• James Dean appears in Rebel Without a Cause. Soon afterwards (September 30, 1955) he is killed in the crash of his Porsche racing car.
• Michael McClure sends two villanelles to Poetry magazine. His first publications, they are accepted for the January 1956 issue. Under the influence of Robert Duncan, McClure will soon conclude his experiments with formal modes. In “Rebel Lion Michael McClure 1950-1955” (Beat Scene, Number 51, Late Summer, 2006), Glenn Damiani writes, “In September 1955, while Ginsberg was revising ‘Howl Part I’ for its first public performance, McClure, at his home at 3077 Sacramento Street, had recently completed works that would signal the closing of his experiments with formal structures and more clearly indicate the future direction of his poetry”:
“For the Death of 100 Whales” was a breakthrough—rather than using formal structures, McClure let his anger at the slaughter of killer whales by American GIs determine the form of the poem. Other poems in preparation were “Night Words: the Ravishing,” “Point Lobos: Animism,” and “The Mystery of the Hunt.”
• In August, Jack Kerouac composes Mexico City Blues; the book will not be published until 1959. (Kerouac’s San Francisco Blues was composed in 1954.)
• Gary Snyder continues his study of East Asian languages and translates Han-Shan. He meets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in San Francisco and spends some months living in a cabin in Mill Valley with Kerouac.
• Allen Ginsberg composes “Howl,” Part I in August, at 1010 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. On September 1, he moves to a cottage north of campus at 1624 Milvia Street in Berkeley. On September 8, he meets Gary Snyder. Snyder is present in the cottage when a draft of Part II is being composed. “I thought I wouldn’t write a poem,” Ginsberg writes in the notes to his LP, Allen Ginsberg Reads HOWL and Other Poems,
“… but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind—sum up my life—something I wouldn’t be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul’s ear and a few other golden ears. So the first line of Howl, “I saw the best minds etc.,” the whole first section typed out madly in one afternoon, a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin’s walk, long saxophone-like chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear sound of— taking off from his own inspired prose line really a new poetry...Have I really been attacked for this sort of joy?...
I had an apt. on Nob Hill, got high on Peyote, and saw an image of the robot skullface of Moloch in the upper stories of a big hotel glaring into my window; got high weeks later again, the Visage was still there in red smokey downtown Metropolis, I wandered down Powell Street muttering “Moloch Moloch” all night and wrote Howl II nearly intact in cafeteria at foot of Drake Hotel, deep in the hellish vale...
The rhythmic paradigm for Part III was conceived and half-written same day as the beginning of Howl, I went back later and filled it out. Part I, a lament for the Lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamblike youths; Part II names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the Lamb; Part III a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory: “O starry-spangled shock of Mercy.” The structure of Part III, pyramidal, with a graduated longer response to the fixed base.
I remembered the archetypal rhythm of Holy Holy Holy weeping in a bus on Kearny Street, and wrote most of it down in notebook there. That exhausted this set of experiments with a fixed base...A lot of these forms developed out of an extreme rhapsodic wail I once heard in a madhouse.
• The first Poets’ Follies, a literary and musical cabaret featuring performances by Weldon Kees and various native San Franciscan writers and musicians, premieres January 22 at the Theater Arts Colony. “Lawrence Ferling,” as he is listed in the program, reads his poems, and a stripper is recruited to read poetry by T.S. Eliot and John Keats. The Poets’ Follies is conceived by Kees and Michael Grieg after they attend a reading by two poets they consider overly formal and academic. The production receives broad coverage in the press.
• Robinson Jeffers’ Hungerfield receives the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award. In “Strong Counsel” (Can Poetry Matter?, Graywolf Press, 1992), Dana Gioia writes, Jeffers “now lived almost totally in the quiet isolation of his family. When [his wife] Una died…he sank gradually into an alcoholic loneliness waiting for his own death. The end of his last long poem, ‘Hungerfield,’ written in 1954, is heartbreaking. The violent story finishes, and suddenly Jeffers breaks into an unexpected lyric coda”:
Here is the poem, dearest; you will
never read it nor hear it. You were more beautiful
Than a hawk flying; you were faithful and a lion heart like
this rough hero Hungerfield. But the ashes have fallen
And the flame has gone up; nothing human remains. You are
earth and air; you are in the beauty of the ocean
And the great streaming triumphs of sundown; you are alive
and well in the tender young grass rejoicing
When soft rain falls all night, and little rosy-fleeced clouds
float on the dawn.—I shall be with you presently.
• In New York City, Robert Duncan and Jess meet Denise Levertov for the first time.
