3119 Fillmore

City Lights is calling for a worldwide celebration on the 50th birthday of Allen Ginsberg’s epic existential protest poem Howl, which debuted to the world at a legendary San Francisco poetry reading on October 7 1955.

Actually, the launch of this great poem is only one aspect of the event that should be celebrated. Ginsberg was the fourth of five readers at the famous Six Gallery poetry reading, which was a magical night by the accounts of all who were present. Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen and Michael McClure preceded Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder closed the show. It seems that something big was invented that day — the modern notion of a poetry reading as an ecstatic, spiritual and Dionysian affair.

Of course, as Nietzsche will remind anyone who picks up The Birth of Tragedy, live poetry has had a Dionysian flavor since the days when theaters were built of granite and tickets were printed on papyrus. But the spirit of ecstatic live poetry seemed to wane in modern times, and even to this day an event billed as a poetry reading may offer no greater thrill than the opportunity to sit in a folding chair in a fluorescent-lit room as bespectacled monotonalists stutter at a podium. I’ve been to readings like that. I’ve even participated in readings like that.

But then there are the good poetry readings — the ones where the performers get real, the audience gets loose, the walls start to vibrate with energy and the words seem to invent their own music. The Six Gallery event in 1955 was certainly not the first kick-ass poetry reading in modern times, but it became the first famous kick-ass poetry reading in modern times when Jack Kerouac immortalized it in The Dharma Bums. Only about 150 people were actually present at the gallery, but that was enough to create a big ripple effect. It’s a straight line from the Six Gallery to this and to this, and also to this, this and this.

Years ago, I wrote about the Six Gallery reading in one of the very first LitKicks articles. At the time I wrote this, I was a starry-eyed grownup kid in love with the idea of poetry as a communal explosion of creative energy, and it wasn’t long before I started organizing LitKicks poetry readings at various sites in New York City. Putting together a few great poetry readings is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, and the spirit of 3119 Fillmore Street was always 100% in the back of my mind whenever I stepped up on a stage to play M.C. or get a party started. I found that the ecstasy described by those who were at the Six Gallery in 1955 is relatively easy to recreate. I wish I could invite you all to the LitKicks Happy Anniversary Six Gallery Happy Birthday Howl Poetry Happening tomorrow night, but time is scarce and we haven’t arranged any such event. But even if we’re temporarily taking a break from hosting poetry readings (we’re glad to see other literary websites picking up the slack), we still try to carry the spirit of 3119 Fillmore Street with us wherever we go.

And what of 3119 Fillmore itself? The last time I dropped by I found an oriental carpet shop. I walked around, pretending to be interested in purchasing a rug, and tried to imagine where the stage might have been, where Jack Keroauc might have sat, how the voices of Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure and Gary Snyder might have echoed against the walls.

Have you ever been to a great, killer, life-changing poetry reading, either as a performer or a listener? Maybe one way to celebrate this anniversary is for you to tell us about it today.

20 Responses

  1. God, how that poem thrills
    God, how that poem thrills me…

    It’s been a while since I read Howl and, somehow, it seems more exhilarating than ever.

    Also enjoyed the this this this & this links.

  2. burning for the ancient
    burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

  3. My first readingI’ve read
    My first reading

    I’ve read much about the Six Gallery reading over the past few years, and oh what it would have been to be a fly on the wall.

    Several exciting things happened to me in 1989 — I turned seventeen, began my senior year in high school, went to my first pro-choice rally, saw The Who in concert and attended my first poetry reading. The poet was in her mid-sixties and was named Bettie Sellers. She resided and taught in the small North Georgia mountain town of Young Harris. Her poems were mostly about her childhood in the south and it brought alive my own. The audience was mostly made up of younger people and there seemed to be an electric current through the crowd. What made it even better was that I was able to meet and talk to her for a few minutes after the reading. I still have a slim volume of her poetry inscribed to me — it is called “Spring Onions and Cornbread” and it sits on my shelf to this day.

  4. Life-Changing ReadingWhen I
    Life-Changing Reading

    When I gave my first reading of my first novel Cerebral Cyanide to a room of 6 people in Seoul, I knew how bad the book was and how much I needed to improve to even be able to stand at the bar, let alone get on the stage. The funny thing is, ironically, this doesn’t stop me from cranking out my hack product.

  5. 50 Years….Wow….And still
    50 Years….Wow….

    And still potent …

    My first experience of hearing a poem read by author was actually somewhere between 1990 & 1992. It was a spoken word show of Michael McClure & Ray Manzarek at Max’s On Broadway in Fell’s Point in Baltimore. It wasn’t a straight poetry reading — it was accompanied by the backing keys of Manzarek. It was on. I don’t know if, other than the birth of my kids, my wedding, or the death of my grandfather, if I’ve ever been more inspired by something. Thanks for reminding me of this memory.

