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'Howl' at Fifty

Allen Ginsberg's 1955 poetry reading in a San Francisco gallery launched a literary renaissance that would change America's consciousness.
 
 
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He wanted poets to rival priests and poetry readings to replace Sunday sermons. His parents named him Irwin Allen, but he called himself Allen Ginsberg, and he wrote poetry with a passion. Fifty years ago, on October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery, an avant-garde art gallery located at 3119 Fillmore St. in San Francisco, he performed Howl for the first time in public and brought American poetry back to life. Jack Kerouac -- then his oldest, closest friend -- predicted that Howl would make him famous all over the Bay Area and that a poetry Renaissance would shake San Francisco.

Beyond the walls of "The Six," and all across America, poets -- with few exceptions -- languished and despaired. At most colleges, English departments turned up their noses at living poets -- and some dead ones, too. Even Walt Whitman went largely unread and, as the poet and critic Muriel Rukeyser observed in The Life of Poetry, men who wrote poems ran the risk of finding themselves branded homosexuals. Fifty years ago, America was still in the throes of McCarthyism and the Cold War's big cultural chill. The conformist Man in the Gray Flannel Suit epitomized American manhood. Even in San Francisco, Howl's birthplace, the district attorney would prosecute the poem -- for obscenity.

Lookouts and Dharma Bums

By the standards of today's outrageous rappers and performance artists, the groundbreaking poets who performed at The Six fifty years ago might seem staid. Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, Phil Lamantia and Michael McClure grew up in white, middle-class families. They did not go hungry (except by choice) or homeless -- though they explored homeless haunts. Ginsberg would come to be known as a gay poet, but in 1955 he was only beginning to shape his sexual persona and hadn't come out of the closet. Snyder and Whalen (ex-roommates at Reed College) later became Buddhists, but in 1955 Snyder hadn't yet been to Japan and Whalen hadn't vowed to become a Zen monk. That summer, Snyder worked in Yosemite clearing trails (earlier he had been a lookout ranger in Washington's Skagit range). At 25, he was unpublished. The carefully etched poems about mountains, valleys, rocks and streams that later appear in his first book, Riprap (1959), were unknown.

In October 1955, they were all beginners. Even Kerouac, who attended the event (but didn't read), hadn't yet received literary acclaim and recognition. On the Road would be published two years later and Dharma Bums, which recounts his backpacking adventures with Snyder and The Six reading, didn't appear until 1958. Although no person of color and no woman read that night, The Six event inspired poets of color and women -- Le Roi Jones, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, and Anne Waldman, to name a few -- because it brought poetry down from the sacrosanct halls of the academy. It took poetry off the musty printed page into the lives of listeners.

It is unlikely that The Six reading -- the inaugural Beat Generation event -- could have happened anywhere else but San Francisco. The city boasted a lively poetry scene, a bohemian subculture, and radical political movements. The city's thriving working-class history made a vast difference to Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, and Lamantia, a surrealistic poet in the tradition of the French poets of the 1920s. The city's radicalism inspired Ginsberg and encouraged him to make fun of the FBI in Howl and in his hilarious 1956 poem, "America," which stands up surprisingly well.

In San Francisco, little magazines, (mostly mimeographed) published unknown poets. Moreover, poets met in private homes. Robert Duncan, the Oakland-born, UC Berkeley-educated poet, read his own dynamic work in his cozy living room. KPFA, which began in 1949, helped create a community of artists and writers. In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an ex-New Yorker, opened City Lights -- the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States. The following year he began his own publishing company and, in 1955, issued his own book, Pictures of the Gone World, as the first volume in the Pocket Poets Series.

Into this rich cultural stew came two Easterners, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who had known one another since the early 1940s and who had vowed to forge a new American literature. The Six reading reflected an intense cultural cross-fertilization between the two New York hipsters and their West Coast counterparts. Kerouac and Ginsberg came from urban, immigrant backgrounds; Snyder and Whalen grew up in farming communities and lived close to the land in the Pacific Northwest.

All of them wrote poems that borrowed from contemporary idioms, celebrated both life and death, and expressed a sense of kinship with the earth and a compassion for the poor, the outcast and exiled. Poetry, they believed, should communicate with an audience and convey intensely personal experiences. They were all craftsmen who cared about language.

Plans for The Six were incubated at 1624 Milvia Street in Berkeley, a rose-covered cottage that Ginsberg rented for a pittance. Kerouac joined him, later Whalen moved in, and Snyder often visited, bringing his hibachi to cook supper. Ginsberg, who had worked in advertising in New York and San Francisco, knew how to publicize an event. Accordingly, he printed and distributed posters and postcards that read: "6 Poets at 6 Gallery." It was a catchy phrase that lured the curious and cautious alike.

