Some Thoughts On Poetry Readings: Part Three (Legendary Gigs)

I was there at the Six Gallery in San Francisco where Allen Ginsberg read Howl for the first time. (I suggested the venue.)

And I was there at that baseball stadium in Minneapolis where T.S. Eliot spoke before a crowd of 14,000 strong – or so the pundits who still dream of a general audience for poetry like to remind us. (Eliot came on stage late, to ensure a riled-up crowd, a showman’s trick I suggested, a trick later mastered by Led Zeppelin.)
And I was there at the Margaret Atwood reading where Irving Layton fell asleep. (He didn’t really fall asleep; he reportedly yelled at Atwood, “Your reading is so boring it’s putting me to sleep!” I write “reportedly” because I was the one asleep; that’s me on the recordings, not Layton, snoring through the tape hiss, the bootlegged room tone.)
I was there.
I was not there when Bob Dylan went electric at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. (As a result of not being there, I didn’t get to hear first-hand the folk purist in the audience, who, feeling betrayed by Dylan's aesthetic shift, famously cried, “Judas!”)
But I was there when Robert Lowell went confessional (I cried, “Satan!”, cleverly evoking his Miltonic stuff) and I was there when Adrienne Rich went free verse (I cried, “‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers!’”, hoping she would read her early stuff).
And I was there in 1911 when Pound presented some of his poetry to an audience of one - Ford Madox Hueffer - causing the audience to roll on the floor in mock dismay, a roll, Pound later claimed, saved him three years of artistic development. (I suggested the roll.)
So which famous – or maybe not so famous – poetry readings do you wish you had attended? And what advice would you have offered the reader(s)?
(This post is dedicated to, and after a song by, LCD Soundsystem.)

Originally Published: March 26th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. March 27, 2009

    Any reading by Joseph Massey...
    I hear he's a bit of a nutcase, if not an entertainer.

  2. March 27, 2009
     Bill C

    I was there wihen Gary Snyder read excerpts from Turtle Island to the ghost of Li-Po on top of a mountain in Northern California.
    I told him to keep going, even as the ghost, laughing, rolled up the hill into the clouds.
    But I WAS there when Alice Notley read from Descent of Allette at the University of Pittsburgh Frick Fine arts building, and I lost my memory. I want Alice Notely to come back......come back?

  3. March 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I can't think of any great readings I wish I'd seen, but Dylan Thomas and I were the ones who broke up the fistfight between Jackson Pollock and E.E. Cummings at Uwe's Bar & Grill out on Long Island back in '52.

  4. March 27, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Beat this. Blood sugar.
    It happened as I was reading from the poetry of the mystical Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz. I got back up and finished with three paramedics in the room.

  5. March 27, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    I went to hear Yevtushenko read at McCarter Theatre in Princeton in the early seventies. There was a bomb scare, and we all had to leave the building.
    Some dream readings would be:
    H.D. - "Helen in Egypt" - excerpt here:
    Jackie Kay - "There's Trouble For Maw Broon"
    Virginia Woolf - two papers read to the Arts Society at Newnham and the Odtaa at Girton in October 1928 - here's an excerpt from an interview-

  6. March 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I don't mind mentioning that even though Jackson was almost twenty years older, he trounced Ed pretty good. Gave him a bloody nose. Poor Dylan died that very next year, but he was in good form that night. He had Jackson in a headlock until Lee intervened.

  7. March 27, 2009
     Ron Hart

    Eliot didn't give a poetry reading in Minneapolis in 1956 -- it was a lecture on modernism. And wasn't it at Williams Arena (U of M basketball stadium), not a baseball stadium?

  8. March 27, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Jane and Mary, thanks for the suggestions. And Mary, I appreciate the links.
    Bill and Gary, thanks for sustaining the fantastical nature of the post.
    Ron, many thanks for your useful clarifications. Given my Dylan and Pound examples - and the subtitle "Legendary Gigs" - I hope it's not entirely unclear I'm defining 'poetry reading' pretty loosely (if also sloppily). But, for what it's worth, I was aware of the lecture, and did take care to write, "Eliot spoke" (italics mine, of course), to leave room to suggest something other than a poetry reading. But thanks for clarifying. As for the baseball stadium, I'm going, for what it's worth, on Craig Raine in The Guardian, but if he's wrong, and it sounds like he may be, the error only speaks to the mythology surrounding this near-mythical event.

