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reed magazine logoWinter 2008
When the Beats Came Back

On the tape, Ginsberg begins reading without any opening remarks, going directly into a poem he introduces as “Epithalamion” (later published as “Love Poem on Theme by Whitman” in Reality Sandwiches). An epithalamion is a classical genre written for a newlywed couple. In ancient times, it was to be sung at the door of the bridal chamber to encourage fertility; but in this “Epithalamion,” the poet-singer doesn’t stay outside. He enters the room, peels back the bedsheets from the sleepers, and descends like a ravishing incubus between the bridegroom and the bride for a nocturnal ménage à trois. The poem is shudderingly erotic in its kinetic detail. When Ginsberg’s voice abruptly stops at the end of the poem, the stunned silence in the room is palpable on the tape, even at a distance of five decades.

Ginsberg then reads “Wild Orphan,” an early poem for his friend Neal Cassady’s abandoned son, Curt (“son of the absconded hot rod angel”); “Over Kansas,” from Ginsberg’s days as a market researcher and his earliest “airplane poem”; and “Dream Record”—a tender elegy addressed to the ghost of Joan Vollmer Adams, wife of William Burroughs, killed by gun-nut Burroughs in a drunken prank in Mexico a few years before.

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theatre, March 18, 1956
© Walter Lehrman

Ginsberg next reads the short “Blessed Be the Muses,” thanking them for “crowning my bald head / with Laurel”; then, “A Supermarket in California”—his homage to his spiritual mentor and “courage teacher,” Walt Whitman.

Following “Supermarket” comes a poem Ginsberg calls on this tape “The Trembling of the Lamb,” which Ginsberg readers will recognize as a working version of “Transcription of Organ Music,” from Howl & Other Poems. (Ginsberg wrote an earlier poem titled “The Trembling of the Lamb,” unrelated to this poem.) For text scholars, this “Transcription of Organ Music / Trembling of the Lamb” will be perhaps the most interesting of the short poems on the Reed recording, differing considerably from its published version.

At this point in the reading, someone just off-mike (presumably Snyder) asks, “Do you want to read ‘Howl’?”

“I really don’t,” Ginsberg replies wearily. “I don’t know if I have the energy.”

To those familiar with Ginsberg’s later history with “Howl,” this reticence comes as no surprise. Though he loved to read the poem when he felt it was in him, he often refused requests for “Howl,” citing not only the physical and emotional effort each reading took, but also the “trap and duty” he felt the performance sometimes became. We may be hearing the beginning of that ambivalence on this recording.

From Ginsberg’s comments to the audience, it is clear that he’d read the poem on campus the night before and didn’t want “to go through all that again.”

“The line length—you’ll notice that they’re all built on bop—you might think of them as built on a bop refrain—chorus after chorus after chorus—the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of ‘The Man I Love’ ’til everyone in the hall was out of his head—and Young was also …” —Allen Ginsberg,
February 14, 1956,
preparatory to reading “Howl”
at Anna Mann Cottage

At any rate, Ginsberg’s resistance is short-lived, and he decides to go ahead with the poem that he is still at this point calling “Howl for Carl Solomon.” Ginsberg would later drop Solomon’s name to a lower dedicatory line, leaving the poem’s title simply “Howl.” Solomon had been a fellow patient with Ginsberg at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in 1949–50; the poem is dedicated to him in psychic solidarity.

Before launching into “Howl” itself, Ginsberg pauses to briefly prime his listeners for what’s to come. “The line length,” he says. “You’ll notice that they’re all built on bop—You might think of them as built on a bop refrain—chorus after chorus after chorus—the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of ‘The Man I Love’ ’til everyone in the hall was out of his head—and Young was also . . .” (This was pure Kerouac, straight from the prefatory note to Mexico City Blues, wherein Kerouac states his notion of the poet as jazz saxophonist, “blowing” his poetic ideas in breath lines “from chorus to chorus.”)

Ginsberg then begins with his now-famous opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .”—delivered in a rather flat affect. First-time listeners may be surprised at how low-key Ginsberg sounds at the outset of this reading of “Howl,” though this was typical, and soon enough his voice rises to what he later called “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.”

“I still hadn’t broken out of the classical Dylan Thomas monotone,” Ginsberg later wrote of his early readings. “—the divine machine revs up over and over until it takes off.”


reed magazine logoWinter 2008