• Mrs. Leonard (Etya/Ethel) Gechtoff, mother of artist Sonia Gechtoff, opens the East and West Gallery at 3108 Fillmore, across the street from Six Gallery. The gallery continues until 1958, when Mrs. Gechtoff dies. Artist Bruce Conner credits her with the coinage of the word “beatnik.” (See entry, 1958.)
• Lawson Fusao Inada enters Fresno State University. From 1956 to 1957 he is at UC Berkeley. In 1959 he receives his BA in English from Fresno.
• City Lights Press publishes its first book, Pocket Poet No. 1: Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (The name, “Pocket Poets” came at the suggestion of both Joanne Joseph and Ferlinghetti. Both Joseph and Ferlinghetti were aware of the French Livre de Poche.) Other Pocket Poet books included Kenneth Rexroth, Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile (#2), Kenneth Patchen, Poems of Humor and Protest (#3), Allen Ginsberg, HOWL and Other Poems (#4), William Carlos Williams, Kora in Hell (#7), Gregory Corso, Gasoline (#8), Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems (#19), Bob Kaufman, Golden Sardine (#21), and Diane di Prima, Revolutionary Letters (#27). Ferlinghetti and Peters comment in Literary San Francisco (1980), “In the tradition of great literary bookstores on the East Coast and especially in Europe, City Lights began publishing its own books in 1955, and now has about a hundred books in print, none federally financed by grants from the National Endowment of [sic] the Arts. (Its editors, in the Anarchist/Surrealist tradition, like it that way.)”
• City Lights publishes New Young German Poets, edited and translated by Jerome Rothenberg (born 1931). Rothenberg had been in Germany after the war. He comments, “I was just a humble G.I. while in Germany and with no literary contacts of any kind. I did however get a jump start on the language.” His book is a sampling from ten poets.
• Books 55, a bookstore on La Cienega, is opened by Norman Rose. The store is presumably named for the year in which it opens. Poet/artist Cameron lives in the back of the store. It is there that Wallace Berman first sees her Peyote Drawing, the work which, as part of Berman’s show at the Ferus Gallery, will lead to his arrest on charges of pornography.
• Wallace Berman buys a five-by-eight inch Kelly hand-press through the mail. With it he publishes the first of nine issues of Semina. An image of Cameron is on the cover of the first issue. David Meltzer, e. i. alexander (Bob Alexander), John Wieners, Michael McClure and Judson Crews are frequent contributors. In Utopia and Dissent (University of California Press, 1995) Richard Cándida Smith writes,
Aside from a handful of copies sold at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Semina circulated free of charge to a network of creative people whose work and opinions interested Berman. He printed from 150 to 300 copies of each issue on his own five-by-eight hand press. Of the nine editions, only the second was bound. The third, sixth, and ninth issues consisted of a single poem with a cover photograph. In the other five issues, the journal assumed the form that distinguished it from the dozens of other small literary magazines of its day. Berman placed approximately twenty loose-leaf pages of poems, photographs, and drawings into a pocket glued to the inside of a folded cover. The pages were like cards, printed on a heavy paper stock and cut into varied sizes ranging from three by five to six by eight inches. As a reader spread the cards across a flat surface, the pages of the journal formed ever-shifting patterns.
• Encouraged by Thomas McGrath, Gene Frumkin and Mel Weisburd bring out Coastlines, a quarterly similar in outlook to The California Quarterly and publishing many of the same poets. (See entry, 1951.) Coastlines, which will continue until 1964, will publish the first sections of Thomas McGrath’s long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend.
• A poetry reading organized by Allen Ginsberg is held at the Six Gallery at “8 PM Friday Night October 7th.” Ginsberg’s postcard advertising the event reads,
For many, including Jack Kerouac, the Six Gallery reading marks the beginning of the “San Francisco Renaissance”— a term which is as problematical as “beat.” The event was emceed by Kenneth Rexroth, who opened the evening with a few words. The order of readers was Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and—after a short break—Gary Snyder. Philip Lamantia read poems written by his friend, John Hoffman, who had died at the age of 24 in Mexico, perhaps of a peyote overdose; Michael McClure read “Point Lobos: Animism” and his seminal “For the Death of 100 Whales”— both poems instances of early ecological awareness; Philip Whalen read “Plus Ça Change…” (“What are you doing? / I am coldly calculating / I didn’t ask for a characterization. / Tell me what we’re going to do. / That’s what I’m coldly calculating.”); and Gary Snyder read “A Berry Feast,” which begins, “Fur the color of mud, the smooth loper / Crapulous old man, a drifter, / Praises! Of Coyote the Nasty, the fat / Puppy that abused himself, the ugly gambler, / Bringer of Goodies."
