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October 7: The “Howl” Premiere

Lawrence Bush
October 6, 2016
the-beat-goes-on-1941051-40-195x300Twenty-nine-year-old Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" in public for the first time on this date in 1955, at Six Gallery in San Francisco -- a former auto-repair shop with a dirt floor measuring 20' x 25'. The reading, which he shared with Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, was a "coming out" for the Beat Generation poets and was emcee'd by Kenneth Rexroth, who had helped foster the Beats through a weekly salon. The large audience included Jack Kerouac, who wrote an account of the evening in his novel The Dharma Bums, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who sent a telegram to Ginsberg the following day offering to publish the work -- which would eventually lead to the "Howl" censorship trial. "As the hitherto forbidden content (drugs, mental illness, religion, homosexuality) emerged, Kerouac –- two years prior to On the Road –- was the first to realize the magnitude of what was happening. Sitting on the side of the low stage, he began to punctuate Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque-meets-jazz rhythms by banging his empty wine jug and, at the end of each long line, shouting “GO!” Soon, the entire audience joined in . . . their encouraging chants of “GO! GO! GO!” driving Ginsberg to a shamanic momentum and creating a tribal unity between audience and poet. By the time he finished, Ginsberg was in tears. So was Rexroth. Everyone in the room knew they’d witnessed a rare moment of duende -– that mysterious higher state brought on by a burst of genuine inspiration -– and henceforth nothing would be the same again." --Dorian Cope, On This Deity

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.