HowlDVD - 2011
Allen Ginsberg recounts the road trips, love affairs, and search for personal liberation that led to the most timeless, electrifying, and controversial work of his career. Pushing the limits and challenging the mainstream, the passionate and provocative Howl and its publisher find themselves on trial for obscenity, with prosecutor Ralph McIntosh setting out to have the book banned, while defense attorney Jake Ehrlich fervently argues for freedom of speech and creative expression.
From the critics
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And did you form an opinion as to whether or not the book called "Howl and Other Poems" has any literary merit?
-I think it has no literary merit.
-In order to have literary style, you must have form, diction, fluidity, clarity. Now, I am speaking only of style. And in content, every great piece of literature, anything that can really be classified as literature, is... of some moral greatness, and I think this fails to the nth degree.
I see. Can you think of any other reasons?
-Yes... Use of language. In regards to the figures of speech he uses, he fails in rhetoric, of course, for one thing, because his figures of speech are crude, and you feel like you are going through the gutter when you read that stuff. I didn't linger on it long, I assure you.
It is my opinion that if it has any literary value, it's negligible. I endeavored to arrive at my opinion on an objective basis. For example, a great literary work, or even a fairly great literary work, would obviously be exceedingly successful in form, but this poem is really just a weak imitation of a form that was used 80 to 90 years ago by Walt Whitman.
-And do you recall the name of that poem?
"Leaves of Grass" was the name of the poem. Literary value could also reside in theme, and what little literary value there is in "Howl," it seems to me does come in theme. The statement of the idea of the poem was relatively clear, but it has little validity, and, therefore, the theme has a negative value. No value at all.
"What do you want to do? What is your heart's desire?" Finally I said... what I'd really like to do is to just quit all this and... get a small room with Peter and devote myself to my writing and contemplation and fxcking and smoking pot and... doing whatever I want. And he said, "Why don't you do it, then?" I mean, what will happen if I grow old... and I have pee-stains in my underwear and I'm living in some furnished room and nobody loves me and I'm... white-haired and... I have no money, bread crumbs are falling on the floor?" And he said, "Don't worry about that, "you're very charming and lovable and people will always love you." What a relief to hear that!
I very soon realized that it was all... a fear-trap... Illusory! What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks! Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! Peter and I saw Moloch one day when we took peyote and were wandering around downtown streets. It's a god that you make fire sacrifices to. But... in my mind, it was what drove my mother to madness. So, I had the line Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows.
But it's funny in our law, we are allowed to use expert witnesses to testify as to literary merit, but we are not allowed to bring in, we will say, the average man to testify that when he reads the book, he doesn't understand it. He doesn't know what it's all about. Perhaps it's over his head. Take, for example... Frankly, and I made the comment in open court that I'd read it, I don't understand it very well. In fact, looking it all over, I think it's a lot of sensitive bullshit, using the language of Mr. Ginsberg. So then, If the sale of a book is not being limited to just modern book reviewers and experts on modern poetry, but falls into the hands of the general public, that is to say, the average reader, this court should take that into consideration in determining whether or not "Howl" is obscene.
The United States Supreme Court has said that obscenity is construed to mean "having a substantial tendency to corrupt "by arousing lustful desires." Is the word relevant to what the author is trying to say, or did he just use it to be dirty and filthy? He sees what he terms as "an Adonis of Denver, joy to the memory "of his innumerable conquests. Who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars Neal Cassady, secret hero of this poem, cocksman and Adonis of Denver, joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots and diner backyards, moviehouses' rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings and especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, and hometown alleys too.
Now, I suppose he could have said that, the secret hero of these poems, this "cocksman," this "Adonis of Denver," joy to memory of his innumerable conquests at the Waldorf Astoria... or at dinner at Chasen's, or after one or two drinks, in going to bed at the Stork Club. I presume he could have said that... but that isn't the kind of person he is writing about. … Now whether "Howl" is or is not "obscene" is of little importance to our world, faced as it is with the threat of physical survival, but... the problem of what is legally permissible in the description of sexual acts or feelings in arts and literature is of the greatest importance to a free society.
What is "prurient"? And to whom? And the material so described is dangerous to some unspecified, susceptible reader. It is interesting that the person applying such standards of censorship rarely feels as if their own physical or moral health is in jeopardy. The desire to censor is... not limited, however, to crackpots and bigots. There is... in most of us, a desire to make the world conform to our own views. And it takes all of the force of our own reason as well as our legal institutions to defy so human an urge. The battle of censorship will not be finally settled by Your Honor's decision, but you will either add to liberal, educated thinking, or by your decision, you will add fuel to the fire of ignorance. Let there be light. Let there be honesty. Let there be no running from non-existent destroyers of morals. Let there be honest understanding.
The poem is misinterpreted as... a promotion of homosexuality. Actually, it's... more like a promotion of frankness, about any subject. If you're a foot fetishist, you write about feet. If you're a stock-market freak, you can write about the rising sales-curve erections of the Standard Oil chart. When a few people are... frank about homosexuality in public, it breaks the ice. Then people are free to be frank about anything and... That's socially useful. Homosexuality is a condition, and because it alienated me or set me apart from the beginning, it served as a catalyst for self-examination, or... a detailed realization of my environment and... the reasons why everyone else is different and why I am different.
There are a number of words used in "Howl" that are presently considered coarse and vulgar in some circles of the community, and in other circles, such words are in everyday use. The author of "Howl" has used those words because he believed that his portrayal required them as being in character. The People state that such words are not necessary and that others would be more palatable for good taste. The answer is that life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same and conforms to a particular pattern.
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