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About "Howl" in Performance

Six poets at the Six Gallery. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C. Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry, free satori. Small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event.

--- from postcard printed by Allen Ginsberg to publicize 1955 Six Gallery Reading

The Evening as told by Michael Schumacher in Dharma Lion

On the night of its most historic reading, the Six Gallery seemed to have attracted every significant member of what would later be termed the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. From the beginning, there was a festive atmosphere to the event. To assure a loose, free spirited reading, Jack Kerouac scurried around the rooms, collecting donations for wine, the reading itself delayed while he ran out for gallon jugs, which were passed around throughout the reading.

On-stage, the poets were seated in a semicircle behind the podium. Kenneth Rexroth, dressed in a bow tie and a cutaway pinstripe suit, opened the evening with a few brief introductory remarks. Taking notice of the mixture of literary and political interests represented by those in attendance as well as by those on-stage, Rexroth compared the climate of San Francisco to that of Barcelona at the time of the Spanish anarchists, where culture survived despite an oppressive national political environment.

After readings by Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Phillip Whalen and a brief intermission, Allen Ginsberg moved to the podium for his first public reading of "Howl". A number of persons in attendance--including Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Snyder and Whalen--had read “Howl” in Manuscript, but no one was prepared for the impact of Allen’s dramatic reading of the poem. Allen had been drinking wine throughout the evening and, by his own later admission, he was intoxicated by the time the lights dimmed and he began his reading. Somewhat nervous, he started in a calm, quiet tone, letting the poem’s words achieve their own impact, but before long he gained confidence and began to sway rhythmically with the music of his poetry, responding to the enthusiasm of the audience, which was transfixed by "Howl’s" powerful imagery. Jack Kerouac, sitting at the edge of the platform, pounded in accompaniment on a wine jug, shouting “GO!” at the end of each long line. The crowd quickly joined him in punctuating Allen’s lines with shouts of encouragement, and Allen, inspired by the intensity of the room, responded with an even greater flourish to his reading. By the time he had concluded, he was in tears, as was Kenneth Rexroth. The audience erupted in appreciation of the work, as if each person in attendance recognized that literary history had been made.

The evening as told by Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums

Anyway I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six (Six Gallery) that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbrook (Ginsberg) was reading his, wailing poem "Wail" (Howl) drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling "Go! Go! Go!" (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes (Kenneth Rexroth) the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping tears in gladness.

Meanwhile scores of people stood around in the darkened gallery straining to hear every word of the amazing poetry reading as I wandered from group to group, facing them and facing away from the stage, urging them to slug from the jug, or wandered back and sat on the right side of the stage giving out little wows and yesses of approval and even whole sentances of comment with nobody's invitation but in the general gaiety nobody's disapproval either. It was a great night

Among the people standing in the audience was Rosie Buchanan, a girl with short haircut, red-haired, bony, hanesome, a real gone chick and friend of everybody of any consequence on the beach, who'd been a painter's model and a writer herself and was bubbling with excitement at that time because she was in love with my old buddy Cody (Neal Cassady). "Great, hey Rosie?" I yelled, and she took a big slug from my jug and shined eyes at me. Cody just stood behind her with both arms around her waist. Between poets, Rheinhold Cacoethes, in his bow tie and shabby old coat, would get up and make a little funny speech in his snide funny voice and introduce the next reader: but as I say come eleven thirty when all the poems were read and everybody was milling around wondering what had happened and what would come next in American poetry, he was wiping his eyes with his hankerchief. And we all got together with him, the poets, and drove in several cars to Chinatown for a big fabulous dinner off the Chinese menu, with chopsticks, yelling conversation in the middle of the night in one of those free-swinging great Chinese restaurants of San Francisco.

Other comments on the evening gleaned from Dharma Lion

“In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before,” Micheal McClure remembered. “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 intellectual 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. We wanted voice and we wanted vision."

Gary Snyder called the sixth reading “a curious kind of turning point in American poetry,” the beginning of a surge of poetry readings that brought poets into contact with their audiences and reestablished poetry as an oral form.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote Allen “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?...” Lawrence got the manuscript and in the fall of 1956 Howl and other Poems was published as number four in the City Light’s Pocket Rockets Series.

Columbia University's 25th Anniversary reading of Howl - Nov. 14, 1981

On November 14, 1981, Allen Ginsberg traveled to New York to give a reading at Columbia’s McMillin Theatre. He had been part of two previous historic readings at the theatre, but this one, featuring a 25th anniversary reading of “Howl” was even more greatly appreciated. A sellout crowd, including members of Allen’s family, was in attendance when Allen stepped on-stage.

In his introduction to Howl and Other Poems, William Carlos Williams had expressed concern for the young Ginsberg’s future. The elder poet’s worries had been justified at the time. The intensely gifted, angry, depressed and confused Patterson youth he had met appeared to be headed toward self-destruction. He was experimenting with drugs, hanging out with junkies and geniuses, brooding about his homosexuality, and struggling to find his voice as a poet. He had been expelled from a prestigious university, arrested for his involvement in a burglary ring, and placed in a psychiatric institution--all before he had reached his twenty-third birthday. Williams recognized Ginsberg’s genius, but in Allen’s case, it seemed both a blessing and a curse. His survival would depend upon how he used his gifts.

Allen survived not only his youth but his long, trying adulthood, and in a way it is too bad that Williams was not around to see his bohemian protégé, once clad in a work shirt and dungarees at his readings, now dressed in a suit and tie, as he stood before a roaring crowd and accepted their appreciation for the man he had become. Williams would have seen a poet who had traveled the world on his visionary and humanistic quest, a man unafraid to show that he could be brilliant, silly, wrongheaded, tender, generous, petty, and magnanimous. He would have seen a poet, prophet and teacher.

But then the spirit of Williams as well as the spirits of Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Kerouac, and all the other souls who had spoken to Ginsberg over the ages were somehow represented in the rather slight, neatly groomed figure on the stage. This time Kerouac was not around to pound on a wine jug and shout at the end of each line, but no one in the audience needed encouragement on this occasion. Moloch was a familiar figure who took on many forms, but he was still demanding sacrifices of the generation’s children. He breathed the fire of plutonium, of warfare, of racism, of misguided nationalism that led to mistrust and hatred.

After being introduced by Anne Waldman as the product of “postwar materialist paranoid doldrums,” Allen took the stage, carrying the text of a poem that, as Gary Snyder once said of the Beat Generation itself, had moved the world a millionth of an inch. It was a poem that would continue to astonish and antagonize readers long after the poet’s particular time.

One Final Episode in the History of HOWL

At a reading in Los Angeles a heckler harassed Ginsberg throughout his reading (of Howl) and was quieted only when Allen promised to give him the chance to express his opinions after the reading. However he continued to disrupt the reading after Allen had turned it over to Gregory Corso. At one point, Gregory proposed a verbal duel with the heckler, the winner being the one with the best "images, metaphors (and) magic." The heckler was more interested in engaging Corso in a fistfight. He taunted the poets, calling them cowards, insisting they explain what they were trying to prove onstage.

"Nakedness," Ginsberg replied. When the heckler demanded further explanation, Allen left the stage and approached him. He accused the man of wanting to do something brave in front of the audience and then challenged him to take off all his clothes. As he walked towards the drunk, Allen stripped off all of his clothing, hurling his pants and shirt at the now retreating heckler. "Stand naked before the people," Allen said. "The poet always stands naked before the world." Defeated the man backed into another room.

from Michael Schumcher, Dharma Lion -- A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. Online Source

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