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Beat Epic: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"

We talk with the directors of a new film celebrating Allen Ginsberg’s epic beat generation poem “Howl.”

A crowd listens to Allen Ginsberg give a reading of uncensored poetry at New York City's Washinton Square park, 1966. (AP)

Poet-rebel Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl” in the heart of the 1950s, but his epic poem was anything but “Happy Days” and hot cars. It was a long, free, wild cry of the heart that broke open the Beat Generation and ended up in court on obscenity charges. 

The case drew new boundaries for freedom of speech in America. The poem drew new boundaries for life, wide open boundaries. 

A new film, “Howl”, brings back the poet, the era and the epic court battle. We speak with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and their own.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, writers, directors, and producers new film “Howl.” They are both recipients of Academy Awards and Emmy Awards. Epstein previously directed “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

John Tytell, a scholar of Beat Generation literature who has has taught at Queens College for more than 35 years. His books include “Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs” and “Paradise Outlaws: Remembering the Beats.” Read his recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Howl’s Echoes.”

Read the full text of “Howl” and see the trailer for the new film:

Below are some pictures of the real-life Ginsberg:

Allen Ginsberg at a protest rally in Berkley, Ca., 1965. (AP)

From left to right: Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, mid-1950s (John Cohen/Hulton Archive)

Allen Ginsberg, left, and writer William Burroughs (AP)

Allen Ginsberg, left, and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy in Miami Beach Fla. where they stayed in tents during the Democratic National Convention in July 1972. (AP)

Poet Allen Ginsberg reads his poem "Howl" outside the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, 1994. (AP)

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  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Wow, the movie looks like it’ll be great. In the 1970s every time I spent any time in San Francisco I hung out in North Beach: City Lights, Cafe Trieste, and more. You could feel the atmosphere in the movie clip everywhere.

  • Anastasia Caras

    The first time that I heard “Howl” was in high school. But the first time that I really heard “Howl” was in a class in college called “Search For Identity.” The professor played a recording of Ginsberg reading it (in its entirety) and it was truly mesmerizing. This was in 2006. The fact that some 50 years later the poem still rattles the brains, bones and hearts of a completely different generation certainly says something.

  • Mark

    Looking forward to seeing this film.

    I’m a little surprised that Jon Hamm is not playing Jack Kerouac. Watching “Mad Men,” I’ve always thought Hamm was a dead-ringer for Kerouac.

  • dan

    I was a student ath Wichita State University in Kansas when Allen Ginsberg spoke one evening. A friend asked me to go listen. I remember that mr. Ginsberg stated that kansas was “the vortex of nothingness”. Shortly after I had occasion to hear the then mayor of Boston,
    Kevin White, describe Boston as, “the hub of the universe.” I believe that explains why I now live in
    Boston.

  • WINSTON SMITH

    Howl expresses utter hopelessness,confusion, is long winded, and contains a lot of gibberish. How much more concise and comforting is this poem:

    The Lord is My Shepherd,
    I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
    He leads me beside quiet waters.
    He restores my soul.
    He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
    Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.
    Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
    You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
    You have anointed my head with oil, my cup overflows.
    Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
    and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

    Psalm 23

  • John

    The bible has a lot more gibberish.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    By the way, James Franco will on Fresh Air, right after this show on Connecticut Public Radio.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Wow, I was just thinking that Howl is Ginsberg’s “Yawp!”

  • Macbheath

    Read it years ago, reading it again and truly believe he was the voice of his generation. I am glad it is being brought to peoples attention again in these increasingly conformist times. Polarized times, but still more conformist than any times I have experienced since I graduated in 1964 .I can only hope that it will awaken some of the population from their slumber, make them sit up and realize they have been narcotizes by popular media and that there country is being stolen by a plutocracy that has a vested interest in keeping them numb…. The old ‘ give them bread and circuses’ ploy.

  • John

    What an embarrassment that Howl still needs to be censored when read on the radio.

  • earl flemm

    Get a grip people.the dude advocated NAMBL. He was just another messed up individual.

  • WINSTON SMITH

    To Earl Flemm,

    You hit the nail on the head. What utter hopelessness and giberish. I think most of the guests who like this poem did far too many drugs and blew their brains out.

  • Pat Emerton

    I was lucky, honored, to have spent time with Allen at the end of his life; and he told me that there would not have been a Velvet Revolution, if it were not for Vaclav Havel reading Kerouac (and I’m sure Allen was implying his own work, the Beats, though humbly leaving himself out). Allen, I’m sure, meant that it was that whole revolutionary, free, jazz, literary ethos, and all that it spoke about, which eventually freed Czechoslovakia, broke the holds of authoritarianism. And for myself, having been inspired by all the Beats, once I spliced in their (Jack’s and Allen’s, Gary Snyder’s, et al) seriousness for Buddhism, I was able to bring that free spirit, (improv), art and compassion, into the world through social work, care-giving, and teaching – that poetic spirit was infused into a call to serve others – off the page and to the streets, in the same way that Kesey thought that the world was the stage (with his bus, driven by Neal, in a way he colored and sparked the 60s) – the page was often too small at the end of the last century – but it started there, then it went to the streets (poetry is to be spoken and heard), turning on hearts and minds, breaking ices everywhere.

