Angelheaded hipsters burning: poetry, censorship and animation – Howl

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,

angelheaded 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,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall...” from the opening of Howl, by Allen Ginsberg.

I was lucky enough to get an advance viewing of the upcoming film Howl, inspired by Beat poet Allan Ginsberg’s famous poem, one of the seminal verse works of the 20th century and a major counter-culture landmark (right back when even the idea of a counter-culture was a new thing). Interesting to the literati, I’m sure, but some of you might wonder why I’m talking about it on the blog here. Well the film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman has an interlaced three-part structure, intercutting between 50s style ‘documentary’ footage of James Franco (Milk, Spider-Man) as Ginsberg and the court battle when reactionary forces in American society attempted to have Howl banned from print as ‘obscene’. Linking these two strands is the third element: some wonderful animation based on the artwork and designs of acclaimed artist Eric Drooker.

How much the resulting collage will appeal to you will, I suspect, depend to some extent on your appetite for poetry (I love it, but I know a lot of people don’t care for it, which is a shame, it’s a different way of looking at the universe, like magic is to science, or jazz to Classical music). Verse is always best read out; when it is read out the voice accentuates the rhythm and life inherent in good poetry. It floats like fine jazz, conjuring imagery and emotions out of your mind, linking them, making them flow and intersect and cross-breed to spark off more images and emotions. The faux-documentary scenes of young Ginsberg reading Howl for the first time to a live audience throb with creative energy (Franco does a terrific job), but for me it was the reading of the poetry over Drooker’s animation that really worked. Animation, poetry and jazz all combining, sometimes with literal (or at least semi-literal) interpretations of the lines, at other times more symbolic in nature, dreamlike, or sometimes a dark dream, semi nightmare (for some reason it occasionally made me flash back to some of the dreamlike animated scenes in Waltz With Bashir), the animated form offers up a far superior visual compliment to the poetry than live action ever could.

The court case scenes are based on actual records and alongside the famous UK court battle a decade later over Lady Chatterly’s Lover (also for ‘obscenity’) it marks an extremely important moment in the post-war Western world where artistic freedom and freedom of speech won out over the older, more conservative, reactionary forces in society; even if you’ve never read a poem in your life Howl and the victory publisher City Lights scored in those 1950s courts have had an impact on anyone who reads or who enjoys art, because it not only broke artistic boundaries, it helped secure the primacy of the freedom of speech, that element of any democratic society that any reader holds most dear. It’s an intriguing film and for me Drooker’s art (and the work of the rest of the animation team drawing from his designs) hold the other aspects of the film together, allowing the film-makers to indulge in something other than the straight biopic you might expect (and which would never have suited a work as unusual as Howl).

HarperCollins published a graphic novel of Howl with Drooker’s artwork recently with art similar to what you will see in the film; the film of Howl itself opens in the UK on February 25th.

Poetry in motion

I’ve been on a bit of a poetry kick this month; Edinburgh City of Literature’s annual campaign this year (previous years have seen Conan Doyle and Stevenson used to boost interest in reading) is in collaboration with the Scottish Poetry Library. Carry a Poem is encouraging people to find ways of taking poetry around with them and sharing it; as well as giveaways of books and cards it also includes projecting verse onto public monuments and buildings, such as the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge (an institution which, coincidentally, digitally archives this very blog):

