October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman.
Ginsberg was not the only poet on stage that night, but it was his reading that changed the world. It was also Ginsberg who largely arranged the Six Gallery reading – an early demonstration of his powers not just as a poet but as a literary agent, manager, and all-round social gadfly. The original concept was suggested to Ginsberg by Wally Hedrick, and Ginsberg initially refused. At this point he was not entirely familiar with the San Francisco poetry circuit, and unconvinced that there would be enough talented poets available to make an event worthwhile. Yet, soon after, Ginsberg had the breakthrough that foreshadowed the success of the event itself. After writing the first rough draft of “Howl” he changed his “fucking mind” and decided to go ahead with the reading.
It was Hedrick who had chosen the location – the Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore Street – but Ginsberg chose the time and date: October 7th, 1955, at 8pm. He intended the reading to break with convention and give its audience something entirely new. It would “defy the system of academic poetry, official reviews, New York publishing machinery, national sobriety and generally accepted standards to good taste.” Indeed, the drunken anarchic style of the Six Gallery reading would be influential upon American poetry in decades to come.
Ginsberg was not just a poet. Back in New York he had worked in the world of advertising and marketing. The skills that he’d learned were put to good use in arranging the Six Gallery reading, and would be used again and again over the coming decades for various literary, political, or social events. From his Berkeley home he masterminded the reading – bringing together the best of the Bay Area’s poets, and coordinating the event’s advertisement on a shoestring budget. He sent out postcards to people and organizations which would help support the event. It read:
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 collection 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.
Ginsberg later claimed that all the poets involved would spring from obscurity after the reading, although that’s not exactly true. Kenneth Rexroth was already well-known at this point, and acted as a bridge between generations of poets.
It was also a bridging of East Coast and West Coast poets. Although Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac did not read, they were in the audience and important in bringing the event together and making it successful, and they were, like Ginsberg, from the East Coast. Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia were all West Coast poets, although only Lamantia was from San Francisco. Truly, it was shaping up to be an important event not just for the area, but for the country. The Beat Generation had been bubbling away and waiting for the right moment to burst into the public consciousness for about a decade, although the general population was still entirely unaware of its existence.
Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived with Ferlinghetti, and the evening began in a vaguely formal manner, with a well-dressed Rexroth introducing the poets. However, Kerouac famously took up a collection for wine, and went out to purchase gallon jugs of California red, which were passed around and around. As the evening progressed and the audience began to get tipsy, suddenly everyone was a participant. Ginsberg later explained: “[The poets] got drunk, the audience got drunk, all that was missing was the orgy.” This was the sort of departure from dry, academic poetry that Ginsberg had hoped for, and inspired what would later by known as a “happening.”
Lamantia read first, and then McClure, followed by Whalen. By the time Ginsberg was set to go on stage, he was drunk and in the toilet. Wally Hedrick recalled the toilet door swinging open to reveal Ginsberg sitting there, at which point he pulled up his trousers and made his way onto the stage. He began reading drunkenly, but sobered with each word. Kerouac later immortalized the event in his novel, The Dharma Bums, claiming that the audience gathered round, listening to every single word, and at the same time cheering him on, shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” Ginsberg was crying by the time he finished, and it seems he was not the only one. His poem had captured the mood of everyone in the audience, and indeed an entire generation.
Indeed, the Six Gallery reading could perhaps be seen as the birth of the Beat Generation, at least in a public sense. It is notoriously difficult to define a generation, or set beginning or end points. Perhaps the Beats began with the meeting of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs in 1944. It certainly swept America in 1957 with Kerouac’s On the Road. Between those points the Beat Generation had been forming underground, hidden from view. At that moment in 1955, Ginsberg unleashed upon the world the ideas and experiences he and others had shared, and began to unite the various underground factions and disaffected peoples.
Its importance was not lost on the observers that night. McClure remembered that, “In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before – we had gone beyond a point of no return.” Kerouac, who had refused to read, told Ginsberg that he was about to become famous. Rexroth said that, “This poem will make you famous from bridge to bridge.” But perhaps the best-known reply came from Ferlinghetti, who sent Ginsberg a telegram the following day, which echoed the letter Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman upon reading Leaves of Grass one hundred years and three months earlier:
I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?
Of course, “Howl” was not yet finished, and it would take some time for Ginsberg to complete his epic work, but it did eventually go to Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing company, and Howl and Other Poems shaped American culture and poetry in the same way that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had done a century before. On the back of this success, Ginsberg rose to fame and used his fame to champion a number of other poets, including his Beat Generation friends. He fought censorship with his own work, and on behalf of his friends, and challenged the boundaries of art. He led the countercultural movement of the 1960s and participated in the movements of later decades. Ginsberg helped end the Vietnam War, helped shape the way people protest war, and led movements for social change, perhaps most importantly in the name of gay rights.
This all stemmed from that night, exactly sixty years ago. There were no reporters there; no cameras were rolling as Ginsberg changed the world. It was word-of-mouth publicity which spread his fame. Perhaps that contributed to his mystique and appeal, and certainly it testifies to the influence he exerted that night upon everyone who witnessed him reading.
To coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the Six Gallery reading, Beatdom Books is proud to announce the forthcoming release of Eliot Katz’s The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg. Read more here.
In 2023, we posted a new piece on the Six Gallery reading. This addresses certain uncertainties surrounding the event.