Why get an MFA when you can watch a movie?
By Joy Lanzendorfer
Kill Your Darlings is a movie about Allen Ginsberg starring Daniel Radcliffe. Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” the poem of his generation—or so some people said—and the subject of an obscenity trial. The movie takes place before all that, during Ginsberg’s time at Columbia University, where he hung out with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The movie implies that he didn’t graduate from college, but he did. He won poetry prizes and got good grades, too. I’m not sure why the movie is so invested in making Ginsberg look like a slacker.
Ginsberg was gay, in case you didn’t know, and the movie is about his relationship with Lucien Carr, a lemon-faced boy who many men are in love with. Radcliffe gives a great performance, full of humor and vulnerability. He's the darling here! But he doesn’t die. That’s not a spoiler, just historical fact. In real life, Carr remained friends with Ginsberg and Kerouac throughout his life, but the movie doesn’t like that either. Kill Your Darlings is a questionable source of biographical material, but a great source of learning how to become the poet of your generation. That doesn’t just happen, you know. You have to make it happen through passionate typing, weird 1940s drugs, ripping up books, and listening to jazz. Do these things, and you too may become a poet worthy of an obscenity trial. Read on.
Lesson 1: Find Your Muse. He’s The One Yelling Literature At You.
It’s Ginsberg’s first day at Columbia University and his tour group visits the library, which has real uncool, melvin texts on display like the Gutenberg Bible and Hamlet in the First Folio. Ginsberg is disgusted by this show of the establishment. He was hoping for pornography. Well, it’s his lucky day, because up pops Carr, who jumps on a table for no reason other than to make you think of Dead Poets Society, and recites a section from Henry Miller about cocks.
Ginsberg thinks it’s great.
Soon Carr introduces Ginsberg to Kerouac and Burroughs and becomes their muse. He explains his “new vision,” which involves uninhibited expression of the self and something about life being a circle. Then he and Ginsberg play a game where they pretend to hang themselves from the ceiling, which is normal behavior and not at all disturbing.
So keep an eye out for literary shouting. It’s the best way to locate muses and other writers. Is that coffee barista calling your name or reciting Anaïs Nin? Is that homeless man screaming Bob Dylan lyrics at the intersection talking to you? Maybe. When you think about it, he’s not so different from a hippie—unkempt, against the Vietnam War, most likely under the influence. And I would remind you that hippies came out of the beats. It’s all connected, man.
Lesson 2: Screw Ogden Nash.
In high school, I read Ogden Nash because I thought he might be similar to Dorothy Parker. He’s not. Here’s an Ogden Nash poem:
Further Reflections on Parsley
Ginsberg, Carr, and Burroughs see Nash in a bar and are full of disdain, especially after learning that he’s the best-selling poet in the country. They discuss killing him, then decide they’d rather make sure no one remembers his work. “We’re spending millions to fight the fascists, but they’re here,” Carr says of poor Nash. I don’t think the screenwriters were familiar with his work. Anyway, I guess hatch a plan to take down Billy Collins? Or maybe Mary Oliver? Size up Stephen King and think about how he’s a fascist? I don’t know. Boo doggerel!
Lesson 3: I Can’t Stress Enough How Important Jazz Is.
You know what’s the opposite of Ogden Nash? Jazz. In movies, jazz is the way white male writers prove they understand life. Ginsberg loves jazz, especially when high. He goes to jazz clubs and enthusiastically taps out the drum solo. The beat generation, dig?
If you want to write, it’s essential that you get some jazz and start listening right away. Aside from typing on a typewriter and drinking whiskey, it’s the most important part of being a writer.
Lesson 4: Do Weird 1940s Drugs.
Naturally, Burroughs suggests they do drugs. He’s William S. Burroughs. But it’s the 1940s, so drugs are limited and strange. They settle on Benzedrine, which Hollywood studios forced Judy Garland take when she was a child. It contains amphetamine. They take it by squeezing a white substance that looks like butt medication into coffee.
It turns out that Benzedrine is productive to art. In a creative frenzy, the men rip up Burrough’s books and tape them to the wall. When I imagined the invention of the cut-up technique before, I didn’t picture it happening in a cracked-out meth den. Who knew?
Lesson 5: First Thought, Best Thought.
If there’s a motto in this movie, it’s “First Thought, Best Thought.” Carr says this all the time. It challenges the idea that your first thought is likely to be obvious and cliché, so you should throw it away—you know, kill your darlings. Carr says bunk to that. Your first thought is your true essence. Censoring yourself is oppression. Blurting out every thought is the opposite of oppression. Kerouac likes this. He has a bunch of thoughts, and hs written a million words of them. Ginsberg hasn’t written much at all and is jealous.
So Ginsberg takes a bunch of Benzedrine, masturbates, runs in circles, and types furiously on a typewriter.
After that, he has written a poem that most expresses who he is. Shakily, he stands up in a rowboat and reads it to Carr and Kerouac. It’s the only poem he writes during the movie, but it doesn’t matter because it’s an expression of his true self. Kerouac is impressed.
Lesson 6: Maybe Don’t Help Your Friend Get Out Of Jail For Killing Someone.
Much of this movie is about how Carr’s ex-lover, David Kammerer, is a needy stalker who forces Ginsberg into a love triangle. When Carr eventually murders Kammerer, he asks Ginsberg to write his deposition for him. He’s going to claim it was an “honor killing,” which was a law that said killing a gay man if he comes onto you is an act of self-defense. Isn’t that always the way? Writers are constantly being asked to write people’s homework or legal defenses or their uncles’ newsletters. But Ginsberg doesn’t fall for it. He writes the truth of what happened instead, and hands it in as his English final. I’m not sure why he does this last thing. I guess if you’re going to write someone’s legal defense and then back out at the last minute, you want to get something for the wasted time. The dean says the final is “smutty and absurd” and expels Ginsberg from Columbia. That’s fine because Ginsberg has learned a lesson that no university can teach you: Don’t write other people’s depositions/newsletters when you should be writing poetry. His time is valuable. He’s reclaiming it from lemon-faced boys and anyone else (I’m looking at you, Uncle Carl) who feel they can ask you to stop working on the poetry of your generation to write about termite extermination/how killing someone because they’re gay is reasonable. In the end, that’s what’s important.
Joy Lanzendorfer’s work has been in The Atlantic, NPR, Smithsonian, Tin House, Vice, The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Los Angeles Review of Books, KQED, Mental Floss, and many others. Follow her @JoyLanzendorfer