Reading 'Howl' at 'Howl'
By the time they got to the Holy-Holy-Holy part, the 50 poets and fans who'd assembled for a group reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" had worked up lots of momentum. Voices raised together, arms thrust in the air, people stamped. The event was scheduled but unscripted, appropriately chaotic; the sound guy got caught in traffic so there were no mics. No problem: a rough circle formed and people raised their voices one by one, sometimes doubling or overlapping.
"When you decide you're going to read, just do it. There's plenty to read," co-organizer S.A. Griffin explained before things began. "You got to speak, you got to go, you got to blow."
Griffin and Rafael Alvarado, who have long been active in the Los Angeles poetry scene, had been invited by Hollywood's Sunset 5 Theater to do a panel discussion for the film "Howl" on its opening night in Los Angeles.
But instead of a tidy discussion of Allen Ginsberg and the poem, Griffin suggested, why not just read "Howl" out loud? And where better to read aloud than outside the theater, on the mall's second floor plaza, where people -- like those leaving the adjacent gym -- might stumble across the poem-in-action and stop to listen?
To coincide with people coming and going to the "Howl" showtimes Friday, the poetry reading began promptly at 9 p.m.; it ended 27 minutes later.
Most people had brought copies of the City Lights edition of "Howl"; a few had printouts, making it easier to read. A handful read along on Blackberries and iPhones. For the most part, people took turns, as asked, yet the rhtyhm of the poem was sustained throughout, without a gap of silence.
About two-thirds of the way through, Steve Abee, whose most recent poetry collection is "Great Balls of Flowers," began echoing certain words, emphasizing a kind of call-and-response embedded in "Howl." Others followed suit, and soon key words -- "nothing," "cigarettes," "burned alive," "hallucination," "miracles" -- were being reinforced by the smatterings of voices. As they reached the poem's final section's litany of "I'm with you in Rockland," more and more joined in, in a chaotic momentum. So when the footnote was reached -- Holy! Holy! Holy! -- the crowd had become a single chorus.
When it was over, people milled around, not quite ready to leave. Some bought tickets for the next screening of the film.
"I've seen in twice," said Alvarado. "It's great. James Franco really captures Ginsberg."
Ginsberg died in 1997, but many in the crowd had seen him read in person. For years, Ginsberg toured college campuses, reading his poetry, playing a harmonium or squeezebox, sometimes sitting on a carpet. Steve Abee went to a 1985 reading at Santa Monica College. "It was the most awesome thing I'd ever seen," he said. "He took up the role of the social prophet. He committed his life to the expression of the holy poetic."
"'Howl' is bedrock, as much as Walt Whitman, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Alexander Pope," said poet Brendan Constantine, whose 2009 collection "Letters to Guns" was published by Red Hen Press. "My parents were both Beats in New York before they were called Beats. 'Howl' was on the shelf before 'Where the Wild Things Are.'"
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photos: Carolyn Kellogg