  9. March 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Fantastical, you say?
    Ed had to leave for Boston the next morning and Dylan had a reading at Columbia that night, so we had to drive them all the way back to NYC from Oyster Bay. They argued the entire way. We ended up sleeping on the floor of Dylan's room at the Chelsea.
    What started the fight was Lee Krasner insinuating that Ed was being less than moral because he was out flirting in the bar while his wife was back home in Massachusetts. Ed got a little snotty with Lee and Jackson took exception (one to talk, eh?).
    Now, as I'm sure most know, Cummings was a very prolific painter himself. He may actually have produced more paintings than poems. The fisticuffs started after Cummings told Pollock that he could make a better painting than him just by pissing in the snow.
    Poor Ed got a bloody nose for that one.

  10. March 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    The next morning we got Ed to Idlewild on time, but Dylan had learned that Hemingway was in town. He wanted to meet him and was planning to challenge him to a drinking contest. So, we all ran over to the Waldorf to find Hemingway and who did we run into in the lobby but Frank Fitzgerald. He and Ernest were in town for some big meeting with Scribner’s.
    We never saw Hemingway, but Dylan did introduce us to another guy he met in the bar named Ezra.

  11. March 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    So here we are in the bar at the Waldorf-Astoria, all pretty much snockered at 10:00 am on a Monday morning. The place was deserted. Thomas and Pound got into a loud debate about on one thing or another. Scott and I actually moved to another table so the barkeeps wouldn’t think that we were associated with them.
    And who walks in but Jackson Pollock, still pissed off and looking for Cummings. He remembers Dylan’s headlock, though, and confronts him. Scott leans over and whispers “Look how red his face is. See, he’s clenching his fists.”. “Who?” I replied. Scott lifted his head towards the table.
    There, standing right behind Jackson, is Papa himself. All he said was “Are you bothering my guests?”.
    That very moment, thankfully, Willem de Kooning spies Pollock and come up to say hello and starts shaking his hand. Ernest looked up at the ceiling and shook his head, then went over to the bar to get a beer.
    Scott looked at me and said “Close call.”

  12. March 28, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    i was in Coleman's Hatch and Stone Cottage with Pound and Yeats.
    Heard Willy bellowing in chant the day Eliot walked up the unpaved
    lane, came South from the crossroads by a parish church, to meet
    our trio standing by birch and heath in a place of retreat for deer
    and swine the Venerable Bede wrote of and Thomas Pentecost's
    "healthy waste of huts and dens/ where human nature seldom ends"
    written in the nineteenth century. Then turning to the nothingness
    who should come upon us but the magi with their painted stones
    bones bleached to cerelium hue and in the distance, Five Hundred
    Acre wood, leery louts with stick on smiles and fresh tatoos on cold
    arms revealing an amulet, a charm to keep the djin at bay beyond
    the trees and in the fields where Jack and Al had Cassidy bent
    intonating Blake's Tirel and Songs of Innocence and Experience
    as Ginsey howled and Corso mainlined in moonlight his heroin
    Ah ! peace it was when gathered there, the party in hieretic pose
    declaiming verse from every age, conferring wreaths and sending
    out upon the roads sweet and sour voices singing of the Highness
    where all spumes fold and flit into one thought of reality Homer
    had woven and Hesiod wrought for poets who claim Theogony
    as their own true form of anima mundi and God, fashioning us.

  13. March 28, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Restaurant poetry reading stories:
    I was working in the restaurant with Edna St Vincent Millay's sister when the young Millay read "Renascence" there and won the scholarship support from Caroline Dow that changed her life.
    I was in the audience when Vachel Lindsay read aloud the poems that Langston Hughes, working as a busboy in the hotel where Lindsay was staying, had left next to his dinner plate that evening. I was an early part of the nationwide buzz that resulted.
    And I really WAS in the audience to hear what was probably one of Agha Shahid Ali's last readings. I'd give a lot to hear Shahid again--his reading was a gourmet experience.

  14. March 28, 2009

    I used to hang out with the Gawain-Poet (her name was Brooklyn, by the way; I don't remember her last name!) and listen to her read "Sir Gawain" to the Earl of Chester. That was a party!
    Li Bai and Du Fu were a blast to listen to too. We three seldom got together, as you know, so it was always a treat.
    A reading I'm sorry to have missed: The recitation of Nasi's long sound-poem as described in David Antin's poem "the structuralist." (Does anybody know Nasi's name, by the way? Fascinating character -- maybe Antin invented him.)

  15. March 28, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    As I turned out, Hemingway was a big fan of Dylan’s and quite pleased to meet him. We got a big table and things went pretty smooth for a while. Ernest took Dylan up on his challenge. I don’t recall how many rounds went by but by eight o’clock we were all goners. Dylan was standing on a table giving an impromptu poetry reading, Pollock was unconscious on the floor (he preferred scotch to beer), and I had forgotten what my name was.
    We would probably had been there all night if the cops hadn’t shown up when the hotel people called the ambulance. Apparently, Ezra had called Hemingway something on the order of a “chickenshit liberal” and Papa laid him out right there. Lee and Scott dragged Pollock up to Scott’s room to sleep it off while Dylan and I high-tailed it back to the Chelsea.
    The next day Dylan was livid! The newspaper story mentioned everybody except him.

