“Howl” at Sundance

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl, starring James Franco, plays in San Francisco, California in late January as part of Sundance’s 2010 US select city competition. The film was slated as “risky” by some news agencies, since Franco is a star already. But I am happy to see him cast as Allen Ginsberg and think his performance will be great.

Some new pictures have recently made their way through the media.

I’ll just quote bits of the Ginsberg bio I wrote when addressing the meat of “Howl”.

In August of 1955, Ginsberg attempted a spontaneous, or free, verse as he’d seen in Kerouac’s writings, and began to type “Howl,” finding, once again, some kind of comfort in words that helped him express his sadness and tough reality view of the downtrodden in America–the type of person he must have thought he was as well. Just a couple months later, Allen and Kenneth Rexroth organized the infamous “Six Gallery” reading at City Lights, at which Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Kenneth Rexroth would also read. Allen was urged to read “Howl,” which he’d written back in August.

To me, this (like the meeting of Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg in New York) was yet another moment of definition for the beat generation. It marked the East and West Coast poets centralizing their “powers” in one place, one night.

Allen’s “Howl” went down into history, beginning that night. It cried for the outcasts, it sang to America, and it was so powerful that it became an enemy in the eyes of those who could not accept or understand its meaning and honesty (such as words and ideas considered obscene).

In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published “Howl and Other Poems” in his Pocket Poet Series, and it was confiscated by authorities, culminating in the arrest of Ferlinghetti and his City Lights partner Shig Murao. Ralph McIntosh, the prosecuting attorney, had been set on removing obscenity (nudity and other such “filth” from the city), and “Howl” fit in to his cause. However, the American Civil Liberties Union bailed out Ferlinghetti, and other individuals such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, and author Walter Van Tilburg Clark supported the poem. The judge, Clayton W. Horn, ruled that “Howl” had social importance and could not be ruled as obscene.

The book returned to bookstores, and although it wasn’t widely read back then–outside those who’d supported it (or didn’t, but were curious), “Howl” has taken a place in our history–and also propelled Allen’s further publishing.

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