"Howl" In Performance Essay, Research Paper
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
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 prot?g?, 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