The Debut of "Howl"
on Fillmore Street
From "Angel Headed Hipster"
(Kerouac) continued to write short poems, limiting the length of each one to the size of the pages in his pocket notebooks, and sent 242 'choruses' of what he was calling Mexico City Blues to Ginsberg to illustrate the potential of spontaneous poetry.
Although Jack didn't know it, Ginsberg was just about to act upon the advice from Kenneth Rexroth that he loosen up his style. As he sat in his first-floor room overlooking Montgomery Street one afternoon in early August 1955, he began writing for his 'own soul's ear', and as the line 'I saw the best minds of my generation' was typed out, using the measure of breath as the length of each phrase, rather than classical metre, he realized that he had discovered the freedom of imagination he'd been looking for.
This was the beginning of Howl, the poem that would eventually take the Beat Generation from where it had been as the secret of a few readers of the literary pages into a national and then international phenomenon. As Jack sat on a rooftop in Mexico City writing Mexico City Blues, Ginsberg, in San Francisco, had found his authentic voice in a combination of Old Testament prophecy, American speech-rhythms, jazz-riffs and hipster-talk, which gushed out of him as if a dam had been breached.
He immediately sent a copy to Jack, who at first less than enthusiastic- admitting its verbal power but arguing that it wasn't spontaneous because he could see that there had been revisions. On September 1, Ginsberg moved to a small cottage on Milvia Street in Berkeley, and a week later Jack left Mexico City to join him. He arrived in Berkeley high on Benzedrine and sat in Ginsberg's living room playing a record of the St. Matthew Passion until he came home.
Ginsberg was now in a state of high excitement, organizing a poetry reading at a converted auto repair shop in the Fillmore district where he would perform in the company of the Bay Area poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure. His original plan had been to put on an evening of Beat Generation readings, during which he would read with Jack and Neal, but neither of his friends had the confidence to appear in public.
Jack was introduced to there local poets, and was particularly taken with Snyder and Whalen, who were Buddhists, loved hiking in the California mountains and practiced a simple lifestyle. Snyder had been a Buddhist since the late 1940s and was now studying Japanese at U.C. Berkeley, and translating the poetry of Han Shan from Japanese to English. Whalen was a student of Zen who had recently spent the summer fire-watching in Washington's High Cascades.
The reading which was to transform the profile of the Beat Generation took place on October 13. Jack was in the audience of around 150 people, banging on a jug of Californian Burgundy and shouting 'Go! Go!' to give the evening the spirit of a jazz event rather than a formal literary gathering. The highpoint of the evening was Ginsberg's unveiling of his recently completed poem Howl, which he delivered with such passion that the audience was electrified. It wasn't simply the torrent of language, but the fact that Ginsberg was speaking on behalf of all of them, articulating their feelings of 'lostness in modern America.'.
'In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before', says McClure. 'We had gone beyond a point of no return- and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the grey, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void- to the land without poetry- to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.'
After the event, Jack told Ginsberg that this one poem was going to make him famous in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth corrected him by saying that it would make him famous 'from bridge to bridge'. The next day, Ferlinghetti, in his role as the publisher of City Lights' Pocket Poets Series, sent Ginsberg a telegram which read: 'I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?'
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