In February 1956, a fidgety Allen Ginsberg stood up to read from a manuscript of Howl
at a poetry event in the Anna Mann dormitory lounge at Reed College.
Until recently, knowledge of the event had survived only anecdotally. Ginsberg read alongside Gary Snyder, a longtime friend and fellow beat poet with whom he had been hitchhiking for three weeks.
But Ginsberg, who had not yet given his famous “Six Gallery Reading,” was unknown outside San Francisco. As a result, his name wasn't even mentioned when the event was listed in the Reed College newspaper. It said simply: “Poetry Reading. 8 pm.”
The event was taped, but the tape was lost. Or, more accurately, it was forgotten. From 1956, it sat in a cardboard box in the Reed College Library archives, marked only “Snyder, Ginsberg – 1956”.
Then, in late 2007, it was re-discovered. While at Reed researching a biography of Gary Snyder at Reed College's Hauser Library, Pennsylvania-based writer John Suiter (Poets on the Peaks
) came across a dusty box marked “Ginsberg, Snyder – 1956”. Inside, there was a single reel of tape.
“I told the archivist, don't play that tape,” says Suiter. “Take it to a pro lab and have it digitized, because I think it might have Howl
Turns out he was right. The reel contained a recording of Ginsberg, who reads from an early version of Part I of Howl
. Other poems on the tape include “Wild Orphan,” “Over Kansas,” and “A Supermarket in California”.
Listen to two samples here. The first is Ginsberg's reading “Wild Orphan”.
The second is Part I of Howl, with a brief introduction.
Before Suiter's discovery, the earliest recording of the poem was a version from Rhino Records on their album Holy Soul, Jelly Roll
. It was recorded in March 1956, about five weeks after the reading in Anna Mann cottage. That means that Reed now holds the earliest version.
Kevin Myers, assistant director of Media Relations at Reed, is enthusiastic about the find: “I think it's significant that Reed has some claim, or at least footnote, in the history of this touchstone of modern American poetry.”
Quantitatively, there are about 2 dozen textual differences between the version of Howl
read at Reed and the printed work. A few of these changes are trivial—“in” changed to “on” and so forth.
But others, which will be of interest to critics, show Ginsberg experimenting with the order of lines, swapping them between sections. In general, the Reed tape is much less censored, and the word “fuck” pops up in several new places.
According to Suiter, what's really astonishing about this tape is less its value for critics, and more its sound quality.
“The sound quality on the Rhino recording—a version that Ginsberg himself picked—is really not good. In that regard, this new tape blows it out of the water.”
On the Reed tape, perhaps because of the intimate venue, Ginsberg's voice really comes through. At the time, he was 30 years old, and his voice has a surprising, clear quality that it lost as he got older.
Just as interesting as the questions this tape answers are the ones it raises.
On the reel, once Ginsberg has read approximately four stanzas of Part II, he quits abruptly, saying, “I don't really feel like reading any more. I just sorta haven't got any kind of steam.” Why the sudden stop?
Also, the reel on which the recording was found was labeled “2”, and yet it was the only tape in the box marked “Snyder, Ginsberg – 1956”. Presumably, since it was a joint poetry reading by both Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, there is another reel out there, containing Snyder's half of the event.
Biographers and literary archaeologists, take note.
A sample of the Reed tape will be played on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 7:30 pm, in Reed's Eliot Hall chapel. Additionally, Reed English professor Pancho Savery will read from the works of Ginsberg.
[photo from levity.com]