How Beat Happened
by Steve Silberman
O Poets! Shamans of the word! When will you recover the trance-like rhythms, the subliminal imagery, the haunting sense of possession, the powerful inflection and enunciation to effect the vision? Throw off this malaise, this evasion, this attitudinizing and sickliness of urbanity. Penetrate to the discord in yourself, the rootlessness, and induce the trance that will heal the rift within. Shamanize! Shamanize! The American destiny is in your hands.
–William Everson, Birth of a Poet
From the swinging confluences of jazz and rap in Mission nightclubs, to the reinvigoration of poetry as bearer of the news among young people from slams to ‘zines, to the warp-accelerated potlatch of ideas in online communities like the WELL, the “vibrations of sincerity” (as Jack Kerouac put it) championed by the writers of the Beat Generation have fired up a new generation of best minds in San Francisco.
This is poetic justice, for it was here that the Beats made themselves known to the world as a public force, on the night of Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 13, 1955.
When Ginsberg stepped up to the podium, he had only lived in San Francisco a short while, but the cultural pot had been simmering a long time before he brought it to a Beat boil. The Bay Area in the late ’40s and early ’50s was a nexus of collaborative innovation, inquiry, and radical experiment in many arts, and “Howl” wouldn’t have been “Howl” without Ginsberg’s immersion in the local scene during the year preceding the poem’s composition.
San Francisco was the perfect stage on which the Beats could happen.
The Ground of Opposition
In 1954, Allen Ginsberg turned 28 while visiting his mother’s relatives in Los Angeles. “For the first time,” he entered in his journal, “I am older than I’ve dreamed of being.”
The poet felt saddled with his identity, his “character with its childish core” lurking behind an unattractive goatee. The first electric days in Manhattan of the core group that became the Beats (Ginsberg himself, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr and others) were over, comrades and lovers dispersing to various locations and other relationships.
Ginsberg had just returned from Mexico, an odyssey which opened his senses to the vitality of another culture. “The town so noisy, dirty, streetfulls of wild boys all night…. Big halls for restaurants and music, painted crudely with monolithic donkeys… little gardens below bounded by the uptown hip cliff,” Ginsberg scribed in Mexicali, his eye for detail honed by the example and criticism of his mentor, the poet and general practitioner William Carlos Williams, who flashed verbal snapshots on his prescription pad between house calls.
Ginsberg knew he was at a crossroads in his art between apprenticeship to academic models of literature, and breaking through to a personal voice which could sing of experience beyond the bounds of what was permissible — by ’50s academic standards — to speak of in poetry. “To break with that pattern entirely,” he wrote, “Must find energy & image & act on it.”
Planning to enroll in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, Ginsberg moved to North Beach, taking a room at the $6-a-week Hotel Marconi on Broadway where Al Sublette — a friend of Kerouac’s — lived.
The most lively literary salon in the Bay Area in those days was a circle that met on Friday nights in poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apartment over Jack’s Record Cellar, at Page and Divisadero. Rexroth grew up in Chicago, where he owned a tearoom called the Green Mask, featuring jazz and poetry, with a whorehouse on the floor above. Moving to San Francisco in the ’30s, the young Rexroth exhorted dockworkers to unionize in a mimeo sheet called The Waterfront Worker, and applied his efforts in the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ladling out pea soup to young Catholics held in detention camps as Conscientious Objectors to the Second World War.
Rexroth loved jazz and knew the guys who played it, and translated poetry and drama from several languages, including classical Greek, Provençal French, and Japanese. He prided himself on reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica cover to cover each year, and published more than a dozen books in his lifetime, including an autobiographical novel, and books of criticism on subjects ranging from contemporary poetry, to Hasidism, to Anarchism, to Zen.
Rexroth’s earliest poems sound remarkably like the work of the ’80s “Language Poetry” school, abandoning photographic realism in an attempt to shed cliché and sentimentality. His mature poems, however, speak in language that is colloquial, sensual without being sentimental, calling forth the High Sierra granitescapes that Rexroth liked to make love in, with a crispness of image, a classical sense of balance, and elegiac gravity. Rexroth’s apartment on Page Street was a library, its shelves lined with the heartwood of the classical literatures of East and West; and Rexroth had a caustic wit, and an ego, to match his erudition.
One of the young poets who attended these salons was Philip Whalen, who would appear in Kerouac’s novels as Warren Coughlin and Ben Fagin — “a quiet, bespectacled booboo, smiling over books.” Whalen had been invited down from his job as a firewatch on Sourdough Mountain in the North Cascades by Gary Snyder, with whom Whalen had shared rooms at Reed College.
For over a decade, Rexroth’s weekly “at-homes” brought together geniuses in diverse forms — from Helen Adam’s contemporary ballads, to James Broughton’s bawdy nursery rhymes and experimental films. Whalen (who now teaches Zen at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro) recalled the atmosphere at these Friday night conclaves: “It was always very interesting, because there were young poets there, and older ones, visiting luminaries from different professions and arts. People said it was boring because Kenneth talked all the time. But Kenneth was a marvelous talker, so I didn’t mind if there was anybody else famous there or not.”
It was at one of these salons that Ginsberg first heard Rexroth read his scathing blast, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”:
The hyena with polished face and bow tie,
In the office of a billion dollar
Corporation devoted to service;
The vulture dripping with carrion,
Carefully and carelessly robed in imported tweeds,
Lecturing on the Age of Abundance;
The jackal in the double-breasted gabardine,
Barking by remote control,
In the United Nations...
The Superego in a thousand uniforms,
You, the finger man of the behemoth,
The murderer of the young men...
Through Rexroth, Ginsberg met Robert Duncan, whose essay “The Homosexual in Society” brought dialogue about homosexuality in America into the open. Duncan was a master poet and teacher in his own right, and a generative influence on many contemporary Bay Area poets, like Thom Gunn and Aaron Shurin.
Though one prevalent myth is that the Beats were a lone wake-up call in ’50s America, that summons did not come from nowhere. Laying the intellectual foundation for the Beat breakthrough, the Rexroth circle was a ground of opposition: well-read and international, homosexual and heterosexual, poets and artists from several generations of revolt.
An Explosion of New Forms
Ginsberg showed Duncan his manuscript Empty Mirror, poems influenced by his apprenticeship with Williams. Duncan didn’t like the poems much, but was impressed with a list of slogans that Ginsberg kept over his desk:
Blow as deep as you want — write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind…. Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time — Shakespearean stress of dramatic need to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue — no revisions … write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion … tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow! –now! — your way is your only way….
Ginsberg explained that the author of these “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” was a friend: Jack Kerouac.
In December of 1954, Ginsberg — distraught over an argument with his girlfriend, and slightly drunk — walked into Foster’s Cafeteria, and asked Robert LaVigne, a young painter, about the whereabouts of Peter DuPeru, a North Beach eccentric. LaVigne didn’t know where Du Peru was, but the two began a conversation about art, and LaVigne invited Ginsberg back to his apartment. There Ginsberg was transfixed by one canvas depicting a naked young man with a frank, open gaze. “Who’s that?” Ginsberg asked.
“Oh, that’s Peter. He’s here,” was the reply, and the young man walked into the room.
Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky became lovers, taking vows to each other a few weeks later in Foster’s Cafeteria at 3 a.m., their promise being “that neither of us would go into heaven unless we could get the other one in,” as Ginsberg recalls.
Ginsberg had maintained a correspondence with Kerouac, who was living in New York. Kerouac had published his first novel, The Town and the City, and was looking for a publisher — with frustratingly little success — for On the Road, The Subterraneans, and Visions of Cody. Ginsberg was showing to editors and friends the manuscripts of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax and San Francisco Blues, a volume of poems written while sipping tokay and staring out the window of the Cameo Hotel, a South-of-Market flophouse. Rexroth was unimpressed with Visions of Cody, which is a jam (less “mythic,” more naked and experimental) on themes and characters from On the Road, but Duncan was encouraging, recognizing in its rhapsodic, meticulous descriptions the mark of genius.
It was an exciting time to be in San Francisco. Dylan Thomas came through on a tour in 1952 that included a meeting with Henry Miller and a reading on KPFA. His performances hardly resembled the staid affairs of academic poetry readings, with the poet often drunk, chanting his lyrics in oracular tones, and people crowding to get into the room.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Bookstore in June of 1953, the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States, as a way of financing Martin’s magazine City Lights, which published poems by the surrealist Philip Lamantia and many others, as well as the first film criticism of Pauline Kael. Next door to City Lights was (and is) the Vesuvio, then run by Henri Lenoir, who prided himself on the musicians, painters and poets who socialized at his establishment, attracted, as Lenoir put it, “by the non-bourgeois atmosphere created by the avant-garde paintings I hung on the walls.”
