News Column

How Paterson Shaped Ginsberg's Poetry

October 14, 2013


If the best minds of Allen Ginsberg's generation were not already "destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," they might be reduced to it -- by the thought of "Harry Potter's" clean-cut Daniel Radcliffe as the scruffy poet of the Beat manifesto "Howl."

"Kill Your Darlings," opening Wednesday, stars Radcliffe as the Paterson-born poet laureate of the Beat generation. It may be the boy wizard's biggest transformation yet.

"We were told Daniel Radcliffe couldn't open a movie without a wand in his hand," says writer-director John Krokidas. "But I cast him because he was the best for the role."

As for Ginsberg, who died in 1997 and whose ghost hovers over the film, he might have been perversely delighted, says fellow Paterson poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who knew him.

"Allen was very iconoclastic," Gillan says. "I think he would find it quite amusing. He was very sardonic, was Allen. Sharp. Really very, very intelligent."

"Kill Your Darlings" is third in a string of four films, in recent years, to feature Ginsberg and his cohorts. Are the Beats having a pop culture moment right now? Or is Hollywood, as always, just finding safety in numbers?

"Hollywood always has two body-switching movies, or two attack- the-White-House movies at the same time," Krokidas says. "If there's another movie about Beats, it lets them know that it's a subject people are interested in."

In "Kill Your Darlings," Radcliffe plays the sensitive mill-town poet who leaves for Columbia University in the 1940s and becomes involved in heady relationships with Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall as two college pals who drew their whole circle of rebels into a real-life drama of desire and -- eventually -- murder.

It was preceded by "Howl" (2010), the back story of Ginsberg's most famous poem, which starred James Franco as Ginsberg, and "On the Road," the 2012 filming of Kerouac's Beat odyssey, which starred Sam Riley as "Sal Paradise" (aka Kerouac) and Tom Sturridge as "Carlo Marx" (aka Ginsberg). Following it will be "Big Sur" (Nov. 1), featuring Jean-Marc Barr as "Jack Duluoz" (aka Kerouac).

"Kill Your Darlings" is bookended with scenes in Paterson (actually shot in New York City) that give us glimpses of Ginsberg's difficult relationships with his father (David Cross) and his mentally fragile mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). "Ultimately in our film, he has to go home," Krokidas says. "Some people have used the 'Wizard of Oz' analogy."

But though Paterson doesn't figure directly in the film's main events, it's key to understanding Ginsberg, and the Beats in general. At Columbia, says Gillan, the poetry Ginsberg was encouraged to write by his professors was genteel, academic. "They were sonnets with a lot of water fowl in them," Gillan says. "Imitations of 19th-century nature poems. They were not looking for revolutionaries. They were looking for someone to toe the line."

Apparently, it was Rutherford poet William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg's mentor and the most respected American poet of his day, who snapped him out of it.

"He told them [the poems] were terrible," Gillan says. "Why wasn't he writing about Paterson? Why wasn't he writing about his life as a gay person? Why was he writing about life in the wild, when he was rarely even in the wild? He said to him, 'Your letters are wonderful. Your letters are alive. Your poems are dead.' Ginsberg went back and began to write the poems that made him famous."

"Howl" (1955), coupled with Kerouac's loose-limbed novel "On the Road" (1957), signaled mainstream America that a new sensibility was abroad: gritty, dangerous, anti-establishment, anti-surface, willing to take any risks in search of authenticity, or ecstasy. In a word: Beat.

"That led to the counter-culture movement, which led to the hippies, which led to the punks," Krokidas says. "These guys did it."

No surprise that the kind of guy who would spearhead such a revolution was not always an easy customer. Gillan, who hosted Ginsberg as a speaker some 10 times at her 33-year-old Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College, got to be great friends with him. But that first appearance around 1980, she remembers, he was a bit of a crank -- with a rider on his contract that would make Van Halen's famous "no brown M&Ms" seem like a routine request.

"I got a note from his agent," Gillan recalls. "He wanted 'a modest bunch of flowers,' 'a regal chair,' a small table next to the chair with a teapot, a certain kind of tea, a certain kind of honey and a cup. And on the other side, a little table for his harmonium. He always played music while he was reading."

They scoured all Paterson before triumphantly locating a proper throne for the visiting bard, remembers Gillan. Then Ginsberg -- in a three-piece charcoal suit, rather than the expected Beat dungarees -- came in.

"He started screaming. The chair was no good for him. He can't sit there. It's bad for his kidneys. ... I started trying to make his tea. He started screaming, 'You're going to spill it on me.' He was a little bit of a hypochondriac."

But Gillan managed to talk her fellow poet (her own next book of poetry, "Ancestors' Song," comes out at the end of the month) down off the ledge, and in the end they got along famously.

"The reason for Allen's genius is that he's off-the-wall," she says. "He had that Whitman-esque energy. What he did was throw out all the rules."

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