The Six Gallery Reading

Having worked in New York and San Francisco in marketing and advertising, and having worked as a literary agent for both Burroughs and Kerouac in the early 1950s, Ginsberg knew how to promote and sell a product, plan an event and publicize an idea. His little cottage in Berkeley, where he lived with Kerouac and entertained the likes of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, served as the headquarters for the event and for the local poetry industry. The cottage was a swarm of activity, with regular comings and goings and conversations at all times of the day and night. Colorful placards about the event were posted in cafes and bars.

About a hundred postcards with a catchy slogan

6

“ 6 poets at 6 Gallery”      were mailed to poetry aficionados in town. Ginsberg selected Kenneth Rexroth as the master of ceremonies. At fifty, Rexroth belonged to an older generation, but he was perfect for the event: an anarchist and a bohemian; he also had an air of respectability. Rexroth’s task was to set the mood for the evening and to introduce the poets. Ginsberg was extremely anxious about the cultural event that he was organizing, but he wasn’t alone: he had a community, and he had Kerouac, his oldest and closest friend, to support him and give him a sense of self-confidence. The Six Gallery reading was a radical starting point for everyone, including the members of the audience as well as the performers on stage. Ginsberg and his fellow New York poet Gregory Corso said that the event wasn’t an ordinary poetry reading. There was nothing academic and nothing refined about the behavior of the poets, even if the reading began on a note of formality. At first, the members of the audience were rather reluctant, but they were slowly transformed into wild participants. Kerouac passed some wine around the room, many of them started drinking; so, gradually, they got drunk. Rexroth’s job as the master of ceremonies was to maintain a semblance of order. That wasn’t easy! Then, he welcomed the audience and talked about San Francisco as an oasis of cultural freedom in a country of conformity, one of his favorite topics. He introduced each poet in turn: Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The poets came from very different geographical and aesthetic directions: from the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest and from the boroughs of Manhattan; from French surrealism and from American imagism. Moreover, they would go in different directions: Snyder would depart for Japan and a life in a Buddhist monastery, while Ginsberg was bound for Los Angeles, New York and the bohemian life of Paris. What they had in common was a deep love for poetry, a belief in the vitality and integrity of their own work, and a profound discontent with the militarism and materialism of American civilization. They were all spiritual seekers and they all wanted to take personal risks, not only associated with with poetry but with politics, drugs and sex as well. And, though they had different points of views about death and rebirth, nature and civilization, they were bound together by a love of ancient myths. The historic reading at Six Gallery provided the participants with all the drama and excitement they needed to assert a great cultural myth about the rebirth of poetry: the “Poetry Renaissance”, as it was called in San Francisco in 1955. In the lofty language of Ginsberg and Corso, the “reading was such a violent and beautiful expression of their revolutionary individuality, conducted with such surprising abandonment and delight by the poets themselves, and presenting such a high mass of beautiful unanticipated poetry, that the audience, expecting some bohemian stupidity, was left stunned, and the poets were left with the realization that they were fated to make a permanent change in the literary firmament of the States.”[1] Soon after 8 p.m. Lamantia began to read the work of John Hoffman, a fellow surrealist poet and friend who had recently died in Mexico. He set the tone for the rest of the evening. Death was everywhere and so was life, and that night poetry celebrated both life and death. At 11 p.m., it was Ginsberg’s turn. He started reading Part I of Howl in a small and strongly lucid voice. In the process of reading the poem, he found himself shaping a new identity as a public poet sharing his private thoughts and feelings with admiring listeners. Howl made Allen Ginsberg. The poem created the poet. Indifferent spectators turned into energetic participants. The ending of Howl provided an emotional climax, but the evening wasn’t over yet. Gary Snyder read something about myths, but Ginsberg was clearly the hero of the evening. Howl would make him famous all over San Francisco. Rexroth was certain that the poem would make him famous all across America. After the dinner, Ginsberg and Kerouac, along with Neal Cassady, and the other poets drove to Nam Yuen in Chinatown “for a big fabulous dinner. Then they went to The Place, a bohemian haunt in North Beach, where they drank, talked, and began to create the legend of the Six Gallery.

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