A horn call sounded the start of the 50th anniversary celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of his masterpiece Howl, on this occasion, Oct. 7, 2005 at Skylight Books in Los Feliz Village in Los Angeles. “Howl” was read by a chorus of local poets, friends of Ginsberg and those (as everyone) with just a deep sense of appreciation for the timeless words, shouts, and cries about a parallel culture of the ’50s not otherwise seen in the American dream images portrayed on television at the time. Organized within 24 hours by local poet S.A. Griffin the word was spread quickly via the Internet, email and phone calls.
Bookcases pushed aside, some stood in a semi-circle, others sat in chairs, or a few such as myself sat around the ficus tree that grows through the center of the store. David Zazlov provided the horn call that preceded a group recital of the infamous opening verse, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” and then one by one each person calling out from their position read a few lines in perfect verbal unity, not missing a note. The reading of “Howl” took on the musicality of the day, the jazz rhythms that Ginsberg and friends absorbed with its chant-like beginning, solos punctuated with “go!” and “yeah!” building up to the Moloch crescendo, and then slowing down to its “I’m with you in Rockland” coda. Each voice added its own unique flair and phrasing, moving along with a cadence until the very end, not one person losing steam. The only thing missing was someone running around collecting money for bottles of wine.
The chorus of voices included some of the finest poets Los Angeles has to offer, all who have been instrumental in keeping the art vibrant: Griffin and his wife Lorraine Perrotta (rare books/acquisitions librarian for The Huntington Library), Mike Mollett, Doug Knott howling from the staircase (Griffin, Mollett, and Knott are members of the Carma Bums known for their International Superhighway Tour of Words in a ’59 Cadillac, hence Dharma Bums plus Cadillac = Carma Bums), Bradford Bancroft, Bob Branaman, Milo Martin, Stosh Machek, Harry Northrup, Linda Albertano (one of five poets chosen to represent Los Angeles in Amsterdam’s One World Poetry), Skylight Books staff/poet, Steve Salardino, Teka-Lark, Ken Tao, and host of the open readings at Weeds in Chicago for the past 19 years, Gregorio Gomez who added a lively flair to the line “who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.”
After the final chorus, Steve Abbe continued the motion forward and read “Footnote to Howl.” Milo Martin shared his poem that captured the spirit and essence of his mentor, Ginsberg, written following the poet’s death. Stosh Machek delivered a powerful, spirited reading of “America.” Bob Branaman, part of the Vortex group that came to San Francisco from Wichita in the late ’50s, early ’60s, spoke briefly about his good friend, Ginsberg (humorously lamenting selling his autographed copy of “Howl” several years ago to David Meltzer “for five bucks”).
Later, reflecting about the reading that night, S.A. Griffin, who met with Ginsberg a few times in the late ’80s said, “All that I wanted to get out of him was ‘what is poetry?’ We dialogued on it for hours. The conclusion: poetry is candor. All things holy, poem/poet holy.”
Special thanks to Skylight Books’ Kerry Slattery for saying yes without hesitation to hosting the reading. Slattery and staff continue to stock an always interesting, eclectic mix of books. Skylight was the perfect venue for this anniversary tribute, having previously held memorial readings to such Beat figures as Gregory Corso.