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The San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation

Back in 2005, I was living in San Francisco and re-discovering what made me a fan of BRMC. Their album HOWL was inspirational in many ways and it got me to become a part of the community of fans that had supported them from the start.  It also got me to learn more about the Beat Generation and what it all meant. This was something I’d written for a class at City College of San Francisco that I had planned a website around, but never really got around to creating.

September 11, 2005

San Francisco is known for many things: bridges, earthquakes, gay pride, cultural diversity, political and environmental activism, hippy and drug culture. A strong influence on a few of these things was the San Francisco Renaissance of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Fifty years ago on October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg performed his poem Howl for the first time in public at an avant-garde art gallery called the Six Gallery. Other poets who performed that night were Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, Phil Lamantia, and Michael McClure. At this time, McCarthyism and the Cold War overtook America. The district attorney of San Francisco prosecuted Howl for obscenity.

October 1955 was the beginning of the literary renaissance that would change America’s consciousness. Jack Kerouac was then Ginsberg’s oldest and closest friend. Kerouac attended the event, but didn’t read. Two years later, his generation defining novel “On the Road” was published followed by his recounting of his backpacking adventures with Snyder and The Six reading in “The Dharma Bums,” published in 1958. The Six reading inspired poets of color and women by bringing poetry off the printed page and into the lives of listeners.

San Francisco’s lively poetry scene, bohemian subculture, and radical political movements, as well as its thriving working class history, made it the ideal place for the Six reading. Ginsberg was inspired and encouraged to make fun of the FBI in Howl and his 1956 poem “America.” Unknown poets were published in little mimeographed magazines. Poets met in private homes. KPFA started in 1949 and helped create a community of artists and writers. Ex-New Yorker Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights in 1953. It was the first all-paperback book store in the United States.

Kerouac and Ginsberg had known each other since the early 1940’s and came from urban immigrant backgrounds. Snyder and Whalen were ex-roommates at Reed College and grew up in farming communities in the Pacific Northwest. They all wrote poems celebrating life and death, expressing kinship with the earth, and compassion for the poor, the outcast, and the exiled. They believed poetry should communicate with an audience and intensely convey personal experiences.

Ginsberg had only arrived in San Francisco in 1954 with a note from his mentor William Carlos William, to Kenneth Rexroth, Chicago-born anarchist, anti-war activist, poet godfather, and gadfly of Bay Area literature. Rexroth had a weekly show on KPFA and hosted a literary evening at his San Francisco home. That’s where Ginsberg met Lamantia and McClure (an artist from Kansas City). Snyder wrote Whalen in Oregon that the reading would be a “poetickall Bombshell,” and warned him to hurry to San Francisco or he’d regret it. The Six exploded old ways of thought making way for a new kind of poetry and performance art.

Source: “Howl At Fifty” by Jonah Raskin, Common Ground, September 2005, pp. 22-25

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