Rediscovered Ginsberg tapes

Phil Ford

A wonderful discovery — a tape recording of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl in 1956 at Reed College for a small audience. Much to their credit, the college made the tapes available for free this morning. The whole unedited tape contains seven other poems and a certain amount of informal chit-chat before Ginsberg begins Howl (slightly after the midpoint of the recording). I’m not the biggest Ginsberg fan — don’t hate it, don’t love it — but audio postcards like this always interest me. Ginsberg’s reading style in Howl is self-consciously intense, in marked contrast to his very introverted style in the 1949 Holmes acetates. He says in his introduction to Howl that he’s trying to emulate the feeling of chorus piled on top of chorus in bop — he references a fabled Lester Young performance of “The Man I Love.” Interesting to hear him trying for a jazz style; it’s intense but it’s actually not very jazzy. His reading doesn’t have the musicality of Kerouac’s readings, which are really very beautiful.

An unintended, but lovely and poetic touch — the drone of the passing airplane (a prop plane — this is 1956, after all) just as Ginsberg begins to read Howl. Don’t know why this sound is so perfect — mechanical but dolorous, like a train whistle.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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