On Oct. 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg first read "Howl" before a raucous audience at an art gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. According to Poets.org, the wine-soaked crowd's "relentless cheers of 'Go! Go! Go!'" brought the 29-year-old Ginsberg to tears by the end of performance. The now legendary scene was part of "6 Poets at 6 Gallery," a reading that also included Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, all of whom were much better known than Ginsberg at the time.
The next day, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a letter reading, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?" -- a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous letter to Walt Whitman a century earlier upon the publication of "Leaves of Grass." A year later, Ferlinghetti's fledgling company, City Lights Books, published the first edition of "Howl and Other Poems." According to the City Lights Web site, the first print run was a mere 1,000 copies, sold at 75 cents each. (A first edition now fetches several thousand dollars.) In 1957, when the book's second edition arrived on U.S. shores from the printers in England, customs agents declared the poem obscene and seized the 520 copies. Ferlinghetti was later arrested and charged with obscenity, then bailed out and defended by the ACLU in a high-profile trial that became a landmark in obscenity law. "I do not believe that 'Howl' is without even 'the slightest redeeming social importance,'" Judge Clayton Horn stated, ruling that the book was not obscene. Now in its 50th year of publication, "Howl" has more than a million copies in print and has been translated into more than 20 languages.
In this clip (1:12:27, MP3) from the Internet Archive, the time and place of which is unclear, Ginsberg reads "Howl" in its entirety. The recitation, which is preceded by readings from Anne Waldman, begins in the 40th minute and lasts nearly half an hour. "I don't read it often because it's too much of a bravura piece," says Ginsberg by way of introduction, "and I don't want to get hung up on it." It's hard to hear the poem now without also hearing the echoes of hundreds of tired imitations -- of the rambling harangues, of self-styled transgressives in coffeehouses -- but it can be done.
-- Ira Boudway