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reed magazine logoWinter 2008
When the Beats Came Back

The Reed recording of February 1956 is superb, faithful in pitch and superior in sound quality to any presently known 1950s version. Allen is miked closely, so his volume is even throughout. His enunciation is clear, his timing perfect; he never stumbles. His accent is classic North Jersey Jewish, intelligent and passionate. The poet-as-saxman metaphor comes demonstrably true as we hear Ginsberg drawing in great breaths at the anaphoric head of every line. It’s a recording to be breathed with as much as listened to.

There are technical problems with the tape, to be sure [for a discussion of these, see notes accompanying the recordings on Reed’s multimedia site]. Though Ginsberg reads the entire Part I of the poem, he abruptly ends the reading four lines into Part II, the “Moloch” section, saying only (again, presumably, to Snyder, off-mike), “I don’t really feel like reading any more. I just sorta haven’t got any kind of steam, so I’d like to cut, do you mind?”

“Was Moloch the embodiment of ravenous capitalism? Was it a metaphor for some broader spiritual decay of the West? A cultural monolith? What? Everybody wanted to know what he meant.
And Allen said, ‘It’s all of those things—and more.’”—Alice Tiura Moss ’52

The reading abruptly ends, leaving one to wonder if there were not more to Ginsberg’s hitting the brakes on Moloch in this reading than simply a lack of energy or annoyance with tape glitches.

The Moloch section of the poem, in which the poet names the destroyer of the “best minds” litanied in Part I,was a later addition to the poem and went through more revisions than the other main sections. Altogether, there are 18 known drafts of Moloch. Ginsberg may not yet have had total confidence in it. Snyder, in a postcard to Philip Whalen, hints at this when he writes, “He [Ginsberg] is reconsidering rhetorical poetry, sez it makes him feel foolish to shout MOLOCH! at fir trees.”

What is certain is that the Moloch section of “Howl” was in revision during the time of this 1956 trip, and the responses Ginsberg got from his various audiences along the road helped with his editing decisions as Part II took final shape. Alice Moss recalls students quizzing Ginsberg intensely about the meaning of Moloch. “Was Moloch the embodiment of ravenous capitalism? Was it a metaphor for some broader spiritual decay of the West? A cultural monolith? What? Everybody wanted to know what he meant,” she recalls. “And Allen said, ‘It’s all of those things—and more.’”

The “Howl for Carl Solomon” that Ginsberg read at the Six Gallery in October 1955, it should be noted, differed greatly from the poem published a year later by City Lights. The published poem is a four-part work; at the Six, Ginsberg read only Part I. Parts II & III and the “Footnote to Howl” hadn’t yet been added. Part I, the longest single section, initially entitled “Howl for Carl Solomon,” underwent several drafts before publication. The whole poem was still in the cauldron, as it were, a public work-in-progress for nearly a year as Ginsberg read it before a number of audiences in late 1955 and early 1956, revising and redrafting as he went. Reed’s “Howl,” falling midway between first reading and final publication, is very much part of that process.

So, where does the “Howl” on Tape 2 in Reed’s Hauser Library fit in? Ginsberg scholars are familiar with five separate typescript drafts of “Howl Part I,” organized by Ginsberg himself in a 1986 variorum edition of the poem. Reed’s “Howl” most closely matches up with the typescript that is known as “Part I / Draft Five.” (Following along on the tape using the variorum edition, listeners will actually hear Ginsberg turning the pages of his typescript at the same moment that they are turning the facsimile pages in the book.) Even so, there are more than two dozen variations between Reed’s tape and the Draft 5 text. From a scholar’s point of view, Reed’s recording, with its text variations, ancillary remarks, and historic significance, is a treasure trove. Some of the differences are very minor, but others involve resequencing or deletions of long lines, and significant word substitutions and additions.

What’s more to the point for the general poetry listener or Beat Generation aficionado is how the Reed tape compares with the previous earliest known recordings. No tape has ever surfaced of the October 1955 Six Gallery reading, and it’s likely none was made. The Six Gallery, by all accounts, was a refreshingly unselfconscious event. No one even thought to snap a photograph of the “remarkable collection of angels” on the stand that night, a roster that included not only Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, McClure, and Lamantia, but also master-of-ceremonies Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Kerouac—Kerouac not reading, but perched on the edge of the stage in winejug solidarity with the poets, in his own private space midway between them and their audience.

Then again, why should there have been photos or tapes at the Six Gallery? Except for Lamantia—and Rexroth, of course—none of the poets had ever read publicly before that night. No one in the audience suspected that they were in for an epochal event.

Only Snyder, it turns out, had an inkling of what was about to happen. Shortly before the event, he predicted to Whalen, “I think it will be a poetickal bombshell.” In his journal he confided, “Poetry will get a kick in the arse around this town.” Immediately after the reading, he reportedly told a friend, “Save the invitation. Someday it will be worth something.”

reed magazine logoWinter 2008