Restoring the howl in Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’

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

If we know anything about Allen Ginsberg and “Howl,” the poem that debuted in 1955 and shocked the nation during an anti-obscenity trial, we know that opening line. Perhaps the name Allen Ginsberg only summons an image of a bespectacled lawn gnome, suitable for pasting into a nostalgic collage of the ’60s.

But he was far more than that—and people who care about diversity in America need to clear away the haze of memory and see Ginsberg’s courageous, creative struggle more clearly. Long before Harvey Milk, celebrated now in the film “Milk” with Sean Penn, Allen Ginsberg waded into the public defense of gay rights. More than that, Ginsberg screamed in his epic poem in defense of the urban poor, against racism, in compassion for men and women marginalized by addictions, and in angry pursuit of justice for people locked away in institutions simply because they were different.


I’m now Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, but back in 1981-82 I worked for the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper as a feature writer and I spent a day with the lawn gnome version of Allen Ginsberg. The University of Kentucky funded a visit by the poet. I was dispatched as the lead reporter on this occasion for central Kentucky’s daily newspaper. I met a couple of the professors proudly hosting Ginsberg—quite a difference from the obscenity trial in the ’50s when professors lined up to testify against him.

The bearded, bespectacled poet insisted on toting around his harmonium, an odd little hand-pumped organ he liked to play while he performed. He seemed to take glee in still startling a few students with some of the lines in “Howl.” However, Ginsberg mostly seemed bemused that day by these sturdy Kentucky students who flocked to hear him—or just to be around him. When he started playing that harmonium, shouting and singing—his whole body seemed to be dancing a jig. He was more of a nostalgic curiosity than a literary force that day.


The creative team behind the “Howl” movie deserves praise for this subversive effort to revive the true nature of Allen Ginsberg’s work. First, the script for the movie was constructed from transcripts. Every word you’ll hear actually was spoken by a real person in the 1950s. That’s sometimes hilarious, especially when Jeff Daniels appears on the witness stand portraying a buffoon of a college professor trying to pour cold water on “Howl.” Watching some of these people testify reminds all of us to humbly watch our tongues in criticism today. Years from now, our misplaced anger will look silly.

But the truly subversive choice in “Howl” was casting two of the hottest heartthrobs in America as the leading characters. The courageous defense lawyer at the “Howl” trial is played by Jon Hamm, better known to millions as Don Draper in the hit “Mad Men” TV series. The defense lawyer Hamm plays in “Howl”—from his looks to his prophetic message to the court about American values—is almost a twin to the charatcer of Don Draper. Then, to portray Ginsberg, the producers chose James Franco. While Franco may not rank with Brad Pitt on tabloid covers, he’s certainly hot today. For example, he appears as one of the hunkiest heartthrobs in Julia Roberts’ new movie version of “Eat Pray Love.” Trying to place Franco in “Eat Pray Love”? He’s the knock-em-dead young actor who tells a girlfriend: “When I look at you, I can hear dolphins clapping.” Obviously, that sappy line wasn’t penned by Ginsberg.

Watching those two actors at the helm of “Howl”—that casting choice alone—drives home the film’s plea for diversity. Two of the coolest hearthrobs in America right now see the enduring value in what Ginsberg achieved more than half a century ago.


Because he was right. He was honest. And, he was talented enough to do something about it.

Ginsberg, who died in 1997, left a huge legacy beyond his crazy stunts, kooky photos and quirky performances. If you want to learn more about him, the Wikipedia entry on Ginsberg is a pretty good starting point. He was a serious poet whose work has survived the decades. He won the National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971, which is still in print from City Lights and is available from Amazon. He helped to establish America’s first major Buddhist college, Naropa University in Colorado.

But there’s more. These days, the joke is that there are precisely as many people who write poetry—as those who buy poetry. But, don’t laugh. It’s not a joke. It’s a signpost toward our future. We’re reaching a point with powerful digital networks where there are precisely as many people who write—as who read. Ginsberg understood this and that’s why he not only wrote the way he did, but he also was crucial in ensuring that Jack Kerouac was published—and the Beats actually made a mark on American culture before most of them burned out. The mark they made was scorching, because Ginsberg realized that—even from the margins of our society—words are a perpetual source of power.

Ginsberg shouted out this truth at the very end of Howl. In the new movie, you’ll see an entire performance of Howl by James Franco, including this sometimes overlooked “Footnote to Howl.” It’s the Footnote that, to this day, sends shivers up the spine. The actual language of Howl, of course, earns the film its R rating. But the Footnote includes these PG lines:

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!
The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!

As Ginsberg roared on through that lengthy Footnote (and you’ll hear Franco do the whole thing in the movie), it’s true that he was shouting out some satirical social commentary in these lines. But, beyond the social commentary in these final lines, Ginsberg was proclaiming that all God’s children are sacred. All. None can be excluded. He ended with these words:

Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

In the end, maybe those are the lines from “Howl” that we all should memorize.

Help to Revive Ginsberg and ‘Howl’

Buy the “original” edition of “Howl”: Amazon still sells the little black-and-white edition of “Howl and Other Poems (City Lights Pocket Poets Series)” that looks like the editions so many of us had on our shelves in the ’60s and ’70s. This also is the same City Lights publication of “Howl” that you’ll see in the movie as City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti goes on trial for obscenity.

Buy the new film and watch it with friends: Amazon sells the “Howl” DVD at a deep discount. Or you can purchase the “Howl” Blu-ray for a little more. NOTE: On either disk, the “Extras” are well worth viewing, including some video of Ginsberg himself performing in his prime.

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