carry a poem - national library of scotland 02
I love this idea; in our northern kingdom night falls very early in the winter months and I think it is rather wonderful that as darkness steals across the land the very fabric of the city becomes a page for the poet’s art. For an ancient city such as Edinburgh it seems most appropriate; it’s a city of history and culture, part real, solid buildings and streets, part fantastical, drawn from the imagination of painters and writers and photographers and others and the written word is as much Edinburgh’s foundational fabric as her native stone and volcanic rock, from scholarly treatises penned by kings to the centuries of endless writers who have lived and scribed away inside her, their words shaped by the city but also shaping the city itself, re-imagining it, be it Burns or Stevenson or Hume or modern authors like Rankin. Even her streets have become pages, home to the written word:
Carry a poem - Royal Mile
How sad then that so many people walked past as I stopped to look at these scenes, words written in light and displayed on ancient stone, most of them oblivious to these little gems of art and life the city was offering up to them as they hurried home after the day’s labour. Even when these schemes are not running there’s so much that draws the eye, little stories beckon, little glimpses of history and lives and small delights and wonders if you but pause for just a moment. Look, here carved in stone it tells you Scott once lived in this building, that Stevenson drank in this howff. Sometimes my walk home may take ten minutes longer than usual as I pause to look at something (and usually try to photograph it too), but what’s ten minutes? Who cares if it’s home ten minutes later when those moment were spent not in the dull, mundane every day of work, home, dinner, washing up but in looking at something beautiful that most people are too blinkered to notice, a tiny splash of magic that made me smile.

Their loss. The city speaks if you have eyes to see and ears to hear and you haven’t closed off that sense of wonder that first is stoked in childhood but so many seal off in adulthood, letting it atrophy, assuming it a childish thing and always left afterwards with a tug somewhere inside for something they know they have lost but they don’t know what it is let alone how to recover it. Pity such people; they like to project an aura of being capable, practical, down to earth; often they affect to pity the dreamer as one who is a little addled perhaps or merely too indulgent, even childish. But they are the ones who are hollow within, closed, lost, stumbling through the world with their most important senses blinded to the wonder around them.

I think it’s why I love poetry; it’s like jazz, it stands outside of prose, although kin to it, it touches directly on sensation, experience, emotions in a way no other artform does, although many borrow from it for their own medium, which becomes richer for it. Poetry is one of our most ancient artforms – long before we wrote them down they were told orally (still the best way to experience a poem) and passed on, from the short to the truly epic, the longer ones memorised in verse because it helped the cadences of the storytelling and for the storyteller to recall it for their audience. Words, especially the written word, were seen by the ancients as being akin to magic, a symbolic way of interpreting and reworking some part of the universe. They were right. Since I’m on a poetry jag, here’s a lovely little animation by Julian Grey I found which accompanies former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading his poem Forgetfulness:

Burns Night

A happy Burns Night to you all; its the night Scots and millions of others around the world celebrate our national bard, Robert Burns. Burns Suppers will be held from the Highlands of Scotland to the sunny climes of Australia, from America to Russia (he’s very popular with the Russians, who see him, correctly, as a man of the people). I think its rather wonderful that the life and work of a poet from centuries past brings people together the world over each January 25th to recite verse and song and enjoy food and another great Scottish contribution to world culture, the fine single malt. Here’s a wonderful rendition of one of my favourite Burns works, A Man’s a Man For ‘a That, sung by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament here in the heart of Edinburgh:

I especially liked when she got the normally boring old politicians to join in towards the end, not something you see in the House of Shame at Westminster. There were some cringeing royalist toads who whined that the choice of song could be viewed as an insult to the Queen as its a well loved libertarian anthem, explicitly celebrating the equality of all and pointing out the be-ribboned aristocrat may have rank and station but he’s no better than anyone else and his estates and rank and status are worth far less than the words of the man who is free in thought and deed. Amen to that. Just remember please, if you are having haggis tonight, to make sure its a free range haggis, given the run of highland slopes and not some battery farmed haggis.

Rhythm song

As Britain (finally) after several centuries appoints a woman (and a Scot) for the first time to the post of Poet Laureate (which has until now been unremittingly the preserve of white, English males, despite being supposedly a post for the whole of the UK) the BBC is embracing verse, with a special poetry season across its various networks, with, as is now almost the standard practise, a good web site to support the programming. I know, I’ve banged on about poetry before and realistically I’m probably wasting my breath (or typing) as people mostly polarise into those who embrace poetry and those who say they can’t stand it.