  6. Got to keep cranking it out.
    Got to keep cranking it out. We can’t help but to get better, right?

    Anyway, I like reading your writing.

  7. Negro streetsDoes anyone have
    Negro streets

    Does anyone have any analysis of the line “Crawling through Negro streets at dawn”? There are a number of implications mingled together in this line.

    Ginsberg’s identification with a minority.
    Literally, the ghetto in the 1950’s.
    The Beats looked to black music, especially jazz.

    Anyone want to expand on these ideas or add more of their own?

  8. great pictures… by larry
    great pictures

    … by larry keenan.

    Just saved one of a kid drinking milk and a hippie tripping in a demonstration.

  9. I think you hit on the head
    I think you hit on the head w/ all three. The line most likely referred to travels through Harlem looking for Jazz & kicks, & looking for an angry fix, I believe, is his identification w/ a minority. To me it says he went through negro streets to get a fix from the indignation & anger that the black community commonly experienced due to their reprehensible treatment by white America of the time.

  10. cincinnati howlJust moved to
    cincinnati howl

    Just moved to downtown Cincinnati, known more for its race riots than its taste for poetry. However, there is a contigent of artists and writers that are coming together tonight at an interesting place called InkTank to celebrate HOWL with a reading.

    The midwest isn’t dead quite yet.

  11. Bill, I lived in Harlem,
    Bill, I lived in Harlem, 118th and Clarement. We’re talking white boys traveling through the Bronx seeking medicine in bad places.

    Dodging the homeless guy on the stoop and the garbage-laden streets to get what one needs when the light of day wakens whiskey bums and shooters, looking for another fix.

    Come on man, you know what that means.

    As WSB said:
    Look down, LOOK DOWN…

  12. Yes, Jota, I do know what a
    Yes, Jota, I do know what a fix is. my interest was in the entire sentence. like, does it sound strange to today’s ears? Is it offensive to anyone who doesn’t know the context? things like that.

  13. I’m sorry to not clarify but
    I’m sorry to not clarify but when I talked about standing at the bar, I was thinking of the chorus from the Righteous Brothers’ Rock n Roll Heaven:

    “If you believe in forever,
    Then life is just a one-night stand.
    If there’s a rock and roll heaven,
    Well you know they’ve got a hell of a band.”

    George Orwell, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Ray Chandler, now Hunter Thompson, and Joseph Heller are six who quickly come to my mind right off the top of my head at the bar of a next-world cocktail lounge, and I wouldn’t mention my writing to them.

    I’m not hijacking the thread with the names of dead writers at the bar of a next-world cocktail lounge but when I read my stuff, it pales.

    I wasn’t fishing for compliments, I was only writing automatically, but thanks anyway.

  14. Sorry, dude. I misunderstood.
    Sorry, dude. I misunderstood. Thought you wanted the surface truth. Thinking it through, yes there is much deeper symbolism about having to turn to a different culture for redemption, ironic, since African Americans had been enslaved by the white man and now here is Ginsberg talking about white boys seeking their own freedom by looking away from an imposed, chauvinistic white society.

    Again, my apologies for being so simplistic in my original comment.

  15. Whatever it was exactly that
    Whatever it was exactly that Ginsberg was getting at in that line, I think it’s the same thing Lou Reed was singing about in “I’m Waiting for my Man”: “Up to Lexington 125 …”

  16. Jota, you magnificent kook, I
    Jota, you magnificent kook, I love you, man. Don’t apologize…your last post was the thought I was trying to formulate in my mind but I couldn’t grasp the words to say it…when you said,

    “much deeper symbolism about having to turn to a different culture for redemption, ironic, since African Americans had been enslaved by the white man and now here is Ginsberg talking about white boys seeking their own freedom by looking away from an imposed, chauvinistic white society.”

    Good discussion!

  17. small big changeThe first
    small big change

    The first poetry reading I ever went to was in the late 90’s as a teenager in a small, dark cafe in a Southern town. The readers were not famous. They consisted of some of the cafe’s waiters and waitresses, some college students reading love poems (or poems complaining about college) and an elderly gentleman who was wearing a beret, who I figured was a “real” beatnik back when the movement began, reading 3 protest/war poems.
    Anyway, I think it’s fitting to mention that reading here, since I probably wouldn’t have been there had I not gotten interested in Beat literature, especially Ginsberg, and especially HOWL, as one of my favorite poems, I was impressed about how people go through their everyday lives but there is an art inside them that was spilling out on that night. It inspired me but took me ten years to get on a stage and spill my own art out. And it may be another ten before that happens. But years ago at that poetry reading I realized there is something bigger “happening” beyond normal everyday life. I can’t really explain it any other way.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!