“Howl”: first feature-length videopoem?

I wake from a dream of flying and being grounded — flying with my own wings, I mean, and then being stopped and held back by a ring of people who were all masquerading as me: Poetry.

Jesus. Did I really just dream that? I did, and I have no doubt what prompted it: watching HOWL on Hulu last night before bed. The hallucinatory animation sequences, full of flying and falling souls/poets/angelheaded hipsters, were clearly still percolating through my subsconscious.

Andrew Weil once wrote about psychotropic drugs that one’s experience is greatly determined by set (i.e. mindset) and setting. I think the same is true for many other kinds of mind-altering experiences, including reading novels and watching movies. My experience of HOWL was largely positive, therefore, in part because the setting was right. My belly was full, the chair was comfortable, and I had been actively searching for something to watch that would be slightly challenging, but primarily escapist entertainment. More importantly, I think, was my mindset, shaped by a couple of years of curating Moving Poems and studying all manner of poetry films, especially animations and film-poems or videopoems. I read the reviews of HOWL when it first came out and conceived the notion that it was basically a feature-length version of the kinds of things I most like to post to Moving Poems, and sure enough, that’s what I saw last night: a brilliant mixture of documentary, animation, and interview with the poem itself at center stage.

A couple other critical elements of my mindset help account for my reception. One is that I’m a strong advocate of free speech and gay rights, things central to the obscenity trial, which was the film’s chronological anchor and source of dramatic tension. I don’t often think about the kind of courage required to do what Ginsberg (and Ferlinghetti) did in pre-Stonewall days. The details about his and his mother’s involuntary consignment to mental institutions were sobering, too, and I didn’t know anything about that background to the poem.

Another thing that shaped my perception of the movie was my attitude about Beat poetry in general and Ginsberg’s poetry in particular: I’ve never particularly cared for either one, but I recognize their importance to 20th-century American poetry — which I am obviously very deeply interested in. From the opening seconds of the film, I was like, Holy shit, that’s the reading, man! The one that started this whole craze for live poetry readings (and later, poetry slams) that’s still with us 55 years later. But in general, I find Beat poetry boring, self-indulgent, and severely lacking in the kinds of silences I prize in modern lyric poetry. Perhaps if I’d had a more exalted opinion of the poem or its author, I’d have been disappointed with what the directors, actors and animator did with it. Instead, I thought they succeeded brilliantly, not only in bringing the poem to life, but as Stanley Fish pointed out in the New York Times, communicating something of the intellectual pleasures of literary criticism, and of reading itself — a real feat for any movie.

In my post-movie enthusiasm last night, I also read an interview with the filmmakers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, at TribecaFilm.com. As a connoisseur of film-poetry I was especially interested in their description of the process:

Q: So HOWL is a movie about poetry. How did you even start to conceive how to do that?

Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, it took us a while to figure it out. We just approached it as we would any other project by starting to do research. We wanted to understand what went into the making of the poem; Allen’s creative process and his personal process; and what he had to go through to get to the point where he could produce this poem.

We wanted to understand the world that the poem [was] being introduced into, and the obscenity trial seemed like a ready-made theater to show that. We wanted the poem to live on its own, [which the poem does in] different ways in the movie: it lives as performance art, which is the way it was first presented to the world, as spoken word—it was really the first poetry slam—and in the animation, which was inspired by Eric Drooker’s collaboration with Ginsberg on a book of poems, including part of HOWL, called Illuminated Poems.

Rob Epstein: We wanted the poem to be a character. That was the starting point.

Q: I’m fascinated by your switch from doc to narrative. Were you always planning that with HOWL?

Rob Epstein: When we started immersing ourselves in research, we didn’t yet have a concept. Once we did, the first idea we had for the film was pretty close to what it ended up being: we knew we wanted to do a dramatic film that had the veracity of a documentary. We became less concerned with category than with approach.

A little later in the interview, they address the animation specifically:

Q: One of my favorite lines in the film is during the courtroom scene: “You can’t translate poetry to prose; that’s what makes it poetry.” Would you talk about the process of translation [sic] poetry into animation? Do you think it’s a better fit?