Now I say they can’t stand it, but for most of them what they actually mean is they’ve never really tried and have written off one of our oldest art forms, a magical form of writing, which has spaned millennia of human development. Perhaps they were put off by a bad English teacher at school, perhaps they simply assume that its not for them without trying, but either way it shuts them off from a huge swathe of human culture. Bards have been a vital part of our cultural heritage literally for thousands of years; long before the written word and the novel and the play were commonly available using verse as a method to memorise tales was the method that was used, its probably how huge epics like the Iliad would have been transmitted across the centuries before it was written down.

I love the written word; its a magical power, to be able to communicate thoughts and ideas and feelings across time and space; it links people. And in the realms of metaphor and literary structure and notional worlds that the written word embraces, poetry is a special case all its own, a unique way of talking to the world and to the heart and to the soul in a way few others can. Writing was once seen literally as magic – Egyptian priests casting spells to protect the dead pharoah in the afterlife through the use of words, pictograms drawn on cave walls of Lascaux to drawn on the power of what they represent, the use of the exact, written form of a person’s name to give power over them. We’re so surrounded by communication media today we’ve forgotten how remarkable the act of being able to articulate thoughts and feelings in the written word, in a way that can go beyond ourselves to many others and even outlast us, actually is. Poetry is a direct link to that time when few could read and write, to magical incantations, but not to cast spells or summon angels or demons, but to draw and share emotions directly. And to hear poetry read aloud, by the light of candles and fire as it was for millennia is to partake in a ceremony of magic.

Happy Burns Night

It’s January the 25th when Scots at home and the many-times that number of Scots and those of Scots blood abroad celebrate the life and art of our national bard, Robert Burns. Actually more than Scots – Burns is one of that handful of writers, like Austen, Borges and Cervantes, who cross the centuries, national boundaries and language to become a writer who belongs to the world. A Makar, as we would say, an old term which implies more than a writer, but a maker of words, ideas and worlds, one who translates notions, symbols, thoughts and feelings into that magical form we call words so others can share them.

There’s nane that’s blest of human kind,
But the cheerful and the gay, man,
Fal, la, la, &c.

Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.”

“A bottle and friend”, Robert Burns, 1787

This year the city of my birth, Glasgow, has taken this day to mark another great Scots poet as well, the bard I personally consider the greatest living Scots poet and my personal favourite, the quite wonderful Edwin Morgan. Sadly Eddie, now in his mid 80s and suffering from cancer, isn’t up to taking part but nonetheless some 15, 000 free copies of one of his collections of poetry is being given out over a 24 hour period in Glasgow with poets doing readings all over the city and ordinary folks in the street being encouraged to explore a part of their culture and heritage that many of them perhaps don’t think about too much.

Actually, even among many book folks I often hear the ignorant “I don’t like poetry” response from people all the time. That’s usually from people who never bother their arse to actually try reading some different types of poetry. Its like saying I don’t like jazz, I don’t like Indian food, I don’t like… Well, you get the idea – dismissing a whole and very diverse area without exploring it, or rubbishing it on perhaps one or two tiny looks. Its a sign of a closed mind and that’s a shame because poetry is one of the finest ways I know to open minds and expand not only the imagination but the senses and the ability to perceive more with them; good poetry reaches beyond what even the best prose can do (and some of the best prose feels poetic), it interacts with our intellect but also our spiritual side and connects us, ideas, dreams, the world and the other worlds behind the one we see with our ordinary eyes.

Still say you don’t like poetry? Think about it next time you are listening to some beautiful piece of music that moves you in a way you didn’t think anything could and then realise you’re listening to another form of poetry, told in notes and beats. Poetry is music, its words, its rhythm, its life.

But now, if you will excuse me, my personal Burns Supper awaits – something a little different this year, vegetarian haggis samosas in chili sauce! (if you are wondering how you get a veggie haggis, you take an ordinary wild haggis and feed it on tofu) Thus combining two great Scottish traditions, the haggis and Indian food, on one meal and of course a very fine single malt to toast the Bard. Slainte!