Sunday, 23 October 2016

Wholly Communion


On the 11th of June 1965, 7000 people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for an evening of poetry. Hardly imaginable these days, of course: 7000 people? To hear some poems? It was, however, a pivotal event. An accidentally momentous occasion. Arguably, it was the moment when in Britain the Sixties began and British counterculture birthed.
The event was titled the International Poetry Reading and was organised by (among others) poet and film maker John Esam and artist Dan Richter. Coinciding with a visit to England by Allen Ginsberg, the idea was hatched to book for one evening the biggest venue in London so as to host him and to stage what was in effect, a Happening. So, just two weeks before the arrival of Ginsberg, the Albert Hall was booked, leaving very little time for publicity or for general organising.
The spontaneity of it all, however, acted as fuel to the rocket and within that short space not only had all the mainstream media (including, even, the bastion of the Establishment, the Times newspaper) been successfully approached and publicity garnered but a number of other internationally known poets and artists stepped up and offered their support, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael Horovitz, and Alexander Trocchi.

Come the evening, to the surprise of everyone (not least the organisers) 7000 people turned up; this being the largest audience ever assembled to hear poetry in the country. Flowers from nearby Covent Garden market were handed out to everyone on entry by girls with painted faces, whilst inside the Hall, the robot creations of artist Bruce Lacey whirled around as a recording of William Burroughs' dry, reptile voice crackled over a pall of pot smoke.
"I don't want that sort of filth here." said the Albert Hall's manager "Would you send your teenage daughter to hear that sort of thing?" But his was the voice of culture past and Allen Ginsberg et al were the voices of the future, the audience being the forward thinkers aware of something in the air signifying the times they were a-changin'.

Wholly Communion, published shortly after the event, is a mixture of photographs of the various poets performing there along with some of the poems they recited. Such was the significance of the event, however, that to capture and convey it is no easy task though it should be said the book doesn't purport this to be its aim. Rather, it's a snapshot or rather still, a version of the event. Just as film maker Peter Whitehead describes the documentary film he made of it (which is up on YouTube) , it's an "impression of a unique evening".
Up against some stiff competition, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem To Fuck Is To love Again stands out but the poet that steals the show is Adrian Mitchell, in particular with his poem To Whom It May Concern.

What the International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall (and subsequently the book, Wholly Communion) teaches us is that a small number of people when they come together to act, can achieve great things. Booking the biggest venue in London for a few poets to perform at was a case of taking the bull by the horns and simply going for it. They were probably daunted and no doubt scared but their enthusiasm and belief in what they were doing carried them through - and they won.

Up until that evening in June of 1965 there were all these thousands of people in their homes and communities, all isolated and unaware of each other's existence. The Poetry Reading brought them all together under one roof and showed there were others like them and that they were not alone. Inspired by this revelation all number of activities and ventures were launched, not least the publication of what was to become a leading voice of the British counterculture, the International Times newspaper.

And then there's the power and importance of the written and spoken word. The importance of poems, songs, books, magazines and any other medium that might carry words. The primacy of the words being the key. The medium not being the message but the words within and the message and meaning that those words convey. And then the imagination, the belief, and the courage to externalise those words into real life and into living action.
                                                                                                                                                                             John Serpico

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