Ginsberg first recording found after 50 years
· Howl debut made in Oregon, not California
· Beat poet heard joking with college students
Duncan Campbell The Guardian
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 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.
· The recordings are to be posted at www.reed.edu
The Sound of Howl
Compiled by PETER EDIDIN
Published: February 16, 2008
The earliest known recording of Allen Ginsberg reading from his epic
poem "Howl" has been found at Reed College in Portland, Ore., the
British newspaper The Guardian reported. It had been thought that
Ginsberg, right, first recorded the work in Berkeley, Calif., in
March 1956. But according to The Oregonian, the recently discovered
recording was made several weeks earlier. Ginsberg, having hitchhiked
to Portland with his fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder in the winter of
1956, gave a reading at a student hostel, the Anna Mann Cottage, that
was recorded on a reel-to-reel machine on Feb. 14. The tape was found
by John Suiter, a biographer of Mr. Snyder, in a box in the college
archives labeled "Snyder Ginsberg 1956." It contained a 35-minute
tape of Ginsberg reading the first section of "Howl" and other poems.
The recordings can be heard at reed.edu.