“Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” With those words, William Carlos Williams gives fair warning to anyone bold enough to read Allen Ginsberg’s harrowing poem from the dark underbelly of America, “Howl.”
“Howl” made quite a stir when it was first published in 1956, sparking a notorious obscenity trial and launching Ginsberg as one of the most celebrated and controversial poets of the 20th century. In 2010, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman made a film examining the events surrounding the poem’s inception and reception, starring James Franco as a young Ginsberg. The film is called Howl, and Newsweek called it “a response to a work of art that is art itself.”
Perhaps the most celebrated aspect of the film is its animated version of the poem itself. The sequence was designed by the artist Eric Drooker, a friend of the late Ginsberg who is perhaps best known for his covers for The New Yorker–including the famous October 10, 2011 cover showing a towering statue of a Wall Street bull with glowing red eyes and smokestack horns presiding over the city like the false god in Ginsberg’s poem:
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
Drooker first met Ginsberg in the summer of 1988, when they both lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was a time of local unrest, when police on horseback were cracking down on punks and squatters occupying Tompkins Square Park. The young Drooker had been plastering the neighborhood with political action posters, and as he recalls on his Web site, Ginsberg later “admitted that he’d been peeling them off brick walls and lampposts, and collecting them at home.”
The two men went on to collaborate on several projects, including Ginsberg’s final book, Illuminated Poems. So Drooker seemed a natural for Epstein and Friedman’s movie. “When they approached me with the ingenious idea of animating ‘Howl,’” he says, “I thought they were nuts and said ‘sure, let’s animate Dante’s Inferno while we’re at it!’ Then they told me I’d work with a team of studio animators who would bring my pictures to life. . . how could I say no?”
You can watch the beginning of Drooker’s animated (and slightly abridged) rendition of “Howl” above, and continue by clicking the following six links: