On Oct. 7, 1955, the Six Gallery in San Francisco presented a reading by five well-known poets of the local scene (including poems by a sixth). Allen Ginsberg went on second to last, reading his new, unpublished poem Howl. The response was so strong — chants of “Go, go, go”, led by Jack Kerouac from the audience — that Kenneth Rexroth, the “M. C.”, called a break before the last reading, Gary Snyder doing “Berry Feast”. Afterward, elated, the crowd moved out for Chinese food.
It’s the signal event of the Beat moment in poetry — and yet it’s doubly exceptional. The poem is unique in Ginsberg’s oeuvre, to begin with. He wrote other good things (mostly during the same year or so), but nothing, not even Kaddish, is at the same level. Within a few years, he had moved on to the “King of the May” phase of his career, best captured, I think, in Jane Kramer’s book — a benignly inclusive celebrity but no longer primarily a poet.
And further, Ginsberg was not really “of” the San Francisco scene, but rather a globetrotter, for whom the globe revolved around New York (and New Jersey). His time in the Bay Area lasted about two years, from 1954 through 1956. He was clearly inspired by the scene he found there, and he came to symbolize it, but he didn’t shape it in the way Rexroth did, or Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (Or Snyder, in his way, dropping in periodically from the Cascades, the Sierras or Japan.)
Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and impresario of the City Lights bookstore and press, who made a slim volume of Howl and the other poems Ginsberg had been working on that year. This became the focus of an obscenity trial, ending two years later in victory for the press.
But all gossiping aside, we have to be grateful that the stars should have aligned themselves, however briefly, so powerfully that Ginsberg could ring on like that through line after Whitman-biblical line, dense, rich, hyperbolic and accessible like nothing else in our canon. It’s too tempting not to quote a bit (only hard to stop):
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, […]
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.