Friday, June 14, 2013

"Wholly Communion": poetry, the police, and serendipity in London, 1965

 Allen Ginsberg, June 11, 1965

On June 11, 1965, a poetry gathering in London's Royal Albert Hall got a little visit from the police and a lot of subsequent attention in the press. After the dust had settled, the usual suspects -- Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso -- and a host of other participants and creative provocateurs had been witness to the first countercultural "happening" and the subject of a film by Peter Whitehead, sometimes characterized as the first cinema verit√© film.  

The resulting documentary, Wholly Communion, was a spontaneously filmed account of the International Poetry Incarnation, an event involving members and fellow travelers of the beat generation. Whitehead's film is now available as a DVD and, of course, on YouTube. What's striking about the film is its entirely unintentional style, which rose from the incremental energy, rising emotional intensity, and sheer accidents during the event itself. Luck and serendipity placed the filmmaker in situations that revealed an audience responding spontaneously, and wildly, to the force of the spoken word.

The film even has its unintentional "down in front" moment courtesy of Allen, who wanted a clearer view of Corso reading while sitting on stage: one later reviewer commented "that Whitehead has subsequently pointed out that the much debated segment of Gregory Corso, partially obscured and framed between the heads of two spectators, was, rather than premeditated mise-en-scene, a result of him being pushed to the floor by a horizontal Ginsberg so that he could see."

Peter Whitehead, 1965

Whitehead himself has written further:

Allen Ginsberg, travelling pal of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, this time fresh back from Poland where he had been crowned "King of the May", started the proceedings by singing a Tibetan mantra, accompanying himself with finger cymbals. Lawrence Ferlinghetti launched into a poem - "To Fuck is to Love Again" - and the evening - and England - was never the same again. Alexander Trocchi kept the police at bay and the events rolling. Gregory Corso read his poem "Mutation of the Spirit". Ernst Jandl read  two sound poems in German.
English poets Michael Horovitz and Christopher Logue read calmly, but Harry Fainlight, reading a poem written on LSD, "The Spider" was interrupted by Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog, high on mescalin, shouting out "Come man come" and Harry's attempts to carry on and read more and more poems are some of the highlights of the film. Not so much about poetry - but the awesome experience of poets exposing themselves, reading to a public which can be sometimes hostile.
Adrian Mitchell's poem "To Whom it May Concern" - a savage diatribe about the Vietnam War - brought the house down. Allen Ginsberg read a poem written by the Russian poet Andrei Vosnesensky - "New York Bird" - he was present but not allowed to read by his Embassy. Allen brought the evening to a close with a reading of two long poems - "The Change" and "Who be Kind To" - in which he wrote "Tonite let's all make love in London". While he was reading, a young girl danced - in a haze of pot smoke - oblivious of time and space and people - following the rhythm of the poetry as if it was music.

Handbill for Royal Albert Hall reading

At one point after the shaken Fainlight reads a second poem, Trocci tells the excited audience:  "Ladies and gentlemen, hold on, hold on, this evening is an experiment and we're finding out what happens when you put five thousand people in a hall with a few poets trying to act naturally." The police arrive, and Trocci -- as a good event compere, realizing how easily things could get more out of hand than they already are -- keeps the police at bay while the poets continue. By then the reading has the now familiar aspect of a rock show as clouds of smoke drift overhead, and the poets themselves are surprised performers in a spectacle they could hardly imagine is happening.

At the end, Ginsberg, either drunk or excited or both, takes the stage and reads a translation of Andrei Voznesensky's poem "The Three Cornered Pear / America" to Voznesensky who is sitting in the audience, forbidden by his embassy to read himself. Then Allen reads one of his own poems, "The Change." As the film ends and the titles roll, Ginsberg's voice is heard requesting the time, and then declaring that he has "lost his poetry book." 

Whitehead made a second film in 1967, Tonite Let's All Make Love In London, taking its title from one of the Ginsberg poems read at the Albert Hall. Wholly Communion  can now be seen in its entirety (broken up into four segments – the Ginsberg segment being the last of them) – hereherehere – and here. More about Peter Whitehead can be found  here on his own website.

Photos from The Allen Ginsberg Project (top, photo by Hoppy Hopkins), iCine, Australia (middle), and Project MUSE (bottom). 

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