Still Howling

On October 7, 1955, at Six Gallery San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg first read in public his coruscating breakthrough poem, Howl, making his name overnight.  60 years later, in Manchester, Still Howling brought poets, musicians and academics together for a day of performances and discussion. And the setting was pretty much perfect: the Wonder Inn’s atmosphere of nineteenth century labyrinth-meets-contemporary-urban-grit is absolutely right for realising the legacy of the Beats, the movement that was kick-started by Howl.

A distinguished panel of guests began the proceedings, consisting of veteran British beat poet Michael Horowitz, Ginsberg’s biographer Barry Miles, Peter Hale from the Allen Ginsberg Trust, New York City, and Andrew Barker, Head of Special Collections at Liverpool University Library. Chaired by Oliver Harris, professor of American Literature at Keele University, also editor of works by William Burroughs, the conversation began by bringing out details about Ginsberg’s character and the background to Howl. Ginsberg, a middle class Jewish boy from New York, had been living a conventional, heterosexual life, and working in an advertising agency until he met Peter Orlovski in 1954. The two began a lifelong, openly gay relationship. Howl was a “rumination” on the precarious lives of Ginsberg’s friends, their struggles and breakdowns in a hyper-capitalist landscape, the poem being dedicated to one friend in particular, Carl Solomons, whom Ginsberg met during a stay in a mental hospital.

Horowitz was fascinating to listen to in his descriptions of how Ginsberg tried to “frighten himself” when it came to discussing his sexuality. But by the mid-1960s, when he was one of Horowitz’s “literary mentors”, Ginsberg was capable of deliberately outraging audiences with his commanding presence and his habit of stripping off if anyone heckled him. Horowitz’s key role in organising the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall, which featured Ginsberg, was probably the first real manifestation of the British underground counterculture.

Meanwhile, Ginsberg’s endlessly busy schedule needed organising. Peter Hale talked about the behind-the-scenes world of keeping Ginsberg on the road, comparing those days with the present in which he is  “managing the afterlife” of the poet, checking with other surviving friends “how Allen would have done that” when it comes to decision-making on what to publish next.

The day was co-organised by Simon Warner and Roger Bygott, the latter having a special interest in Ginsberg’s visit to Manchester in 1979, when he performed at the Central Library in aid of the Manchester Tibetan Buddhist Centre. Roger’s reading of an email he received from one Elwyn Bennett was wonderfully revealing about what it was like to witness Ginsberg’s show, in which “A fountain of spittle erupted from his lips”, accompanied by his arm “pumping the harmonium”, an instrument Ginsberg had purchased on his travels in India.

In fact Ginsberg had an important parallel career in music, working with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Phillip Glass, and the Clash among others, and in his own right issuing albums and doing gigs with a regular guitar player, Steven Taylor, also a member of legendary poetic proto-punk band, the Fugs. Born in Gorton, Manchester, Taylor’s appearance at the Wonder Inn was especially interesting; a US resident since the age of 10, Taylor described to Barry Miles how difficult it was to adjust to life in New Jersey at the exact moment the Beatles were taking off in the UK. After learning guitar in college and meeting Ginsberg at a reading, he was rapidly recruited to Ginsberg’s touring team, a kind of moveable feast in which “Peter Orlowski did the heavy lifting, I was the secretary and the musician, and Allen was the rockstar”.  Much money flowed in but as Miles confirmed, Ginsberg “gave everything away”, supporting the legal fees of people in trouble, and supporting the careers and lives of film-maker and music collector, Harry Smith, poet  Gregory Corso, and the very young artist, Ai Wei Wei.

As the light began to fade, and the cold sank in, performances from young poets livened things up considerably. Elmi Ali has great stage presence, dedicating one poem Dream Piece to Ginsberg and quoting from one of UK punk’s most innovative front-women, Polystyrene, while Ben Graham’s This is For Everyone was a kind of updated version of Howl composed especially for this event, with “no borders, no police, no dicks.” The Reclaim Poets, a trio, performed Enough Is Enough, dedicated to Stephen Lawrence, and featuring Samuel Akinwale, the young man featured in a series of posters placed around Manchester, commemorating the teenager’s racist murder 22 years ago. Also reflecting on death – and oppression – of LGBT people and communities, Christina Fonthes recited her moving poem, They Kill Us. Concluding the afternoon, Michael Horowitz read a cross-section of work starting from the 1960s and the collection he edited, The Children of Albion, including his 1966 Notting Hill Carnival poem, and Adrian Mitchell’s Back in the Playground Blues. Horowitz’s poem celebrating the sun coming up over the 1967 14 Hour Technicolour Dream – a key happening in the early days of the English underground – followed on, and then Steven Taylor joined the 80 year old scion of the counterculture for lively musical renditions of Blake’s The Tyger, the Garden of Love, and Ah, Sunflower (All from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience) and concluding with Tuli Kupferberg’s Backwards Jewish Soldiers.

The music started up again for the evening, MC’d by C.P. Lee and with more from Steven Taylor, bands the Isness, Heath Common and the Lincoln 72s, Chris T-T, and a recital of the whole of Howl from actor, George Hunt. All in all the day provided a visual and sonic tonic and a remarkably multi-generational, multi-ethnic update and tribute to the Beat spirit, and that of Allen Ginsberg in particular.

Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.

Image courtesy of John Lynch.

Still Howling, The Wonder Inn, Manchester.

10 October 2015.