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‘Six at the Six' at 50 -- Return of S.F.'s poetic beat
Jonah Raskin
Friday, September 30, 2005

In cocky, competitive San Francisco, where poetry slams outdraw Sunday  sermons, the Six Gallery poetry reading that took place  Oct. 7, 1955 has  become nearly as much a part of the city's mystique as the 1849 Gold Rush or  the 1906 earthquake.

Fifty years later, however, it's nearly impossible to find someone who was  actually there. And no one  --  except rare collections at various libraries   --  has a copy of Allen Ginsberg's legendary promotional postcard proclaiming  "Six Poets at the Six Gallery."

San Franciscans tend to think of the Six Gallery reading as a happening  and performance art, too  --  something that Ken Kesey or Andy Warhol might  have conceived in the 1960s, with colorful lights and loud music. In fact, the  Six Gallery reading belongs to that time in the 1950s before TV took over,  before the triumph of rock 'n' roll and marijuana and the advent of that highly  publicized Bay Area sexuality that made the region a magnet for kids from all  over the country.

There were no cameras at the Six Gallery on Oct. 7, 1955. No one that  night took snapshots of the poets: Michael McClure, 23 and baby-faced; Philip  Lamantia, the only San Francisco native in the group; Phil Whalen, a chubby  Zen-like graduate of Reed College; Gary Snyder in his jeans, about to become a  monk in Japan; Ginsberg in a jacket, looking like the Ivy League graduate he  was; or Jack Kerouac, in the audience, smiling contentedly and happier than  ever before.

Nor did anyone take pictures of the Chicago-born poet and anarchist,  Kenneth Rexroth, who emceed the event, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, recently  arrived from New York  --  who didn't read and wasn't even invited on stage and  who sat in the audience feeling left out. Other majestic Bay Area poets weren't  on the program, either  --  such as Robert Duncan, who was born in Oakland,  graduated from UC Berkeley and helped run the S.F. State Poetry Center.

If there were no photographers, there weren't any journalists, either. It  became an instant mythical event that spread by word of mouth. The New York  Times dispatched Richard Eberhart to report on the strange new poetry scene,  but his rave review, "West Coast Rhythms," didn't appear until September 1956.  By then most of the players had moved on, including Ginsberg, who shipped out  to sea and was writing a poem he called "Kaddish" about his mother Naomi, who  had died in a mental institution.

Kerouac mythologized the Six Gallery reading in "The Dharma Bums,"  published in 1958, a year after "On the Road." The author changed everyone's  name: Kerouac himself appears as Ray Smith, Allen Ginsberg as Alvah Goldbook,  Kenneth Rexroth as Rheinhold Cacoehes and Gary Snyder as Japhy Rider. In "The  Dharma Bums," the star of the Six Gallery show is Snyder. He's the poet whose  voice is "deep and resonant and somehow brave," and like the "voices of  old-time American heroes and orators."

Ginsberg published his own account of the Six Gallery reading  --  no less  mythic than Kerouac's  --  and the first major salvo in the continuing culture  war between San Francisco and New York about who owns boasting rights to the  Beat Generation.

In his essay, "The Six Gallery Reading," Ginsberg insists that the six  poets came out of nowhere to become famous overnight, and that's not exactly  true. Rexroth had a national reputation, and Philip Lamantia had a modicum of  fame, especially among the surrealists in America and in France.

Ginsberg's essay also makes it sound as though the Six Gallery poets came  together as a conspiracy to defy the New York publishing machinery. In fact,  the gathering was more spontaneous than conspiratorial. Whalen appeared on the  program only at the last minute, because Snyder had written to him in Oregon  insisting that he show up or forever rue his absence. The reading would be a  "poetickall bomshell," Snyder proclaimed. Indeed, it exploded the idea that New  York had a corner on the avant-garde and boosted San Francisco as a Mecca for  poets and poetry.

Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing all through the 1960s, San  Francisco thumbed its poetic nose at New York. San Francisco laid claim to  ownership of the Beat tradition, and East Coast poets, such as Diane di Prima,  moved from New York to San Francisco, as though the muse herself had moved  west.

Before Oct. 7, 1955, almost no one, not even Ginsberg, talked about  defying the New York publishing industry or assaulting "national sobriety."  That was an afterthought, in the wake of literary glory  --  when it's easy to  rewrite history and to sound more rebellious than one had been. It riled  Ginsberg, too, that New York intellectuals, including Norman Podhoretz, his  ex-Columbia classmate, seemed to go out of their way to attack him, "Howl" and  the Beat Generation in The New Republic and Partisan Review. After Podhoretz  ridiculed San Francisco's "know-nothing Bohemians," Ginsberg lashed out at the  New York "eggheads"  --  forgetting that he'd been a New York egghead himself.

Let us not forget that "Howl," though written and rewritten in San  Francisco and in Berkeley, depicts New York people and New York places. No  20th-century American poem is more saturated with New York than "Howl." The  Empire State Building shows up, and the Bronx Zoo and the Staten Island ferry,  as though the author had become homesick and had to conjure the city to keep  him company in far-off San Francisco. Ginsberg himself appears in the poem as a  dreary New Yorker looking for salvation and drugs and excitement. In line after  line, he depicts himself wandering about the hell that he once knew all too  well on the streets, the subways and the rooftops of New York.

Although Ginsberg blossomed in San Francisco, he never lost his New York  persona. Using all the skills he learned in marketing and advertising in New  York, he distributed posters and put word of the event on everyone's lips. He  chose the poets who would read, and an emcee who happened to be a long-time  anarchist  --  to keep the event in a semblance of order. He also took the  audience by storm, performing a poem that made them feel that poetry was alive  again, that they were alive and might speak, too, and that America might be  reborn as a nation of poets once again, as it had been in the time of Walt  Whitman.

All Americans might look back at the Six Gallery reading for inspiration.  Perhaps the 50th-anniversary celebrations will prod us and poke us to read  poetry and write poetry and share poetry in public in the spirit of generosity  and respect.

The Six Gallery reading didn't suddenly bring about a poetry renaissance  in San Francisco, as Kerouac claimed. The poets who wrote before the Six  reading, including Kerouac, went on writing after. Still, it's no wonder that  the event has taken on mythical reverberations, and that in the Bay Area  --   which seems to experience a poetry renaissance every 15 minutes  --  all sorts  of poets trace their lineage to the Six Gallery. The 50th anniversary  celebrations in and around San Francisco over the next week will only add to  the myth. Of course, poets need myths as much if not more than anyone else. I  know I do.

After years of reading and rereading the work that was performed at the  Six, I've sometimes allowed myself to feel that I was there, that I saw and  heard. Perhaps you've had that same strange feeling, too, no matter what coast  you happen to live on, or what city you call home.


© 2012 Jonah Raskin