Hear Patti Smith Read the Poetry that Would Become Horses: A Reading of 14 Poems at Columbia University, 1975

Note: The first poem and others contain some offensive language.

In the context of the radical socio-political change of 1975, Patti Smith announced herself to the world with Horses, “the first real full-length hint of the artistic ferment taking place in the mid-‘70s at the juncture of Bowery and Bleecker,” writes Mac Randall. Though born in an insular downtown milieu, Smith’s view was vast, conducting the poetry of the past—of Rimbaud, the Beats, and rock and roll—into an uncertain future, through the nascent medium of punk rock. The album is “closely associated with the beginning of something,” and yet is “so concerned with endings": the loss of Jimi Hendrix (at whose studio Smith recorded), and of “other departed counterculture heroes like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones.”

In a way, Smith’s voice defines the pivotal moment in which it arrived: anticipating an anxious age of austerity and women's liberation; mourning the loss of 60s idealism and the promise of racial equity. She was a female artist fully unconstrained by patriarchal expectations, with complete authority over her vision. “My people were trying to forge a new bridge between the people we had lost and learned from and the future,” she recently remarked.




In her “fabulously grand” way, she told The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone in 2013, “I felt in the center, not quite the old generation, not quite the new generation. I felt like the human bridge.” Smith was no naïf when she made Horses, but a confident artist who, at 29, had worked in theater with her lately-departed friend Sam Shepard, become her famous lover Robert Mapplethorpe’s favorite subject, joined the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and published two collections of verse.

She thought of herself as a poet who “got sidetracked” by music. “When I was young,” Smith says, “all I wanted was to write books and be an artist.” But poetry was always central to her work; Horses, she says, “evolved organically” from her first poetry reading, four years earlier, at St. Mark's Church, alongside Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and other luminaries. Above, you can hear her discuss that attention-grabbing first reading, and at the top of the post, listen to Smith at Columbia University in 1975, reading the poems that developed that year into the songs on Horses, including her 1971 “Oath,” which begins with a variation on Horses’ opening sneer, “Christ died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Be warned the first poem she reads contains offensive language, as do many others. No one should be shocked by this. But some who only know Smith as a singer may be surprised by her masterful literary voice and wicked sense of humor. She has always been an elegist, mourning her cultural heroes, most of whom died young, as well as a tragic string of personal losses. “When I started working with the material that became Horses,” she remembers, “a lot of our great voices had died.” But her intent went beyond elegy, beyond a maudlin appropriation of fading 60s heroes. Smith had a “mission,” she says, of “forming a cultural voice through rock’n’roll that incorporated sex and art and poetry and performance and revolution.” It sounds grandiose, but it’s a mission she’s largely fulfilled. At the center of her project is poetry as performance, as a means of entertaining, shocking, and seducing an audience. The reading at the top is an especially faithful record of her fearless onstage persona.

Find more poetry readings in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover Langston Hughes’ Rent Party Ads & The Harlem Renaissance Tradition of Playing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

Both communities of color and communities of artists have had to take care of each other in the U.S., creating systems of support where the dominant culture fosters neglect and deprivation. In the early twentieth century, at the nexus of these two often overlapping communities, we meet Langston Hughes and the artists, poets, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’ brilliantly compressed 1951 poem “Harlem” speaks of the simmering frustration among a weary people. But while its startling final line hints grimly at social unrest, it also looks back to the explosion of creativity in the storied New York City neighborhood during the Great Depression.

Hughes had grown reflective in the 50s, returning to the origins of jazz and blues and the history of Harlem in Montage of a Dream Deferred. The strained hopes and hardships he had eloquently documented in the 20s and 30s remained largely the same post-World War II, and one of the key features of Depression-era Harlem had returned; Rent parties, the wild shindigs held in private apartments to help their residents avoid eviction, were back in fashion, Hughes wrote in the Chicago Defender in 1957.




“Maybe it is inflation today and the high cost of living that is causing the return of the pay-at-the-door and buy-your-own-refreshments parties,” he said. He also noted that the new parties weren’t as much fun.

But how could they be? Depression-era rent parties were legendary. They “impacted the growth of Swing and Blues dancing,” writes dance teacher Jered Morin, “like few other periods.” As Hughes commented, “the Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God-knows-who lived.” Famous artists met and rubbed elbows, musicians formed impromptu jams and invented new styles, working class people who couldn’t afford a night out got to put on their best clothes and cut loose to the latest music. Hughes was fascinated, and as a writer, he was also quite taken by the quirky cards used to advertise the parties. “When I first came to Harlem,” he said, “as a poet I was intrigued by the little rhymes at the top of most House Rent Party cards, so I saved them. Now I have quite a collection.”

The cards you see here come from Hughes’ personal collection, held with his papers at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Many of these date from the 40s and 50s, but they all draw their inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance period, when the phenomenon of jazz-infused rent parties exploded.  “Sandra L. West points out that black tenants in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s faced discriminatory rental rates,” notes Rebecca Onion at Slate. “That, along with the generally lower salaries for black workers, created a situation in which many people were short of rent money. These parties were originally meant to bridge that gap.” A 1938 Federal Writers Project account put it plainly: Harlem “was a typical slum and tenement area little different from many others in New York except for the fact that in Harlem rents were higher; always have been, in fact, since the great war-time migratory influx of colored labor.”

Tenants took it in stride, drawing on two longstanding community traditions to make ends meet: the church fundraiser and the Saturday night fish fry. But rent parties could be raucous affairs. Guests typically paid a few cents to enter, and extra for food cooked by the host. Apartments filled far beyond capacity, and alcohol—illegal from 1919 to 1933—flowed freely. Gambling and prostitution frequently made an appearance.  And the competition could be fierce. The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance writes that in their heyday, “as many as twelve parties in a single block and five in an apartment building, simultaneously, were not uncommon.” Rent parties "essentially amounted to a kind of grassroots social welfare," though the atmosphere could be "far more sordid than the average neighborhood block party." Many upright citizens who disapproved of jazz, gambling, and booze turned up their noses and tried to ignore the parties.

In order to entice party-goers and distinguish themselves, writes Onion, “the cards name the kind of musical entertainment attendees could expect using lyrics from popular songs or made-up rhyming verse as slogans.” They also “used euphemisms to name the parties’ purpose,” calling them “Social Whist Party” or “Social Party,” while also slyly hinting at rowdier entertainments. The new rent parties may not have lived up to Hughes’ memories of jazz-age shindigs, perhaps because, in some cases, live musicians had been replaced by record players. But the new cards, he wrote “are just as amusing as the old ones.”

via Slate

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When J.M. Coetzee Secretly Programmed Computers to Write Poetry in the 1960s

Before J.M. Coetzee became perhaps the most acclaimed novelist alive, he worked as a programer. That may not sound particularly notable these days, but bear in mind that the Nobel laureate and two-time Booker-winning author of Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace, and Elizabeth Costello held that day job first at IBM in the early 1960s — back, in other words, when nobody had a computer on their desk. And back when IBM was IBM: that mighty American corporation had brought the kind of computing power it alone could command to branch offices in cities around the world, including London, where Coetzee landed after leaving his native South Africa after graduating from the University of Cape Town.

The years Coetzee spent "writing machine code for computers," he once wrote in a letter to Paul Auster, saw him "getting so deeply sucked into the process that I sometimes felt I was descending into a madness in which the brain is taken over by mechanical logic." This must have caused some distress to a literarily minded young man who heard his true calling only from poetry.




"I was very heavily under the influence, in my teens and early twenties, of, first, T.S. Eliot, but then, more substantially, Ezra Pound, and later of German poetry, of Rilke in particular," he says to Peter Sacks in the interview above, remembering the years before he put poetry aside as a craft in favor of the novel.

"Under the shadowless glare of the neon lighting, he feels his very soul to be under attack,"Coetzee writes, in the autobiographical novel Youth, of the protagonist's time as a programmer. "The building, a featureless block of concrete and glass, seems to give off a gas, odourless, colourless, that finds its way into his blood and numbs him. IBM, he can swear, is killing him, turning him into a zombie." Only in the evening can he "leave his desk, wander around, relax. The machine room downstairs, dominated by the huge memory cabinets of the 7090, is more often than not empty; he can run programs on the little 1401 computer, even, surreptitiously, play games on it."

He could also use these clunky, punchcard-operated computers to write poetry. "In the mid 1960s Coetzee was working on one of the most advanced programming projects in Britain," writes King’s College London researcher Rebecca Roach. "During the day he helped to design the Atlas 2 supercomputer destined for the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Aldermaston. At night he used this hugely powerful machine of the Cold War to write simple 'computer poetry,' that is, he wrote programs for a computer that used an algorithm to select words from a set vocabulary and create repetitive lines."

These lines, as seen here in one page of the print-outs held at the Coetzee archive at the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center, include "INCHOATE SHARD IMAGINE THE OUBLIETTE," "FRENETIC AMBIENCE DISHEARTEN THE ROSE," "PASSIONATE PABULUM CARPET THE MIRROR," and "FRENETIC TETANUS DEADEN THE DOCUMENT." Though he never published these results, writes Roach, he "edited and included phrases from them in poetry that he did publish." Is this a curious chapter in the early life of a prominent man of letters, or was this realm of "flat metallic surfaces" an ideal forge for the sensibilities of a writer now known, as John Lanchester so aptly put it, for his "unusual quality of passionate coldness" — a kind of brilliant austerity that hardly deadens any of his documents.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

2,000+ Cassettes from the Allen Ginsberg Audio Collection Now Streaming Online

Last month Colin Marshall gave you the scoop on Stanford University's digitization of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," a project that takes you inside the making of the iconic 1955 poem. As a quick follow up, it's worth mentioning this: Stanford has also just put online over 2,000 Ginsberg audio cassette recordings, giving you access to "a staggering amount of primary source material associated with the Beat Generation" and its most acclaimed poet.

For a quick taste of what's in the archive, Stanford Libraries points you to an afternoon breakfast table conversation between Ginsberg and another legendary Beat figure, William S. Burroughs. But you can rummage/search through the whole collection and find your own favorite recordings here.

via Stanford Libraries and Austin Kleon's newsletter (which you should subscribe to here)

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An 8-Hour Marathon Reading of 500 Emily Dickinson Poems

It’s unlikely that reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would have wanted much fuss made over her birthday while still alive to celebrate it.

But with the lady safely ensconced in Amherst’s West Cemetery’s plot 53 for more than a century, fans can observe the day in the manner they see fit.

The Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center threw in with the Folger Library in celebration of her 184th, inviting poetry lovers to the free marathon reading of her work, above (and below).




Poet Eleanor Heginbotham cited Dickinson’s letter to her editor, abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson–“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?”–before priming the breakfast crowd on what they should expect from the 8 hour marathon:

We’re just going to have a day with no discussion beyond… And it will be frustrating that we can't ask questions, we can't stop and say, "Oh, my goodness.  Let's do that one over again."  We're just going to read and read and read.  And from this moment on, the voice of Emily Dickinson, through those of you in this room, that's the only voice we're going to hear, and won't that be fun?

Yes, though you may want to pack a nutritious snack to keep your energy up. The reading slots were secured by means of an online sign up sheet, and while such egalitarianism is laudable, it does not necessarily confer performance chops on the inexperienced.

Naturally, there are stand outs.

Marianne Noble, Associate Professor of Literature at American University, is a highlight with Poem 75, (2:36:40, above). Her Emily Rocks t-shirt is pretty rad too.

Professor Heginbotham is another sort of treat with Poem 416, 30 minutes and 40 seconds into the second video, below.

All told, the volunteer readers held the podium for 8 hours, making it through 500 poems, slightly less than a third of the poet’s output.

A transcript of the event, with the readers’ names recorded before their chosen verses can be found here.

Single tickets for the Folger's 2017 Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute, co-hosted by poet and  feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert, go on sale August 1.

This marathon reading of Dickinson's poems will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Discuss Emily Dickinson with her informally at Pete's Mini Zinefest in Brooklyn this Saturday. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Manuscripts Now Digitized & Put Online, Revealing the Beat Poet’s Creative Process

Somehow you have to imagine that, from its very opening — "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix" — Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" simply emerged fully formed and launched itself permanently into American culture. But deep down we all know that no work, poetic or otherwise, actually does that, no matter how widely read it becomes, no matter how vividly it captures a time and a place, no matter how many generations look to it as an example. Ginsberg had to work on "Howl," and now, thanks to Stanford Libraries, we have an up-close way to see some of that work in progress.

"From its first public reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955 to the notorious obscenity trial that followed in the wake of its first publication in 1956," writes Stanford Curator for American and British Literature Rebecca Wingfield, "the poem is indelibly tied to the Beat Generation and their critique of the staid morals and customs of Eisenhower-era America."




Before all that, it began with a seven-page first draft written in Ginsberg's North Beach apartment, gained a second section before that now-legendary Six Gallery reading, and finally, after Ginsberg tried out different compositional techniques and followed different suggestions in search of a way to capture America as he saw it, evolved into a long poem comprising three sections and a footnote, published alongside other works by City Lights Books as the paperback that made him famous.

