The First Recording of Allen Ginsberg Reading “Howl” (1956)

Allen_ginsberg_erads howl

Image by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Occa­sion­al­ly I slip into an ivory tow­er men­tal­i­ty in which the idea of a banned book seems quaint—associated with sil­ly scan­dals over the tame sex scenes in James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence. After all, I think, we live in an age when best­seller lists are topped (no pun) by tawdry fan fic­tion like Fifty Shades of Grey. Nothing’s sacred. But this notion is a mas­sive blind spot on my part; the whole aware­ness-rais­ing mis­sion of the annu­al Banned Books Week seeks to dis­pel such com­pla­cen­cy. Books are chal­lenged, sup­pressed, and banned all the time in pub­lic schools and libraries, even if we’ve moved past out­right gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship of the pub­lish­ing indus­try.

It’s also easy to for­get that Allen Ginsberg’s gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing poem “Howl” was once almost a casu­al­ty of cen­sor­ship. The most like­ly suc­ces­sor to Walt Whitman’s vision, Ginsberg’s orac­u­lar utter­ances did not sit well with U.S. Cus­toms, who in 1957 tried to seize every copy of the British sec­ond print­ing. When that failed, police arrest­ed the poem’s pub­lish­er, Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, and he and Ginsberg’s “Howl” were put on tri­al for obscen­i­ty. Appar­ent­ly, phras­es like “cock and end­less balls” did not sit well with the author­i­ties. But the court vin­di­cat­ed them all.

The sto­ry of Howl’s pub­li­ca­tion begins in 1955, when 29-year-old Gins­berg read part of the poem at the Six Gallery, where Ferlinghetti—owner of San Francisco’s City Lights book­store—sat in atten­dance. Decid­ing that Ginsberg’s epic lament “knocked the sides out of things,” Fer­linghet­ti offered to pub­lish “Howl” and brought out the first edi­tion in 1956. Pri­or to this read­ing, “Howl” exist­ed in the form of an ear­li­er poem called “Dream Record, 1955,” which poet Ken­neth Rexroth told Gins­berg sound­ed “too for­mal… like you’re wear­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Brooks Broth­ers ties.” Ginsberg’s rewrite jet­ti­soned the ivy league deco­rum.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no audio exists of that first read­ing, but above you can hear the first record­ed read­ing of “Howl,” from Feb­ru­ary, 1956 at Portland’s Reed Col­lege. The record­ing sat dor­mant in Reed’s archives for over fifty years until schol­ar John Suit­er redis­cov­ered it in 2008. In it, Gins­berg reads his great prophet­ic work, not with the cadences of a street preach­er or jazzman—both of which he had in his repertoire—but in an almost robot­ic monot­o­ne with an under­tone of man­ic urgency. Ginsberg’s read­ing, before an inti­mate group of stu­dents in a dor­mi­to­ry lounge, took place only just before the first print­ing of the poem in the City Lights edi­tion.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2013. Over the years, the audio orig­i­nal­ly fea­tured in the post, along with many of the links, went dead. So we gave every­thing a refresh and brought it back.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

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

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celes­tial Home­work”: A Read­ing List for His Class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”

13 Lec­tures from Allen Ginsberg’s “His­to­ry of Poet­ry” Course (1975)

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

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