Michael McClure: What It Meant

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

19 Responses

  1. More! More!Go! I always like
    More! More!


    I always like to hear McClure’s words. Let’s all chant for him to come back out and talk some more!
    Who wants to go for wine?

  2. Excellente!Great day… great

    Great day… great night… October 7th, 50 years since the Six Gallery reading, blessed day that changed the literary landscape forever.

    Thank you Dharma Bums!

  3. Crick and Peyote PoemI found
    Crick and Peyote Poem

    I found it interesting that way back in 1964, the scientist Francis Crick’s wrote a great little book, Of Molecules and Men in which he quoted from McClure’s Peyote Poem.

    The quote was something about “this is the ancient knowledge, the ancient wisdom”. Of course Crick was relating that to the discovery of DNA’s double helical nature.

    Having said that, and at the risk of showing myself the square curmudgeon I am, I didn’t think much of McClure’s rememberance.

    I’ve read it about 100 times before in one form or another. That’s OK, not everyone has read as many bios of Beats as I have.

    But, the piece is all about how great and radical and revolutionary they were in terms of socio-political movements to come etc…

    Well, what about the actual art? The poems?

    The myth of the rainy night lives.

    50 years is hard to believe. Doesn’t seem like too long, but it is also very long. Kerouac should still be alive.

    When I was younger, in my early twenties this Six Gallery Reading and those times I read about in various books and articles seemed like a lot longer ago than it seems to me now.


  4. Interesting points, TKG.
    Interesting points, TKG. Well, yeah, you know your stuff and you’ve earned the right to be as curmudgeonly as you want about this subject. Me, I generally find myself agreeing with things Michael McClure says, but then I never agreed much with some of those other folks. I don’t think I saw the world through the same lenses as Allen Ginsberg too often, but he was still one of my favorite poets. I guess we all have our own Six Galleries in our heads. Anyway, I didn’t know about the Crick connection — quite fascinating.

  5. some quotesI like McClure’s
    some quotes

    I like McClure’s emphasis on nature as a key concept of the poetry movement at that time.

    From A Berry Feast by Gary Snyder:

    “In bearshit find it in August
    Neat pile of the fragrant trail, in late
    August, perhaps by a Larch tree
    Bear has been eating the berries.
    high meadow, late summer, snow gone
    eating berries, married
    To a woman whose breasts bleed
    From nursing the half-human cubs

    Somewhere of course there are people
    collecting and gibbering all day”

    And here’s the complete Point Lobos: Animism by McClure:

    “It is possible my friend
    If I have had a fat belly
    That the wolf lives on fat
    Gnawing slowly
    Through a visceral night of rancor.
    It is possible that the absence of pain
    May be so great
    That the possibility of care
    May be impossible.
    Perhaps to know pain.
    Anxiety, rather than the fear
    Of the fear of anxiety.
    This talk of miracles!

    Of Animism:
    I have been in a spot so full of spirits
    That even the most joyful animist
    When all in sight was less to be cared about
    Than death
    And there was no noise in the ears
    That mattered.
    (I knelt in the shade
    By a cold salt pool
    And felt the entrance of hate
    On many legs,
    The soul like a clambering
    Water vascular system.

    No scuttling could matter
    Yet I formed in my mind
    The most beautiful
    Of maxims.
    How could I care
    For your illness or mine?)
    This talk of bodies!

    It is impossible to speak
    Of lupine or tulips
    When one may read
    His name
    Spelled by the mold on the stumps
    When the forest moves about one.
    Heel. Nostril.
    Light. Light! Light!
    This is the bird’s song
    You may tell it
    to your children.”

    Philip Whalen’s Plus ca Change is also an excellent poem that treats upon the same theme. And then there’s my favorite line from Howl, something about “Nowhere Zen New Jersey”. I think I used that line as an answering machine message at one point in my life.

  6. Well, see, it jumps back and
    Well, see, it jumps back and forth, like subatomic particles. Art jumps in to fill the void of sociology, but that leaves a void in art, so sociology jumps across the arc to fill the void in art, but that leaves a void in sociology …

    It glitters, and starts crawling like ants on a wall …

  7. “It is possible that the
    “It is possible that the absence of pain
    May be so great
    That the possibility of care
    May be impossible.”

    is that it, then?
    no one’s feeling enough pain?

    or is it that we’re feeling so much pain that we’re letting it out in blogs, in this huge net-howl that has us permanently feeling and reeling our psychic pain?

