Wholly Communion – Peter Whitehead (ASV5)

Allen Ginsberg reading at the Royal Albert Hall, London, at the first International Poetry Incarnation, June 11, 1965 – photograph by John “Hoppy” Hopkins
Wholly Communion, the filmed record of the First International Poetry Incarnation, as it was so dubbed, that took place, on this very day, 46 years ago, in London’s Royal Albert Hall, is a remarkable film, a remarkable document, and one well worth watching. It can now be seen in its entirety (broken up into four segments – the Ginsberg segment being the last of them – here, here, here – and here.

Beat film scholar, Jack Sargeant, gives the basic synopsis:

Wholly Communion opens with images of a statue, behind which fast-moving clouds part to reveal bright sunlight. On the soundtrack is an edit of words and phrases about the ‘sun’ taken from various poets’ performances. This cuts to a view of the outside of the Albert Hall, which is accompanied by Allen Ginsberg’s incantation. As the chant progresses the film cuts to the interior of the venue, with a brief edit of the assembled poets; finally the film cuts to Ginsberg, sitting on the low-level stage, singing and playing his miniature finger cymbals. The film then cuts to a series of brief extracts from performances by several of the poets: (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti stands to read “To Fuck Is To Love Again”. This is followed by (Michael Horovitz) who reads “For Modern Man”. Gregory Corso sits to read “Mutation Of The Spirit.” Following Corso’s introverted performance, the film cuts to (Harry) Fainlight, reading his poem written while on LSD, “The Spider”. This is interrupted by shouting from the audience, and the camera spins around, zooming in to, and across, the collected rows of seats, trying to find the source of the disturbance [it is Dutch poet, Simon Vinkenoog]. At the end of Fainlight’s reading (Alex) Trocchi climbs on the stage, and the microphone worn around Harry’s neck picks up their brief altercation, as Trocchi tells Fainlight, “You’re not reading any more.” To a combination of shouts and cheers Fainlight asks to read another piece, to which Trocchi replies, “Ladies and Gentlemen, hold on, hold on, this evening is an experiment and we’re finding out what happens when you put five thousand people in a hall with a few poets trying to act naturally.” Fainlight is allowed to read a second poem, “Larksong”. (Adrian) Mitchell reads his Vietnam poem, “To Whom It May Concern” and his two-line “Stunted Sonnet”, (Christopher) Logue reads his “Chorus (After Sophocles)” and Trocchi reads from his novel, Cain’s Book. Following this (Ernst) Jandl performs his sound poem “Schmerz Durch Reibung” and – aided by Horowitz and Pete Brown – “Ode Auf N”. Finally, Ginsberg – appearing to be drunk [certainly animated] – takes the stage and reads a translation of (Andrei) Voznesensky‘s poem “The Three Cornered Pear/America”, ostensibly to Voznesensky who appears sitting in the audience. This is followed by a reading of (one of) his own poems, (the seminal poem) “The Change”.. As the film ends and the titles roll, Ginsberg’s voice is heard requesting the time, and then declaring that he has “lost his poetry book.”

The cultural (counter-cultural) significance of the event (both for the time and its subsequent ramifications) can hardly be underestimated. Sargeant’s contextualizing notes and his interview with “legendary” filmmaker, Peter Whitehead (included in his book Naked Lens), explain a lot, revealing a great deal of the background.  Equally useful is Stewart Home’s first-hand recollections and retrospective review. In 2007, the British Film Institute released the DVD, Peter Whitehead And The Sixties, which featured Wholly Communion, coupled with Benefit of The Doubt, a film he made two years later (regrettably, it didn’t include Tonight Let’s All Make Love In London, another 1967 movie, featuring further glimpses of Allen and taking its title from one of his poems).

Paul Cronin’s 2006 documentary, In The Beginning Was The Image: Conversations With Peter Whitehead can be viewed in its entirety via The Sticking Place.com, which also hosts a good deal of other Whitehead material.


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