"The 'Howl' manuscripts and typescripts in the Allen Ginsberg Papers," which you can view online at Stanford Libraries, "document the formal development of the poem, tracing Ginsberg’s experiments with different structures and wording in each of the poem’s sections." These pre-"Howl" "Howl"s, manuscripts and typescripts both, retain the corrections and annotations that reveal details about Ginsberg's distinctive creative process. But given the most well-known aspect of the poem's construction, that each line lasts as long as exactly one breath, a full understanding can only come from hearing it as well as reading it. You can hear Ginsberg's earliest recorded performance of the poem, at Portland's Reed College (alma mater of Ginsberg's Beat colleague Gary Snyder) in 1956, at the top of the post, and a later reading on record here. (The text of the completed poem can be viewed here.) Look and listen closely, and you'll find that a cri de coeur, especially as Ginsberg cried it, demands deliberate craftsmanship.

See the Howl manuscripts online here.

via Stanford News/Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Every Poem in Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” Set to Music, Illustrated and Performed Live

Charles Baudelaire must be a joyful corpse indeed. His work has succeeded as few others’ have, to be so passionately alive 150 years after his death.

Theater Oobleck, a Chicago artistic collective dedicated to creating original affordable theatrical works, has spent the last eleven years assembling Baudelaire in a Box, a cantastoria cycle based on Les Fleurs du Mal.

Why?

Because he would be so irritated. Because he might be charmed

There is a touch of vaudeville and cabaret in Baudelaire. He tended to go big or go home. Home to his mother.

Because he invented the term “modernity” and even now no one quite knows what it means. Because he wrote a poetry of immersion perfectly suited to the transience and Now-ness of song and of the Ever-Moving scroll. Because we never had a proper goth phase. Sex and death! For all these reasons, and for the true one that remains just out of our grasp.

Each new installment features a line-up of musicians performing live adaptations of another 10 to 15 poems, as artist Dave Buchen’s painted illustrations slowly spool past on hand-turned “crankies.”

The resulting “proto music videos” are voluptuously intimate affairs, with plenty of time to reflect upon the original texts’ explicit sexuality, the gorgeous urban decay that so preoccupied one of Romantic poetry’s naughtiest boys.

The instruments and musical palate---klezmer, alt-country, antifolk---are befitting of the interpreters’ well honed downtown sensibilities. The lyrics are drunk on their dark imagery.

The entire project makes for the sort of extravagantly eccentric night out that might lead a young poet to lean close to his blind date, mid-show, to whisper “Wouldn’t it be agreeable to take a bath with me?” No word on whether that line worked for the poéte maudit, who reportedly issued such an invitation to a friend mid-sentence.

This August, Theater Oobleck intends to observe the sesquicentennial of Baudelaire’s death in grand style with a marathon performance of the complete Baudelaire in a Box, a three-day effort involving 50 artists and over 130 poems.

Allow a few past examples to set the mood:

The Offended Moon From Episode 9 of Baudelaire In A Box, "Unquenched." Composed and translated by David Costanza. Emmy Bean: vocal, Ronnie Kuller: accordion, T-Roy Martin trombone, David E. Smith: clarinet, Chris Schoen: vocal, Joey Spilberg: bass.

The Denial of St. Peter Composed, translated and performed by Sad Brad Smith, with Emmy Bean (hand percussion), Ronnie Kuller (accordion), T-Roy Martin (trombone), Chris Schoen (mandolin), and Joey Spilberg (bass).

The Drag Music composed by Ronnie Kuller, to Mickle Maher's translation of "L'Avertisseur" by Charles Baudelaire. Performed by: Emmy Bean (vocal, percussion), Angela James (vocal), Ronnie Kuller (piano, percussion), T-Roy Martin (vocal), Chris Schoen (vocal), David E. Smith (saxophone), and Joey Spilberg (bass).

The Hard(-est) Working Skeleton Music by Amy Warren, Performed by Nora O'Connor, with Addie Horan, Amalea Tshilds, Kate Douglas, James Becker and Ted Day.

The Possessed Written and performed by Jeff Dorchen.

You can listen to and purchase songs from Episodes 7 (the King of Rain) and 9 (Unquenched) on Bandcamp.

Some of the participating musicians have released their own albums featuring tracks of their Baudelaire-based tunes.

Theater Oobleck is raising funds for the upcoming Closed Casket: The Complete, Final, and Absolutely Last Baudelaire in a Box on Kickstarter, with music and prints and originals of Buchen’s work among the premiums at various pledge levels.

All images used with permission of artist Dave Buchen.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She will be appearing in a live excerpt from CB Goodman’s How to Kill an Elephant this Friday at Dixon Place in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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