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Howl

9 May 11 words: James Walker
Have the ‘buggered and suffering beggars and angel headed hipsters’ gone from a howl to a tweet?
 Eric Drooker has illustrated the graphic novel and done the animations in the film. 

Eric Drooker became close friends with Allen Ginsberg in 1988 after impressing the beat poet with his street posters that celebrated the rights of punks, the homeless, squatters and artists and ‘other riffraff who’d been “keeping real estate prices down” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side’. Nearly a quarter of a century later he has illustrated Penguin’s first ever graphic novel as well as animations for the film of the same title. Ginsberg approved of the collaboration and was proud to have the radical artist illustrate his work having previously collaborated with him in the Illuminated Poems. But is Drooker radical enough to capture the essence of the beat generation?

The beats were a collection of bohemian hedonists who experimented with drugs, sexual identity, and eastern religions whilst rejecting materialism and modern values. Thus, the opening line of the poem reads ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.’ This is not poetic license or embellishment. It is truth. Ginsberg was admitted to the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1949 at the tender age of 23. Jack Kerouac was a diagnosed schizophrenic who, when, not on the road, served the obligatory term in an asylum. Lovable sociopath Neal Cassidy was a serial polygamist who was happy to share both himself and his brides with his friends. He was like the ‘Bez’ of the Beat generation – no discernable talent but the life and soul of the party. But it is Junkie author William Burroughs who epitomised the contagious madness of these ‘buggered and suffering beggars and angel headed hipsters’. When he wasn’t chopping off his little finger and presenting it to his analyst, partook in an ill advised game of William Tell which resulted in his wife taking a bullet to the head.

Given these facts I would expect illustrations that walked the tender line between madness and creativity, life and death, hope and despair; something that captured the mood of the times. Drooker is perfect at doing this with his political posters and art but in the book the illustrations felt, on occasion, like something out of a Pixar movie. It is hard to feel empathy with avatars that are so crisp that it detaches from the rawness of the text and the period of 1956 when the poem was first published by City Lights. Having said this, they have undoubtedly helped stretch the boundaries of the genre and opened it up to the iPod generation.

 
 James Franco stars as Allen Ginsberg in the movie.

The book ties in with a new film that stars James Franco in the lead role and has also been animated by Eric Drooker. Here the artist is working at full capacity, bringing a surreal, hypnotic feel to the moving image. The film includes an interview with Ginsberg that is a collection of multiple interviews taken between 1955 and 1997. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman specialise in documentaries so it is no surprise that they should ensure that Ginsberg is accurately represented in his own words. This would have pleased the bespectacled poet as he was so tired of being misquoted or misrepresented by journalists that he insisted on vetting interviews prior to publication.

As convincing as James Franco is in the lead role, he could be accused of portraying a more socially confidant Ginsberg. Let me give you a little example of his personality. When Ginsberg took ‘e’ he argued that it didn’t stand for ecstasy it stood for empathy. This was a man who meditated prior to taking the drug rather than downing ten cans of lager and splashing on the brute. But we can forgive the directors these slight indiscretions because the film, as with the graphic novel, has helped reimagine this hypnotic poem. 

The film centres around the infamous first public reading of Howl in San Francisco which resulted in the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti being put on an obscenity trial. At the time, sodomy laws made homosexual sex illegal in every state and therefore Ginsberg’s vivid descriptions were deemed a promotion of a criminal act. Fortunately, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled ‘Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?’ With our very own D H Lawrence kicking up a similar stink on these waters with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the permissive society was ushered in.   

Some of Drooker's images are really magical, such as when using colour.
It really feels as if the whole city is being infected by the music.

This may seem incomprehensible now to a younger generation for whom every sexual proclivity is celebrated via a niche website or dedicated cable channel. Homosexuality is clearly no longer an issue either - at least in most countries - but this isn’t to say that things have necessarily changed. Rather the goalposts have been moved.

Political correctness and new laws regarding provocative material deemed to incite hatred epitomise our overtly sensitive post 9/11 world. Putting aside obvious debates as to the benefits of such legislation, it has certainly inflected what is permissible speech- which is the crux of the Ginsberg trial. Now what is socially acceptable speech has extended from the public to the private sphere as any commentator foolish enough to leave their microphone plugged in when off-air will testify. But broadcasting is only a little fish in the technological pool dominated by new media. Here our every thought, comment, or status update can result in a fine, sacking or prosecution. As we willingly open up the smithy of our soul to anyone who cares to listen we create a kind of technologically-induced egotistical suicide.

Will the real Allen Ginsberg, please stand up...

Ginsberg, like many of his generation, was paranoid that corporations were manipulating the minds of the population through the media and advertising. Now, by telling the world our favourite bands and books on social networking websites we have given advertisers the one thing they’ve always craved - our inner most thoughts. The result is self-generating personalised advertising. The Mad Men have won. At the time it was enough to make Ginsberg howl. Now we just tweet.  

Howl a Graphic novel by Allen Ginsberg animated by Eric Drooker.
Penguin Modern Classics, £12.99
Howl is currently showing nationwide.
James Walker's website
 
Howl (film) will be showing at Broadway until Thursday 12 May

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