“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… “
Man. Once you start quoting “Howl” it’s hard to break it off. You could read it every night for weeks, perfecting the flow of breath needed (inhale/exhale) to keep its phrases flying skyward, to the “starry dynamo.”
So, what are we to make of the news today that a tape has surfaced from 1956, a tape of Ginsberg reading Part One of “Howl” to a small gathering at Reed College, where his reading mate that night, Gary Snyder, had gone to school? My first reaction: Not much. We know Snyder and his connection with the Beats and Ginsberg. We know “Howl.” The priority of this reading over the one that was taped a few weeks later in Berkeley doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
But I haven’t heard the tape, either. And as I sit here scanning that first page (“who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall..”), I want to hear Ginsberg reading it. Young Ginsberg, hot on the trail, with Snyder, who’d been with him during its composition in San Francisco the previous year. Ginsberg digging into it at Reed, surrounded by 20… what? Students? Faculty? Early Portland Beats? I don’t know, but I want to hear them breathing in the background and try to imagine what they made of it all, huddled together against the Ice Age of mid-’50s Oregon.
Proximity matters. And some part of Portland still draws from the Beat past, maybe, the part that rejects the coercion that regulates us — whether it originates in the government or the economic system or our own minds. I want to listen to the freedom in “Howl” and the sorrow, too, and see if I can smell us in there somehow. Reed is going to deliver: We can listen to the tape on Friday at the Reed website.
Meantime, here’s Jeff Baker’s interview with Snyder from Oregonlive about the night of Feb. 13, 1956.