James Franco Reads a Dreamily Animated Version of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

“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:

Relat­ed con­tent:

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Clas­sic Beat Poem, ‘Howl’

Allen Gins­berg Reads a Poem he Wrote on LSD to William F. Buck­ley

The Bal­lad of the Skele­tons’: Allen Gins­berg’s 1996 Col­lab­o­ra­tion with Philip Glass and Paul McCart­ney

“Expan­sive Poet­ics” by Allen Gins­berg: A Free Course from 1981

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