Ginsberg’s “Howl”: One of the 3 Greatest 20th Century Poems

Earlier I had discussed T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” as two of the top 20th century poems. Ginsberg’s legendary “Howl”, published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s press, would be a third, and it memorably became the subject of a legendary censorship trial which changed American publishing freedom forever.

A 2010 Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman film pays homage to Ginsberg, this book, and its trial. The trial portion and interviews are based on what various people connected with this case actually said. James Franco is a reasonable facsimile of the young Ginsberg.

But the real treasure of this video is Ginsberg himself reading the classic poem in 1995 at the Knitting Factory in New York. He makes very clear what was so unique and special about this piece de resistance about the the Beat Generation–how they lived, how they suffered, as well as how the post World War II Eisenhower era limited youth of the day and drove them into madness, rebellion, and sometimes both.

As a document, it still effectively expresses the deep anguish of coming of age and efforts to survive in the cold, materialistic “Moloch” period that was soul- and spirit-destroying for many creative individuals of the day. Ginsberg’s passion, honesty, and sincerity are on full display in probably the most memorable poem reading you are ever likely to see and hear anywhere. And, ironically, his reading eclipses and more effectively expresses the poem than the film and is more on a par with the wild animated film embedded within the average main/’documentary’ film.

This DVD is highly recommended for poetry and Beat fans alike. Along with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, it still stands as the clearest, most expansive window into the Beat Generation, their spiritedness, and the counter-culture of 1950s America. As an important cultural artifact, Ginsberg’s reading alone is well-worth the video price.

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