wed 29/05/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: Allen Ginsberg - At Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Allen Ginsberg - At Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems

Reissue CDs Weekly: Allen Ginsberg - At Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems

The important, first-ever release of a remarkable personal appearance from February 1956

Allen Ginsberg in New York, 1953. Photograph by William S. BurroughsCourtesy The Allen Ginsberg Estate

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” The opening words of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl are ingrained.

First published in the book Howl and Other Poems in November 1956, the poem came together during the preceding 18-or-so months.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s imprint City Lights Books published the book, after the polymath bookstore owner saw the poet give a reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco’s later to be hip Fillmore district on 7 October 1955. Until the book came out, Ginsberg’s work was most readily experienced through his personal appearances.

Allen Ginsberg At Reed College, The First Recorded Reading of Howl and Other PoemsWhen the book was published, the pages also included the poems A Supermarket in California, America, In the Baggage Room at Greyhound, Sunflower Sutra and Transcription of Organ Music. But soon after the publication, with the March 1957 police seizure of copies, June's arrest of the City Lights store manager and the declaration that the poem was obscene, Ginsberg was news and Howl in particular became a headline. Following the ensuing August 1957 trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn declared on 4 October that Howl could not be considered obscene. Three weeks later, on 25 October, with the legal wranglings behind him Ginsberg recited Howl on the Berkeley radio station KPFA (A Supermarket in California was also read during this appearance: it’s included on the 1994 Ginsberg box set Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems And Songs 1949-1993).

Stepping into this chronology is the explicitly titled At Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems, the first-ever release of a live recitation of Howl and, indeed, other poems. The tape was recorded at Portland, Oregon’s Reed College on 14 February 1956, on the second of two days of appearances there by Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The latter had attended Reed.

Until now, the earliest recording of Howl which could be heard was from 18 March 1956, at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theatre (also on Holy Soul Jelly Roll). After the court case, audiences could first repeatedly hear Ginsberg reading Howl For Carl Solomon (as it was properly credited) in a just-short of 17 minutes recitation on the pivotal 1959 album, San Francisco Poets (pictured below left). That year too, the Fantasy label issued the all-Ginsberg album Howl And Other Poems, which had been recorded in Chicago – Ginsberg wrote a fascinating essay for the back of the sleeve. He became a recording artist in 1959.

San Francisco Poets album 1959At Reed College is an important release. What’s here is pre-publication, pre-trial and from only four months after the first public reading. Nonetheless, in response to an audience member who says he can’t hear the poet after Over Kansas, Ginsberg responds “I don’t want to corrupt the youth.” It was an academic, safe and tuned-in setting, but Ginsberg already knew the power of his words.

The recording quality is uncannily clear and sharp. There is little audience or background noise. The pages in Ginsberg’s hand can be heard while being rifled. During Over Kansas, a door opens in the distance. Twice, during A Supermarket In America and just before Howl, what sounds likes small plane passes. When the audience is perceptible, it’s mostly when they laugh – during Howl, the word “jism” induces giggles. It’s a fair bet no one there had experienced anything like this before.

Ginsberg himself comes across as genial, personable. There are few introductions to the poems. Usually, the title is enough. He does explain his punctuation. Saying that A Dream Record uses colons prompts laughter. Four poems in, during A Dream Record, his intonation becomes more urgent. Howl is ninth up, and just before reaching it there’s a brief exchange with the (inaudible) audience as he asks the time and whether anyone was there the previous evening. He also explains the nature of the line lengths: like a "bop refrain,” like Lester Young’s music in 1938. After Howl he says “jazz stuff” and begins Howl (Part II), then breaks off saying he doesn’t feel like reading any more: “I haven’t got any kind of steam, so I'd like to cut. Do you mind?” And that’s it.

Ginsberg 1956 Reel courtesy of Allen Ginsberg EstateThe perpetuation of Ginsberg as a recording artist which At Reed College represents comes with a booklet including an essay where the circumstances of the recording are discussed. So is the evolution and structure of Howl. It’s explained that the Howl heard isn’t exactly what was in the City Lights book. Ginsberg was creating and honing as he went along. The use of the words “I don’t want to corrupt the youth” is scrutinised. Beyond noting when they were published and commenting briefly on what is heard on the recordings, the other poems Ginsberg read are not analysed in any depth. There is nothing on why the tape (pictured right, courtesy The Allen Ginsberg Estate) was recorded, or who may have recorded it. A look at this reading in context of Ginsberg’s other activities at this time would have been handy to set the scene, as would how this relates to the other recordings in Allen Ginsberg discography. Perhaps two essays may have helped with getting to grips with this release?

Before its 2007 discovery, the tape of this remarkable personal appearance sat in a box. Now, it can be heard by anyone. However it’s looked at, the extraordinary At Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems is mind boggling.

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