San Francisco: 1994
It was my first year in writing school. It was my first year living away from my home city. It was a year of discovery and exploration. Finding my voice. Finding my place.
I was given the assignment of reviewing a poetry reading. One of the giants of contemporary poetry, Allen Ginsberg, was doing a reading that year and I wrote my review about the reading.
Here it is, 20 years after the fact. I am happy to share it with you.
On Sep. 18th, Allen Ginsberg gave a poetry recital at the Cowell Theater. Spanning 2 hours and covering his career from 1972 to the present [1994 – Editor], the reading represented many styles of poetry: ranging from lyrical to free verse and from spoken to sung with musical accompaniment. Even the music was in many different genres: including blues, American folk, Hungarian Folk, rock, bluegrass, and country. The topic of the poems also captured a broad emotional spectrum: from the perverse to the political, from the light to the serious, and from the personal to the hallowed.
In short, Mr. Ginsberg attempted to portray the many aspects of his body of work in many different registers and styles.
The occasion for the reading was the release of Ginsberg’s 4 CD compilation of his spoken poetry, Holy Soul Jelly Roll, which spans the time period of the 1940’s to the 1990’s. Much of the poetry in the collection is set to music and so Mr. Ginsberg performed much of the poetry during the reading to music as well, usually on the harmonium — his instrument of choice. On all of the songs he was backed by a musician who variously played the violin, the guitar (plain and slack key), and the banjo. Twice in the evening this musician performed on his own, and both times it was to good effect.
Mr. Ginsberg started the evening by explaining that most of the material was going to be from 1974 on, as he had spent the previous evening performing material up to 1974. He had finished the previous evening with a performance of “Father Death Blues”, and he began this evening with a reprise of that poem. He explained the song was originally written on an airplane from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, near Boulder. to New York where his father was on his death bed. Looking at the event with a Buddhist perspective, the song was written to capture both the sadness of loss and the joy of release that is brought by death. The song of the poem was written in 12 bar blues form and Ginsberg used his harmonium to perform the chord changes. The accompanist played the violin, punctuating occasional notes in staccato bursts to give them emphasis. While Ginsberg does not have a natural born singing voice, it does hold the notes and he used his range to good effect: the small range of 12 bar blues being a natural fit for his range. The poem itself, as with most of his poems, used metaphors that were wildly disconnected from conventional meaning. However, this poem was more accessible than many of Ginsberg other poems, as the sadness of his fathers passing gave the metaphors an ample hook for the readers to find meaning in.
Mr. Ginsberg performed songs in many different music styles over the course of the evening e.g. “Do the Meditation Rock” was a rock song. Although the harmonium is limited in some ways in conveying different styles, the accompanist did a lot of work to fill in the gaps, changing instruments through out the evening. For the most part, the songs were succinct and sharp — although “Cigarette Rag” went on for about 4 minutes too long.
The spoken poetry didn’t carry the same energy as the songs for me, and perhaps part of that is I have never liked Mr. Ginsberg’s reading style. I find it too mannered and it doesn’t capture my attention. Where his reading style was lacking, at least for me, he made up for it in his selection of poems. Not only did he cover the major poems of the period, he also brought in some poems fresh enough that he read them from manuscript pages. These two poems ran with the theme of food being eaten, much of it unhealthy and decadent, and food being excreted, comparing the bowel movements of the common person to such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe and President Kennedy. Both of these pieces were amusing and light.
Mr. Ginsberg finished the evening by singing a William Blake poem, using the last line of the poem as a refrain with which he enjoined and cajoled the audience to join along in singing. It provided the final touch to what was a varied and diverse view of Allen Ginsberg poetry.