On Oct. 8, at the Salt Lake City Public Library, a group of artists, dancers, musicians and poets gathered to present a performance piece of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem “Howl.”
Titled “Howl: a Neo-Bob Opera in Five Acts,” and led by UVU professor and Artist in Residence, Alex Caldiero, the performers brought to life Ginsberg’s 3600-word epic poem through the use of photography, ?lm, voice, music and dance. The previous day marked the 55th anniversary of Ginsberg’s first reading of the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Calif. in 1955.
Ginsberg, who lived from 1926 to 1997, was regarded as the leader of the Beat Generation. The “Beats,” as they were often called, were a group of American writers whose work became famous in the 1950s. These writers infused their work with spontaneity, open expression, raw emotion and gritty visualization, but often rejected a yearning for spiritual and intellectual freedom. Throughout his life, Ginsberg was an active supporter of free speech, gay rights, anti-war political agendas and the demystification of drugs.
Ginsberg’s famous reading of “Howl” in 1955 is widely considered to be the true beginning of the Beat movement. The performance that took place in Salt Lake began with a 1979 documentary made by Salt Lake filmmaker Trent Harris. It showed Ginsberg as he truly was: a revolutionary and an artist who did not claim to know all of the answers. After the screening, Caldiero stepped to the front of the stage. Behind him to his left were the Chorus of Ranters; to his right was a three-piece band.
After a prayer for the spirit of Ginsberg, Caldiero opened his book and began. The first line of “Howl,” the most famous line of the whole poem, was delivered by Caldiero in a ?at voice with no special emphasis: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”
After that, the energy in the room grew as Caldiero recited the words of Ginsberg. The Chorus of Ranters joined Caldiero in emphasizing phrases and sometimes just a word. The band played improvisational jazz, while “The Beat Angels,” a group of dancers, began to move rhythmically with the words. Often their movements were spastic, full of uncontrollable shaking and jerking to represent the madness of the Beats.
As Caldiero continued, he infused the audience with an electric excitement that left people unable to move. As the energy grew and grew, black and white pictures of the Beat Generation were projected upon a screen on the back of the stage while Caldiero and his Chorus of Ranters used Ginsberg’s words to say who they were. They were Beats, “who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listened to the Terror through the wall,” and they were writers, “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.”
Once the performance was over, for what seemed like an eternity, no one in the audience applauded or moved. It was as if they couldn’t breathe, so struck by what they had just experienced. Mere seconds later, applause erupted the entirety of the auditorium was on their feet, clapping and shouting their praises.
After the entire group took their bows, Caldiero approached the microphone once again and shouted himself. He encouraged the audience to join him in howling to Ginsberg, to society, to insanity and to life. As the audience milled out, each person looked at one another knowing they had all experienced something signi?cant.