Snapshot: Allen Ginsberg at the Albert Hall

"By a miracle of happenstance," remembers the poet Michael Horovitz, "the First International Poetry Incarnation was a moment when 8,000 people came together, looked around, and thought: this is a new beginning."

"By a miracle of happenstance," remembers the poet Michael Horovitz, "the First International Poetry Incarnation was a moment when 8,000 people came together, looked around, and thought: this is a new beginning."

It was the summer of 1965 and Horovitz, having recently graduated from Oxford University, had forsaken the fustiness of academia for bohemian London. Alongside the Scottish writer Alex Trocchi and the photographer John "Hoppy" Hopkins, Horovitz was at the heart of an underground scene that celebrated poetry, jazz, protest politics and the kind of experiments in free love that the hippies were to take up two years later. Hearing that the American beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso were in London, Trocchi and Horovitz decided to stage a large-scale reading. They called up the Royal Albert Hall. It was free in 10 days' time.

"We sat in Alex Trocchi's sordid flat - there were heroin needles on the floor - and took it in turns to speak lines that Ginsberg wrote down," says Horovitz. "That formed our manifesto. But we had no idea if anyone would come. Nothing like this had been done before."

A press conference at the Albert Memorial was hastily arranged, Ginsberg appeared on the BBC to talk about the beats taking over London's most famous performance space and, on June 11, the 1960s began in earnest when, as "Hoppy" Hopkins remembers, "we all realised that we were not alone. Ginsberg was a big name in avant-garde circles, but he was merely the crest of a cultural wave."

As the audience filed into the hall at 6.30pm, they were given flowers bought cheap earlier that day from Covent Garden flower market. Seventeen poets, all white men, gave readings, and the guitarist Davy Graham played a few songs. Ginsberg read from his famous poem Howl; although he would end up naked at the after-show party, he managed to keep his clothes on for the duration of the reading.

"The beat message was all about carrying one's own light, and Ginsberg was its patron saint," says Horovitz. "But it was lovely to realise there were quite a few of us chasing after the pursuit of wisdom."

Horovitz has never abandoned the spirit of 1965 - he recently published Pot!, a poetry anthology celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Poetry Incarnation - but he concedes that it did not change the world. "We were young, and we thought the walls of industry and military would simply crumble," he says. "It didn't happen, and by 1968 market forces had co-opted the counterculture. But for a moment back then, it looked like we had won."
Will Hodgkinson

· The DVD Allen Ginsberg Live in London (Dream Productions), is out now. Pot! Poetry Olympics 2005 is published by New Departures at £7.99.

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