Birth of the Beat Generation: 50 Years of 'Howl'

Fifty years ago, poet Allen Ginsberg gave the first public reading of "Howl" at a gathering in San Francisco. It was a literary milestone: Many consider that night the birth of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg's friend and fellow poet, Gary Snyder also read that night and recalls the event.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a recording of the late Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg reading the beginning of his poem "Howl" in 1959.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): 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.

SIEGEL: We play this recording today because on October 7th, 1955, 50 years ago today, Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" in public at a reading for the first time.

(Soundbite of reading)

Mr. GINSBERG: Angel-headed hipsters, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.

SIEGEL: It was in San Francisco, and poet Gary Snyder was also reading and he was there.

Welcome to the program, Gary Snyder. What was your impression of "Howl" when you heard Ginsberg read it?

Mr. GARY SNYDER (Poet): I'd read some passages of it earlier at Allen's little cottage in Berkeley, and got a sense of what he was up to. But by the time he read "Howl" over at the Six Gallery, he had already revised it and given it a lot more juice, and everybody who showed up somehow knew that evening that that was an outstanding poem that was going to change things.

SIEGEL: Put us back into the world of poetry in 1955. What was it that people heard that was different or especially energetic about that reading of "Howl"?

Mr. SNYDER: Much of the poetry in the mid-'50s was in a kind of neoformalist and academic mode that was very tame and highly intellectual and spoke to a small and elite audience. At the same time, we were in the middle of the beginnings of the Cold War or right in the Cold War, and there were simmering tensions of many kinds going on in the society that weren't being acknowledged. When Allen came out with that poem in a direct, colloquial, funny, vernacular, frank and unembarrassed powerful way, he spoke to the people's condition, and it touched on things that were in their hearts.

SIEGEL: You said everyone who was there that night knew that some change was taking place. Was there prolonged applause? Was there, you know, a standing ovation? What actually happened after the poem was read?

Mr. SNYDER: It was simply tumultuous fun. Jack Kerouac sat on the side with a jug of wine cracking jokes and rapping and being totally entertaining, and a mix of people from the bohemians to some of my professors from UC-Berkeley, the Chinese department, were all there together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SNYDER: And there was an uproar, you know. It wasn't like st--it wasn't as dignified as standing applause or anything. It was just a totally delighted uproar.

SIEGEL: Did "Howl" spawn lots of imitative little "Howls" that came after it? I mean, do you start seeing a genre of Ginsberg-like poems right after that?

Mr. SNYDER: Not right after that. It took a while. What that evening's poetry readings did was start a poetry-reading energy going first in the Bay area, and then across the whole country. That was the beginning of the poetry-reading phenomenon in America was that night. You could actually track it.

SIEGEL: Quite a pivotal evening 50 years ago tonight.

Mr. SNYDER: Yes, it was. It was wonderful. It was fun.

SIEGEL: Well, it was great talking to you about it. Thank you very much.

Mr. SNYDER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Well, Gary Snyder--where are you actually right now?

Mr. SNYDER: Three-thousand-foot level of the western Sierra Nevada pine forest, facing west.

SIEGEL: And talking to us about Allen Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl" 50 years ago on October 7th, 1955. Thank you very much.

Mr. SNYDER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of reading)

Mr. GINSBERG: O, skinny legions run outside. O, starry spangled shock of mercy, the eternal war is here. I'm with you in Rockland. In my dreams, you walk dripping from a sea journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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