Something more about next week’s celebration.
As noted below
, this fall marks the fiftieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of his poem Howl
in San Francisco, an event that changed the literary landscape of its era. To commemorate and celebrate it, poets and writers across America are joining together for readings of Howl
and other works of the Beats, works that spoke with urgency, passion, and engagement enough to transform the perceived limits of poetry in ways that echo through American writing still. Asheville’s celebration of this turning point promises to be as lively as any in the country.
Witnesses to the night of that first reading of “Howl” are now a very small fraternity; fewer than two hundred people, give or take, were present–a crowd large enough, though, to amaze the poets who’d gathered for the reading. No one took photos or made recordings, so we have only the memories of the surviving participants to help us reconstruct it.
Michael McClure, one of the poets who read that night, describes the scene like this:
The Six Gallery was a huge room that had been converted from an automobile repair shop into an art gallery. Someone had knocked together a little dais and was exhibiting sculptures by Fred Martin at the back of it--pieces of orange crates that had been swathed in muslin and dipped in plaster of paris to make splintered, sweeping shapes like pieces of surrealist furniture. A hundred and fifty enthusiastic people had come to hear us. Money was collected and jugs of wine were brought back for the audience … Allen began in a small and intensely lucid voice. At some point Jack Kerouac began shouting "GO" in cadence as Allen read it. In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before– we had gone beyond a point of no return–and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void–to the land without poetry–to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision. . . .
Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases.
Howl was Allen's metamorphosis from quiet, brilliant, burning bohemian scholar trapped by his flames and repressions to epic vocal bard. (from McClure’s Scratching the Beat Surface.)
City Lights Books, run by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published Howl and Other Poems
in the fall of 1956. Nearly fifty years later, as we live through another era of political conservatism and new attempts at social repression, it’s important to remember the disdain with which the approved formalist poets of the academies greeted it. John Hollander’s review of the book, published in Partisan Review
in the spring of 1957, for example:
It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg . . . to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume. I believe that the title of his long poem "Howl," is meant to be a noun, but I can't help taking it as an imperative. The poem itself is a confession of the poet's faith, done into some 112 paragraph-like lines, in the ravings of a lunatic friend (to whom it is dedicated), and in the irregularities in the lives of those of his friends who populate this disturbed pantheon. . . .
This continues, sponging on one's toleration, for pages and pages. A kind of climax is reached, for me, in a long section of screams about "Moloch!", at a rare point of self-referential lucidity: "Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!"
Fortunately, though, for its success and larger impact, customs officials found that the book was “obscene”, and confiscated part of its second printing in March of 1957. The American Civil Liberties Union contested the seizure, and, after the San Francisco Chronicle
devoted some coverage to the controversy, customs officials decided to release the books they were holding. The local police then stepped into the ruckus, arresting Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shigeyoshi Murao for publishing and selling “obscene” material. The trail brought national attention, articles in Time
, and, that fall, a ruling by Judge Clayton Horn that cleared the book of charges of obscenity and established the precedent of “redeeming social importance.” By the time the trial was over, America knew the Beat Generation, and its writers. Howl
has been in print ever since, and has now sold nearly a million copies in its original edition.
The City Lights web site
, incidentally, has more history of the original controversy.
The generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Gary Snyder (he was also there that night at the Six) did not mark the end of the Beat experiment, of course, though they remain its best-known exponents. Beginning in the sixties and seventies, another generation of writers followed the Beat path, and soon found themselves known as the “Baby Beats”. In recognition of the continuing relevance of the Beat vision, the Asheville event to honor Howl
will also feature the U.S. debut of a new anthology of Baby Beat writing published, not in San Francisco or New York, but in France. Titled Baby Beat Generation: The 2nd San Francisco Renaissance
, the book documents the San Francisco scene in the 1970s. Local poet Thomas Rain Crowe, a major member of the Baby Beats during that era, helped the editor develop the anthology; he’ll be on hand as master-of-ceremonies for the evening’s events. Poets Ted Pope, David Hopes, Jaye Bartell, reader Gillian Coats (she insists that she doesn’t write, but she certainly knows some amazing texts), and yours truly will join him – and, as I mentioned here
, Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize winner Richard Cambridge from Boston will join us all as featured guest.
Cambridge, a poet and activist who’s deeply engaged with the work of Ginsberg and the Beats, noted in a recent email that he found that the Beats provided a unique commitment to poetry.
Poetry was not something you just wrote, but lived.They had the courage to create a lifestyle in the deepest sense, they lived and dwelled poetically, and they were conscious they were doing this. When Ginsberg was asked about his passion for photography his response was he was recording ‘the sacred drama of our lives.’
One of the features of the evening will be a full reading of “Howl” itself. I understand that the Mighty Art Center Poetry Players are cooking up some special, never-before-heard arrangements
, as a musician might say, of the poem for the reading; even if you’ve heard “Howl” before, you haven’t heard it like this.
Music will be supplied by the Q Jazz Trio. Festivities will get under way at 8:00 PM. There’ll be an admission charge of $7 ($5 for members and students). Be there or, you know, be square.