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Listen close and you will hear the Howl of freedom


James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl

Once upon a time, almost everybody I knew could recite the opening lines of Howl. Even today, there are many who have long ago left their beatnik degeneracy behind, but who will be able still to lip-synch the lines.

'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix/angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night/who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz ...'

I came back to Allen Ginsberg's poem about 10 years ago, nervously. I'd put it away 30 or more years back, hadn't read or recited it since.

I remembered that I'd believed it then not only brilliant, but a tremendously significant literary work that everyone must immediately be alerted to for urgent edification of their souls. But Howl was a revelation all over again.

The poem, epic in length, scope and ambition, had been greeted with shouts of praise in the counter-cultural corner of San Francisco when first published in 1956.

Its wider status as the poetic anthem of a new generation was established by the obscenity trial which followed a year later.

A performance of the poem is one of three stands in the film Howl, released this week. The others are the trial - Jon Hamm of Mad Men as the attorney defending the poem - and a long interview with Ginsberg (played by 127 Hours star James Franco).

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Howl isn't one of those works you read, or view, and smilingly wonder at the quaintness of the society which had wanted it suppressed.

It still has the capacity to shock. It's still obvious why so many recoiled. It is an angry, yes, howl against the docile conformity of the Eisenhower age, the zombie condition of popular art, Senator McCarthy patrolling the limits of thought.

Howl came from deep within and far beyond. It was exuberant, expansive, breathless, reckless, driven by anger and joy, compressed images exploding into spark-storms of words, jazz-inflected, Joycean, scary, trembling from ecstatic vision and pity and compassion and the delirium of peace.

It dealt with love, hate, drugs, death and mental illness.

It was a celebration of friendship and homosexual lust. It subverted every respectable assumption of the age. It was great.

Part One is autobiography, a protest against the suffocation of self, an account of the internal life of those who 'threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy/and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong -amp; amnesia'.

Part Two, written under the heavy influence of drugs, mainly peyote, pictures the monstrous destroyer of all in nature that enhances life, Moloch, the god to whom children are sacrificed as the price of power on earth: 'Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!'

In Part Three, Ginsberg finds solace in friendship with fellow-poet Carl Solomon whom he'd met in Rockland mental hospital in New Jersey. It suggests that harmony in the world might best be achieved through peace between ourselves.

Naive solipsism, of course, and yet, here, of wide application: 'I'm with you in Rockland/where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse ... /I'm with you in Rockland/in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.'

Last summer, I heard Patti Smith recite the Footnote from Howl in a piazza in Florence, behind her as backdrop a church of the Renaissance, gathered all around her angelic Florentines in beatific hush, cymbals on her fingers tinkling a rhythm, sky above streaked with the purple of dusk: 'Holy Peter holy Allen holy Solomon holy Lucien holy Kerouac holy Huncke holy Burroughs holy Cassady holy the unknown buggered and suffering beggars holy the hideous human angels! ... Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!/Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!'

Listen close and in Howl you'll hear, as Dylan heard, the sound of freedom flashing.