Sixty-eight years ago today, six poets changed American literature forever with a powerful and now legendary reading at a former car garage in San Francisco called the Six Gallery. The event was arguably the most important poetry reading of the 20th century and yet – incredibly – it is shrouded in mystery. Despite it having taken place in the modern era, with a handful of attendees and one of its participants still alive today, establishing what happened before, during, and after the Six Gallery reading is surprisingly difficult, at least if you care about accuracy more than a good story.
It is not that we don’t know the basic facts about the Six Gallery reading. We know where and – more or less – when it happened. We know who read and how important it was for their careers. We know that it was a pivotal moment for the Beat Generation, for poetry in San Francisco, and for American literature and later countercultural movements.
On stage that night were Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Kenneth Rexroth was the master of ceremonies, the elder and somewhat well-known poet introducing his younger peers for an audience of probably around 125 people. Most famously, of course, it was the first time that Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” in public, albeit an incomplete version. After the event, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the attendees, offered to publish “Howl” as part of his newly created City Lights Pocket Poets series.
It was an evening of nearly unparalleled importance in terms of modern poetry, arguably launching the San Francisco Renaissance and catapulting the Beat Generation into the public consciousness, both of which would make possible the rise of the hippies and subsequent countercultural movements. It also launched the careers of most of its participants, who would become major figures in 20th-century literature. It was the first time most of them had read their work in public, and for Allen Ginsberg it was the moment he realised that “Howl” was more than just a personal cry but rather that it captured the feelings of a generation.
There has been nothing like it since and it’s hard to think of many events prior to it that were quite as significant, yet what we know about it is frustratingly veiled in the usual Beat mythology, clouded by artistic license and the fog of time. Despite its importance in literary history, there are no photos, sound recordings, or audio recordings of the event. No journalists were present. No one went home and wrote down a faithful account in a notebook.
The best-known accounts are by Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure, but Kerouac’s account was a fictionalised version written about two years later. It’s hard to say for certain what he got right except by comparing it to other accounts, but as those other accounts came later – and were given by people who had read The Dharma Bums – one must wonder to what extent their accounts were shaped by Kerouac’s. Certainly, Kerouac made up a few details and moved events around a little. McClure’s account is longer and probably more accurate, but it was written decades later and he gets key details wrong. Indeed, he spoke many times over the years about the Six Gallery reading and – as is natural – his accounts changed with each telling. Other attendees spoke on record over the years but mostly much later and their accounts differ slightly, too. It is noticeable that with the passing years their accounts change substantially.
The most incredible thing is that so many people have gotten the date wrong. Over the past few months, I have read several dozen books that describe the Six Gallery reading and a little over half of them say it took place on 13th October, 1955. More recently, there has been a tendency to put the date as 7th October. Indeed, this seems to be the generally accepted date now and is found on a commemorative plaque outside the site of the old Six Gallery. This date is believed to be the right one because the postcards Allen Ginsberg sent out state that it happened on the 7th but it has been suggested that the event was in fact delayed for a week. In the collected correspondence of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, it says that the event took place on 7th October but then a few lines later that Ferlinghetti immediately telegrammed Allen after the event… and that this telegram was sent on 13th October.
So when did the reading occur? Almost certainly it was 7th October. It seems to me very unlikely that it took place on the 13th because Jack Kerouac wrote a friend on 12th October to describe the event. Unless he dated his letter incorrectly – and it appears he did not – then the reading certainly did not take place on 13th October. As for the Ferlinghetti telegram, that is dated elsewhere as having been sent on 7th October but I cannot seem to track down the original to be sure. In all the comments Ginsberg, McClure, Hedrick, Snyder, and others have made about the process of organising the event, none of them ever mentioned it being delayed a week, so it seems reasonable to conclude that 7th October was in fact the date.
The letter that Kerouac wrote on 12th October is the closest account we have to the actual reading but it is annoyingly vague and cryptic. He says almost about the event except that it was exciting and wild. The reason he does not say more is that he had very recently written a letter describing it in much more detail: “I just wrote a huge letter to Burroughs about it… so have no more energy to tell it.” Alas, the paranoid Burroughs destroyed all his correspondence from this period, so we will never know what Kerouac really had to say. This letter would likely be the best source had Burroughs not burned it, and so unless it is magically rediscovered – which, to be fair, happened with the Joan Anderson letter – then we have lost a vital part of Beat history.
