Via the Allen Ginsberg Project, I just learned of the existence of some rare, but apparently now-available, footage by the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas that features Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), and Ray Bremser giving a poetry reading and hanging out together at the Living Theater in 1959.* Until now, the only remnant of that evening I’m familiar with was the well-known still photo by Fred W. McDarrah that can be seen on the Ginsberg blog.
It’s quite mind-blowing to see this familiar still image brought to life and set in motion. Here are 3 minutes of silent footage taken by Mekas. (The audio soundtrack features Ginsberg reading “Sunflower Sutra” in 1960).
There are so few moving images of O’Hara available at all that it’s a thrill to be able to see him in action. It’s also extraordinary and moving to see these poets, looking impossibly young, reading their poems, smoking, drinking, and goofing around (O’Hara even seems to be trying on a hat, possibly someone else’s, at one point). The footage also testifies to the close but complicated friendships and alliances between Beat and New York School poets in the later 1950s.
I’m especially taken with the sight of O’Hara and Baraka leaning in close to one another, laughing and at ease, exhibiting precisely the kind of intimacy and camaraderie I wrote about at length when discussing their friendship in my book Beautiful Enemies. (You can read an excerpt from the book, about the friendship of O’Hara and Baraka, here).
* Update: I’m not entirely certain of the date of the reading this footage captures because there are three dates listed in various places: the Mekas clip begins with a title card that reads 1957, the information accompanying the clip on Jonas Mekas’s site says it was filmed in 1958, while the photograph by McDarrah says it was November 2, 1959. My hunch is that the reading took place in 1959, especially if the occasion was a benefit reading for Baraka’s journal Yugen.