Ginsberg had only arrived in San Francisco the year before (largely unknown, and mostly unpublished) with a note from his mentor, William Carlos Williams, to Kenneth Rexroth, the Chicago-born anarchist, anti-war activist, poet godfather and gadfly of Bay Area literature. Rexroth had his own weekly show on KPFA and hosted a literary evening at his home on Scott Street in San Francisco. Ginsberg met Lamantia there, as well as McClure -- then a 20-something artist from Kansas City -- and Snyder in Berkeley. When he selected poets for The Six, Ginsberg chose those he knew and liked. Rexroth was the obvious choice for MC.

Snyder wrote Whalen in Oregon that the reading would be a "poetickall Bomshell." Whalen had better hurry to San Francisco, or he'd forever rue his absence, Snyder warned. "A person named Allen Ginsberg" was on the program, he added, as an afterthought, and he wasn't to be missed. Snyder's letter was prophetic. In a world obsessed with the atomic bomb and with blond bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, The Six exploded old ways of thinking and seeing and made a space for a new kind of poetry and performance art.

When Ginsberg Howled

Rexroth opened the evening -- decked out in his trademark suspenders and pin-stripped suit -- by lauding the Bay Area as an oasis of radicalism and creativity in the American wasteland of cultural and political conformity. Lamantia, whose Erotic Poems, had appeared in the 1940s, read the poetry of his friend John Hoffman, who had just died in Mexico. From the start, there was a palpable sense of brotherhood among poets both living and dead. And a sense, too, of the human links to the non-human world, especially when McClure read "For the Death of 100 Whales," a poem of outrage and indignation inspired by the wanton slaughter, by a platoon of American soldiers, of a herd of whales. An innovative kind of ecological poetry, inspired by headline news about the latest catastrophe, was born. Whalen gave an ironic reading of "Plus Ça Change," a short poem that captures the characteristic alienation and angst of the Eisenhower era. Snyder, bearded and in jeans, read from Myths and Texts, a long work-in-progress, and from the five-part poem "Berry Feast," that celebrates the myths of Oregon's Native Americans, especially Coyote, their mythological trickster hero. "His voice was deep and resonant and somehow brave, like the voice of old-time American heroes and orators," Kerouac noted.

On any other night of the week, Snyder might have brought down the house. But October 7 belonged to Ginsberg and to Howl, with its long, confessional lines, surrealistic images and its quirky blending of the optimistic voice of Walt Whitman and apocalyptic vision of T.S. Eliot. And, of course, Ginsberg was a superlative performance poet who carried his audience with him from beginning to end, stanza to stanza.

He had been writing and revising his poem all summer. Although it began as an experiment with breath, literary form and language, it evolved into an epic political rant about the American nation itself and his own generation. Howl defied generals, senators, the FBI, and the whole "narcotic tobacco haze of capitalism." On October 7, Ginsberg wasn't sure if he had finished the poem, but at 11 PM, he took the stage to read what he had so far, intoxicated from drinking the red wine that Kerouac had purchased with dimes and quarters collected from the audience. He steadied himself and began to recite the intensely personal opening line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."

Moving his body as he imagined a rabbi might move before a congregation, Ginsberg built up momentum and delivered the poem's characteristic alliterative phrasing, "who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy/ Bronx on Benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought/ them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain/ all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo." He felt a "strange ecstatic intensity" well-up inside him, he would explain, and he came alive to the shouts and screams of intoxicated audience members, including Neal Cassady -- the hero of On the Road and the "secret hero" of Howl -- and to the cries of Kerouac, who wailed, "Go! Go! Go!"

When the poem came to an end, Ginsberg wept and so did Rexroth. McClure spoke for almost everyone at The Six when he said, of Ginsberg: "In all our memories, no one had been so outspoken in poetry before." Audience members were shocked and dazzled by his verbal pyrotechnics. The next day, Ferlinghetti wired Ginsberg and asked for a copy of the manuscript, promising to publish it in the Pocket Poets Series. Ginsberg revised the section of the poem that he'd read. Then, he added two entirely new sections about the madness of war and materialism (and the promise of redemption, too), which made the poem much longer and far more challenging to read aloud. But he went on reading it from San Francisco to New York.

In 1956, when Howl and Other Poems went on sale for 75 cents, it caused a firestorm. The SF District Attorney prosecuted Ferlinghetti for publishing obscenity, and the little book went on to create an even bigger national and international stir. Howl and Other Poems became a bestseller. Since 1956, it has sold nearly one million copies in the Pocket Poets Series, and next year City Lights will publish a 50th anniversary edition.

Meanwhile, The Six reading attained the status of legend. Kerouac described it in Dharma Bums: "I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading ... that night, which was, among other things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there." Given its mythic force, it's no wonder that poets look back longingly to the landmark Six Gallery for inspiration and validation.

This story originally appeared in Common Ground magazine.

Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation . He teaches in the Communication Studies department at Sonoma State University.