Ruth Witt-Diamant founded the San Francisco State College Poetry Center in 1954, with a dedicatory reading by W.H. Auden. The Center became a place where representatives of the different poetry subcultures of the Bay Area could be exposed to each other’s work, and be accountable to one another, and endures to this day.
At the Cellar Bar, Rexroth was crooning “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Married Blues,” while a band riffed on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Jack Spicer hosted “Blabbermouth Nights” at a North Beach hangout called The Place, featuring performances by Richard Brautigan and John Wieners, with few prepared texts — the idea, as in jazz, was to burn — with the poets competing for door prizes and free drinks.
The California School of Fine Arts appointed a new director, Douglas MacAgy, whose invitations brought Abstract Expressionist painters like Clyfford Still to the City, and their exhibitions resulted in an explosion of new forms on the canvasses of local artists. The poet and playwright Michael McClure came to San Francisco to paint, but found himself discussing William Blake with Ginsberg at theopening of the Poetry Center. The two became good friends.
James Broughton was making some of the first “underground” films in America, like The Potted Psalm — greeted, at its 1946 premiere, Berkeley-style, by outraged hissing. Other filmmakers like Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger and Jordan Belsen were also at work, energized by a showcase for independent films that had been organized at the San Francisco Museum of Art by Frank Stauffacher. The showings brought in acclaimed directors and photographers like Man Ray and Hans Richter, and gave young filmmakers a chance to show their first films to a packed house of cognoscenti.
Harry Partch, the composer who built his own instruments with names like “Cloud Chamber Bowls” and “Surrogate Kithara,” had a houseboat in Sausalito that was a gathering place for students of composition. There was a series of new-music concerts called Vortex at the Planetarium, the Cellar hosted an exhibit of Joan Brown’s paintings accompanied by the jazz of Brew Moore and Pony Poindexter, and students from the School of Fine Arts were congregating at The Place for “Dada Night.” Collaboration — between painters and poets, poets and musicians, filmmakers and poets — was cranking up the creative heat.
Blessed Be the Muses for Their Descent
Ginsberg, however, was becoming increasingly depressed. He and Cassady were unable to speak heart-to- heart as they once had, owing partly to Neal’s ravenous intake of marijuana and speed, and Neal and his wife Carolyn’s infatuation with Edgar Cayce, the trance healer who influenced Neal to burn most of his literary efforts, to Ginsberg’s dismay.
Ginsberg consulted a psychiatrist at Langley-Porter to ask him if he should be trying to be heterosexual. In Ginsberg’s telling of the tale, the psychiatrist asked Ginsberg what he really wanted to do. “I really would just love to get an apartment, stop working and live with Peter and write poems,” was Ginsberg’s reply.
“So why don’t you do that?” asked the doctor.
“What happens if I get old or something?”
“You’re a nice person. There’s always people who will like you.”
Ginsberg felt he had received a blessing. He arranged his own layoff at the market-research firm where he had been working by replacing himself with a computer, ensuring himself unemployment benefits for six months. He bought an armful of Bach records with the first check. Orlovsky and Ginsberg moved into an apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street which allowed them separate rooms, and Ginsberg wrote a poem telling of his happiness to Kerouac: “I’m happy, Kerouac, your madman Allen’s/ finally made it: discovered a new young cat,/ and my imagination of an eternal boy/ walks on the streets of San Francisco,/ handsome, and meets me in cafeterias/ and loves me….”
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.
At first, Ginsberg thought that “Howl” was too personal for publication, but he did begin revising it almost immediately, combining the short lines into expansive out- breaths, and dropping out more diffuse language (“who stumbled by billboards with 6 cents and broken glasses and a bloody nose and stomach full of guilt metaphysics and metaphysical lightning blasting through the icy skull”).
Ginsberg titled the poem “Howl for Carl Solomon,” and posted it to Kerouac, who responded enthusiastically. Ginsberg told Kerouac that “Howl” was the product of Kerouac’s own method of spontaneous writing: “It came out in your method, sounding like you, an imitation practically. How far advanced you are on this.”
