Howl: A History

Chrisann Mercado

Allen Ginsberg is a name that many people stumble across in one English class or another. My first encounter with Ginsberg was in my AP English Literature class in twelfth grade. My teacher had us read “Howl” and then discuss it in class. I had only two thoughts in my mind at the time. Naturally, my first thought was, “This is a Catholic high school; how the heck is this allowed?” This thought was then immediately followed by, “Who cares how it’s allowed; it’s awesome!” And so began my strange love affair with Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989. Via Wikipedia.

Allen Ginsberg. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989. Via Wikipedia.

“Howl” is a poem written by Allen Ginsberg first performed in San Francisco on Friday, October 7, 1955 at the Six Gallery Reading. Ginsberg had been approached by Wally Hedrick to put the whole reading together. After initially refusing Hedrick’s request, Ginsberg finished “Howl,” changed his mind, and helped coordinate the evening. The night featured poetry from five young writers: Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. Ginsberg’s debut of “Howl” was met with a positive reception. The crowd that was gathered in San Francisco that night was rather inclusive; it was a group of like-minded thinkers, supporting each other and each other’s work. It was thought to be the highlight of the evening, showing much promise for the beginning of a new literary movement. “Howl” did not receive the same sort of reception outside of the Six Gallery.

Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” that night cemented Beat culture and offered a starting point for the San Francisco Renaissance. “Howl” was the poem in which Ginsberg freed his voice; it was a poem that helped him develop his own sense of rhythm. Central themes of the poem include Ginsberg’s denunciation of a consumer-driven society, a kind of place where individualism has been repressed. Those that have tried to maintain their individualism have been driven insane by the sheer force of society trying to put them down. His use of profanity and vulgarity only add to the frank nature of the poem. He refused to gloss over any of the horrors people faced in their lives. He wished to present his vision in the most honest way he could. However, many people did not see it this way.

After hearing Ginsberg’s reading of Howl, publisher and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti had requested that Ginsberg send him a manuscript; he sought to publish it. As they set to publish the book, Howl and Other Poems, Ginsberg was faced with public and government backlash. “Howl” contains many references to drugs; it also references sexual acts, both heterosexual and homosexual. During this time, American sodomy laws had made homosexual sex a crime. The poem also did not refrain from using profanity. For these reasons, “Howl” was banned after its 1956 publication and became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. On trial was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of the book, and Shigeyoshi Murao, a bookstore owner who sold the book to the police. The trial centered on the topic of whether or not “Howl” was obscene, and if it offered any sort of importance to the literary world as well as to society as a whole. Just because words are obscene, does not mean the thoughts behind them are as well. The message sent may be important and influential. Words are words – context and meaning are what matter. This trial also was a challenge to Ginsberg’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The book should have been protected under this amendment. While topics in the book violated other laws, the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the citizens’ right to speak freely.

As the trial continued, the question of whether or not “Howl” held any value was debated. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that “Howl” was not obscene. He believed that it offered redeeming artistic value. He also said, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?” Both Ferlinghetti and Murao were exonerated, and “Howl” was judged protected under the First Amendment.

The poem had a tumultuous history, but it has also left a lasting impression. In 2010, a film was made about the poem “Howl” and the subsequent obscenity charges. Starring James Franco as Ginsberg, this experimental film fused both the poem itself and its history into one story. Through animated sequences, the film explores the poem “Howl.” As Franco reads the poem in a voiceover, the poem itself comes to life through the animation. It anthropomorphizes the themes and characters within the poem to unlock the depths “Howl” holds. As the film shifts from the black-and-white scenes portraying Ginsberg writing and performing “Howl, to the animated sequences, to the present trial, it offers a unique look into what this poem really meant. The animation, illustrated by the graphic artist Eric Drooker, plays with imagery and symbolism in a more concrete way than how written or spoken words could. Franco’s reading of the poem over the animation sequence keeps the beat of the poem grounded; the score helps to enhance the reading and viewing as well. The animation style and content coupled with the score and the language of the poem are almost anxiety inducing, and I cannot help but wonder if this was the filmmaker’s goal. There is nothing pretty about the poem “Howl,” nor is there anything pretty about the animation. Perhaps this method of presentation forces the audience to look beyond the profanities and the graphic nature of the poem, to challenge their understanding of it and what it means.

Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
across 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”, 4-5)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.