Vox Populi

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Audio: Allen Ginsberg’s first recorded reading of “Howl” (1956)

Allen Ginsberg said in a 1985 interview that “Howl” began with another poem. Ginsberg, who had studied at Columbia University, sent a poem called “Dream Record, 1955” to poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth.

“It still sounds like you’re wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers ties,” Rexroth told Ginsberg. “You know, it’s too formal.” So, Ginsberg says, “I sat down and just started writing what I thought about.”

The resulting rush of violent, desperate words, starting with the well-known opening lines “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” created major ripples in the literary world.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was at the Six Gallery to hear the 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time. Ferlinghetti owned City Lights, a bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco. He asked Ginsberg if he could publish “Howl,” and the first edition appeared in the fall of 1956. “‘Howl’ knocked the sides out of things,” Ferlinghetti later said.

Unfortunately, no audio exists of that first reading, but you can hear the first recorded reading of “Howl,” from February, 1956 at Portland’s Reed College. The recording sat dormant in Reed’s archives for over fifty years until scholar John Suiter rediscovered it in 2008. In it, Ginsberg reads his great prophetic work, not with the cadences of a street preacher or jazzman—both of which he had in his repertoire—but in an almost robotic monotone with an undertone of manic urgency. Ginsberg’s reading, before an intimate group of students in a dormitory lounge, took place just before the first printing of the poem in the City Lights edition. 

The poem’s second printing, done in Britain, consisted of just 520 copies. All were seized by U.S. customs on March 25, 1957. When the U.S. district attorney in San Francisco refused to condemn the book, the local police arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of publishing and selling obscene material. In a long trial, the American Civil Liberties Union defended “Howl” with testimony by poets, editors, critics and university professors. Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem had redeeming social importance and was not obscene.

Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 at the age of 70. “Howl” is now considered a masterpiece of American culture with over a million copies in print.

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Ginsberg, seen here in 1973, read “Howl” in public for the first time at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.

Text adapted from National Public Radio.

One comment on “Audio: Allen Ginsberg’s first recorded reading of “Howl” (1956)

  1. James Rogers Bush
    September 6, 2015

    Howler Monkeys (To Allen Ginsberg)

    We are all
    Howler
    Monkeys

    Descendents
    Of the original
    Howling

    Allen’s
    Bastard
    Children

    Groping
    In the Dark
    For the short
    Hairs

    Licking
    Unknown places
    In search
    Of answers

    Wrapping
    Long legs
    Around
    The openings
    To deep spaces

    Hoping
    To fall
    Into a trance
    Of sweet
    Oblivion

    Longing
    For a merging
    Of the body
    Heart
    And soul

    Inhaling
    All possibilities
    For an uninhibited
    Road
    To peace

    But hesitating
    At the crossroads

    For
    one
    last
    look

    At hell

    JRB

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2015 by in Opinion Leaders, Poetry, Social Justice and tagged , , , .
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