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.