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Monday, April 12, 2004

Howling Recollections

An interesting piece of nostalgia in today's San Francisco Chronicle, occasioned by the sale of a local storefront--now a rug emporium, but a half century ago, an art gallery which was the scene of a seminal moment in American cultural history.

The year was 1955, and a motley collection of avant-garde poets of the day had gathered at the site, then known as The Six Gallery. The group included such future luminaries as : Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac. Whew!

To quote Kerouac's description: "I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night.''

It was the occasion of the first public reading of Ginsberg's at-the-time, earth-shattering "Howl."

As The Chronicle describes it,

"The crowds that stood under the big redwood pillars of the place and lined the black painted walls were stiff at first. Some of them even wore ties. But soon they warmed up. They were high on cheap red wine (Kerouac had taken up a collection and bought several jugs) and on the poetry . . . . Kerouac yelled 'Go! Go! Go!' Old poets wept and the room rocked with the power of the language.

Dennis McNally, Kerouac's biographer, quotes Lamantia as saying it was 'like bringing two ends of an electric wire together.'

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned City Lights, was there, too, and sent Ginsberg a telegram that famously quoted Emerson: 'I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do we get the manuscript?'

McClure wrote years later, the night and Ginsberg's performance 'left us standing in wonder ...but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice had been hurled against the harsh world of America and its supporting armies and navies academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases.'

'A point of no return,' McClure called it."

I wonder if a single poem could have that kind of power and reaction in today's world. I doubt it.

I think that the darkness of the 50's--subsequently purveyed to the younger generation as a time of happiness and simplicity--was one of those situations where you had to be there to fully grasp what a disheartening time it actually was. Artistic souls were among the few people of the time who were able to see the myopia and dishonesty that permeated our public and social life.

Consider the despair of today over Iraq and the rest of the Bush horrors, and magnify that by ten. There were no organized voices of protest, no tradition of protest, no possibility of protest. If you thought that the state of society was dangerous to the soul, you kept it to yourself and a handful of like-minded others--if you were fortunate enough to have any.

The make-believe facade of happy times was crushing and nearly impenetrable. I think it was that kind of atmosphere that made "Howl " such a breathtaking event. And let us not forget that Ferlinghetti was busted for publishing it.

Today's article from The Chron has prompted me to recall how I got into blogging.

Back in January 2001, I was exchanging some emails with Jeneane Sessum, exploring the possibility of getting into blogging. In her group blog, GonzoEngaged, which was very active at the time, and crackling with daily give-and-take from some of the best bloggers in the game, Jeneane graciously introduced me and quoted from something I had written her. Thanks to her pushing me into the scene and giving me a favorable reaction, I was then emboldened to start my blog.

Here's what Jeneane quoted from one of my emails (I can't remember why I was writing about this, but anyway, here it is):

"Suddenly, it's 1958. I'm sitting in my college pad in the attic of a cheesy rooming house. My on-top-of-everything buddy, Jack, hands me a book of poetry and says, 'fasten your seatbelt.' It's Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' It's one of those moments you never forget. I'm practically leaping out of my chair. I know, instinctively, that somehow, somewhere, the revolution we didn't know we were hungering for has begun.

It was ten years before the streets spilled over, but, believe me, there were plenty of discussion groups going on in the interim--perhaps not so different from GonzoEngaged--people not wanting to live The Lie any longer--ferment and urgent inquiry simmering beneath the surface of the bullshit gentility of the time."


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