30 October 2007

Allen Ginsberg. HOWL. 1955/1956

"...angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night, 
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, 
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels
staggering on tene- ment roofs
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and
Blake-light tragedy among the
scholars of war, 
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes
on the windows of the skull, 
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burn- ing their money in
wastebaskets and listening to the Terror
through the wall..."

Allen Ginsberg. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS. City Lights Pocket Bookshop, San Francisco, 1956.

Current Selling Prices
$4000-$8000 /£2000-£4000

An unassuming small paperback still sold in the same format by City Lights the venerable Beat book store in San Francisco. This is the Sergeant Pepper of the Beat Generation, hard to overstate its impact and importance although like a lot of beat stuff it looks a little dated now, even quaint. Some have remarked its adolescent épatez les bourgeois / nostalgie de la boue tone, one critic talks of how '...Ginsberg gleefully recounts how he and his Ivy League buddies slummed it with the impoverished and the insane, “burned cigarette holes in their arms,” “walked all night with their shoes full of blood,” “jumped in the filthy Passaic,” “threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers,” and “threw up groaning into the bloody toilet.” A day in the life of a slacker. However its proclamatory style can still thrill and it has many great lines, much greater than any of his contemporary beats- in full flow Ginsberg is Whitman incarnate and 'Howl' is the great hipster anthem.

The book was printed by small poetry printer and vanity press (often the same thing) Villiers in London and shipped back to California. Because of the strong sexual, homoerotic and druggy content of the poetry, United States Customs officers and the San Francisco police seized the books, banned their sale, and charged Ferlinghetti (City Lights CEO) and Ginsberg with publishing an obscene book. The judge made the decision that HOWL was not without redeeming social importance, and the obscenity charges dropped. After the immense publicity generated by the case Ginsberg had become a nationally known figure and the book sold millions and still sells well to this day.

I believe 1000 were printed and got through from UK (520 of the second printing were seized) however the book is not scarce but it is hard to find fresh examples. The first state has Lucien Carr's name on the dedication page; no printing notice. It should have the price 75 cents on rear cover and be printed in London, England.

The City Lights edition is preceded by the true first edition -a rare mimeographed edition of 50 copies, typed by Martha Rexroth and printed by Robert Creeley. This followed the famous reading at Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in October 1955. It was publicized by Allen Ginsberg (via a hundred mailed postcards and a few flyers) thus: "6 POETS AT 6 GALLERY Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John Hoffman -- Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen -- all sharp new straightforward writing -- remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C. 8 PM Friday Night October 7, 1955 6 Gallery 3119 Fillmore St. San Fran." On October 7, 1955, in a room measuring 20 x 25 feet with a dirt floor, Ginsberg "read Howl and started an epoch." Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen shared the bill and, by all reports, also read brilliantly. Aside from Rexroth and Whalen, all the readers were in their twenties. In the words of Kenneth Rexroth, "What started in SF and spread from there across the world was public poetry, the return of a tribal, preliterate relationship between poet and audience." Among the audience members that night was one who added his own ten bobsworth, the young novelist Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road, published in 1957, was to make this reading and its readers legends in their own lunchtime.

VALUE? This great rarity is preceded by Ginsberg's Siesta in Xbalba mimeographed by the man himself on a freighter in the Alaskan Ocean- (Colophon reads--At the Sign of the Midnight Sun, July, Alaska, 1956.) This is effectively Ginsberg's first book and a copy made close on $10,000 in the Rechler sale in October 2002. 30 years ago a copy made $1300 descibed thus:
'First edition of the author’s rare second book, mimeographed in an edition of approximately 56 copies. The poet Robert Duncan’s copy, with his bookplate laid in and with a Typed Letter Signed (1 p. 4to, Barrow, Alaska, August 5, 1956) from Ginsberg to him presenting this copy: “Havent heard from you directly, would like to, though saw a letter to Creely before exodus from SF . . . enclosed find an earlier poem I mimeographed up out here, am in Barrow Alaska. The sun is out all night. Show this to Olson please, he might be interested in the Mayan material . . . As ever, Allen”. Creased from folding, but a particularly attractive association copy.
At the same sale (Goodwin library) a mimeographed Howl showed up described thus:
'First edition of the author’s first book, a landmark of modern American poetry. Presentation copy, inscribed by the recipient, fellow poet Robert Duncan: “received at Black Mountain College, 1956, from Allen, Robert Duncan.” 17 pages. With 8 corrections in Ginsberg’s hand. Of great rarity: of the 50 copies mimeographed for Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry class at San Francisco State College, only a few are known to survive. This work contains ‘Howl’, ‘A Supermarket in California’, ‘Sunflower Sutra’, and ‘America’-all without the bowdlerization of the first published edition-and the prose dedication to Kerouac and others...'

That made $1600 and might make 10 times that now. The City Lights 'Howl' can be picked up in mediocre condition for a $2000 note, decent ones are twice that and more. Ginsberg's star was in the descendant a while back, possibly due to his ubiquity and his espousal of the boy love organisation NAMBLA; however he is such a big figure in the whole Beat collecting scene that he seems to have sprung back. In the VBS TV documentary on the rocker and collector Thurston Moore Ginsberg has pride of place (See see the fine blog Book Patrol.)

Photo at top is a 1945 snapshot of of Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs together at Columbia University. It recently fetched $7,745.

TRIVIA. The first encounter of Ginsberg and the Beatles at a party in 1965 has been recounted by Miles, Jeff Nuttall (who refers to John then as 'a sharp little mod') and Karen Moller--here is her eyewitness account, for which much thanks:
'A few days later, the third of June, was Ginsberg's 39th birthday. David Larcher, a well-off and occasional participant in counterculture activities, had a big house and decided to give him a birthday party...he was a heavy drinker and often indulged in drugs. By the time I arrived, he was already flying high and naked. Bizarrely with his now-hairy body and massive beard, he hardly looked naked until a girl draped his underpants around his head.
Miles had invited the Beatles but no one expected they would actually show up. Probably not even Ginsberg, as he hung a sign on his penis that said "No Waiting." When John Lennon and George Harrison eventually arrived with their wives, Ginsberg seemed to have forgotten that he was totally naked. In an attempt to embrace Lennon, he raced across the room like a streaker. Harrison turned his back to shield Cynthia and Patti, while Lennon put his hands up to fend off the human missile about to collide with him. "Hey man!" he said, "You don't do that in front of the birds." Within minutes, they were gone. Lennon was rather straight in those days, perhaps scared of the wrong kind of publicity until later, when having become so famous he didn't worry about showing his own bare ass.'


Anonymous said...

John Ciardi's copy of one of the 50 mimeoed Howl's just went on Abebooks for $120,000 a far cry from $16,000. I would rather have Duncan's copy with the Ginsberg annotations. Any thoughts?

bakelite medinah said...

say no more

Manoj Kusshwaha said...

Nice book collection