The Debut of "Howl"
on Fillmore Street
From "Storming Heaven" by Jay Stevens
On hand for his debut were Kerouac and Cassady, the former distinguishable as the man who was passing around the big jugs of Burgundy wine, while the latter was the source of the punctuating stream of Wows! Yeses! and Go, Go, Gos! that greeted each reader. Ginsberg read nex to last. Until this moment his vocation as a poet had been more wishful living than artistic fact. What poems he had written were short epigrammatic lyrics in the style of William Carlos Williams. But tonight he wasn't going to bother with his old work. Instead he was going to read the poem that had come to him through the mediation of dexedrine and peyote, a massive, tumultuouos thing called Howl, which began
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.
By the time Ginsberg reached the middle of Howl, where each line began with the cry Moloch!, the crowd was chanting along with him. And by the time he swung into the final stanzas everyone knew something momentous was occuring.
Philip Lamantia, who had also read his poem that evening, likened it to "bringing two ends of an electrical wire together." Michael McClure, another of the poets, later considered it the moment when the consciousness that reached full bloom in the Sixties began to flower: "Howl" was the trigger. Afterwards none of us could step back and say, 'I didn't mean it. It's just too fuckin' frightening out there' I think Allen standing up there reading- putting himself on the line- was one of the two bravest things I've ever seen. Remember, it was '55. People had crew-cuts, and they looked at you like you were misplaced cannon fodder. The country was being run by Luce publications. It was a dangerous, cold, ugly time, and it was scary."
But history is full of extravagant moments that, while momentous to those who witness them, evaporate in the press of time. Given the geography of its premiere - an old garage in San Francisco - it seemed likely that Howl and the new consciousness it heralded would remain and isolated provincial event. Why it didn't is an argument for the personal as opposed to the statistical approach to history. Sitting in the audience that evening, as Ginsberg swayed and chanted, was Lawrence Ferlinghettti. . .
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