“San Francisco has always been a breeding ground for bohemian countercultures; its cosmopolitan population, its tolerance of eccentricity, and its provincialism and distance from the centers of national culture and political power have long made it an ideal place for non-conformist writers, artists, and utopian dreamers” (1).
Writing about the Beats is a daunting task. It’s been done so many times before, and the definition of Beat as a philosophy, poetic movement, lifestyle, what have you, is as mutable as the list of writers and thinkers who might fall under its banner. But one cannot write about San Francisco and avoid the Beats. Their fingerprints are everywhere: when you come to your senses, bleary-eyed and tired, over a brew in a dingy North Beach dive, and just as much in the breathless tourist traps in that same neighborhood. The Haight would not exist without them, and neither, in some ways, would the Castro. They are in San Franciscans’ love for the absurd, our antiauthoritarian streak, the earnest cries for a better society. And they officially put down their mark, according to fact and fiction, at the Six Gallery Reading at 3119 Fillmore on Friday, October 7, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl.
The Six Gallery, c. 1957. Photo: C.R. Snyder, courtesy of Found SF, CC BY NC-SA 3.0.
I pass by what was once the Six Gallery on a weekly basis, and I’ve eaten at Tacko, which now occupies its space, more than a few times (delicious and inauthentic carnitas tacos). There’s a plaque outside commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the reading. In a 1974 interview, the artist Wally Hedrick discussed the importance of Six Gallery in the art scene: existing outside of the mainstream art school or gallery system, it allowed for self-teaching and experimentation with unaccepted techniques and forms. Hedrick remembered that before it was Six, it was the King Ubu, where the city’s first jazz poems were read. The gallery was a narrow, ramshackle place, Hedrick explained, “like a bowling alley” (2). When I visited the site last week, I noticed the address 3119 no longer exists: I guess that whoever bought up 3119 snatched up a couple of other parcels as well, knocking down the wall and destroying the last vestiges of Six Gallery. Such is city life.
Allen Ginsberg on the Six Gallery Reading Commemorative Plaque
The accounts of the Six Gallery Reading differ, and without photographs, film, or sound recordings, we can only sift through the stories of flaky, wine-drunk, pot-smoking, sometimes self-effacing and other times self-aggrandizing poets, writers, artists, and hangers-on. The flyers (written by Allen Ginsberg) for the “charming event” list a “remarkable collection of angels on one stage:” Philip Lamantia (reading John Hoffman’s poems), Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and, of course, Allen Ginsberg. Kenneth Rexroth emceed (3). It was Michael McClure’s first public reading, and in his 1982 collection of essays and poems Scratching the Beat Surface, the scene is of “a hundred and fifty enthusiastic people” listening as Ginsberg read in a “small and intensely lucid voice,” with Jack Kerouac chanting “GO” and jugfuls of wine floating around the room. McClure recollected the oppressive feeling of the Cold War mainstream culture and what Howl did to shatter it, for this group of poets:
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before–we had gone beyond a point of no return–and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void–to the land without poetry–to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision (4).
In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of his life among the Beats on the West Coast, learning the ins and outs of Zen from Gary Snyder, he writes that he “followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” He takes credit for the success of the evening:
It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience…and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem “Wail” drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session)…
For Kerouac, the standout of the evening was not Alvah Goldbook/Allen Ginsberg but rather Gary Snyder (AKA Japhy Ryder), who made “them all howl with joy” (5) with A Berry Feast. The 2010 film Howl depicts James Franco’s Allen Ginsberg preaching to a right-on, tittering and nodding crowd, passing wine jugs but refraining from jam session whoops. The Beat literati look on, eyes shining (6). A few months later, Ginsberg read Howl and America at the Town Hall Theatre in Berkeley, in March 1956. A recording of America in the excellent In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry reveals a hooting and laughing crowd, clearly in on the joke, as Ginsberg spins out his much more irreverent (but still deadly serious) lines (7).
Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959. Courtesy of orionpozo, CC BY 2.0
Regardless of what actually happened that night, the Six Gallery Reading and Howl captured the zeitgeist of a generation on the cusp. Howl uses a language known to a select underground group, which would become the Beats or the Counterculture or whatever. It pushes linguistic boundaries that remain in place today–to the point where I covered a page with my hand while reading the poem in a coffee shop (I was sitting next to an elderly woman). It was, of course, the subject of an obscenity trial that catapulted City Lights, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg to national fame. But I’ll write of that another day.
Howl’s power, its rawness, are still fresh. There are difficult, almost inaccessible moments, repetitions that dull the poem on the page but that are much more effective when spoken aloud. I used the term preach above to describe the way in which Franco read the poem intentionally: this is a sermon, McClure’s point of no return, a foundational text, a fulcrum. It’s as full of rage against a dehumanizing establishment–society at large as much as the mental health system–as it is full of joy.
Howl is unapologetic and uncompromising: a frank depiction of homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, drug use, mental illness, jazz, alienation, loss, and gain. Take a look for yourself. The footnote brings the poem to an uplifting close, where “Everything is holy,” from the “groaning saxophone,” to “the asshole,” to “Allen” himself (8). Nancy J. Peters writes: “As Allen Ginsberg often claimed, candor–the expression of authentic personal experience–was foremost, and beat work helped to bring private life into public discourse” (1). By stripping himself naked for the crowd at Six Gallery (and later, the nation), by talking about personal experiences that were previously left unsaid, Ginsberg challenged the prevailing order and announced that things could, and should, be different. That this poem was written, read, and published in the Bay Area speaks to the freedom that Ginsberg felt when he moved out to San Francisco. To me, it seems that Howl could not have been created and unveiled anywhere else.
(1) Peters, Nancy J. “The Beat Generation and San Francisco’s Culture of Dissent.” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, and Culture. Ed. James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy J. Peters. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998. Print. Page 199 and 212. Emphasis in the second quotation is my own.
(2) Karlstrom, Paul. Oral history interview with Wally Hedrick. San Geronimo, California: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, June 10-24, 1974. Web transcript. 9 February 2012. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-wally-hedrick-12869
(3) Ginsberg, Allen. “6 Poets at 6 Gallery.” San Francisco: October 1955. Via the Allen Ginsberg Project. Web. 9 February 2012. http://www.allenginsberg.org/index.php?page=6-poets-at-6-gallery-fliers
(4) McClure, Michael. “The Beat Surface.” Scratching the Beat Surface. Berkeley: North Point Press, 1982. Print. Pages 11-13.
(5) Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Print. Pages 13-14. The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958.
(6) Howl. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. Film.
(7) Ginsberg, Allen. “America.” In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Rhino/Whea, 1996. CD. Disc 2, track 33. A very short clip of Ginsberg’s reading of Howl at the same March 1956 Berkeley event can be heard here.
(8) Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956. Web version available here, with footnote here.