Fifty-nine years ago today, Ginsberg performed his seminal poem for the first time, marking the public debut of the Beats.
On the night of October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg’s impassioned reading of “Howl” gave life to the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and simultaneously marked the beginning of the Beat Generation’s prominence. The monumental event was promoted simply via a postcard printed by Ginsberg that read:
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 postcards. Charming event.
Gathered together that evening were literary icons — though many had yet to have their talents realized by the literary community. The list of poets reading included Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure and Kenneth Rexroth. Perhaps as impressive were those who merely observed, as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady and Ann Charters were among the large audience who had gathered together at Six Gallery. In fact, it was supposedly Kerouac who set the tone of the evening by taking up a collection for wine, which he then passed around the audience while demanding they “glug a slug from the jug.” Kerouac later described the audience as “rather stiff,” but the wine got them “all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when [Ginsberg] was reading his, wailing poem [“Howl”] drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session).”
Ferlinghetti would request the manuscript of “Howl” for publication the following day, while Kerouac, who had already written though not yet published On the Road, would wait some time for his recognition. It was Ginsberg who would later suggest that Kerouac turn his journal chronicling the reading along with his experiences in Buddhist studies and mountain climbing into what would become The Dharma Bums.
While the Six Gallery reading is an undoubtedly monumental event, the content of the poetry read there is as interesting as the figures responsible for shaping and inspiring it. The Beat Generation gave birth to a new age in literature, one that could not have occurred had it not been for the influence of Kerouac on Ginsberg, of Snyder on Kerouac, of Ginsberg on William S. Burroughs and of Benzedrine on them all. Each member of the group contributed something of extraordinary significance to the others, and the others returned the favor and then some. It may be the case that the Beat Generation succeeded due to its recognition of its influences and sources of inspiration, eschewing competition (or perhaps embracing it good-naturedly) in favor of collaboration.
The greatest gift these writers may have given to literature is their fearlessness in exposing themselves. The Six Gallery reading brought poetry back to its roots as an oral tradition, making literature a thing to be celebrated publicly. Ginsberg embodied that spirit during a later reading of “Howl,” which is recounted in Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher:
At a reading in Los Angeles a heckler harassed Ginsberg throughout his reading [of “Howl”] and was quieted only when Allen promised to give him the chance to express his opinions after the reading. However he continued to disrupt the reading after Allen had turned it over to Gregory Corso. At one point, Gregory proposed a verbal duel with the heckler, the winner being the one with the best “images, metaphors [and] magic.” The heckler was more interested in engaging Corso in a fistfight. He taunted the poets, calling them cowards, insisting they explain what they were trying to prove onstage.
“Nakedness,” Ginsberg replied. When the heckler demanded further explanation, Allen left the stage and approached him. He accused the man of wanting to do something brave in front of the audience and then challenged him to take off all his clothes. As he walked towards the drunk, Allen stripped off all of his clothing, hurling his pants and shirt at the now retreating heckler. “Stand naked before the people,” Allen said. “The poet always stands naked before the world.” Defeated, the man backed into another room.
J. Francis Wolfe is a freelance writer and a noted dreamer of dreams. He aspires to one day live in a cave high in the mountains where he can write poetry no one will ever see.
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