I asked poet Michael McClure, one of the five performers at the seminal 1955 Six Gallery poetry reading, if he had any thoughts to share on the event’s 50th birthday. He sent me some notes that he’s going to deliver at HOWL REDUX in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater tonight at 8 pm as part of the city’s LitQuake Festival. “The first half will be a celebration of earlier San Francisco revolutionary writers — the second half is to honor the Six Gallery readings with revolutionary young poets reading for the original Six readers. I’ll read for myself THE DEATH OF 100 WHALES, MYSTERY OF THE HUNT, POINT LOBOS:ANIMISM and NIGHT WORDS. Sandinista Daisy Zamora will read for Philip Lamantia, Leslie Scalopino will read for Philip Whalen and Peter Coyote will read for Kenneth Rexroth.” Here’s what Michael had to say about the original event:
“Allen Ginsberg and I first met at a party for W. H. Auden in 1955; Auden had given a reading at the San Francisco Museum and Allen and I were outrageously out of place at a party of academics in a wood paneled old house on Parnassus Hill. Being the wallflowers of the evening, Allen and I soon began talking about our dreams and visions of William Blake, and we made a date to get together for coffee.
After that we often met in North Beach to discuss poetry and the scene. On October 7th, fifty years ago today, we gave our first poetry reading together at the Six Gallery alongside Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. It was the first time I met Jack Kerouac who was in the audience shouting “go” as Howl had its first reading. Jack collected change between poets and went out for gallon jugs of homemade red wine which were passed through the audience.
The Six Gallery was a space converted from an automobile repair garage on lower Fillmore Street below Union. The young painters in the cooperative gallery were all as outcast as the poets they gave space to for a reading. The painters, now famous, were Jay DeFeo, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, and many others. It was the time of HUAC, Joe McCarthy, the bitter cold war, conformism, silence — and the repression was caging America. There was a Daddy Warbucks martial law on the landscape: a nation of racial segregation,crew cuts, gray suits, tract homes, and Buicks with nose rings.
Kenneth Rexroth, of the older generation of radicals, was one reason the poets were there that night. We had learned much at Rexroth’s evenings at home — about California nature, anti-politics, and that we were closer spiritually to the rest of the Pacific Rim, to China and Japan, than to New York. Rexroth was the evening’s master of ceremonies.
We were all sick of the drabness of conformist, military America beginning its series of bloody massacres in Asia. The fear and unwillingness to speak, as well as the threat to any who did speak out, was chilling. The young poets that evening were each radicals of their own stripe from left-socialist, anarchist, IWW-wobbly to Zen Activist. We knew that poetry was dead — killed by lacklove and the academies, and each of us wanted to bring it to life again. And to speak out into the void.
An audience of radical workers, bohemians, artists, and an earnest professor or two, along with the intelligent-dissatisfied and some grinning cynics and hopeful idealists showed up to listen to us and we seemed to present their own thoughts on stage for the first time in public hearing. The audience standing or sitting, crowded in the space, occasionally shouted back their encouragement or a joke or an acclamation. Most people there knew that the poets were standing on the ground that had been cleared by San Francisco’s Liberation Circle of outspoken thinkers and activists and that it could only happen here.
By the end of the evening, following Gary Snyder’s deep ecology poem A Berry Feast and Allen’s Howl — a poem about the possible new nature of society — we knew we were standing with our toes against a line in the sand and, whether we felt fear or exuberance we were staring directly at the wall of censorship and repression — and we knew we would not step back.
After that evening Kerouac wrote his novel Dharma Bums, which was his turn-about from On the Road and into the mountains and nature. We were all speaking of the new nature. The poems we read that night had no precedent. It seemed later that we were not only revolutionary speakers but the also the early literary wing of the birthing environmental movement. Soon there was a swift step to the counter culture and its resistance to Vietnam and the birth of new protest, and to the growing crowds of activists and action philosophers. In our hearts we believed the evening would become part of the history that mattered to us and that human bodies had been thrown against the wall of obstinate bitter repression, and that things both new and very old were going to begin. A few months later we repeated the reading in Berkeley and things were happening.
I want to thank the audience of that night and the people today who still read the poems from that evening. Let us attempt to protect all living beings of ocean, forest, and city. And life and light to all.”
— Michael McClure, Oct 7 2005