I have already mentioned The Dharma Bums and McClure’s account in Scratching the Beat Surface. Ginsberg and Snyder have talked at length about the Six Gallery, too, and Ferlinghetti is on record with what he recalls, while Whalen and Rexroth have spoken with interviewers on the subject. Yet reading these sources only adds more mystery. Biographers and scholars have to compare all these sources in order to find what was the most likely version, with quite serious discrepancies between them. It is not only the case that Ginsberg would disagree with McClure, for example, but rather that each man gave multiple conflicting accounts. Ginsberg would even give multiple accounts within a single interview, appearing to suddenly remember a totally different version once triggered by a word or image.
This is largely due to the frailty of human memory, of course. The Six Gallery was an important event from the moment it happened but it grew in terms of its significance over the coming decades and, as scholars began to take the Beats seriously in the early seventies, most of the memories of the witnesses were recorded at least a decade and a half later. By 1978, for example, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was under the impression that he had personally driven Gregory Corso to the Six Gallery reading, even though Corso was in New York that day.
There are few sources from the handful of years that followed. One of the most commonly cited ones is an essay by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (which seems more like Ginsberg’s work) that explains the Six Gallery for a European audience but it is a little too self-congratulatory to take as absolute truth. It does more or less hold with other accounts, but it is doubtless a part of Ginsberg’s efforts to market the Beat Generation and expand his own poetic influence. For one thing, they write about “a group of six unknown poets in San Francisco,” yet Rexroth was nationally known and Lamantia had a local reputation and had been known in surrealist circles for a decade. It is clearly an effort at exaggerating in order to make the Six Gallery reading even more important than it had been.
For years, then, those who have chronicled the Six Gallery reading (including myself here) have relied upon an array of somewhat flawed sources. We are now at the stage that recent books rely upon older books which are in themselves informed by works of fiction, flawed memories, and assumptions. The result is an event that is largely myth. We are left to make educated guesses about how it happened by picking apart the various accounts given by Hedrick, Rexroth, Ginsberg, McClure, Snyder, and others. We know – despite various people getting it wrong – that the order of readers that night was:
- Philip Lamantia
- Michael McClure
- Philip Whalen
- Allen Ginsberg
- Gary Snyder
We mostly know what works each of the poets read, too, and the fact that Kerouac was lying at the front of the crowd shouting something – probably “Go!” – at least during Ginsberg’s reading. There are various seemingly faithful descriptions of the gallery and the dais that had been set up, and we know that Rexroth introduced the poets and spoke a little between their readings. We have some physical descriptions to tell us what they were all wearing. There are certain people – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky – who were certainly in the crowd. We know that some of the participants went for dinner and drinks after even if the orgy that many books cite probably did not happen.
In one sense, it doesn’t really matter that there is some mystery surrounding this most important of literary events. The minutiae of its planning and execution, as well as the hours and days after it, don’t matter nearly as much as the fact that it happened. It was an epic moment in modern literary history, one that convinced Allen Ginsberg that “Howl” was a poem worth completing (he only read part one and much of the rest was incomplete). It was the event that pushed Ferlinghetti (who had admittedly expressed interest prior to the reading) into publishing “Howl,” a poem that shaped American literature, culture, and even law. The reading changed the attitudes of its participants and attendees. It changed San Francisco, helped launch the Beat Generation into the publication consciousness, and kickstarted the wave of countercultural movements that marked the latter half of the twentieth century.
It is tantalising, though, that we know so little about that night – or rather that we know so little for certain. But perhaps that’s why it was so important. Perhaps that’s part of its allure. It was the biggest moment in poetry and yet only a hundred or so people witnessed it… It went down immediately in local legend, talked about in cafés and bars across San Francisco, and soon word spread nationwide. It was a revelation and damn near a revolution. Such events are bound to attract mythmaking. And, like any other, they are bound to be blurred by the passing of time, the myth and reality merging, the truth ever so slightly out of reach…
It is hard to imagine anything like that happening again. The importance of poetry seems sadly quaint, as does the sense of unity it fostered. Likewise, when even the most trivial of events are documented by a hundred mobile phones and livestreamed for digital immortality, it is hard to believe that just a short time ago the world was shaken, changed forever, by the recitation of a poem that no one recorded.
 This is one of many uncertainties. Estimates range from 100 to 250 people.
 Michael McClure even claimed it happened in December and others have said November. Elsewhere, McClure believed it happened shortly after a January event, too.