More Howling ...
· Howl debut made in Oregon, not California
· Beat poet heard joking with college students
- The Guardian,
- Thursday February 14 2008
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn," wrote Allen Ginsberg more then 50 years ago in what was to become the epic poem of the Beat generation. Now what is believed to be the first ever recording of the late poet reading Howl has been discovered in Oregon.
It had always been thought that Ginsberg first recorded Howl in Berkeley, California, in March 1956. But, according to the Oregonian newspaper, the historic first recording took place a month earlier in student lodgings at a private college in Portland. Ginsberg had just hitchhiked to the city with fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder in the winter of 1956. Snyder, who had grown up in Portland and graduated from Reed College, brought his friend to the campus for a couple of readings.
Ginsberg had written Howl, complete with its references to "angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo" only the previous year and had performed it in the Six Gallery in San Francisco but it was not recorded. The second reading, to a small audience in a student hostel, the Anna Mann Cottage, was recorded on a reel-to-reel machine on February 14.
The discovery of the tape was made by John Suiter, an academic carrying out research for a Snyder biography. Looking through the college archives, Suiter came across a box apparently untouched for more than 50 years, marked "Snyder Ginsberg 1956". It contained a 35-minute good quality tape of Ginsberg reading the first section of Howl and other poems. Ginsberg does not read the whole of the lengthy Howl, remarking: "I don't really feel like reading any more. I just sorta haven't got any kind of steam." He also jokes with his student audience about "corrupting the youth". The student paper confirmed the dates of the visit.
"It was completely serendipitous," Suiter said of the discovery. "I had no idea there was a tape."
The finding has been hailed by academics. "This is absolutely a very significant deal," Pancho Savery, an English professor at Reed, told the paper.
The freewheeling and much-imitated Howl, with its many references to sex and drugs, became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957 after US customs officials seized copies of it and were outraged by passages about gay sex being performed by "saintly motorcyclists" and references to "flashing buttocks" and Turkish baths. An action brought against City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which published and sold the poem, was eventually thrown out by the judge.
Ginsberg clashed frequently with the authorities; when he heard that the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, had photos of him naked with other men he asked if he could use them on the cover of a book.