Friday, March 29, 2013

"Banned" Together -- Howl

Does this poem speak to you?


Matthew said...

Matthew Levandoski here:

This is a big one. Howl was, evidently a much feared poem. Several hundred copies were confiscated by US Customs in 1957 when an English printer was trying to import them to America. A few months later a book store owner was arrested while selling a copy of the book to an undercover police officer. The publisher of the book was then arrested and charged for printing the book. There was a trial that became known as the "obscenity trial" that was eventually overturned and where the book was stated to be of "redeeming social importance."

The best thing about this book/poem is that is paints such a vivid picture of the time and space in which it was written. It covers all of the types of people that were involved in the types events depicted in the poem, and it creates empathy, anger, sympathy, confusion, joy, and indefinable emotion for and toward those people. I was half way through a stanza when I noticed that I had stood up several lines before without even thinking about it. Such is the power of this poem, if you choose to give yourself over to it for the few moments it takes to read.

I would recommend this poem to others because of the reality depicted within it. Sometimes, as they say, it is good to get out of your particular area of comfort. Broaden your horizons. If you check your cynicism at the door, leave behind your prejudices (because we all have them) and just try to see things through Ginsberg's eyes for a while, it will make you realize that this piece of writing is really quite hopeful, despite its predominantly depressing content.

I disagree with the banning of this book. For it truly is an impassioned howl for the forgotten, unrepresented, and deeply feeling masses.

WGP said...

Howl is one the most important literary pieces of post-WWII America. It represented the apex of beatnik culture and carried over to hippie culture in the sixties, and still influences today.

It is not surprising that Howl was considered subversive during its time. It is a long running, free verse indictment of 50s America, slinging arrows at consumerism, militarism, imperialism, racism, conformity. I do not agree with banning books, but it is not hard to see why it was banned in its day; in the age of McCarthyism, a work like this was destined to make waves.

Banning the poem today is ludicrous. Howl is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche, either directly (by reading it) but most often indirectly as it influenced so many other artists, such as Bob Dylan, and infiltrated all forms of pop culture that followed its publication, and even found its way into anti-war and civil rights movements. It cannot be removed, erased, forgotten. It is very much a part of America, one that should be read, heard, felt, and discussed.

Elizabeth Starr said...

WPG, I'm responding to your post, specifically your mention of Ginsberg's influence on Dylan. I'm really glad you mentioned that. I almost brought this up in class last week, but we ran out of I'll mention it here. I've long appreciated the link between Ginsberg's wild juxtapositions of high/low images and Dylan's "surrealistic" period.

One of my favorite pop-culture clips comes from Pennebaker's documentary about an early Dylan tour (Don't Look Back), in which Dylan tosses out flashcards with the lyrics to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while Ginsberg loiters in the background on the other side of the alley. It's sort of a visual metaphor for Ginsberg's soft influence.

Check out the clip here (you may need to copy and paste it into a new browser window):

I have seen this shtick being done even in Subway commercials (or was it Taco Bell?). If you ever wondered where the flashcard thing came from, well, Dylan did it first--with Ginsberg right behind him.

Samantha said...

Howl is a series of poems written by Allen Ginsberg in 1955/1956. Ginsberg was willing to talk about subjects that were considered very taboo at the time. Sex, drug use, homosexuality, and coarse language were all reasons why Howl was banned/ challenged. There was a court case in 1957 that would determine whether or not the text would be considered obscene. The court ruled that Howl had literary value, and was not banned.

I am a fan of the Beat Generation works that I have read, and Howl was no exception. I loved learning which sections of the poem were dedicated to specific Beat writers. My favorite section of the poem is the part about Rockland, the mental institution. I did not realize that Ginsberg’s own mother had been placed in a mental institution, or that Ginsberg himself had spent time in one. Initially, some of the language in the poem was shocking to me. It is not very often that you read about sex so graphically in an academic setting, and even rarer to see slang words used to describe the scenes. I think that this use of language really see what Ginsberg was like as a person, and I appreciate that he was ready to take risks in his writing in order to remain genuine.

I am almost going against my better judgment when considering whether or not I would recommend this book to others. It was easy for me to say that I recommended all of the other books that we have read as a class, but I believe that Howl requires a bit of background reading, as well as an understanding of the time period to really understand and appreciate the text. I can’t say that I would recommend this book to my grandmother, or anyone with more conservative sensibilities, as I think it could potentially offend them. However, if you have an appreciation for other Beat Generation works, or enjoy reading things that are outside of the standard texts you would normally read in an academic setting, then I would strongly recommend that you read Howl .