But it was Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” (Part I) that galvanized the crowd:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….
After the reading, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who attended, is said to have sent a telegram to Ginsberg. The telegram echoes a remark made by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti adds, “When do I get the manuscript?” In I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (Viking, 2006), Bill Morgan points out that the telegram cannot be found in Ginsberg’s archive, but Lawrence Ferlinghetti insists that the story is true and there is an image of it in Christopher Felver’s film, Ferlinghetti. In a Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman (9/3/07), Ferlinghetti tells the story but adds that Allen Ginsberg had given him a copy of the manuscript a few days before the Six Gallery reading and, at that point, he didn’t care for it.
Jack Kerouac is in the audience at the Six Gallery and writes about the reading in his novel, The Dharma Bums (New American Library, 1958). In Kerouac’s book, the Six Gallery becomes the Gallery Six; Allen Ginsberg becomes “Alvah Goldbook…hornrimmed intellectual hepcat with wild black hair”; Gary Snyder becomes “Japhy Ryder…wiry, suntanned, vigorous, open, all howdies and glad talk”; Philip Whalen becomes “Warren Coughlin…big fat bespectacled quiet booboo”; Michael (“Mike”) McClure becomes “Ike O’Shay…delicate pale handsome…in a suit”; Philip Lamantia becomes “Francis DaPavia…out-of-this-world genteel-looking Renaissance Italian…looks like a young priest”; and, in a burst of inspiration, Kenneth Rexroth becomes “Rheinhold Cacoethes…bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud…the father of the Frisco poetry scene.” Michael McClure’s reminiscence is in Scratching the Beat Surface (North Point Press,1982).
Ginsberg’s notes to the LP, Allen Ginsberg Reads HOWL and Other Poems suggest that writing “Howl” is a kind of conversion experience, a personal transformation: “I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco...to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.” McClure tells Ginsberg that “Howl” is the poet’s “metamorphosis from quiet, brilliant, burning bohemian scholar trapped by his flames and repressions to epic vocal bard.” McClure feels as well that Ginsberg has set an example for everyone: “A human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America.”
(see also Jack Foley’s essay: Howl and the Howlers: Ginsberg's Poem Fifty Plus Years Later)
• Weldon Kees disappears on July 18. His car—a Plymouth Savoy—is found parked on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge with the keys in the ignition. He had attempted and failed to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge a short time earlier. He tells his friend Michael Grieg, “I just couldn’t get my foot over the rail.” “Kees,” writes Donald Justice, who will edit Kees’ Collected Poems in 1960, “is one of the bitterest poets in history. ‘Others,’ wrote Kenneth Rexroth, ‘have called themselves Apocalyptics, Kees lived in a permanent and hopeless apocalypse.’” In American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (Herder and Herder, 1971), Kenneth Rexroth connects Kees to “a definite school of American verse—Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, John Berryman, and a number of others whom [critics] call the Confessional School, poets who have recorded profound psychological conflicts or mental breakdown”: [For Kees] the horrors of The Waste Land, or W.H. Auden’s ruined England in a new Dark Ages…were not literary conventions, but ever present reality, alive and malignant. Kees, writes Dana Gioia in “The Loneliness of Weldon Kees” (Can Poetry Matter, Graywolf Press, 1992), transformed the alienation and vacuity of contemporary life into lyric poetry. He does not offer readers comfort or escape. He did not transcend the problems of his century with a religious or political faith. He did not elude the vulgarization of public culture by immigrating to an aesthetic realm. What he offered was uncompromising honesty, the transforming shock of recognition. “All a poet can do today is warn”…He represented only the choices history offered his generation, and none of them were attractive.
This is Kees’ poem,
“To a Contemporary”:
J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans.
Memories rich as Proust’s or Baudelaire’s are yours,
You think: snarled ravelings of doubt at evening scents
Of women, dazed with pleasure, whose white legs and arms
Once coiled with languor around you; arguments
With undistinguished friends, their bigotries each year
More fixed. Lamps in the mist that light strange faces fill
Your nights; your fingers drum upon the table as you stare,
Uncertain, at the floor. Un vieux boudoir? Impossible!
You frequently compare yourself to those whose memories
Are cruel, contemptible, like naked bone.
Yet, is there anything in this rank richness warm
Or permanent? At every climax, trapped, alone,
You seem to be a helpless passenger that drifts
On some frail boat; and with oblivious ease,
As from a distance, watch yourself
Disintegrate in foaming seas.
• Charlie Parker dies.