Jeffrey Friedman: Well, we don’t think of it as translation, we think of it as adaptation, the way you would adapt a novel. So you have to make it specific, because you’re creating something visual, so it’s a very specific vision that we try to imagine as what might have been going on in the head of the poet as these images were emerging.

We have all these different realities in the film. We have the present tense, all in color, which is the obscenity trial and the imagined interview with Allen, which was inspired by this Time magazine interview that he gave during the trial that was never published. And then we have flashbacks (in black and white) to events in his life and the first reading of the poem. But we also wanted the poem to live in a kind of timeless, unreal world, so the animation was a way of trying to create that.

I think the vividness of my dreams this morning is testimony to just how well they succeeded. Unmoved as I was by Ginsberg’s insistence on the importance of confessional authenticity, and by his over-all worldview with its achingly sincere, youthful visions of revolution, somehow I was captivated by a film about a poem I still consider terribly over-rated. I think that says something about the power of the film-poem genre in general, where the leaps, gaps and paradoxes of the poem guide the action, and where poem and film combine to make something greater than the sum of its parts. For Epstein and Friedman’s next project, perhaps they could take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s work? “The Art of Losing” would make a great title for a movie…

Petition to Fullness

This entry is part 19 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


Heart grown gray, heart
tressed with care: tell me why
the bowl never seems to fill
though I’ve poured all the sweet
water I could find, countless trips
through the years— And winters,
I’ve cut off my hair and bartered
its gloss for coin to line it with broth
or glistening fat and the russet
of vegetables grown rich in the soil;
and in summer I’ve waited beneath
the trees to catch what gleanings might
thicken, of wood thrush or cardinal
song: but still you will not eat—


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Horror Fictions

This entry is part 8 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


DEAD (Patrick Caulfield grave)

At some point in every horror film
comes the line: It’s alive!
Is this the way the dead feel
when we disturb their rest with
our roots & our pickaxes, our squirming
purple larvae & our blind snouts?
We are the zero in their bones,
that slick thick marrow, mother
of blood. We are their unlucky
rabbits’ feet, the throw of their dice.
We creep & crawl. We erupt,
dangerous as magma.
Someday the sun will bring us
all together, living & dead, in one
molten paroxysm, but until then we can meet
only in the briefest of spasms, & are listed
together in the credits for moan, rattle
& almost imperceptible sigh.


This entry is part 18 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


In the morning, the new sprouted leaves
of basil in the earthen pot have been chewed
to lace. I’m not sure how it happens, for I
never see the slugs, though I’ve read
of a woman’s account of how she
watched one for months while bedridden,
and could hear it chewing on a leaf
of celery. I wonder, why don’t they defend
themselves? The yellow roses have
their spurs. The broad leaves of comfrey
are mean enough to drop into a salve
or tincture. Even the hordes of wild
garlic heads aim their spears at a sky
that threatens another day of rain.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Learn Harmonica Today

This entry is part 27 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Start without the harmonica. Scarves, messengers, sections of a tangerine: anything can teach you grace. Hold a small bird & blow on it as if it were the first feeble flame in a trash burner with rain already starting to fall. Draw a map of everywhere you can walk with one tapping foot. Because honey is golden, we think we know how it will taste, but the tongue has other rendezvous. Reach without looking into a drawerful of knives, patting gently with your fingertips as if it were the head of a large dog. Practice saying, This one’s for the ladies. Anyone who knows how to breathe knows how to play.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy

This entry is part 7 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Weed whacker

Magpies have been observed engaging in elaborate social rituals, possibly including the expression of grief.

So those are magpies!
They do look acquisitive.
They hover over
the graves like eyebrows
or second thoughts, tails
held decorously aloft.
Each time I raise the camera
they take flight—proof
they’re not spirits
but among the quick.
They are, in their black-
&-white way, shiny.
They remind me of
our shared mission:
to rob the dead.
Their chatter offers
a refuge from this refuge
where even the weed
eater keens, though
among their own kind,
blessed with sufficient wit
to comprehend loss,
they’re said to indulge
in rituals of grief.
I try counting them:
one, one, one.

Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser

This entry is part 17 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


[ Also a partly found poem after Brian Doyle’s Joyas Voladoras; with thanks to Lina Sagaral Reyes for the link ]

I don’t know whose translucent wings those are
twitching, disappearing into a knothole in the ceiling;

but in the throes of great uncertainty I am
asked to consider the miniature:

– A heart the size of a pencil eraser, beating ten
times a second, hammering faster than we could hear.

– A heart that fuels flights more than five
hundred miles without stopping to rest.

– Hot heart that kisses at least a thousand flowers a day
but cold, slides into a torpor from which it might no longer rouse.

– Oh my constellation of fears, shamed by a wingstroke
smaller than a baby’s fingernail, thunderous as the world’s wild waterfalls.

– Heart like a race car engined by color, buffered
by wind, stripped for nothing but flight.

– Chant of bearded helmetcrests and booted racket-tails,
violet-tailed sylphs and crimson topazes.

– Rosary of charismatic names: amethyst woodstars and
rainbow-bearded thornbills, pufflegs and spatuletails.

– You’ve found me out: I have a bag of tortoise coins. I’ve spent them
like a miser, hoarding each little bit of copper against that one stupendous day.

– I’ve lived mostly alone in the bricked-up house of my heart,
but a wind teeters at the door, smelling of skin and apple breath.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.


This entry is part 16 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


Sometimes what changes is what makes
the landscape finally familiar, why it never
is becalmed for long: the way the air’s clarity—

stabbed with golden light and glistening
like new skin on the birches— can’t stay
that way. A blur’s already unlatching the frame.

I know this even as my friend turns to me
and says, But surely you deserve some
happiness too
? I’m rueful, I know. In that

still life by the window, for instance: my eye
is drawn not to the table with the creamy damask
and the plain but heavy silver. It’s the ochre veins

streaked through the magnolias, it’s their ivory
skirts beginning to droop from the lip of the urn.
It’s the crayon line of fuzz that outlines the too-

soft peaches in the bowl; and beside them, it’s the fly
that’s drowned and gone to heaven in their honey.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Audio poetry contributions of the day

Apparently my process notes about yesterday’s videopoem gave Cynthia Cox the nudge she needed to take the leap into videopoetry herself. This morning she messaged me on Facebook:

I need a male voice to read a poem for my very low-budget, first-time video/poem thing. Would you be willing to record it and send it to me, or do you know of a male who would be willing do so?

She did her best to lower my expectations:

All I have is a little P&S camera & video of me undressing some dolls, so don’t expect much (I am cheap). And, I don’t think the poem is my best either – it’s just the one that came to me when I got the idea.

So of course I said yes, did the reading (four takes), and sent it off. Here’s what she came up with. This is way better than my earliest videopoetry experiments (also done with a point-and-shoot camera and Windows Movie Maker):

Watch on YouTube.

Cynthia Cox is a long-time online acquaintance whose poetry I admire, and she’s currently blogging poems for a new chapbook manuscript as part of her editing/polishing process — clearly a poet-blogger after my own heart.

My other poetry reading-related contribution today (aside from the usual podcast at qarrtsiluni — a poem called “Neon in a Jar” by the amazing Susan Elbe) was a new post at the group blog Voice Alpha, “From bookstore to telephone: the incredible shrinking poetry reading.” It was just going to be a simple link-post, but, well, you know how it goes. I talk about the success Heather Christle has been having with her offer to read poems over the telephone for anyone who wants to call (which includes coverage at the BBC!) and speculate that perhaps the era of chasing big audiences at bookstores is over, and we should instead concentrate on more intimate “microaudiences” — telephone, video chat, door-to-door readings… Because who are we kidding? Poetry is never going to be even remotely popular in this country. We’re freaks. Even videopoems on YouTube struggle to amass 100 views, with a few notable exceptions. If you don’t write to amuse yourself and entertain your friends first and foremost, you’re screwed.

What Cannot Eat

This entry is part 15 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


[ With thanks, too, to Nic S. and Dave Bonta for this… ]

How long does hunger hold? Or joy
forestalled? I know that hunger climbs

the trunk of the tree, persistent at its task.
If only each open cup, each well

of blossom had drink enough to douse
that flame— If only the moth that scrolled

its richly tattered cape across
the bark had a mouth; if only its four

half-moons were radiant feast,
enough to settle my restless songs.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.