How would you illustrate Howl? Allen Ginsberg’s legendary 1956 poetic ode to humanity, seminal in content and controversy, is written so excitably, teeming with vivid imagery, so simultaneously horrific and beautiful… where would you begin? Ginsberg enlisted Eric Drooker, a New York City street artist whose work he had been collecting for over a decade. Kindred in proletariat spirit, and experience, the two would collaborate on various projects. For Illuminated Poems, Drooker illustrated a collection of Ginsberg’s writings, including Howl. Howl: A Graphic Novel, published in 2010 by Harper Perennial, features another take on that endeavor, Drooker’s animation art created for the 2010 motion picture.
Many would associate the Beats with grainy black and white photos, like those that grace the covers of their books and the pages of countless biographies they have inspired. To many, Drooker’s urban, expressive drawings and paintings, then, may come as a bit of a shock. But quickly, very quickly, his poetic renderings of tenement buildings, heavenly bodies, and spirits aglow in the night, align with Howl’s ethos – a celebration of the holiness of all things – sex, drugs, and bebop, of course, but also skyscrapers, pavements, and cafeterias. It is well known that Howl was Ginsberg’s denunciation of the conformity, corporatization, and regimentation that threatened post WWII America. Written for his friend, Carl Solomon, a fellow mental patient and artist, unable to tolerate the de-humanizing effects of civilization and the military industrial complex, the poem is bleak, of course, but also defiant and funny – like Solomon himself.
Drooker grew up in Manhattan, a Manhattan where poor and marginalized residents still made homes in dilapidated and unsafe neighborhoods. He bore witness to the same kinds of social and class struggles that young Ginsberg had. His Moloch, “the loveless … incomprehensible prison” described in Howl, is an ominous canine skyscraper bull monster with smokestack horns. Life-inspired characters, some of them almost alien, so gaunt and dressed in tatters, others, beatific junkies and lovers, populate the shadows and dark corners of Drooker’s Howl evoking the sounds of jazz and trains and shipyards, as Beat readers have come to expect.
This mutual adoration between Ginsberg and Drooker is reflective of a bigger picture, one that makes Howl work, and so successfully. This spirituality realized via corporeality. Some romantic thing that has aligned poets and hobos and those who choose the fringe.