“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”
Over at the indispensable On This Deity blog, Dorian Cope writes that today is the fifty-six anniversary of the first public reading of “Howl” by a then twenty-nine-year-old Allen Ginsberg. It was a revolutionary moment, in poetry, in literature, and the opening salvo in the counter culture battles of the 1960s:
As the hitherto forbidden content (drugs, mental illness, religion, homosexuality) emerged, Kerouac – two years prior to On the Road – was the first to realise the magnitude of what was happening. Sitting on the side of the low stage, he began to punctuate Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque-meets-jazz rhythms by banging his empty wine jug and, at the end of each long line, shouting “GO!” Soon, the entire audience joined in … their encouraging chants of “GO! GO! GO!” driving Ginsberg to a shamanic momentum and creating a tribal unity between audience and poet. By the time he finished, Ginsberg was in tears. So was Rexroth. Everyone in the room knew they’d witnessed a rare moment of duende – that mysterious higher state brought on by a burst of genuine inspiration – and henceforth nothing would be the same again.
Michael McClure would later recall: “We had gone beyond a point of no return, and we were ready for it. 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.”
The next day, Lawrence Ferlignhetti, who’d been in the audience, sent Ginsberg a telegram. And with a nod to the past but his eye fixed firmly on the future, he borrowed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary words to Walt Whitman in 1855: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” The fledgling publisher then added: “When do I get the manuscript?” The publication of “Howl” is another story… but, on October 7th 1955 and on the occasion of its first reading, a battle cry was sounded and the Beat Generation was born.
Read the entire post at On This Deity
Ginsberg reading “Howl”: