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The Greatest Poetry Reading of All Time

The Greatest Poetry Reading of All Time

On Saturday evening of April 19, 1975 three of the greatest Beat poets – Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Michael McClure came to the campus of the University of Florida to honor the pioneering ecologist Howard T. Odum. The free poetry reading that night at Graham Pond was also an attempt to set the Guiness world record for the largest number of people who ever attended a poetry recital.

Graham Pond is a small pond surrounded on two sides by the high rising Graham Hall, a large residence hall near the center of campus. Opposite the residence halls  a platform stage extended out over the pond. It was on this stage the three great Beats performed.

Snyder’s recital included selections from Turtle Island, his 1974 work which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His simple reading style and poetic themes of environmental and buddist philosophy provoked a real sense of connection and natural beauty. This was, I believe, Gary Snyder at the peak of his writing and performing career.

McClure seemed to me the purist and sweetest Poet I had ever heard. Like Snyder, his recital contained a natural theme so beautifully in sympathy and syncrony with the surroundings and context of the event. Who knew the Beats were nature poets ? We thought they were crazy bearded drug addicts. Live and learn.

Allen Ginsberg recited Howl, the most famous of the Beat poems. Howl had been siezed by U.S. Customs officials and, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti pulished it in the U.S., was the subject of an obscenity trial. Still controversial to this day, in 2007 Pacifica Radio fearing fines from the FCC refused to broadcast a reading to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the verdict declaring the poem to be protected under the First Amendment against charges of obscenity.

This particular performance of Howl was quite unique. Thousands of stoned, drunk, and mushroom tea enhanced students were leaning out of their windows and off the balconies of Graham Hall – all of them howling throughtout the performance. It was awesome. But Howl was not the hightlight of the evening.

All throughout the recitals some drunk was beside the stage waving a few sheets of paper and demanding to read his poetry. Finally Snyder relented and asked him up on stage. The stumbling drunk took his place at the podium, drew a huge stack of paper from his backpack and began reading. All of his poetry was about his penis. I mean every line was something about his penis. The crowd went from an initial groan when the size of his portfolio was shown to rollicking in laughter. Not long into his recitation the drunken penis poet knocked the podium over and fell into the pond! His manuscript scattered over the water. Immediately Snyder jumped into the water retrieving the soaked pages and penis poet. The crowd went wild.

Did Gary Snyder know that Graham Pond was home to alligators ?

Another accounting of this extraordinary event is given by David Lavery.

Here is the flyer for the event:

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