  8. group howlFifty years, this
    group howl

    Fifty years, this aftershock of Howl still keeps us swirling in our tracks.

    S/he who’s heard Howl and the Six Gallery’s repercussions carries the ripples into everyday life, into our children, into our humour, our perspective on grocery shopping, our jeans and our smiles.

    Howl’s within us. This fifty year event is part of our DNA. There’s been no forgetting – rather, there’s been digestion and transformation.

    This Howl of theirs is now a howl of mine.

    Michael has to know that he’s part of my flesh and blood now (or maybe he doesn’t have to know, so let it be that I’m simply telling you)

    Happy Anniversary to all!

  9. Only if I can play bongos on
    Only if I can play bongos on the bottle… rock on… go, go, go… orf…

  10. Thanks For Saving Mei’d just
    Thanks For Saving Me

    i’d just like to thank all those involved and their brethren; the writers of the 6 Gallery, the editors of the Oracle, the Diggers, Dylan, the Dead and the like. Without them my son would be watching what might as well be howdy do dee reruns and i’d be getting mp3’s off of the computer of the latest Ricky Nelson. Seriously, the cyclical nature of time is catching up with us and it’s time to stop academia-sizing the accomplishments of these men (and women), i.e. reading bio after bio, memorizing poems etc. Is not the McCarthy era re-manifesting itself by way of conduits such as Donald Rumsfeld, Andy Card,Karl Rove and their various cronies? Perhaps we are living in the O’Reilly era, whereby you are not censored but instead ridiculed into being irrelevant. I have no answers but no one ever really does it just matters that you have the right questions. All I’m saying is academia is what killed poetry and literature before these great writers and revolutionaries came along. Let’s not relegate them to the same status without living their spirit.

  11. the event is …was…and
    the event is …was…and always will be monumentally momentous….

  12. I believe you are right about
    I believe you are right about a new era of McCarthyism. I see people afraid to speak out on issues for fear of either losing their jobs or being arrested. I also see the law treating people differently based on how much money they have. I don’t know what to do about it. I’m just stating simply what I have seen with my own eyes.

  13. Both.I started to write a

    I started to write a thing about being in flux between pain and bliss but it sounded too wishy-washy, too much like sitting on the fence.

    Like, if you are in a sensory deprivation tank, you don’t feel anything, but if you were trapped in a washing machine you would feel too much. I don’t want my senses deprived, but neither do I want to be pummeled and spun dried. If I can remember pain, maybe I can act on that memory without having to go thru it again literally.

  14. That’s a very timely post,
    That’s a very timely post, and I can sense your passion about the issue. I have thought about this many, many times in the past-if you want a true sense of the author and what he/she is saying skip the lenghty bios and volumes of criticism and just let the damn work speak for itself.

  15. I’ve been seeking something
    I’ve been seeking something inspiring all week-and there it is! I’m off to read Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” now…

  16. Judih — interesting point
    Judih — interesting point you bring up. Yeah, I agree that absence of pain is not a problem we deal with too often. But the way I read it, the person speaking in the poem is experiencing a rare moment of absence of pain, and absence of worry, and noticing what a strange sensation this is.

  17. what mcclure has meant to
    what mcclure has meant to me

    mcclure has meant everything to me
    when i was very young “freewheelin frank” later i went to san francisco to live and was lucky to befriend michael for some years. he brought mr. crick to eat at my restaurant one eve and i was on cloud9 for days after. mcclure is the pure one. stayed the true path for all his life,gave to all,his style more substance than most granite walls, his committment to what really matters never wavering, always tasty and meaty language.
    i no not why but he is the spark for me. i have had many opportune moments with many amazing people from berrigan to ginsburg to creeely to mcnaughton AND SO MANY MORE GREAT ONES but MR. MCCLURE YOU HAVE GIVEN ME MOST PRECIOUS GEMS AND BLOSSOMS ALL YOUR DAYS. THANKS, MICHAEL FEIGENBAUM

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