Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso: In Which Heckling Is An Integral Part of Poetry Reading


The 92nd St Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, an institution of which I have never taken nearly enough advantage, occasionally posts recordings of its old readings. A couple of days ago, they posted this one, of Allen Ginsberg reading a number of poems (and singing a little). Somewhere around the 5:50 mark you will hear someone start to heckle Ginsberg. It’s his fellow beat poet Gregory Corso, who offers with characteristic directness the observation that what Ginsberg is reading is all “poesy bullshit.” The two were friends. I love the note of dry amusement in Ginsberg’s voice, as he incorporates Corso’s name into his poem. (Corso, later, indignantly: “You don’t have my name there!”) And Ginsberg improvises a sort of riff: “Goodbye, to my brothers who write poetry, and play the violin, and drink Smirnoff, too much!”

By the time Ginsberg picks up his harmonium to sing for the crowd his father Louis, who is onstage with him, is muttering bitterly, loud enough to provide an undertone to the music. He heckles Corso right back, telling him in : “We have a dense crowd here, but where you are it’s most dense.” The crowd laughs.

The effect of the whole thing is delightfully, cheerfully anarchic. Be sure to stay tuned to the end, where Ginsberg sings a sort of lullaby to his intransigent friend. 

Thanks to the venerable Sadie Stein at the Paris Review, for pointing me to this.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →