Sunday, December 5, 2010

Let Us Not Be Frightened out of Our Natural Ecstasy

O victory forget your underwear we're free 

– Allen Ginsberg

I watched the new film Howl last night with Darla and Brother Jonathan, and we declared it great. It has a lot of cartoon figures engaged in sex (heterosexual sex, as Jonathan noted, which doesn’t seem quite Ginsbergian), but who among those who would watch this film would be put off by explicit sex on screen?

The movie provides images to match the spoken words of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” and shifts quickly from these to scenes of the 1957 obscenity trial directed against the poem, and then to convincing portrayals of the young Ginsberg by James Franco.

Taking the poem in like this, enlivened it for me and added to my impression that it gets better every time I read or otherwise encounter it. Part of its appeal for me is that the world it evokes is somewhat familiar. It brings to life so much of the counterculture world in which I grew up (or at least, in which I would have grown up, had I chosen to do so).

Ginsberg writes of angelheaded hipsters, and for me this phrase calls to mind my college buddy, Guy, from whom I learned so much. Like Ginsberg’s visionary indian angels, he passed through the university with radiant eyes hallucinating Blake-light tragedy.

Now I feel as though I’m in the total animal soup of time, stealing one Ginsbergian phrase after another as they come to me in all their universal glory as though from the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox in nowhere Zen New Jersey. Theft, theft.

I’ve always admired Ginsberg for his gentle, insistent honesty – honesty that must not have felt gentle to the defenders of the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism. Darla and I had a chance to hear him recite at Rollins in the 1990s, and the one song-poem I remember best from that night denounced tobacco: “Don’t smoke the official dope.”

Ginsberg’s work at an ad agency in the 1950s led him to question why he should dedicate his talents to convincing housewives to spend their money on one scented product or another. It made him enough of a leftist that Kerouac labeled him Carlo Marx in On the Road.

His ad agency work is touched on in Howl, the movie, and “Howl,” the poem, where he writes of those “who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,…”

Shades of Madmen.

I never saw Kerouac in person, though he lived in Central Florida in the 1960s. I did meet Carolyn Cassady, wife of the famous Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarty) the latter lovingly referred to in “Howl” as “N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver.”

Carolyn wrote a counterpoint memoir to Kerouac’s novel, calling it Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg. She was in Orlando during the dedication of the Kerouac house at which time I had a chance to chat with her for a few minutes. By then she was probably around 80 years old, and had completely re-remembered Cassady and Kerouac in terms of their more homey side. She insisted to me that Neal and Jack were “working men,” with jobs and families. She seemed to want to see them as regular working class guys who did a bit of drinking now and then. I don’t deny this as far as it goes, but Carolyn seemed to me to be distorting who they were as much as On the Road distorted their image in the other, non-domestic direction. Still, she was a sweet and pleasant lady, and I appreciated the chance to talk to her.

On that same occasion I had a conversation with another Beat figure, the musician David Amran; not exactly a conversation, since David is a real talker and once he gets going, he just goes. On this and one other occasion where I spoke with him, he told story after story of his life in the days of the Beats. A sweet guy and a fantastic musician, but be careful not to approach him if you’re late for an appointment.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti did a memorable reading at Rollins back in the 1990s. Ferlinghetti, as the publisher of “Howl” was the one who faced punitive consequences in the obscenity trial. Hats off to him for his courage on that count.

These remembered snippets of sightings and conversations with some of the figures from Ginsberg’s world give me a nice feeling, as though I’ve caught a brief glimpse of American history as it went swooshing by.

The trial itself (and I hope this won’t be considered a spoiler) concluded with the judgment that “Howl” was not obscene, given its literary merit. For readers and audiences today (or most of us, at least), the obscenity is not in the crude, candid language of "Howl," but in the crooked, self-deluding logic of those who thrashed about trying to suppress it. Times change.

Great movie, great poem.

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