I was first introduced to Allen Ginsberg's Howl when in 2010, in my most fervent time of James Franco obsession, I stumbled into the film about the poem with Franco playing Ginsberg. I was immediately taken my the film and the poem, and ended up reading the original text after watching the film. Since then, I have read it multiple times, but it wasn't until I found this graphic novel from the shelves of my local library, that I became to realize that there was a graphic novel (or I guess graphic poem) version of it.
Ginsberg wrote Howl in 1955, and it was published in 1956 as part of his poetry collection called Howl and Other Poems. The collection is dedicated to Carl Solomon, an American writer arguably most known for his Report from the Asylum: Afterthoughts of a Shock Patient, an personal account of the shock-therapy treatment used to treat patients in asylums.
Both Howl and Ginsberg are widely associated with the Beat Generation, a group of authors who became popular throughout the 1950s. The publications of the Beat culture are known for their rejection of standard narrative values, exploration of religions, rejection of materialism, experimentation of drugs and sexual exploration and liberation. These elements can certainly be found from Howl as well, which uses graphic words and descriptions of drug use and sex.
Because of its themes, Howl was involved in a obscenity trial in 1957. Due to its references to illicit drugs and both heterosexual and homosexual practices, copies of the poem were seized during importation process from London and San Francisco police officer arrested and jailed a bookstore manager for selling the poem. The publisher of the book, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested too, and on the trial nine literary experts were invited to testify on the poem's behalf.
The line in particular that was used in the trial is: "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." Yes, it certainly is pretty graphic, but the fact that someone was arrested over that feels so strange now. Ferlinghetti eventually won the case and the poem was decided to have "redeeming social importance". The case was highly publicized, which probably led to more people reading the poem, and it is this trial that is also used as an inspiration of the 2010 film starring James Franco.
Like the original poem, the graphic novel/illustrated poem is also divided into three parts and a footnote. My personal favorite is part III, which is a directly addressed to Carl Solomon, the man the poem is dedicated to. Ginsberg met Solomon in 1949 during his brief stay in a mental hospital, and the "Rockland" the third part mentions several times is actually Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute.
The poem is illustrated by Eric Drooker, who worked with Ginsberg in 1992 for a collection of Illuminated Poems (which is definitely something I need to get my hands on next). Drooker also designed the animation for the 2010 film and it is actually the film art that is used in this graphic novel.
Drooker's graphic novel and the film go hand-in-hand and after seeing the film several times, it was interesting to see the animation close-up and go through it in my own pace. The more I read this poem, the more I like it. Every single time I pick it up, I feel like reading it out loud just to be able to hear the way the words sound together.
Both the poem and the film are definitely bit out of the mainstream, but if you are interested in familiarizing yourself with some of the significant pieces of American literature, Howl is definitely worth a read. The film is also brilliant, and one of my personal all-time favorites, and though James Franco has turned kind of creepy in the past couple of years, he is brilliant as Ginsberg.
You can get an idea of the film and listen to the poem from here.
It was no surprise to me that I loved it as much as I did, and I definitely want to buy this for myself at some point to add it to my Ginsberg collection. It also really made me want to watch the film again, which I will probably do as soon as I have time for it.