A `Howl' That Still Echoes
Ginsberg poem recalled
Paul Iorio, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle - Saturday, October 28, 2000
If the birth of the Beat generation could be traced back to one event, it would probably be the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg's poem ``Howl'' 45 years ago this month at the now-defunct Six Gallery in San Francisco.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Books published the poem in 1956, was in the audience that night and recalls the reading as an electric event that galvanized the area's literary and arts community.
``Nobody had ever heard anything like that before,'' said Ferlinghetti, sipping a Bass Ale at Tosca Cafe in North Beach. ``When you hear it for the first time, you say, `I never saw the world like that before.' ''
``Howl,'' widely regarded as one of the great works of 20th century American poetry, is a 3,600-word torrent of unusually vivid and hellish imagery written in the long-line style of Walt Whitman's ``Leaves of Grass'' and echoing the rhythms of jazz. It has also become one of the most popular poems in U.S. history, having sold nearly a million copies in its City Lights edition -- very rare for a book of poetry.
The poem, the target of a landmark obscenity trial in 1957, also helped turn publisher and bookseller City Lights, at Columbus and Broadway in North Beach, into the center of the San Francisco poetry renaissance of the 1950s.
At the time of the Six Gallery reading, on Oct. 7, 1955, Ginsberg was living on Milvia Street in North Berkeley. Novelist Jack Kerouac (``On the Road'') was his houseguest. On the night of the event, the two took a bus into San Francisco and then caught a ride with Ferlinghetti in his Aston Martin to the Six Gallery, a combination art gallery and performance space at 3119 Fillmore near Union.
Six poets read that night, starting about 8 p.m. with Philip Lamantia and moving on to Philip Whalen and Michael McClure. After -- a brief intermission, Kenneth Rexroth, the host, introduced Ginsberg, who began his reading with the classic line, ``I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.''
Kerouac sat on the side of the low stage, drinking from a jug of wine and shouting, ``Go!'' at the end of some of the long lines. The audience of fewer than a hundred soon joined in with shouts of encouragement, exploding in applause at the conclusion, as Ginsberg left the stage in tears. (Gary Snyder had the bad luck to follow Ginsberg.)
``Allen was really a master performer,'' says Ferlinghetti. ``He could really turn the audience on.''
NOT PART OF THE GANG
Afterward, Ginsberg, Kerouac and others celebrated at a Chinese restaurant, while Ferlinghetti and his wife returned to their Potrero Hill apartment. ``I wasn't one of his gang, I wasn't one of his group at all,'' says Ferlinghetti. ``He sort of considered me a square bookshop owner. . . . I was not in the inner circle at all. I was not invited to read at the `Howl' reading because I wasn't known as a poet.'' (Ferlinghetti, formerly San Francisco's poet laureate, went on to become an even more popular writer than Ginsberg; his 1958 book-length poem ``A Coney Island of the Mind'' has sold more than a million copies.)
``I sent Allen a Western Union telegram that night saying, `I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?' '' he recalls. The telegram echoed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman after the former had read an early version of ``Leaves of Grass'' (but Ginsberg didn't initially catch the reference, Ferlinghetti says).
Ferlinghetti did soon get the manuscript, which was subsequently revised for months by Ginsberg, who dropped a fifth part of ``Howl'' and added ``A Footnote to `Howl.' ''
The three-part poem and its ``Footnote'' were ultimately compiled with nine other Ginsberg poems in a book titled ``Howl and Other Poems,'' the fourth volume of City Light's paperback Pocket Poets series.
Problems arose when Ferlinghetti, looking to save money, hired a British printer, Villiers, to print the book. This led to a customs seizure that was quickly dropped, but not before it brought the book to the attention of the San Francisco Police Department, which filed its own obscenity charges against Ferlinghetti for selling the poem. The trial, which lasted through the summer and early fall of 1957, ultimately cleared Ferlinghetti of all charges.
As it turned out, the bust gave a big publicity boost to ``Howl,'' which became a hit only after -- and probably because of -- the trial. ``Allen was totally unknown until the book was busted,'' he says.
Ferlinghetti, now 81, was older than most of the Beats but has outlived its leading lights, including Ginsberg, who died in 1997 at age 70; Kerouac, who died in 1969 at 47; and novelist William S. Burroughs (``Naked Lunch''), who died in 1997 at age 83.
So when it comes to the Beat era, Ferlinghetti is among those who have the last word. Of Ginsberg, he says: ``There wouldn't have been any Beat generation recognized as such if it hadn't been for Allen. He created it out of whole cloth, really. Without Allen, it would've been separate great writers in the landscape, it wouldn't have been known as the Beat generation.''
Of Kerouac, he says: ``Allen was always saying . . . Kerouac was gay, but I thought that was really absurd. He was one of the biggest woman chasers I ever met.''
And of the Beat movement itself, he's still a believer: ``The Beat message became the only rebellion around -- and it is still the same today. . . . With the dot-commies and the whole computer consciousness, the Beat message is needed now more than ever.''