that they’re a brilliant opener (Although, I have to admit, in my head I punctuate it differently – I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked – which is actually kind of sad considering I once wrote an honour’s thesis about the use of space and punctuation in poetry and how it should affect the reading of a poem. In a form that already has a natural break in language generated by the existence of a poetic line, for example, what does it mean when you add a comma to the end of the line, effectively generating a pause within a pause?)

In any case, it’d been a long while. Then someone at work alerted me to the existence of the movie Howl, based on the obscenity trial that surrounded the poem when it was first released, and my natural weakness for cinema about beatniks and poetry led me towards tracking down a copy. It’s a brilliant film that sidesteps many of the problems that usually afflict films about the beats (ie, over-focusing on the various artists tendency to self-destruct) and actually explores why Ginsberg was interesting and how important the publication of Howl and Other Poems ended up being. It goes right up there with Bright Star as one of my favourite films about a poet, ever.

However, my favourite part about the film lies in its special features list – there’s recordings of both James Franco and Allen Ginsberg doing readings of the poem. I can count on one hand the number of poems I actually enjoy when they’re read aloud – most of the time I find myself getting irritated at readings, trying to reconcile the foreign rhythms being forced on the material with the rhythms I hear when in my head when I read on the page. Howl’s one of those rare exceptions, though, given that it’s rhythm is based on the metric of the human breath and it’s got the kind of easy repetition of phrases that’s hard to get wrong. It’s also possible – although I don’t remember for sure – that I came to Ginsberg’s poetry through his readings first, and his voice is generally distinctive enough that it gets lodged in your head.

The other nice thing about the film is that it prompted me to go and re-read the “and other poems” part of Howl and Other Poems, and I got to revisit a bunch of poems I’d forgotten I’d loved: A Supermarket in California; America; In the Baggage Room at Greyhound. It’s been a long while since I mainlined a whole bunch of poetry, rather than reading individual poems, and it reminded me of how much I used to enjoy reading it before study and endless poetry readings and the nightmare of my thesis sucked all the fun out of it.

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