Fun, but not a patch on '65

Thirty years on, Allen Ginsberg returned to the Royal Albert Hall with a ragbag of other poets - and Paul McCartney on guitar. By Judith Palmer
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"It was everything for me. It changed my life," sighs Lee Harris, remembering the heady June day in 1965 when 16 young poets took over the Royal Albert Hall, cheered on by 8,000 flower-waving idealists at the first "International Poetry Incarnation". "I fell in love with counter- culture that day and never moved on," he says. "Gave up my job the next day and became a footsoldier for the underground."

16 October 1995. Lee's back, and so are the poets. The Royal Albert Hall may not be packed to capacity, but with 2,000 tickets sold, The Return of the Reforgotten is still one of the largest poetry gatherings ever seen in this country. "Well, you've got to support the guy," shrug the punters - all surprisingly young - who are queueing up outside. "He was good enough to put it on."

"The guy" is the Uppingham book- dealer Mike Goldmark, who has dug deep into his own pockets to assemble the random cocktail of disparate poetic voices which he hopes will rekindle the mythic flame of 1965.

With his orange flowery tie, violet nylon shirt and a daisy in his buttonhole, 26-year-old musician Jesse looks like he might have been at home here in 1965. "My dad was here in his twenties. It was a big thing for him," he explains. "I go to poetry readings now and they are so tame - bald men with beards. I'm not expecting it to be, but I'd like this to be an event."

Allen Ginsberg, still looking like an Old Testament prophet, and Michael Horovitz, still wearing mint-striped loon pants and playing "Jerusalem" on the kazoo, are joint survivors from the Golden Age. They are joined neither by old compadres Adrian Mitchell and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, nor by the familiar constellation of glittering young stars. Not a whiff of Faber. No sign of the New Gen. Not even a whisper of a Nuyorican. Goldmark's band of 1995 troubadours are true mavericks.

There's the mannered mystic Aidan Dun, every inch the Rimbaud-inspired poet with his brooding eyes and high cheekbones, his white shirt secured by a single button, draped, like Saint-Exupery's petit prince, in a sky- blue scarf; the bounding dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah; the sprightly 84- year-old Scots-Gael Sorley MacLean, making an all-too-rare trip down from the Isle of Skye. There were few obvious commonalities between the poets who lined up to deliver an ultra-economical eight minutes each.

"I'm going to introduce... bloody hell... whoever comes on first," stammers the bemused compere, the London sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock. "London writers... mumble... so much good stuff... mumble... almost collapsing in on itself... mumble, mumble," he, er, mumbles, with much hand-wringing , beard-tweaking and nose-rubbing. "Oh, get on with it," the audience mutters politely. "The... mumble... poetry speaks for itself... [wild cheers]." We'll cheer anything. Just spare us any more of this. Any poet. Please. Quickly.

Brian Catling stands sideways on to the audience, holding a large mirror to his face while he reads. I don't notice the words. I'm too mesmerised by the sight of his bisected and reflected features, projected overhead on to a 30ft screen, his lips pursing and unpursing like a giant tropical fish.

Back in 1965, the Austrian sound poet Ernst Jandl chose to fill his slot with 10 minutes of sneezing in homage to Kurt Schwitters. For 1995, Aaron Williamson, poet and performance artist, lets out a strangled primal scream. Profoundly deaf, Williamson articulates his text through an extraordinary series of physical and vocal exercises. "Cascading... cantilevered... corncrake": tortured scraps of words squeeze out from twisted balletic contortions, rhythmic stamps and guttural agonies. Beautiful.

"Four-letter words associated with Lady Chatterley" so shocked the manager of the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 that he reputedly tried to ban poets from the hall for ever. His ghost will no doubt return to haunt Tom Pickard, the Geordie poet delivering his sexual manifesto as if to a party conference, before departing with a confident Portillo-esque wave.

One-time footballer and bus conductor Brendan Kennelly, now professor of modern literature at Trinity College, Dublin, had the crowd chortling merrily to his subversive fantasy, "James Joyce had dinner with the Holy Family".

" 'How're things in Ireland?' asked Joseph. 'Ugh' said Joyce... Joyce's short answers were buggering the dinner up." The rosy-cheeked bard in the crumpled tweeds grins with perfect comic timing.

A slightly fragile Ginsberg (just short of his 70th birthday) conducts the rousing finale from his seat, accompanied on the guitar by Paul McCartney. No "Howl", no "Kaddish". It's a new poem, "Ballad of the American Skeletons", performed to an "I fought the law"-like riff.

"Said the macho skeleton: women in their place / Said the fundamentalist skeleton: increase the human race / Said the TV skeleton: give me soundbites / Said the newscaster skeleton: that's all. Goodnight."

And gently into that good night slipped the 2,000. The bright-eyed twentysomethings, the 65 veterans, the school parties, and the culturally curious all.

Could this unashamedly nostalgic venture ever really hope to capture the spirit of the times? "There are all different ways of doing it," says Ginsberg diplomatically at the backstage party, sipping quietly on a Diet Coke. "You can give a poetry reading at the Albert Hall, or Megatripolis, in a small room, or to your boyfriend, naked in bed."

The Return of the Reforgotten is unlikely to have recruited many new counter- cultural footsoldiers, but, yes, it was an event. And good fun, too. "This time you are there and will remember it," Mike Goldmark proclaims.

n Allen Ginsberg will be reading tomorrow at Megatripolis at Heaven, London WC1, 10pm. Details: 0181-960 0030