Tuesday, April 7, 2020

When Worlds Collide: HOWL

by Jan Bottiglieri
Welcome to When Worlds Collide, an exciting new temporary column being brought to you only during the cruelest month*.

Some of you may recognize me as longtime listener/sometime-podcaster “Jan B,” whose popular appearances on this website stand as testament to my deep love of movies. But did you know I also have ANOTHER love?

It’s poetry.

STOP LAUGHING. Poetry remains a vital and important art form in American life, even if it’s only to the few brave souls who dare attempt it. I’d like to change that by introducing you, my fellow movie lovers, to movies about poetry/poets (#pomo). I hope to also introduce a few poets to the movie love here at FTM. In this way, we all grow as human beings. (Yikes, I’m already getting emotional.)
Our first #pomo of the series is Howl, the 2010 film starring James Franco as seminal beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The film is neither biopic nor re-creation fantasy; it’s a documentary-ish examination of Ginsberg’s poem of the same name, which blasted out of San Francisco in the mid-1950s to solidify the place of Beat poetry in the national literary landscape. You know the TV/movie trope of black-bereted MCM hipsters reciting jazz lyrics in smoke-filled coffee shops while some dopey looking Joe Cool bangs a couple of bongos in the background? That tired trope is loosely based on the Beats.

If you have never read "Howl," how did you survive your angsty teen years? Strap yourself down (or better yet, stand up in front of a mirror when no one is home) and read this aloud and LOUDLY. It’s long, it’s strong, and it’s NSFW, which means it also shocked the shit out of post-war Middle America. That tension is the core of the film.
Howl doesn’t have a traditional plot or narrative; it’s documentary-like in its approach, even beginning with a title card explaining that every word of the script is taken from real life. It’s a comfortable approach for writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have done a lot of well-known film and TV documentaries together, both before and since Howl (most recently, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.) It feels as if the filmmakers are trying to embody an aesthetic that is much like a poem—loose, lyrical, and more about the way it uses words and images than the “aboutness” of those words and images. This style of embodiment is itself a poetic technique—that is, a poem about a waltz may “embody” the waltz in the ¾ rhythm of each line; a poem about a butterfly may attempt to embody the erratic flight of a butterfly by flinging its words across the page all willy-nilly (and then I would probably fling that poem onto the floor for being a cliché. But you get it.)

Instead of the traditional narrative, Howl’s “aboutness” comes from the way the filmmakers braid together the film’s four different threads: Ginsberg’s 1955 reading of "Howl" at San Francisco’s Six Gallery; parts of the poem’s famous obscenity trial against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti; an interview Ginsberg did for TIME, which Franco delivers as a monologue to an off-screen interviewer; and intercut scenes of animation that illustrate a performance of the poem with music. This format is a further example of poetic embodiment, as "Howl" itself has four distinct parts. It’s a lot to juggle, and not every critic felt that Epstein and Friedman successfully handled all four threads; the animation, in particular, is a problem for some critics.
For me, it works. I love the idea of abandoning narrative—let action films and romantic comedies deal with inciting incidents and set pieces and blowing things up, this is supposed to be POETRY!— and I love the way the intercut sections of each thread leave the viewer a bit off-kilter, like good poetry should. I’m not advocating making a poem, or a film, difficult to follow just for the sake of being “arty” or interesting. In a poem and/or movie like Howl, that feeling of “I’m not sure what to expect next” can keep a reader or viewer receptive and engaged. In fact, the film’s commitment to be more like a poem is why I chose Howl as the first #pomo for this column—it really does collide the worlds of film and poetry for me in a way I find interesting and fun. It ends up being an ars poetica that takes its subject seriously, but doesn’t feel precious or pretentious.

As for the animation sequences—which some may actually find a bit precious or pretentious—I like them. Yeah, sometimes they sort of “paint a mustache” on Ginsberg’s words and images by being at turns too literal or too dreamy. But the total effect, for me, is very much a precursor of the video poems I see becoming increasingly popular today. The fact that they don’t work 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of the viewers is a function of the richness of the source material more than a failing of the animators.
WILL POETS LIKE THIS #POMO? I think YES, because it goes hard at being ABOUT an actual, important poem. Most movies get “poetry” wrong (I’m looking at you, Dead Poets Society). Most poets, I think, will appreciate the effort here to be true to the gestalt of an important piece of modern American poetry. Some poets, however, may hate it because hey, “poets gotta po.” I don’t see a lot of middle ground on this.

WILL MOVIE LOVERS LIKE THIS #POMO? Again, I think YES, because "Howl" the poem is such a landmark that even movie-goers who haven’t read it will be familiar with its place in the cultural landscape. The film has strong costumes/set design depicting a very tangible-looking 1955. It also boasts a terrific cast: Franco takes up the vast majority of screen time, but we also get David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, and Mary-Louise Parker.

FINAL LINE: I don’t know if I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, but I’ve seen Howl, and it’s worth your time.

BONUS! Not only do film makers sometimes make movies about poets, poets sometimes make poetry about films! #themoreyouknow

Each week in WWC, I will share some poetry that movie lovers may want to check out. This week, I’d like to point you to some work by a fantastic poet and (ahem) a personal friend of mine, Tony Trigilio. Tony is a Chicago poet who also happens to be one of our leading authorities on Beat poetics. Here are some links to Tony’s work that might interest movie lovers:

If you love HOWL, check out Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics:

If you love JFK (the movie, the guy, whatever) check out Tony’s Historic Diary, which uses as source material Lee Harvey Oswalt’s personal diaries:

If you love creepy things with dark shadows, start collecting Tony’s series The Complete Dark Shadows (of my Childhood), based on every episode of the 1960s gothic soap opera—he’s on Volume 3! They’re all so great:

*breeding/lilacs out of the dead land


  1. Jan, I LOVE all things related to the Beats! So this article makes me very happy.

    I have seen and quite like the movie adaptation of Howl; I even liked the related Beat movies Kill Your Darlings and On the Road though both were less successful.

    I'm very excited to see what other poetry and movies you discuss in future columns, and in the meantime let's talk about City Lights and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac and why I am a lady who loves the Beats even though some of them are "problematic" towards women.

  2. I'm glad you liked the column, Rosalie! And a visit someday to City Lights is definitely on my list. Due to the quarantine, the store was in danger of closing for good... but their GoFundMe raised more than $400,000! Pretty awesome.