Movingpictures 15: poetry reading faces

Some years ago I edited a book of essays about poetry readings - or the social and cultural practice thereof if there are any academics reading. In it the late, and in many ways great Ric Caddel wrote about the poses and expressions people make at poetry readings - what he sums up as 'those chilling I'm-listening-to-a-poetry-reading rictuses'. Ric used to organise readings at Newcastle's legendary Morden tower and Durham's Colpitts, so he knew what he was talking about. (He was also a very fine poet and editor, running Pig Press for many years. His day job included setting up the Basil Bunting Centre at Durham University.)

I was reminded of this when watching Howl, a film directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial of his publisher. It includes a performance of the poem which actually made me think I'd never seen a poetry reading in a film before. (I don't count Robin Williams.) It resists a temptation to make the reading seem bigger - it's the typical 20-30 people, in a room where 12 would seem ok. Some of them do have that face on, despite being crazy beatnik types. But the poet is in his own head as well as the room, which is actually part of the power. More depictions of poetry readings in films, please.(The film itself is only partially successful, but if you're interested in Ginsberg and the Beats thoroughly enjoyable.)

I saw Ginsberg read in Liverpool in 83 or 84. He played the harmonium and sang Blake songs, didn't do Howl, and was over-excited (to my mind at the time, and still) to be in the home of the Beatles.(He prophesied they'd be the most over-rated band in England until the Stone Roses came along, or at least I think he did.) But still - he was Allen Ginsberg, and a great performer, you can get a taste from James Franco above, or him the man himself here.


  1. Saw Ginsberg in mid 70s reading and playing the harmonium at the Curtis Auditorium in Newcastle.It seemed like a very strange place to find him, so cold and corporate, but he made the place seem small and intimate. He read, but was more interested in his songs and had Peter Orlovsky along. I loved him and love the recording made of him and Don Was which I bought recently.


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