In 2007, author John Suiter was digging through the archives at Reed College's Hauser Memorial Library when he uncovered a rare treasure: a reel-to-reel tape of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg giving a public reading at the school on Valentine's Day 1956.
It turned out to be more than just a neat obscurity. As part of the performance, Ginsberg, then 29, performs the first part of his now canonical epic poem "Howl"—a full month before what was thought to be the poem's first recorded reading, at Berkeley's Town Hall Theater in March 1956.
The discovery made some minor waves in the press at the time. Otherwise, the tape has collected dust in the Reed archives.
That is about to change. In April, the reissue label Omnivore Recordings is set to release the full recording on vinyl and CD and digitally.
How the audio finally came to wide release is the result of some fortuitous circumstances. In 2019, Reed hired as its new president Dr. Audrey Bilger, an educator and academic married to Omnivore's founder, Cheryl Pawelski. Sometime after moving to Portland, the two attended a women's rugby match and Pawelski struck up a conversation with Greg MacNaughton, the education outreach coordinator at Reed's Cooley Gallery, and inquired about old tapes.
"He said, 'You know, there are recordings of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg,'" Pawelski says, "and my ears immediately perked up."
Allen Ginsberg at Reed College: The First Recorded Reading of Howl & Other Poems captures a much more sedate version of Ginsberg. At the start of "Howl," he wades into his lines cautiously and slowly ratchets up the intensity and passion as he goes. It's a startlingly intimate recording—you can hear Ginsberg shuffling his papers as he works his way through a selection of his writings, including equally powerful poems like "A Supermarket in California" and "A Dream Record."
What is missing is the rest of "Howl." He launches into the first few lines of the second section before begging off: "I don't really feel like reading anymore," he says. "I haven't got any kind of steam."
Even with that abbreviated moment, though, the effect is stunning—particularly given its historical significance.
"Hearing Ginsberg read these captivating, wonderful words," Pawelski says, "it goes beyond just poetry or literature. It becomes a living, breathing thing."
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