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“remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry” 6 May 2006

Posted by marisacat in California / Pacific Coast, San Francisco.

                     First reading of HOWL, Jack Kerouac, left, Allen to the right.

From the post card sent to announce the first reading of Howl:


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

6 Gallery 3119 Fillmore St.
San Fran

 In a few words it evokes the small sweetness, and inspired exuberance, that was San Francisco in the Fifties.  6 Gallery was just down the hill from where I have lived nearly all of my life, as a native born San Franciscan. 

There is a not uninteresting recollection of that day, of Allen and Howl, in the NYT today.  This passage caught at me:

‘Ginsberg wrote “Howl” in San Francisco and Berkeley; he read the long first section in public for the first time in San Francisco in 1955, and the whole of the poem for the first time in Berkeley the next year.

All sorts of divisions, exclusions, restrictive manners and deferences that were second nature in the East were missing in the Bay Area. If the primary terrain of the poem is New York City, the freedom one could find in California in the 50’s is crucial to the air that blows through the dank rooms of “Howl,” blowing all the way back to New York — […]

The America that gets changed in “The Poem That Changed America” is a Steinberg map, with San Francisco as far away as Tangier. 

 The poem, like a great river, may find its rise in NYC, but I would defy anyone not to see it is a song, a howling song, of America. 

For me, a child that my Manhattanite mother  – who was both a Northerner and a Southerner – vowed to raise as neither an Easterner nor a Westerner, for that child of San Francisco, there is heart-knocking beauty in the close of Allen’s song:

I’m with you in Rockland
where we wake up electrified out of the coma
by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the
roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the
hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse
O skinny legions run outside O starry
spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is
here O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night

 From Michael McClure:

“HOWL was the trigger (for the Sixties) Afterwards none of us could step back and say, ‘I didn’t mean it.’ It was just too fuckin frightening out there. . .I think Allen Ginsberg standing up there reading – putting himself on the line – was one of the two bravest things I’ve ever seen. Remember, it was ’55. People had crew cuts, and they looked at you like you were misplaced cannon fodder. The country was being run by Luce publications. It was a dangerous, cold, ugly time, and it was scary. . .

In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before. We had gone beyond a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the grey, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellectual void – to the land without poetry – to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”

From “Storming Heaven” by Jay Stevens:

On hand for his debut were Kerouac and Cassady, the former distinguishable as the man who was passing around the big jugs of Burgundy wine, while the latter was the source of the punctuating stream of Wows! Yeses! and Go, Go, Gos! that greeted each reader. Ginsberg read nex to last. Until this moment his vocation as a poet had been more wishful living than artistic fact. What poems he had written were short epigrammatic lyrics in the style of William Carlos Williams. But tonight he wasn’t going to bother with his old work. Instead he was going to read the poem that had come to him through the mediation of dexedrine and peyote, a massive, tumultuouos thing called Howl, which began

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
by madness, starving, hysterical, naked
dragging themselves through the negro streets at
dawn looking for an angry fix.

From Steve Silberman, from How Beat Happened:

One afternoon in late July of 1955, Ginsberg wrote a line in his journal, “I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned,” thinking of his friend Carl Solomon, who had survived a gauntlet of insulin shock treatments at the New York Psychiatric Institute. A week or so later, Ginsberg sat down in his apartment to jam at his typewriter.

I sat idly at my desk by the first floor window facing Montgomery Street’s slope to gay Broadway — only a few blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookshop. I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth. As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies most intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of family, formal education, business and current literature.

Ginsberg expanded on the line from his journal, changing it to a second draft of the best-known line in 20th Century poetry:

“I saw the best minds of my generation/ generation destroyed by madness/ starving mystical naked.”

Ginsberg continued for seven single-spaced pages. The lines were short, Williams-like, but the phrases already soared like the Charlie Parker riffs the poet had in mind as he typed.

“I knew Kerouac would hear the sound,” said Ginsberg later.

                 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights Bookstore on Columbus

When ever I pull out Howl, or recollections of the era, or remember being set down on the floor at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights to play while Mother looked for new books, or an afternoon ice cream with Papa at Enrico’s on Broadway – evocative of cool and quiet Italian restarants, inside away from the Italian sun… somehow that was managed in grey and foggy San Francisco….  or think back to October afternoons at the Old Spaghetti Factory, with its small garden and fig trees… I am always astonished that people seek to define and deny other people. 

The great bugaboo, the fearsome and feared “other” is yourself.


1. heraclitus - 6 May 2006

And congratulations on your new blog. I love the pink.

When I was a wee boy North Beach was my vision of paradise … you grew up in the epicenter of my universe, you lucky thing you. The culture was just fading as I first got to sneak off from my family (no support there) at fifteen to spend a few hours in the tattered remains of Grant Street.

Later on we shared a city briefly in the last part of the ’60’s … and I still miss it, although when I visit now I find it changed beyond recognition.

Thanks for a taste of my roots.

2. marisacat - 6 May 2006

ooo thanks for the compliment on the blog. Still finding my way around technologically. I am all thumbs.

Oh the City is so changed. COmpletely. What little was left, was smashed in the venal “dot com dot died” VC mess.

When I jsut cannot stand it anymore, I put on Vertigo. Hitchcock captured so much. A certain icy fragility that the City had.

Thanks again for stopping by… 😉

3. JJB - 9 May 2006

This is a few days after the fact, but I just saw this. Beautiful. Thanks so much.

4. JJB - 9 May 2006

BTW, everyone who sees this should check out today’s Guardian story (which you can access over on the index on the right) about a 50th anniversary tribute held at London’s Royal Court Theatre for the late playwright John Osborne’s breakthrough work “Look Back In Anger.” I just finished re-reading his second play “The Entertainer,” what the Beats were doing with poetry and novels, Osborne and the so-called Angry Young Men were doing in the theatre. A sample:

“The evening began with a touching prelude: David Hare’s reprise of the lecture ‘I Have A Go Lady, I Have A Go’, he gave at Hay-on-Wye in 2002. He struck exactly the right note of affection tinged with irony. Above all, Hare attacked the ‘spiteful revisionism’ that, in recent years, has tended to downgrade the historic importance of Look Back In Anger.

“Hare also grasped the point that Osborne is ‘our poet laureate of lost opportunity, of missed connections and of hidden dread, of what he himself calls the comfortless tragedy of isolated hearts’. I have rarely heard one dramatist speak more movingly of another.”

What Hare said about Osborne could just have easily have been said about the Beats.

5. marisacat - 9 May 2006

JJB, oh thanks for the tip on the Osborne piece. It was wonderufl. They had a link to their original review o fthe plaay as well.


6. Repost :: Marisacat :: 6 May 2006: “remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry” « Marisacat - 4 February 2007

[…] WAR!, California / Pacific Coast, Inconvenient Voice of the Voter, la vie en rose. trackback “remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry” 6 May […]

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