To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first reading of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, I joined the starred participants of Still Howling at The Wonder Inn. Considering the event started at 2pm and would go on all the way through to 11pm, I packed some food and steeled myself for the stamina level I might need.
When I arrived, however, the atmosphere was one of casual intimacy. It felt like everyone already knew each other and the whole room felt like a memorial for a friend. This feeling continued for the rest of the afternoon.
The first event of the day was an ‘Afternoon Symposium’, which I initially thought sounded pretentious but was soon proved to be very wrong. This slot included frank conversations between people who had known Ginsberg, including his guitarist Steven Taylor, his biographer and close friend Barry Miles and Michael Horovitz, a friend of his and veteran poet.
This was the first time Ginsberg seemed like a real person to me. He was someone who wrote magnificent poetry, but he was also someone who allowed friends to live in his apartment for months on end and who loved Liverpool. Steven Taylor was particularly humorous in his storytelling, remarking once that you should “never be the one with a credit card in a punk band”.
Later in the afternoon, a series of poets performed their work. The variety was fantastic and the local performers were some of the best acts of the day, including Elmi Ali whose fantastic spitting poem, ‘Prometheus and the Dictator’, shocked the room to silence. The Reclaim Poets, who work with young people from disadvantaged homes to give them a voice, were next and were equally inspiring and incredibly powerful. They opened the floor for questions about what we as a community could do to fight against racism, especially in Manchester.
Finally, Michael Horovitz performed. He chose to read poems from friends who had sadly passed who were inspired by Ginsberg, and then some of his own. Including absurdist pipe playing and singing so terrible it was remarkably touching, it seemed there was a general sense of mourning for a time past and another era of poetry and thought. Finally, he sang some William Blake poems with Steven Taylor as Ginsberg often did. The afternoon finished with a certain sense of melancholia, or maybe that was because the room was so cold by 6pm I could barely feel my feet.
The evening started again an hour later, by this point I was slightly less cold but much more tired. The night promised music and an inspiring performance of ‘Howl’ itself. However, from the onset there was a different atmosphere; the room was sparsely filled and the lighting had changed.
The music itself was an odd mix of passable and entirely bizarre, with elements of loveliness like Chris T-T’s renditions of some A.A. Milne classics and Steven Taylor’s songs. However, Heath Common was self-indulgent and poorly accompanied. For a singer proclaimed to be wonderful, he was difficult to listen to.
By this point I was very much looking forward to the final act, George Hunt’s performance of ‘Howl’. One of my favourite ever poems, ‘Howl’ transcends its time and continues to fight against the theatrical nature of previous poetry.
In light of this you can imagine my horror when George Hunt’s Corrie-like rendition began; with offensively Panto-esque gesturing and vocals hammier than a sandwich. He ended the rendition with a fall to his knees, not dissimilar to the action my drama teacher called ‘Total Meltdown.’
With a cold end to a cold day, it took me a moment to reflect. While long, Still Howling had elements of intimacy, humbleness, great humour and touching reflections of Ginsberg’s life and ideals. It was a shame that the lead-up was better than the finale. Despite this, the final song ‘Footnote to Howl’, composed by Steven Taylor, was delightfully rude and a great end to a very long day.
Kudos to Roger Bygott and Simon Warner, they certainly put on an event!