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READING POETRY WITH ALLEN GINSBERG

William Honey -- July 22, 2005

About ten years ago I was visiting Paris, and as usual made a call on George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame Cathedral.

I was pleased when George asked me to read my poetry at one of the traditional Monday night poetry readings. I arrived at 7:30 in the evening outside the store, and a good crowd had already gathered for the reading. The lights of Notre Dame reflected off the sides of the cathedral across the Seine, and a street light in front of the bookstore illuminated the reading. Many famous poets had read at Shakespeare and Company over the five decades George had succeeded Sylvia Beach, and the scene was intimidating to a seldom published writer/lawyer from Auburn University in Alabama.

The reading began, and what George had failed to tell me was that Allen Ginsberg was the featured poet of the evening. For an hour Ginsberg held forth with excerpts from "Howl" and other poems to the delight of the large crowd. He is a wonderful, spellbinding reader with a tremendous strong voice. The crowd wouldn't let him finish, and George urged him to read on, which he did into the second hour.

When finally Allen waved his hand and said, No, he had read enough, the crowd continued to clap. I was hoping that since Ginsberg had read into the second hour George would just cancel my reading. The crowd was still clapping for more Ginsberg as George introduced me as the second reader. The intimidation was staggering. I was tempted to disappear with those who were dispersing already after a fantastic reading.

A few people moved aside, and I walked to the small table Ginsberg had used and began to read as the crowd dwindled to a few hardcore who listened politely as I read very low key personal poetry. Allen was one of them, and I could tell he was tired, so I cut my offering short, and we chatted for a moment. He was encouraging, but he was known to be kind to new poets.