Allen Ginsberg: portrait of the gay poet as superstar

Jody Hirsh, Contributing writer

Name a poet, any poet. Now name a rock star. Picture the thousands of people who wait in line to buy tickets to Lady Gaga, Dave Matthews Band or U2. But no one imagines a poet as a superstar with the crowd-drawing power of today’s celebrity musicians.

The gay/bi/Jewish Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg, however, was an exception. A celebrity among poets, he commonly drew huge crowds to his reading, notably 7,000 people to his “International Poetry Incarnation” at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1967.

“Howl,” a feature film chronicling the life of Ginsberg as the young poet, could introduce a new generation to the electrifying Beat master. Directed by Rob Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) and Jeffry Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”), the film stars James Franco (“Milk”) as Ginsberg, along with a supporting cast that includes Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, David Straithairn, Jeff Daniels and Treat Willism.

Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival will present a special advance screening of the film on Sept. 15 as a prelude to “Banned Books Week” (Sept. 25 to Oct. 2). The screening is co-sponsored by the UWM Union Theatre and Equality Wisconsin, and co-presented by Milwaukee Film, Woodland Pattern Book Center, the Milwaukee Public Library, UWM Libraries and the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation.

Ginsberg (1926-1997) was considered by many to be a ringleader of the 1950s Beat Generation, an association he constantly denied. His work reflected his take on life in a postwar society, characterized by the aimlessness of his generation. He protested militarism, censorship, materialism, the “war on drugs,” right-wing politics, conventional thinking, and later the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. He condemned orthodoxy of any kind – even the orthodoxy of the left.

Ginsberg was thrust into celebrity with a reading of his groundbreaking poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. His opening lines are among the most famous in world poetry:

“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;

Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection

to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Ginsberg stunned audiences with his frank and shocking language, not expected in the medium of poetry. His open descriptions of sexual acts broke all 1950s societal conventions. His descriptions of gay sex were considered beyond obscene at a time when homosexual acts were virtually outlawed in every state.

With the publication of “Howl,” Ginsberg was charged with obscenity, sparking a world famous trial and the banning of his book. His description of those same best minds “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” was specifically referred to in the trial.

The verdict, however, exonerated Ginsberg. The judge declared, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

Ever an advocate for gay rights, Ginsberg insisted that his lifelong companion Peter Orlovsky be listed as his “spouse” in “Who’s Who in America.” Prolific even at the end, Ginsberg’s heartbreaking last poem, “Things I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias),” was written a week before his death from liver cancer:

“No more sweet summers with lovers, teaching Blake at Naropa …

Any visits to B’nai Israel graves of Buddha, Aunt Rose, Harry Melzer and Aunt Clara, Father Louis

Not myself except in an urn of ashes.”