P.S. Elizabeth- I have watched the video for Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues probably 100 times, and have never ONCE noticed that Ginsberg was standing in the background… I am amazed! 

Sarah Bynum said...

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg was contended so much that it was actually taken to court in San Francisco in 1957. During the trial, one attorney was trying to prove that Ginsberg was using unnecessarily inappropriate words to describe scenes throughout the poem. To prove his point, the lawyer would have people read a passage from the poem and then try to get them to say that he could have worded something differently. Thankfully, the judge presiding over the case said that it was up to the author to decide how to word something and that it was not “obscene” unless it lacked social importance.
This case, I feel, tainted people’s views on “Howl”. I had heard of “Howl” and how terrible and explicit of a poem it was. But, after reading it, I disagree. “Howl” is less graphic than some other novels that I have read. Later on, “Howl” was banned from being read on radio stations. Yes, Ginsberg mentions sexual things and homosexual feelings and drugs and alcohol and all these other “terrible” things. These are things that he was going through. This poem is about his life and the troubles that he had! I view “Howl” as this man’s journey during a very hard time in his life. Back when he was writing it, being homosexual was a terrible thing and something that a family would be ashamed of. It was something that people tried to “cure” themselves of. “Howl” is split into 3 parts. I view part one as Ginsberg exploring who he is and living life. Part two is him realizing that he does not conform to what “Moloch” is. And part three is the time he spent in a mental institution trying to rid himself of his homosexual desires, but rather fell in love with a man there. These are real feeling and emotion that he went through.
So what he used the vernacular that his group of friends used? So what the scenes depicted are not what normal poetry or literature is about? In a way, I think that is the point of Ginsberg’s poem. He knew he was different than society and did not fit in with this “Moloch”. I think that poetry is written more for the author rather than the audience. This poem allowed Ginsberg to express his feelings when what he was feeling was considered wrong and unhealthy. Who has the right to say it cannot be read or it should be said in a different way? No one.

Elizabeth Starr said...

Members of the class watched the 2010 film "Howl" last night, starring James Franco as the young, bespectacled Ginsberg. I do recommend this movie for readers grappling with "Howl"--the animated portions in particular really help illustrate the characters and themes of the poem. If you ever wondered who "Moloch" was supposed to be--or what the heck happened at Rockland in the "I'm with you in Rockland" section of the poem--you will understand it much better after seeing the movie.

My favorite part of the film, I think, are the courtroom scenes (based on actual transcripts of the obscenity case against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of "Howl" in the United States). I felt ashamed by the English professor "experts" who took the stand and argued that there was no validity to the depiction of the lives of the poem's "angelheaded hipsters." But I also felt proud of the English professor experts who defended Ginsberg's right to describe his experience in words of his own choosing. The judge's final decision was a thrilling reminder of the power of our First Amendment protections.

Plus, the movie is just a lot of fun! Check it out if you can.

Samantha Barger said...

This post is in response to Sarah’s previous post.

I really enjoyed reading your post about “Howl”. I really liked that you supported Ginsberg’s decision to write in the same language that he and his friends used to talk to one another. While some of the language may have been shocking at the time, it is a large part of what makes “Howl” so special. The events being described in the poem are very real, and at times are hard to deal with. The language used reflects that reality.

There is some irony in the fact that Ginsberg went to a mental institution to “cure” his homosexuality, and then fell in love with another man there. Thinking about that makes me smile, as part of the deal Ginsberg made with his doctor was that if he promised to stop being a homosexual, he wouldn’t have to receive shock treatments. The poem got a lot of press because of the court case, but Ginsberg himself said that he didn’t write it with the intention of it getting published, and was concerned about his father reading what he wrote. After reading that, you realize that this poem written so that Ginsberg could express himself and honor his friends by writing about them. When you read “Howl” with that mindset, it definitely becomes less offensive, and it is easier to view it as an art form.

Samantha Barger said...

After I finished reading “Howl”, I was very excited to see the film version. I wasn’t sure what to expect because I knew that I liked a lot of the actors that were in the film, but was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to capture much of the imagery created by Ginsberg. I was SO very wrong. I was amazed by the way that the movie was able to illustrate exactly what was going on in the poem. The colors used by the illustration team combined with James Franco’s smooth slow voice reciting the poem made it extremely enjoyable. I was literally able to see the words come to life on the screen, and it helped me to make sense of some of the language in the poem.

Learning about the court case, and seeing some of the interviews really helped to bring a lot of value to the poem. Learning about Ginsberg’s life, as well as the lives of many other people from the Beat Generation allowed me to really get into the movie. I would highly recommend this movie to anyone who has or is planning to read “Howl”, because I think that it makes it much easier to understand and visualize.

John Ford said...

When I first read Howl, I didn’t understand any of it. In fact, I didn’t really understand it the second time I read it either. The point is that the movie changed all that. I loved the Howl movie. It displayed the story of howl along with the real-life context and the humanity that Allen Ginsberg had poured into it. Once I heard Allen Ginsberg explain everything, it all just clicked for me. The words of his poem breathed with life for the first time. Aside from just the text of Howl and the message it brings, the movie also tells a great deal of the story of Ginsberg himself. That really helped me absorb the feeling and emotion that, I feel, Ginsberg wanted the reader to feel. In terms of just the movie, the actors were great, the animations and the characters were all perfect. I loved every second of it. The movie was a lot more star-studded than I thought it would have been. Don Draper from Mad Men and Nancy Botwin from Weeds, (I don’t know the names of the actors but I know some other stuff they did, ha-ha), were two of the ones I recognized. The only actor whose name I did know was, obviously, James Franco. I mean come on; he’s a modern day Renaissance man. Did you know he was on a SOAP opera one time? Yeah, he did that for like no reason. But I’m getting off topic. My favorite part of the movie was actually during the credits. In the background there is a song playing and it’s revealed to be Allen Ginsberg singing. I did some research about it, and what happened was, during an interview he was asked how he would like to be remembered and he pulled out his instrument and started playing. The poem he sung is called Father Death Blues. I just think it speaks volumes about the kind of person Ginsberg is, and the kinds of themes in his storytelling.

Sarah Bynum said...

I did not get to watch Howl in class, but I did watch it! It was wonderful! It was more than just the poem by Alan Ginsberg, it gave an insight into who Ginsberg was and what he meant when writing Howl . Besides Ginsberg’s opinions and insights, the movie had an animated version of the story being told when Howl is being read. This was, by far, my favorite part of the movie. I am a very visual person, so having the animation allowed me to understand what Ginsberg was trying to portray in his intensely worded lines. The movie also took the viewer through what happened during the trial. It was interesting to get to hear what was said in court and how one attorney tried to get the poem viewed in an obscene way.
I would highly recommend this movie to anyone! It was very well directed and helped me in my understanding of Ginsberg, his life, and the meaning behind Howl . If anyone is confused while reading Howl , go rent the movie! It will clear everything up!

Sarah Bynum said...

I am responding to Matthew's post, specifically when he talks about the power this poem has and how hopeful the poem truly is.
Matthew, I love that this poem, Howl, had you standing without even realizing it. I had not really thought of the power within Ginsberg's words, but as I am re-reading them, I can feel it! I was not moved to standing, but I was definitely feeling what he is saying. The other part of your post that I absolutely loved was when you were talking about how hopeful the poem is. You say, "check your cynicism at the door" and "leave behind your prejudices". This is exactly what people need to do when reading this. I forced myself to forget what I had heard of Howl and any opinions I might have had. Doing this allowed me to read Howl for what it truly was, hope for people who do not think they can say what they are feeling. I was trying to think of a way to describe what I was feeling and hopeful is the word I was looking for! Ginsberg is saying things for those who might not have had the courage to back then. If helping others realize it is okay to be themselves and speak about it openly in society is not hopeful, I do not know what is.

Sarah Bynum said...

I am responding to Samantha’s response to me on April 11.
When I first read “Howl” I had no idea that Ginsberg did not intend for it to be published. I find it rater amusing that a work the author never intended for anyone else to see could cause so many issues. Knowing Ginsberg wrote it for himself just makes me want to tell the people who gave him a hard time to leave him alone and yell “It is not for you! It is for him!” He has every right to express himself. I am going to have to go back and read “Howl” again keeping this in mind. Knowing that he never wanted someone else to read it, specifically his dad, almost makes me sadder for Ginsberg. The poem is sad enough on its own, but his adds an aspect of tragedy. Ginsberg’s “secret”, even though it was clearly no secret, got out. There is no denying how he felt after reading “Howl”.