Today is Allen Ginsberg’s birthday, and it brought to mind a memorable evening in 1995, one of a handful of times I had the pleasure of meeting the amazing Ginsberg himself: a night when I was partially responsible for creating a fire hazard and what felt like a near-riot at a Ginsberg reading at Columbia University.
Kenneth Koch had invited his old friend Ginsberg to read at Columbia as part of the F. W. Dupee Poetry Reading series Koch had recently launched. To round out the evening, he asked another old friend, David Shapiro, to read with Ginsberg. Shapiro, one of the central poets of the New York School’s second generation, is also a well-known Columbia alum, famous within university lore for his role in the student protests of 1968, so it was a very special double bill.
I had the good fortune of being Koch’s assistant at the time, and for six years, helped him organize, advertise, and set up for the readings in this series (as I’ve mentioned before). In the run-up to the Ginsberg reading, Koch asked me whether I thought we should use the lounge in Philosophy Hall (home to the Columbia English Department), where we had held other readings in the series, for this reading. The lounge, a pleasant sitting room where they used to serve tea and graham crackers every afternoon, was not a huge space — it could fit maybe 100 people comfortably, and was filled with couches, armchairs, and wooden tables. In other words, it was in no way a space used for large events. I told Koch I was a little worried that it would be too small a venue for someone as famous as Ginsberg, but Kenneth thought it would be probably be fine, and I went along with his intuition. I sent out the flyer, as usual, to the Village Voice, NY Press, and other local outlets and magazines, and spread the word on email listserves and the like.
Because Ginsberg was one of Columbia’s best known literary alums, this was to be a homecoming of sorts, a return to one of the prime Beat points of origin. In 1995, he was also one of the most famous living poets, an actual pop culture figure, with a vast reputation that far exceeded the narrow poetry world. So … the reading ended up being a much bigger deal than Koch, or I, expected. The lounge in Philosophy Hall turned out to be a comically small room for a hometown reading by a world famous icon.
The day of the reading, October 25, 1995, I recall worrying — as I always did before readings — whether enough people would show up to have a critical mass for a decent event. The first inkling that we might be in trouble occurred when I arrived a couple hours before the reading to set up chairs and some people were already there, already waiting for the big event. The room filled up quickly, as Columbia students, faculty, people from the New York poetry scene, and curious Ginsberg fans flooded into the lounge. The atmosphere felt a little unruly and out of control, with people scrambling to find space and eventually climbing through the now-open windows.
By the time Ginsberg and Shapiro arrived, it was standing room only, with a throng of people also outside the room, filling the echoing lobby. I remember pushing through the mob to get to the front door to help Koch and the two readers jostle their way through the crowd in the lobby and into the packed room. Despite being in poor health, Ginsberg took it all in stride, bemused at the chaos and grateful for the adoration of the crowd that had assembled at his alma mater in his honor. I recall Shapiro telling me later he was completely overwhelmed — both by the intensity and excitement of being back at Columbia reading with Ginsberg, and by the size of the boisterous crowd.
Both poets gave wonderful, passionate readings of their work, while students crammed into the open windows behind them and others strained to hear from outside the building (as you can see in the newspaper photo above). Although Ginsberg would pass away less than two years after this night, he was in fine form that night, inspiring the young crowd with his inimitable poems and sense of humor and his words about politics and justice.
It was quite a different reception than Ginsberg had received after a 1959 reading on the same campus, immortalized in the notorious Partisan Review essay by Diana Trilling called “The Other Night At Columbia” that “described her horror and disgust at a reading given at Columbia by Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso. The people in the crowd, she said, looked like they smelled bad.”
I recently dug up an article on the event from the archives of the Columbia Spectator, which you can see below. The article says 400 people attended, with audience members sitting on window sills and listening from outside the building. “Koch admitted he did not expect so many people to attend,” the article (rightly!) notes.
Here’s the sad, little, graphic-design-challenged flyer I made for the event:
And here’s the article from the Columbia Spectator about the reading, October 26, 1995: