6 POETS AT 6 GALLERY
Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John
Hoffman– Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg,
Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen–all sharp new
straightforward writing– remarkable coll-
ection of angels on one stage reading
their poetry. No charge, small collection
for wine, and postcards. Charming event.
Kenneth Rexroth, M.C.
8 PM Friday Night October 7,1955
6 Gallery 3119 Fillmore St.
The Six Gallery was a small art gallery in a former auto repair shop near the intersection of Union and Fillmore in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth came up with the idea to showcase a few of his young poet friends in a joint reading, and five promising unknowns were selected.
Much legend surrounds this event, which took place on October 7, 1955, though the date is sometimes given as October 13 and Michael McClure himself states in his book “Scratching The Beat Surface’ that it took place in December. (Despite the fact that McClure got the date wrong by two months, though, his fascinating book was one of the primary sources for the information on this page. So many Beat writers have published their version of the evening’s proceedings that it is impossible to find two accounts that do not contradict each other in some way.)
This was the first public reading by several of the poets, some of whom had not met before. It seems that about 150 people were in attendance, and that Jack Kerouac, who had been invited to read but chose not to, collected money from the guests and ran out to fetch three jugs of California burgundy, which helped to loosen everybody up. On the night of the reading, the Gallery was decorated with surrealist sculpture built from orange wood crates and plaster of paris.
Philip Lamantia, a moderately well-known Surrealist poet, went on first, reading a series of poems by his late friend John Hoffman, who had just died of a peyote overdose. Kerouac, in the loosely fictionalized account of the evening he published in ‘The Dharma Bums,’ mocks Lamantia’s ‘delicate Englishy voice,’ though he says he got to like Lamantia later.
Philip Whalen read ‘Plus Ca Change.’
Allen Ginsberg was second to last and stole the show. He was twenty-nine years old and had hardly published any poetry yet; he had also never before participated in a poetry reading. He had written ‘Howl‘ in a mad frenzy only weeks earlier, so nobody had yet heard this revolutionary work with its long unbroken lines of Biblical verse, proclaiming glorious defiance in the face of isolation and disaster. Gathering confidence as he went on, he began singing the lines like a Jewish cantor, glancing quickly at the manuscript at the beginning of each new line and then delivering it in a single breath. The crowd was transfixed, and Kerouac, now sitting on the edge of the stage, began shouting ‘GO! GO!’ in cadence. By the end of the poem (only the first part; the rest had not yet been written), Kenneth Rexroth was in tears and Allen Ginsberg had launched his massive career as a poet.
Gary Snyder waited, wisely, for the crowd to settle down, before he read his excellent poem, ‘A Berry Feast,’ a stark and many-layered celebration of tribal ritual.
At the end of the evening, the poets went to a Chinese restaurant, then to The Place, one of their regular drinking spots.
By the next morning, word had gotten around about the dynamic reading, and the five poets became locally famous. The entire evening’s proceedings were repeated several times in coming months, now to much larger crowds. The significance of the first reading at the Six Gallery is that it crystallized the San Francisco poetry scene, and turned several of the young poets, especially Allen Ginsberg, into instant celebrities.
Here is what Michael McClure says in ‘Scratching The Beat Surface’:
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before — we had gone beyond a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.
Here’s a description of the site where the Six Gallery reading took place, sent to me by a reader, Tony Willard, in 1995:
In response to your Web page on the Six Gallery, I checked out this ruined but not so bare choir on a recent visit to San Francisco.
Fillmore between Filbert and Greenwich is part of the now trendy Cow Hollow district. It is a busy block of cafes and retail shops. 3119 Fillmore stands in the middle of block’s west side, canary yellow with royal blue awnings, black flower boxes full of exuberant geraniums at the second-story windows. It houses a store called Silkroute International, whose rugs and pillows spill onto the sidewalk.
Inside are more piles of rugs and pillows, along with wooden masks and sculptures. Various other tchatchkes of ostensible southwest Asian origin compete for the attention of the frugal decorator. The low-ceilinged front of the space opens into a dim warehouse of bare rafters and dusty skylights, reminiscent of the automotive garage this once was.
Farthest from the street, the floor is raised about a foot and a half. This must have been the “stage”. If Kerouac sat on the edge of this during the reading, he would have been almost at floor level, and out of sight of most of the audience, not nearly as distracting as accounts suggest.
From a cluttered, makeshift office to the north side of the “stage”, the shopkeeper keeps an intimidating eye on his domain, discouraging this literary pilgrim from more audibly recreating scenes of beat glory.