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.