COLUMN TWENTY-SIX, OCTOBER 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
PART 6: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Photo Courtesy New Directions by Margo Moore)
CHAPTER SIX: THE SAN FRANCISCO RENAISSANCE
6 POETS AT 6 GALLERY
Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John Hoffman-- Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen--all sharp new straightforward writing-- remarkable coll- ection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine, and postcards. Charming event.
Kenneth Rexroth, M.C. 8 PM Friday Night October 7,1955
That's the way the post card read, according to
[http:www.charm.net/~brooklyn/Places/SixGallery.html ], Levi Asher's comprehensive collection of Beat Generationalia. The wording is slightly different in my 1960 version, published as part of my 12-part series about the Beats in the New York Post. I think it was Allen Ginsberg himself who gave me the version I printed. I forget whether he gave me an actual post card; my files from that era have been locked away in dead storage for years, so I am unable to go through them to search. As a consequence, I don't know which version is more accurate (perhaps some collector who still has a copy will send me a photocopy). But the night of the so-called San Francisco Renaissance certainly stands out with all the significance that Allen Ginsberg gave to the 1910 Poetry Revolt, which he used to keep telling me about and which certainly influenced his own poetry.
"Allen," volunteers poet Marjorie Perloff, "was referring to Ezra Pound's 'Imagist Manifesto'---Direct Treatment of the Thing: Use no word that does not contribute to the presentation, compose in the sequence of the musical phrase not in sequence of metronome. And so on---revolt against "misty," "dewy," vague poetry---sloppy and excessive. A major shift on the part of Pound, Eliot, then Williams, also Joyce."
Yes, not only Allen's idols, Whitman and Williams, were great influences on Allen, but so was Ezra Pound, who eventually was to become notorious as a Fascist antisemite, broadcasting anti-American propaganda from Benito Mussolini's Italy during World War II.
With his death, Allen immediately looms in the history of poetry perhaps a much larger, more significant and greater seminal figure than Pound and, like Pound's "Imagist Manifesto," Allen's first reading of Howl to an audience in San Francisco's 6 Gallery marked a major turning point in poetry's evolution. Younger poets around the world feel they have been set free by Allen and so they revere him as a god. As Gregory Corso has insisted, being a poet is a full-time job. Ideally, a poet is supposed to be a paradigm so possessed by philosophic immaterialism that he dedicates his life to poetry, the least-paid of all professions. Because poetry by its very nature confronts greed and the need for possessions, to dedicate oneself to poetry is to dedicate oneself, at all costs, to the search for truth. Which is why Allen Ginsberg began his career with a vow of poverty, a vow which, after achieving celebrity, he was later to renounce.
To preserve the immediacy of the following San Francisco Renaissance chapter and to give you a picture of the prevailing attitudes in those times, I let the piece stand pretty much as I wrote it almost 40 years ago. And so the piece is almost the same as that printed in my original New York Post Beat Generation series in 1960.]
"The San Francisco Renaissance," said Jack Kerouac, speaking with the authority of the man who had brought along the wine jug, "happened one night in 1955. We all went out and got drunk"
Kerouac's recollection is uncharacteristically concise. While most of the persons who were there that night happily admit that they did go out and get drunk, there is more of a story involved. Kerouac himself has written that story, though somewhat less concisely. It takes up 924 words on four pages of his The Dharma Bums:
Anyway I 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 the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. 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 standing around in the gallery 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) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes the father of the Frisco Poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness. Japhy himself read his fine poems about Coyote the God of the North American Plateau Indians (I think), at least the God of the Northwest Indians, Kwakiutl and what-all. "Fuck you! sang Coyote, and ran away!" read Japhy to the distinguished audience, making them all howl with joy, it was so pure, fuck being a dirty word that comes out clean. . .
There's a large segment of the literary community which believes that Kerouac's more concise oral description---"We all went out and got drunk"---was the more accurate one. The San Francisco Renaissance, these literati insist, exists only in the minds of those who think themselves to be members of the Beat Generation. There are those in the literary community who claim that there is not even a Beat Generation. Which would leave a large gap when it comes to explaining the sudden current interest in poetry, thought by most young people to have become a dead art, lost, forgotten and unread, studied only in high school and college literature surveys.
If there was no San Francisco Renaissance, there certainly has been a renaissance of poetry. You can now see posters on campuses, town halls and even in night clubs advertising poetry readings.
"Well," say poet Robert Duncan, attending a public reading given by one of his proteges, "I don't see any change in San Francisco. The scene here at present is very similar to the scene in 1946 and 1947."
"The fraudulent thing," says poet Kenneth Patchen, reading his works to the accompaniment of jazz in Greenwich Village, lies in the fact that it took place in San Francisco, which, to me, is very reminiscent of the king who had no clothes, except that in this regard, not only are there no clothes, but there is no king.
"The place that I had heard extolled in glowing terms as having wonderful restaurants, book stores, art galleries and so on, upon examination, I discovered to have the worst restaurants, the poorest excuse for book stores and the same for art galleries of any city of its size in the United States."
San Francisco has always been a haven for outcasts, among whom poets, painters and prostitutes tend, with varying passions, to include themselves. At the outset of the 1950s, however, the poets in ascendance in that city could hardly be called outcasts. San Francisco is a place where the hills make both ascendance and descendance constantly necessary and the poets in ascendance were, largely, the university poets, the traditionalist poets and the ladies' literary society poets.
Less in ascendance, but still climbing hills, was a group headed by Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, whose lack of traditionalism in poetry was offset by the strong populist-anarchist-socialist tradition of the Pacific Northwest.
As for the young writers, who, mixed into turmoil by the modern appliance straight out of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times which they picture civilization to be, remained more or less in hiding, working singly or in small groups, unaware that in San Francisco or in other cities, towns and villages to the East, others like them, simultaneously and independently, were also creating a new language of poetry.
It was in this San Francisco that, in 1954, Allen Ginsberg arrived.
"I had seen Allen around on North Beach," recalls poet Michael McClure, then 28. "Someone pointed him out to me and said, 'That's the poet who had his letters published in William Carlos Williams' Paterson. Then, later, I met him at a party.
"Well, we got to know each other and then one day someone asked me to arrange a Poetry reading for the Six Gallery. But I got busy and I couldn't do it, so Allen said he would arrange it. Well, that was the last I heard about it until I got a beautiful, beautiful post card in the mail with our names on it."
The post card, now a collector's item, looked something like this:
Six Poets at the Six Gallery
Kenneth Rexroth, M. C.
Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry, free satori. Small collection for wine and post cards. Charming event.
"The first time I met Allen was in the fall of '55 after I just got back from working in the Sierras," adds poet Gary Snyder, also 28, who was the hero of Kerouac's The Dharma Bums.
"One day in my old cabin in Berkeley I was repairing my bicycle and this cat with a flannel suit and tie and glasses turns up, kind of sneaking around a corner. (Ginsberg, of all things, worked in an advertising agency in San Francisco.) So he said that Kenneth Rexroth told him to look me up, and we went inside and drank some tea and he said that he was trying to rig up a poetry reading.
"He mentioned McClure's name. Well, I had heard of McClure but I had never met
him, so Allen looked at some of my poems and said, 'Well, this is all right,' and kept on
reading. And so I said, 'Well, I have this friend of mine who has been working in the
Kerouac jumped up and down and pulled Rexroth's mustache and kissed him
in Washington who's about to come into town and his name is Phil Whalen, and he ought to get in on the reading, too.'"
"And Ginsberg said, 'OK! Is his poetry any good?' And I said, 'Sure.' So when Whalen got to town, it was almost the same night that Kerouac got to town. And we all met over in North Beach and we went to Rexroth's house, and Kerouac jumped up and down and pulled Rexroth's mustache and kissed him. It was a jolly evening and Ginsberg was rolling around on the floor laughing, saying, 'I'm a much better poet than you, Rexroth, I'm the greatest poet of all!'"
Rexroth, a man with the demeanor of a bulldog and a face to match, didn't agree. But apparently be wasn't offended (not yet, anyway, although he has since abandoned San Francisco, its Renaissance and Kerouac to go off to Aix-en Provence.)
In any event, Rexroth had consented to act as master of ceremonies and he even enjoyed being asked to do so. As a one-time poet of protest who had achieved both respectability and income, he certainly was a logical choice for the job.
"Rexroth," comments poet Duncan, "is a square trying to call attention to his curves."
For the Six Gallery reading, Rexroth showed off his curves in a 1930 vintage pin-stripe suit, purchased at a Good Will Store.
"For some obscure reason of chance," Snyder recalls, "everybody decided to come that night. Well, maybe it wasn't chance. Maybe it was the post card. Anyway, the most fantastic type of overflow audience showed up and without any expectation. It was an old stable, just a big ground-floor room with chairs, a stage and one john that had a door which didn't lock.
"And Kerouac went out and bought a jug of muscatel, and we took up a collection and bought come more wine. And Rexroth kept looking at a little box on the stage and finally said to the audience: 'Well, a Japanese midget is going to come out pretty soon and read haikus based on the Iliad.'"
The first to read was Philip Lamantia. Next was Whalen. Then came McClure. And then Ginsberg. He read a poem he had written two weeks before, a poem which, for him, represented a sudden change from the short lines and rhymed metaphysical verse he had previously written. The name of the poem was Howl."
"It was like a hot bop scene," remembers McClure. "Ginsberg was real drunk and he swayed back and forth and it was the first time he had read it. The audience was quiet at the beginning but then you could feel the momentum building up and some of the people began to shout, 'Go! Go!' Well, I was very angry about Howl. Partly, I suppose, I was jealous. And partly I thought it was a terrible poem because I was very involved in the French idea of poetry at that time. And then, gradually, it seeped in."
Snyder, who was the last to read, has still another recollection:
"My first thought was that it was going to be a hard thing to hold the audience after Ginsberg. I loved the poem and the audience really dug it. And Kerouac, he sat on the floor and beat on a jug. He was drunk. We had no inkling of what was about to happen when Ginsberg cut loose with Howl. The place just flew apart."
