I’m With You In Rockland As Long As You’re Seeing HOWL There

For the first time maybe ever, there is a mainstream (ish) movie in theaters about something I care about: HOWL. I cannot yet see HOWL, despite wanting to desperately, because every theater in my city is too busy showing Resident Evil Afterlife: 3D.

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So because I love poetry / Allen Ginsberg / Howl, etc., in lieu of watching the actual film I’m going to try to explain why this movie / poem / moment is so important to me. Have a seat.

Allen Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and went to San Francisco in 1954 to write poetry. I, Rachel, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and when I was seventeen I went to San Francisco to read poetry. Or maybe I went because I’d already read poetry. Maybe I went because I needed to be somewhere else, and that was why I’d started reading poetry in the first place. I don’t really know. Poetry is everywhere and anywhere; there’s no need to get on a plane to find it, so why did I?

We’d been assigned Kerouac‘s On the Road, and it was very special. Like most seventeen-year-olds, I liked the idea of traveling aimlessly and then writing a literary bombshell while on enough benzedrine to kill a horse. Everyone loves that line:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”

Though I understand why it resonated with so many people, I was never one of them. I think it just struck me as a little much to declare that the only people for you are the ones who “never say a commonplace thing.” The lines that resonated with me, that sounded like they were written about me and the people I loved, were from Howl:

…who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts…

…who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish…

…who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo, who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s, floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox…”

I liked Kerouac and Ginsberg because they were about fucking shit up and doing things because it felt good — which felt very important to me at the time — but I liked Ginsberg more because I felt instinctively that he belonged to my people. Kerouac was an artist, but he was the football quarterback of artists; he was good-looking and funny and everyone loved him. He slept with boys sometimes, but it seemed at worst accidental and at best magnanimous, like he couldn’t bear to deny anyone the experience of being with him. Ginsberg, on the other hand, was a balding bisexual Communist Jew, and he was not cool.

While Kerouac mostly wrote about doing things – drugs, women, women on drugs – Ginsberg wrote about writing. He wrote about words, about “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars, whole intellects disgorged for seven days and nights…” Ginsberg was a queer loser, like me, and America felt very important – very true to the political moment.

In the foreword to Howl, William Carlos Williams writes of Ginsberg, “He was always on the point of ‘going away’ where it didn’t seem to matter…. his ability to survive, travel, and go on writing astonishes me.” Travel seemed important to me, too; going away to other places seemed important. Also, I was seventeen and I felt like I was crazy, so my best friend and I bought plane tickets to San Francisco for ten days under the frail pretext of a school project on Beat poets. I left behind my family, my soft-focus incubator of a small town, and the girl who would sometimes call me, high, at four in the morning, to tell me I was beautiful. I brought with me the collected letters of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, and in the airport I fell asleep in my friend’s lap.

I don’t think I read any poetry the whole time I was there. I don’t remember any poetry. I remember sleeping in, both of us dozing in the same big bed even though the we’d been reminded, several times, that there was an empty bed in the guest room and one of us was welcome to stay in it because wasn’t it a little crowded in there with both of us?

It wasn’t crowded. Not even when she took non-drowsy allergy medication too close to bedtime and kept us both awake all night with restless arms and body.

Instead of poetry, I read these love letters, and was more engrossed in them than I was in the city around me. I was obsessed with them because they weren’t poetry. And because even though they were beautiful, they sounded like me; they sounded like the people I loved. Ginsberg was a little verbose and a little needy; Cassady smoked too much and both of them lived in their own heads, in each others’ heads, in these letters that did not exist in a time or a space but just on paper. I liked that – that felt real to me.

I’m with you in Rockland
where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States
that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep.

Partially under the pretext of our “school project” but also for real, we went to the City Lights bookstore, which first published Howl in 1956 and ignited a court trial about what was “obscenity” and what was “art” and what those two things might have to do with one another. This was where I bought my copy of Howl; it felt appropriate. As I was leafing through it in the upstairs poetry room at the store, a twentysomething with a blond ponytail and goatee approached behind me.

“Is this the first time you’ve read that?” He whispered like we were in a church.

“Uh, no.” I spoke normally.

“Then is this the thousandth time you’ve read it?” He wanted to talk about poetry; I told him I liked Rilke, and he said he’d never heard of him. My friend and I left. She held my hand when we crossed the street.

BY KATE BEATON, COURTESY OF HARKAVAGRANT.COM

There isn’t any more to that story. Once I read a poem and got on a plane. Later, I came back. In his lifetime, Allen Ginsberg moved from Paterson, New Jersey to California, to Denver, to New York, to Houston, to Rockland a thousand times, to Morrocco, to Paris, to India.

This poem is the only common thread, and then again it isn’t, and that’s the whole point.

Maybe you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of comings and goings around here lately; there’s a lot of talk of San Francisco. There are more than a few of us who are about to “[barrel] down the highways of the past journeying to each other’s hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch or Birmingham jazz incarnation.” Lately it feels like everyone is “[driving] cross-country seventy-two hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity.” Do you know what I mean? This is what poetry is for. And since this movie is apparently “. . . devoted to the recitation, comprehension, and appreciation of a single poem,” we are basically frothing at the mouth trying to get up in there.

…to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human
prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent
and shaking with shame, rejected yet
confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,

the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown,
yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band
and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani
saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered
out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand
years.


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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 1006 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. 0

    My favorite professor (who studied with Ginsberg actually) and I will be driving two hours to see this movie. And the school’s paying for it. And we will be getting drunk. And he will be bringing his boyfriend.

    I feel like Ginsberg would approve.

  2. 0

    I wrote a paper on Ginsberg for my junior year English class in high school- I loved Howl because it made me think a million kinds of beautiful and terrible things. I even made a poster with my favorite lines and paint-splattered it in blue and yellow.

    Anyway. Yes. Howl at 17.

    (also I loved Ginsberg for being queer like me.)

    And I really freaking want to watch this movie like woah!!!

  3. 0

    really enjoyed this. will be viewing HOWL via directv this wknd. excited.

    also, rachel, i want to point out that you’ve illustrated here exactly what i love most about you which is that no silly douche in a ponytail’s gonna sweep you off your feet.

  4. 0

    There are things that make me sad. And one of those things is that – in my younger years – I never had a teacher or a mentor or a friend who came to me and said “Here, you’ve got to read this. It changes the hearts of everyone it touches.”

    Because the truth is, that I’ve never read Howl. I’ve always meant to, especially when talk of the movie started happening. Everyone seems to love it, you know. And I felt so left out for having never felt it in my life. I’d just always forget. I’m so forgetful.

    I’m going to stop forgetting right now though. Life always lacks enough poetry, even when there is a lot of it all around. So I’ll go read it right now. And then wish that all of us could sit together and watch the movie and then when its over, look at each other with wide eyes and blissed out hearts. Cause probably we will have just seen something so perfect that there’d be little else to do other than smile.

    (You’re positively my favourite, I love your words.)

  5. 0

    America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

    thanks for this wonderful post. awhile ago I sent a friend this long and ranty email about Ginsberg and now I can send her this and be like, this! this is what I meant to mean.

  6. 0

    Silly me, thinking I was the only one who was getting all upset about not being able to see this sooner. Rachel, you rule for a.) this post and b.) posting about the Beats AND all of your Lil Wayne enthusiasm. Extra points for hacking into my brain. Free Weezy / YAY BEATS.

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