Click here to go to the next issue
Highlights Home Page | Receive the Nondual Highlights each day
#1640 - Monday, December 8, 2003 - Editor: Jerry
Posted by Stoned on September 21, 2000 (Thursday)
The origins of the Beat Movement
by Steve Silberman.
A version of this article first appeared in the SF Weekly.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Rexroth loved jazz and knew the guys who played it, and
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
"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
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
For over a decade, Rexroth's weekly "at-homes"
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
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
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
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
by his apprenticeship with Williams. Duncan didn't like the poems
much, but was impressed with a list of slogans that Ginsberg kept over
Blow as deep as you want -- write as deeply, fish as far down
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
Prose" was a friend: Jack Kerouac.
In December of 1954, Ginsberg -- distraught over an argument
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
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
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. I
t was an exciting time to be in San Francisco. Dylan Thomas
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
Ginsberg consulted a psychiatrist at Langley-Porter to ask him
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
6 poets at 6 Gallery. Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late
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
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 the Iliad?"
Lamantia read the poems of John Hoffman, a friend who had
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
That night, they drank tea.
by Allen Ginsberg
San Francisco 1955-56
top of page