  • Pat Emerton

    CODA: And Allen was quoting what Vaclav Havel had said to him.

  • tom hutcheson

    Great program. Am I the only one who heard an eerily wonderful similarity between Ginsberg’s Dharma Blues and Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire or the only one who didn’t’ know about the connection?

  • jeffe

    Bob wrong show. This ones about Ginsberg.

    Winston, my take on you from reading your comments here and on other forums is that you would be one of those who would love to ban books like Howl. You sit their all fluffed up and sanctimonious and lay down the law according to you based on your readings from the bible.

    If you don’t like it don’t read it. If you don’t like this show turn it off. I turned off the Beck show as I found it a bit much.

    Ginsberg association with NAMBL seems to stem from his ideas about free speech. There is no evidence that he was advocating sex with underage boys. Personally I find this a bit much, but then again I’m not going to let his weirdness stop me from reading his work.

    He was a Buddhist and seemed like a pretty spiritual person. I once saw him speak in the late 70′s, I was to young to really appreciate it, but I do remember that he seemed very much at ease with his self.

  • Nevan

    Terrible poetry by Ginsberg, if you can call it poetry. I call it elitist garbage.

  • earl flemm

    You don’t associate NAMBL with free speech. You can only associate it with the violation of boys which Alan was.There is no secret code of poetic expression of free speech going on with his outright advocation of child abuse. It is what it is. Don’t fluff it up cause you got turned on by some of his work. The man was a pervert. If you knew him, you’d understand what I’m saying.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Earl and Winston: No doubt Ginsberg and many of the folks who made up the leading edge of the beats were “messed up individuals.” So what? You would no doubt think Dickinson and Walt Whitman were messed up individuals too as are many people from whom we take the good. Andy Warhol: messed up for sure. No one is perfect (including you two) but some people as they struggle to express themselves come up with something good. Ginsberg was one such person in my opinion and his poetry and life meant something to me.

    Everyone caught in the wrong light is a “messed up individual,” even the two of you.

  • John

    I believe Ginsberg’s claim that his association with that group was to promote free speech. Freedom of speech is easy to advocate for when it isn’t controversial. If he actually into sex with underage boys, he would have been a priest.

  • Lee

    You can believe what you want about why he associated with that group but child abuse is not funny and his work should not be celebrated in light of that association. Hitler was not a bad artist and did some very nice artwork. Should we celebrate him and say his association with Nazi’s was his promotion of free speech? Learn to Discern, my friends.

  • John

    Hitler didn’t associate with the Nazi’s to promote free speech; he led them and was obviously in support of their agenda. The ACLU defended the Nazi’s free speech rights, but does not make them Nazi’s. Hitler’s paintings were bland and if he were not the artist, no one would pay any attention to them.

  • lee

    Somehow we can excuse this man for supporting the right for men to abuse children because he was artist? It’s not right.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Amazing, someone drops an accusation in a comment thread and folks now are taking it for fact. No wonder Glen Beck is popular.

  • JB

    Dear James Franco,

    Just because Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in 2008 and just because you had a tiny part in that movie and now you are the star of your own movie: DOES NOT MEAN YOU WILL ALSO WIN AN OSCAR IF you offer an attempt at the EXACT SAME performance. But I thank you for nearly ruining Ginsberg’s poem and what is the most powerful and ORIGINAL american performance.

    Sorry,

    JB.

  • Tiffany Millar-Piccirilli

    I am of a younger generation and was introduced to Ginsberg and Howl back in College (2002) in an introduction to poetry class, we were assigned a final project to dissect a poem, break it down turn it inside out. I choose Howl… I loved the project and fell in love with the poem, many years later I still look back on the project and appreciate the beat poets and what they were doing. They broke the mold, they initiated a generation and an American tradition of freethinkers in a time when everyone fit into little boxes… black or white (red white and blue in all cases), conservative or ‘liberal’ they were the springboard for many various movements indirectly and directly. The show makes mention of the spoken word revolution, I am a follower of slam poetry and can see Ginsberg’s gallery six reading as the birthplace of the slam movement in a very basic raw form. I can still quotes lines upon lines of the poem years after reading it, anyone with an open mind should be able to appreciate his brashness for reality (drug induced or not make no matter). The beats and Ginsberg helped set a bar for free speech in America and although some may look down upon the ‘morals’ of the poem you don’t truly appreciate what it has done for American History.

  • Ginzy

    Ginsberg was a bad poet and a worse thinker. He was another buddhist coolaid drinker good for a laugh and not much else.

  • Lee

    Richard, there’s no need to bring up the GB word in this conversation. I’m a dyed in the wool progressive. My take on Ginsberg has nothing to do with politics of any persuasion.

  • http://joenolan.com Joe Nolan

    Thanks so much for the insights. I’m super excited about the Howl movie and discovered your report looking for info about it. I also discovered a great BBC interview that you’ll love. It comes from ’94 and it’s a long, freewheeling conversation that reminds me what a funny, insightful guy old AG was. Enjoy: http://www.joenolan.com/blog/?p=622

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