It was as if Ginsberg had rediscovered America — an America that was all around him in the alleys and espresso bars of North Beach, but unrepresented in poetry:
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up
smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz ...
A Charming Event
By the fall of 1955, Ginsberg was scouting for a venue where he and Kerouac and Cassady could read together. He had written a second part to “Howl” after eating peyote, seeing the lights of the Sir Francis Drake hotel burning in the fog as the mask of Moloch, the Biblical devourer of innocents. Painter Wally Hedrick asked Rexroth to organize a reading at the Six Gallery at Fillmore and Greenwich, and Rexroth asked Michael McClure and Ginsberg to read.
Rexroth also suggested that Ginsberg add to the bill Gary Snyder, a graduate student at Berkeley who was translating the poems of Han Shan or “Cold Mountain,” a Zen poet of T’ang-era China. Snyder told Ginsberg about Whalen, and Ginsberg told Snyder about Kerouac. The bill was set: Ginsberg, Snyder, McClure, Whalen, and Philip Lamantia, with Rexroth as M.C. Kerouac declined to read.
Ginsberg put up signs, and inscribed a hundred postcards with the following advertisement:
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 collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C.
The reading drew a larger crowd than the poets hoped for, with the gallery — in an old auto-repair garage — packed with over a hundred people. Kerouac brought jugs of burgundy, which were quickly empty, and the reading was delayed while Kerouac passed the hat. For a podium, there was an upended fruit-crate, and Rexroth cracked, “What’s this, a reading stand for a midget? Somebody gonna come up and read a haiku version of theIliad?”
Lamantia read the poems of John Hoffman, a friend who had recently died in Mexico. Then McClure read “Point Lobos: Animism” and “For the Death of 100 Whales,” written in protest of the thrill-killing of a pack of whales by NATO troops. Whalen followed.
After an intermission, Ginsberg took the stage. His delivery of “Howl” gained force as he was urged on by Kerouac, who capped each phrase with a whap at the wine jug and a shout, “GO!” “It was very exciting,” recalls Whalen, “and Ginsberg getting excited while doing it was sort of scary. You wondered was he wigging out, or what — and he was, but within certain parameters. It was a breakthrough for everybody. The mixture of terrifically inventive and wild language, with what had hitherto been forbidden subject matter, and just general power, was quite impressive.”
When Ginsberg finished, both he and Rexroth were in tears.
“We had gone beyond a point of no return, and we were ready for it,” McClure recalled in his memoir, Scratching the Beat Surface. “None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective 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.”
Snyder closed the reading with “A Berry Feast,” an invocation to the spirit of Coyote the Trickster, for whom plump berries grow in the skeletons of dead cities. Afterward, the readers headed off to Sam Woh’s to celebrate.
Kerouac congratulated Ginsberg, telling him his poem would make him famous in San Francisco, but Rexroth went further, assuring Ginsberg that “Howl” would ensure his fame “from bridge to bridge.” Ferlinghetti went home to compose a telegram that echoed Emerson’s praise of Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”
The reading was followed by readings by each of the poets at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, and a repeat of the Six Gallery bill at the Town Hall Theater in Berkeley, on March 18, 1956. Local luminaries like Alan Watts were in the audience, along with Neal Cassady and the young editor Anne Charters.
That night’s reading is the version of “Howl” on Ginsberg’s Rhino collection, Holy Soul Jellyroll. A contemporary listener might expect the second reading of “Howl” to have been received with a respectful hush, but there were jeers and titters in the first minutes, including a scream after the line about “saintly motorcyclists.” It’s only after Ginsberg finds a voice of passionate, unshakable conviction – “rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” – that the audience absorbs the poem in silence.
The success of these readings fired Ginsberg up to his greatest period of productivity, during which he wrote “America,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “A Supermarket in California.” “Howl”‘s obscenity trial — which would indeed publicize Ginsberg’s name from bridge to bridge, and alert the world that a renaissance of poetry as a popular art was underway in San Francisco — was still months off, as was the “beatnik” hype that would hasten Snyder’s pilgrimage to Japan, and Ginsberg’s flight to Tangiers. Whatever sea-changes in global culture were precipitated by the events at the Six Gallery could never have been foreseen by the poets sharing steaming platters of chow fun at Sam Woh’s.
That night, they drank tea.
A version of this article first appeared in the SF Weekly.
Copyright © 1995