  16. March 29, 2009
     thomas brady

    How could Jackson have been 20 years older than Ed, as you say?
    E.E. Cummings would have been nearly 60 in 1952. Are you saying Jackson Pollock was almost 80 years old in 1952?

  17. March 29, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Dear Mr. Brady:
    Please forgive me. I am old. It was a long time ago and I got things a little mixed up. I guess it wasn’t such a fair fight, after all (which would explain why Dylan had such a time with Jackson). Jackson was only forty then and Ed was fifty-eight. But fifty-eight isn’t all that old, you know. I had more than one tussle at that age. Hell, Franz Wright is only fifty-six. Dylan was thirty-nine that year and I was still basically just a kid at twenty-two.
    Do you want to hear about what happened when Zelda flew in?

  18. March 29, 2009
     michael robbins

    Wait, am I the only other LCD Soundsystem fan here?

  19. March 29, 2009
     thomas brady


  20. March 29, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    At any rate, Zelda arrived unannounced and unexpected. She had read about the Waldorf brouhaha in the paper in Alabama and took the next flight out of Montgomery.
    She went looking for Scott and the fireworks started when she found him...alone in the bar with Denise Levertov. It was an odd thing, though, because Scott had already been dead for twelve years and Zelda for four.
    Dylan and Hemingway swore off the drink that same day.

  21. March 29, 2009

    you must be losing your edge, Michael.......

  22. March 29, 2009
     thomas brady

    I had a feeling Scott and Zelda were gone by that time, and I was going to say something. Great writers are only great when we don't see them; otherwise they roll around in the filth like all of us.

  23. March 30, 2009

    I was there when John Ashbery and James Merrill argued about the nature of the double sestina. The air was positively electric with excitement.
    I was there when Lord Herbert of Cherbury wrote his sonnet to Black Beauty. I suggested the spark/dark rhyme.
    I was there when President Eisenhower sat on a park bench reciting dirty limericks of his own composition.
    I was sitting next to Miss Marianne Moore when Drysdale pitched his perfect game.
    I saved Hart Crane from getting his nose broken by a tough man in uniform.
    I was there when someone made the mistake of calling Cummings "Ed." (He was Estlin to his friends.)
    I was there when Hecht and Hollander invented the double dactyl. I contributed the crucial word "sesquipedalian" to one of their efforts.

  24. March 30, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "I was there when someone made the mistake of calling Cummings "Ed." (He was Estlin to his friends.)"\r

    I beg to differ. Cummings idolized his father and was quite proud to be called Edward. Can you cite a reference?

  25. March 30, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    My girlfriend and I hailed a taxi after one of Ashbery's readings at the 92nd Street Y circa 1980, but then Ashbery showed up and took the taxi from us. We didn't mind, much.\r

    My girlfriend (same one) introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop after she gave a reading at Bennington circa 1977-78. I shook hands with Elizabeth Bishop.\r

    These are true stories.

  26. March 31, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    Allen Ginsberg, Hall Building, Concordia, Montreal circa 1995. Theatre full to capacity, overflowing onto de Maisonneuve. Someone hooked speakers up out in the lobby because people would not disperse. A big stage, wee spotlight,squeezebox and no texts that I recall, Ginsberg had us in the palm of his hand for well over an hour. Amazing. He read like he was hearing every word for the first time himself. A strategy that keeps on giving.

  27. March 31, 2009
     Evan Jones

    I was there in 1947 or 1948 when André Breton read some very bad verses from a collection of Paul Éluard's to a young Odysseas Elytis. With fire and brimstone, Breton finished by throwing the book across the room, uncomfortably close to Elytis' head. I caught it and in doing so touched the back of Elytis' left ear, which led to a meeting of eyes and a moment of quiet confusion (Elytis hadn't even realised I was there, camouflaged as I was against Breton's idiosyncratic collection of objects). Later, at Bar Sertà in the Arcades, we agreed and lamented that, despite being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, he would never be properly translated into English and that his reputation would suffer because of this.

  28. March 31, 2009
     Michael Gushue

    But are not the two subtexts to this (a la LCD):\r

    1. I'm losing my edge.\r


    2. You don't know what you really want.\r

    Me, I'm North American scum.

  29. March 31, 2009
     michael robbins

    Yeah, I've learned how few Harriet posters keep up on contemporary dance music! They're losing their edge!

  30. April 1, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks to all for the stories - esp. Gary and his serialized episodes. Wonderful, radio-ready stuff. \r

    And thanks to those LCD fans, Michaels R. and G., and Nick, none of whom have lost their edge.