Allen Ginsberg: Allen Ginsberg at Reed College, The First Recorded Reading of Howl and Other Poems

In the dark ages of the early ‘90s you had to very much seek out Beat Generation literature, with many books out of print. There were few audio and video releases, with some recordings available on bootleg cassette only. Fortunately most Beat Generation titles are now easily available, and there are official audio releases on CD and vinyl. Sixty-five years on from its original reading, we now have Omnivore’s release of Allen Ginsberg at Reed College, The First Recorded Reading of Howl and Other Poems on CD, digital and vinyl, with a special limited edition colour variant, “Reed Red” vinyl.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is the landmark poem for the Beat Generation, and it has several separate books devoted to it; of particular note are Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression by Bill Morgan which explains the story of editing, publishing and defending the poem within the broader context of a censorship trial, and Howl: the Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, which sets out different drafts of the poem.

Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” took place at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in October 1955.with Beat luminaries Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady in attendance. This reading was not recorded, and it was long-thought that the first recording of “Howl” was at Berkeley in March 1956. However this new recording, found in a box in 2007 at the Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College (Portland, Oregon) by author John Suite when researching poet Gary Snyder, demonstrates otherwise. Before visiting Berkeley, Ginsberg travelled to Reed College with Snyder to give a series of readings on 13 and 14 February 1956; the Valentine’s Day performance of Howl was recorded.

Ginsberg warmed up by reading seven shorter poems first, and these are included here. “Epithalamion” (later published as “Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman”), “Over Kansas”, “Dream Record: June 8, 1955”, and Blessed Be The Muses” would go on to be published in Reality Sandwiches (1963). “Wild Orphan”, “A Supermarket in California”, and “The Trembling of the Veil” (later titled “Transcription of Organ Music”) would be published with “Howl” in November 1956.

It’s evident from the recording that this was an intimate event; the audience react warmly to the humour of “A Supermarket in California”. “Dream Record: June 8, 1955” is briefly interrupted with some audience interaction, and re-started with the poet proclaiming that he doesn’t want to “corrupt the youth”.

In Ginsberg’s introduction to “Howl” included on the release, he indicates that he had read the poem the night before, and comments that the poem has a “bop refrain”, chorus after chorus. Those who know the poem well will recognise that the version read is not the same as the version to be published nine months later; in fact it is closest to draft five of the poem in Howl: the Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions. This earlier versionhas some stanzas in a different order, and a noticeable addition in the first section of the poem (made up of a page discarded entirely for the final published version – this was also included inan eleven page draft of the poem recently listed for sale at Type Punch Matrix, Maryland).

It’s great to hear Ginsberg read; the now iconic opening lines are read as a matter of fact, which is just as well – it’s a long, epic poem which requires some dramatic progression in its performance, which Ginsberg delivers. It’s perhaps surprising to hear laughs from the audience in certain places, when we now consider this such a “significant”, canonical poem, but it makes the listener appreciate how “fresh” the poem was, how few people had heard it at this stage, and how immediate, contemporary and relevant it was to the audience. The recording is so clear we can hear Ginsberg turn pages, and taking a breath before each long line.

As Ginsberg launches into Part II, he stops after four lines saying, “I don’t really feel like reading any more, I haven’t got any kind of steam. So I’d like to cut, do you mind?”; Ginsberg may have found it emotionally draining to read the poem two nights in a row, unfortunately Part III and the footnote to the final published version are not read (or at least not presented here).

As a bonus, Professor of English and Humanities at Reed, Dr. Pancho Savery, provides excellent liner notes which trace the poem’s history and allusions. Lovingly curated, this is an essential release for Beat Generation fans and those with an interest in American counterculture.



Label: Omnivore Recordings Publication Date: 02 APR 2021