A scene from the movie Howl: James Franco as Allen Ginsberg reading his famous poem at the Six Gallery/press release photo ( source )
*********There is a time to whimper and a time to howl. A few years ago, as America settled into the numbness and conformity of the 9/11-driven Bush era, almost everyone was passively humming to the steady, relentless beat of the War on Terror, if not actively chanting to the shrill, falsetto lyrics of the Patriot Act, oblivious of the undercurrents and hidden agendas eroding American society as it embarked on this glorious crusade against the "Evil Enemy".
Now, a decade later, as the economy, middle class
sustainability, the environment, humanity, tolerance, freedom, ethics and true morality
are all disintegrating before our very eyes, while the ruling paradigm of fear
and paranoia has brought us to a Marquis de Sade-like social state of
Taser-crazed cops, NSA digital spies, pornographic full-body scanners and penis
and vagina grope-up pat-downs with even our underwear scrutinized, there is a
deep and growing need to howl and cry - howl with pain, howl with disgust, howl
with anger at the castrating thrusts of the State's Talking Heads' henchmen who
want to Matrix us.
And some of us want to howl with the wolves who only know
freedom, or, absent that, death. "Give me liberty
or give me death!" said Patrick
Henry, on the eve of the Revolution of 1776.
In the midst of this regression, depression and cultural repression, an old metaphor for the Beat Era has suddenly resurfaced in the consciousness of America. "When the student is ready the Master appears" goes the old Occult dictum, and we can paraphrase this to state that likewise "when the collective spirit is grievously hurting and fervently searching, the Master Poet appears."
Thus it was back in the 1950s, as America, exhausted after the depredations of McCarthyism and the Korean War, yet still paranoid to the hilt about Communism, infected with nascent consumerism and compulsive-moralistic conformism while further afflicted with entrenched Jim Crow racism, suddenly heard their generation's poet of conscience speak. Young Allen Ginsberg, barley green at the poet's podium just after his de facto apprenticeship to William Carlos Williams, took to the stage at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 to read his poem Howl. A half hour later the audience, which included Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, not to mention Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ann Charters and Neal Cassady sat or stood electrified. As McClure put it, "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America". (source)
Young Ginsberg hard at work writing/Photobucket commons
Photo of an older Ginsberg at a Peace Rally during the Vietnam Era, San Francisco Beat Museum/photo by Mac McKinney
And now we have gradually come full circle in America,
living in a differently designed straightjacket as increasingly strangling
(save for the freedom of expression still on the Internet) as the one wrapped
around our humanity in the 50s, and in many ways even more odious and alien,
certainly much more destructive to the planet as a whole, the destruction and
repression enhanced exponentially by technology. And so our old metaphor
appears, also evolved now technologically from a two-dimensional written poem
to three-dimensional animated and enacted performance art within the medium of
cinematic expression. I am talking about the movie Howl. I saw it a few weeks ago at a film forum preview at the
iconic Naro Cinema in Norfolk, and felt, after seeing James Franco, one of our
most raved about young actors, as Ginsberg, weaving the entire four part poem
in and out of the narrative of his life at that point in time, against the
added backdrop of the famous Howl obscenity trial, well, I felt like I imagine
Michael McClure felt back in 1955 at the Six Club, awed and electrified.
It was at that point in time that the Beat Movement in America finally began to define itself, becoming, over time, an oasis for free-thinking and liberation of form and subject in the arts and culture, as well as a gateway for journeys into expanded consciousness, and I am not merely referring to drug trips, but to the embrace of Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophical ways of thought. Kerouac and even more so Ginsberg got heavily into this. And Ginsberg's vision, that he shouts out in his Footnote in Howl, actually Part 4, is essentially the Buddhist/Hindu one of the joyful realization that God is ALL:
Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the
locomotive holy the visions holy the hallucinations
holy the miracles holy the eyeball holy the abyss!