“Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”
This is how William Carlos Williams introduced “Howl,” the landmark work by Allen Ginsberg, in its November 1956 printing by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights. The tiny book marked the first time its title poem — which famously went on to be the center of a 1957 obscenity trial in California State Superior Court — had been published. But “Howl” was already the stuff of legends, thanks to Ginsberg’s powerful live performances of the piece. After the first reading in 1955, at San Francisco’s Six Gallery (immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums), Ginsberg’s March 1956 performance of the poem at Berkeley’s Town Hall Theater was packed to the gills with fans.
“Ginsberg was a magnificent reader, even back then [in the early stages of his career],” says Garrett Caples, City Lights' poetry editor. “He knew what he was doing in terms of oration, and he was obviously heavily influenced by jazz. He was just a marvelous performer.”
If you’re not lucky enough to have ever seen Ginsberg live, however, there’s the next best thing: recordings. In early 1959, the poet read his famous piece and others at a benefit for a new literary magazine that had been born out of censorship at the University of Chicago. Later that year, Berkeley’s Fantasy Records pressed the recording to translucent red vinyl and released it as HOWL and Other Poems. And nearly 60 years later, at a time when the poem’s impassioned cry against fascism and complacency is as relevant as ever, the poet is getting a posthumous reissue.
Out Feb. 23 on Craft Recordings and feted with a Feb. 22 reception at City Lights’ iconic North Beach bookstore, the set includes Ginsberg’s readings on, yes, translucent red vinyl; a replica of the original Pocket Poets’ edition of Howl — Caples notes it’s the first staple-bound book the publisher has put out in quite a while; a reproduction of the original City Lights invite to the 1956 reading; and a black-and-white photo of Ginsberg at his typewriter. (Record Store Day is still a couple months away, but when you’re one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, you can apparently get your own deluxe reissue box set any day of the year.)
New, too, are liner notes by poet Anne Waldman, a peer of Ginsberg’s who was at his bedside when he died, and Ann Charters, a Beat scholar who writes of attending Ginsberg’s Berkeley reading of the title poem as a 19-year-old freshman at Cal.
But the audio itself, once you get it on a turntable, really needs no window dressing. In each poem — “Howl” is the centerpiece, but “Supermarket In California,” “America,” “Kaddish” and others are all searing — Ginsberg’s cadence, which has been compared to that of a cantor, is at once soothing and invigorating. His skill as a performer comes as no surprise, of course, to those aware of his impact on music: Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, the Clash, U2, and other musical icons have long cited Ginsberg's work as an influence. In 1990, Philip Glass composed a chamber opera titled Hydrogen Jukebox that was built around the poem.
In more recent years, the poem's impact has hardly faded from pop culture. The 2010 movie Howl explored the Six Gallery reading and obscenity trial, with James Franco portraying the poet. In 2015, at a Los Angeles event celebrating the poem's 50th anniversary, Courtney Love, Peaches, Devendra Banhart, and Nick Cave all performed in tribute, while Amy Poehler and Chris Parnell collaborated with producer Mocean Worker to turn Ginsberg's "Ballad of the Skeletons" into a hip-hop song. (The lineage between rhythmically performed spoken-word poetry and modern-day rap has, of course, been well-documented.)
It's not hard to see why the poet's work has held up, to say the least: On the 1959 recording, Ginsberg’s empathy comes across in stereo. His words are bold and unflinching, yet simultaneously self-effacing and humble. Which is to say, his poetry is terrifically human; not to mention brave, even before one considers the implications of writing about gay sex, drugs, and communism in the height of red scare-America.
“If you had to reduce the 20th century to two English poems it’d be [T.S. Eliot’s] ‘The Waste Land’ in the first half and ‘Howl’ in the second,” says Caples. “It was epoch-shifting. How seldom that a work of art’s influence is this thoroughgoing… and we’re still reaping the benefits.”
The other poems on the record weren’t actually published until 1961, he notes, meaning they existed as part of an “oral audio object” for mass consumption before they were available to read — and provided a peek into where Ginsberg’s writing was going at the time, as well.
Ginsberg’s death in 1997 from liver cancer wasn’t just a loss for the poetry world, says Caples, when I mention wishing the writer were around to respond to our current political moment.
“It was a loss to American culture,” he says, noting he actually takes some comfort in the persistent germaneness of the poem’s themes — it shows that what we’re dealing with isn’t entirely new. “There aren’t many poets in America that people would bother to turn to for their take on world events.”
Caples will speak at the City Lights event, alongside Charters, San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Schuck, poet Neeli Cherkovski, and Bill Belmont, who produced the box set. Present in the air in the bookstore and in the spaces between the words of “Howl,” of course, will be Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who provided a physical center for Beat writers with his bookshop and a platform with his publishing house. Ferlinghetti was the one arrested in 1957 on charges of printing and selling lewd and indecent material; at 98, he’s one of the few members of the Beat generation who can tell its stories firsthand.
“We are kind of spoiled in that sense,” says Caples. “We still have Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”
A reception for the reissue of 'Howl' on vinyl takes place at 7pm on Thursday, Feb. 22 at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave. in San Francisco. Free; click here for more info.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED