Review by Brenda Coultas
Allen Ginsberg at Reed College:
The First Recorded Reading of Howl & other Poems
“He’d already achieved what any national poet could hope to achieve. ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.’ Very few poets have done that….” -Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Imagine the excitement of finding a holy grail of literary history. Your trembling hands and quickened breath. In the brief time between the premiere of “Howl” at the legendary Six Gallery reading in 1955 in San Francisco, and before the previously known first recording at Berkeley in 1956, there existed a forgotten recording of Howl.
In 2007 the noted beat scholar John Suiter (www.reed.edu/reed-magazine/articles/2008/ginsberg-howl-reed.html) was searching for material on Gary Snyder in the Reed College archives and collections when he came across an analog recording of Howl and other poems from a Valentine’s Day reading by Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder in 1956. So after marinating for over six decades in a box, and after some luck (no spoiler, you have to check out the liner notes yourself) this historic recording was restored, remastered, and released earlier this year.
The Reed recording is remarkable for letting us hear Allen Ginsberg before the Beat Generation became a countercultural force. The atmosphere is casual, Ginsberg is serious but not without humor. In “Dream Record” he wisecracks about “corrupting youths” before catching up on gossip with the spirit of Joan Burroughs, her face restored, in Mexico City.
There are a few other gems on this 11-track recording including the much anthologized “A Supermarket in California” and sensuous “Epithalamion.”
This early version of “Howl” is a work in progress as the later City Lights publication shows, but what is essential for this listener is hearing Ginsberg’s vulnerability. Ginsberg is 29 and the seeds of his later performative style are freshly planted. Also we learn about the taxing emotional charge of reading the poem, and in fact, in “Part II” Ginsberg says to Gary Snyder, “I don’t feel like reading anymore,” and the recording ends.
With the assistance of The Allen Ginsberg Estate, which supplied some of the images and photos for the liner notes, along with an inclusive text by Dr. Pancho Savery, that provides the context and makes an argument for why this recording is a phenomenal addition to Beat history. Allen Ginsberg at Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems is a touchstone for anyone interested in tracking the process of Howl coming into the world.
Photo courtesy of Allen Ginsberg Estate.
BRENDA COULTAS is the author of five collections of poetry. The Writing of an Hour, an ars poetica, is due from Wesleyan University Press in the new year.