San Francisco is still picking up the pieces. Even poet Duncan, whose kindest words often are uttered when his mouth is closed, concedes: "Ginsberg took the town by storm."
"The thing is," explains McClure, "After this reading, that's all they talked about on North Beach. And they said, 'Well, let's have more poetry readings.' And all of a sudden all these people who had been writing and had been doing some pretty good stuff suddenly started appearing up from under rocks and from behind buildings.
"After that, Ginsberg went around and tried to hunt up everybody who wrote. Now you're in a scene where you know everybody who's writing. Before you were in isolation."
One of those in isolation---and sometimes the not-so-figurative isolation of a mountaintop---was Gary Snyder.
"I was in isolation for 10 years," he says. "I only had Whalen to talk to. As far as San Francisco goes, everything was just there waiting---even Rexroth was just there waiting. Allen acted as the catalyst. Then, everybody started coming to San Francisco. They came from all over the country---young poets who found there really was somebody else they could talk to."
If Howl read aloud proved to be more than sensational, Howl on the page proved to be no less. Published shortly afterwards by poet-owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti of the City Lights Book Store, Howl was at first banned from this country by U.S. Customs Collector Chester MacPhee, who commented: "You wouldn't want your children to come across it."
MacPhee, however, failed to receive support for his action from the U.S. Attorney's office, and it was left to the San Francisco Police Department to continue the crusade against Howl in favor of the children. The assignment was given to the Juvenile Squad and in June, 1957, two cops arrested publisher Ferlinghetti and his assistant, Shigeyoshi
Ginsberg saw the trend of Beat Generation literature as no more then a continuum of good poetic traditions
Murao, on charges of a selling obscene literature. The state's case, however, was somewhat less than successful. More than 22,000 copies of Howl have been sold so far.
For his part Ginsberg refuses to accept his handiwork as a clash with tradition or even as any kind of a renaissance. He sees the current trend of "Beat Generation" literature as no more then a continuum of good poetic traditions, and if there is any revolution involved, it is, he says, the one which occurred in poetry in 1910.
"What happened then," he says, "was that Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot broke the shackles of the Iamb, which had dominated American poetry. Until then, everybody (excepting Walt Whitman) bad been measuring their lines by counting out accents and making silly little stanza formations out of repetitive groups of accents.
"Pound began looking around in older traditions---Latin, Greek, Provencal---to see if he could find a different way of organizing his own speech rhythmically. Williams cut free completely, said, 'I'm going to stop writing poetry and I'm going to start writing for real the way I talk here in America. I'm not an Englishman. . .'
"Williams worked 50 years with short lines, arranging them mostly by ear, according to phrase groups, breath stops---little organizations according to the way he actually talked. The first time I heard him read was a revelation. Here was a man talking about real things in his own voice and not trying to cover his feelings with a lot of slimy poetry. . .
"So Pound went into the past and stayed in Europe. And Williams experimented with the future and stayed in America, sitting around in Rutherford, listening. . . Strangely, he is the one great older poet who has been continually interested in the new developments among the young, almost like an Einstein looking around for further data on the part of younger scientists to arrive at a unified field theory of American prosody.
"He really wanted to know what we had discovered. Williams kept writing to young poets, writing introductions to their books, even encouraging minor poets if he could find in them some trace of original invention."
Minor or not, one of the poets encouraged by Williams was Ginsberg himself, who journeyed to meet Williams from just across the river in his native Paterson. Like almost all other Beat Generation poets, Ginsberg admits other influences---"Lorca. Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Artaud, old classics like Christopher Smart and the Bible; and all the wild Shelleys of Europe."
But the tie-line to the past, he insists, for himself and the entire Beat Generation, is Williams and Williams' prosody.
"Well," replies Williams, "his prosody may come from me, in a way, but he hasn't my technical interests in the poem as a composition. I didn't really admire his prosody, but what he had to say, and he had to say, and he would come out completely naked and say it. For that vision I admire him---I really admire him.
"I didn't think these long lines of Howl are particularly attractive and he didn't do it very well. . . But he's a poet, and therefore a good man, a virtuous man, in my real meaning of virtue. . . He came around and I read some of his poetry, and I didn't admire it. But he was from Paterson and I'd been writing this poem on Paterson and he agreed to take me around the dives and wander around the city. . .
"Then he brought me Howl and I kept it here six months. I had great difficulty reading it and I'd look at it and say, 'Oh, for Christ sakes, I don't like that sort of thing!' And after six months, my wife sat down and read it to me and she's not shy but she didn't like the sexual business and I didn't like it myself and it seemed a bit tiresome, and we got tired of the damn thing.
"But the vigor and the forthrightness took us both by storm. And I said, 'Gee, I don't like the whole damn thing. I don't like his long lines as much as I should perhaps, but I like the poem and so I'll write something about it.' You see, he gave it to them right between the eyes, right up the ass. So I wrote something for a preface and I think it came off very well. At the end it said:
"'Ladies, draw up your skirts, because you're going to hell!'" ## NEXT: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ: PART 7: CHAPTER SEVEN: CITY LIGHTS
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