• The Founding of City Lights Bookstore. Five of Lawrence Ferling’s translations of French poet Jacques Prévert are published in the North Beach magazine, City Lights. City Lights’ editor, Peter D. Martin, is an ex New Yorker, the son of Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca and the nephew of U.S. Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Martin’s magazine is a reflection of the cultural ferment occurring in the San Francisco area. He wishes to open a bookstore specializing in paperback books. Paperbacks, he feels, are the coming thing, and he wants to be the first to open such a shop. In June, City Lights Books (originally called “City Lights Pocket Book Shop”) is founded by Martin and Ferlinghetti. Located at 261 Columbus Avenue, it is America’s first paperback-only bookstore. Martin and Ferlinghetti each put up $500. In 1955, two years after the bookstore opened, Peter Martin returns to New York, where he opens the New Yorker Bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Ferlinghetti becomes sole owner of City Lights.
In The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour (City Lights, 2003), Bill Morgan writes, “Kenneth Rexroth predicted, ‘There’s no way they could ever make a success of that bookstore. Lawrence could stand at the door and hand out paperbacks as fast as he could and he still wouldn’t make it’”:
Shigeyoshi Murao, a Japanese American born in Seattle, who had spent two years in an Idaho internment camp during World War II, was central to the bookstore from almost the beginning. His personality set the tone for the store. While Ferlinghetti spent much time managing the publishing side, Murao ran the bookstore … Never far from him were the I Ching and a bottle of Coca-Cola. He told a friend, Gordon Ball, that he was going to call his autobiography Confessions of a Cokesucker because he drank more than a dozen a day. Herb Gold recalled that Murao “made an atmosphere that was hugely welcoming and delightful,” even if he never kept the books in order or discouraged theft.
• Two Black Mountain College students, Leo Krikorian and Knute Stiles open a bar called The Place at 1546 Grant Avenue. The bar will become a center of North Beach artistic life and will continue until 1960. Two events in particular draw people: Monday night “Blabbermouth Night,” with its contest for the most outrageous assertions (prize: a bottle of champagne) and April Fool’s Day with the annual Dada show. In a letter to me, Wilder Bentley adds this:
There was a beat hangout on upper Grant Ave. called “The Place,” run by Leo Krikorian, and every Tuesday, I think it was, he held what he called “Blabbermouth Night,” and on these occasions anyone could ascend a staircase to a wee mezzanine barely large enough to contain a human body and its mss. (if required), and grind whatever ax he or she wished. On such an occasion Mr. [Allen] Ginsberg ascended the staircase and read from his poem about being in Rockland [“Howl”]…The dithyrambs brought the same frenzied response from the (crowded) audience [as they did at the Six Gallery].
• At the request of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac writes “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” Kerouac had shown his friends the manuscript of The Subterraneans; Ginsberg and Burroughs are immensely impressed that Kerouac had written the entire book in only three nights while sitting at a table in the kitchen of his mother’s apartment in Queens and ask him to describe how he did it. These are a few excerpts from Kerouac’s essay, in which he insists on “no revisions (except obvious rational mistakes, such as names or calculated insertions in act of not writing but inserting)”:
SET-UP. The object is set before the mind, either in reality, as in sketching (before a landscape or teacup or old face) or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from memory of a definite image-object.
PROCEDURE. Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.
METHOD. No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas—but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)—“measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech”—“divisions of the sounds we hear”—“time and how to note it down.” (William Carlos Williams)
SCOPING. Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang! (the space dash)—Blow as deep as you want—write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.
LAG IN PROCEDURE. No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing.
MENTAL STATE. If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, [Wilhelm] Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.” Come from within, out—to relaxed and said.
Kerouac’s assertions are of immense importance to Allen Ginsberg when he writes “Howl.” A writer does not make “drafts”: revision = repression; words flow “spontaneously.”
• Helen Adam (born 1909), a Scottish immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1939 with her mother Isabella and her sister Pat and who had traveled with them to San Francisco in 1949, joins Robert Duncan’s poetry workshop, astonishing the participants by bringing the Scottish and British ballad tradition to the local literary culture. Adam had begun composing ballads at the age of two. At the age of 14, she published her first book, The Elfin Peddler and Tales Told by Pixy Pool, which was a great success but which she later renounced. All of her later work raises questions of performance and suggests that poetry is not self-expression but expression of something other. In The Truth & Life of Myth (The Sumac Press, 1968), Duncan remarks that the obvious “rightness” of Adam’s poetry—which was almost entirely
composed in rhyme and meter—broke “the husk of [his] modernist pride”:
Sometime in 1953, the poetess Helen Adam brought Blake’s introductory song from Songs of Experience as an example of great poetry to a workshop and read it in a sublime and visionary manner, as if what was important was not the accomplishment of the poem but the wonder of the world of the poem itself, breaking the husk of my modernist pride and shame, my conviction that what mattered was the literary or artistic achievement. It may be that nothing will ever remove that husk, but its triumph is broken.
At a reading recorded at the Detroit Institute of Art in 1981, Adam herself will remark,
When I have no audience, I repeat poetry in my head, and though of course I’m aware that most of the greatest poetry in the world is not written in rhyme, yet still almost everything that haunts me most and that I repeat to myself for joy is rhymed poetry and I think that modern poets, brilliantly gifted as they often are, have made a great mistake in throwing out rhyme almost completely.
Adam’s use of Scots dialect did not commence in her native Scotland. In A Helen Adam Reader (The National Poetry Foundation, 2007), Kristin Prevallet writes,
All of the poems that Adam wrote while she lived in the U.K. followed English rules and diction; it wasn’t until she arrived on the San Francisco scene that she began investigating her own native Scots language and incorporating Lallans dialect into her ballads. Partly due to Duncan’s and Spicer’s romanticization of what they perceived to be her link with ancient sources, Adam became more and more interested in her Scottish heritage. Her use of Lallans in her poems encouraged her to stray from English prosody into new language patterns and narratives.
This is the poem Helen Adam read to Duncan’s workshop:
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
“O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.
“Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The wat’ry shore,
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.”
—William Blake (1757-1827)
• In June, Robert Duncan sends a poem/fan letter to Denise Levertov in New York. He has seen her poem, “The Shifting,” in Cid Corman’s magazine, Origin. Duncan tells Levertov that what attracted him was her poem’s “showing forth of reality,” a “presentational immediacy” that goes beyond “Imagism” and in which objects are transformed so as to become transmitters of “inner feeling.” Duncan’s homage poem, eventually titled “For A Muse Meant,” baffles Levertov; she feels Duncan is making fun of her. She writes to him, and they begin a twenty-year correspondence.
• The upper Grant Avenue Art Fair in San Francisco’s North Beach begins. It is the first artist-run, open-air street festival in the nation. Along with visual arts, the fair hosts poets, strolling musicians, and other performers.
• A.A. Wyn, Inc. publishes Jaime de Angulo’s Indian Tales. Allen Ginsberg had hand-carried de Angulo’s manuscript to his friend Carl Solomon (to whom “Howl” was dedicated); by this time, Solomon was no longer in an asylum and was an editor at A.A. Wyn. Only about a third of de Angulo’s manuscript is published in the book. The tales arose out of the author’s forty years of living among the Pit River Indians of California. De Angulo had read the tales aloud, often in a somewhat different form from what A.A. Wyn publishes, on KPFA. These radio programs, called “Old Time Stories,” are among the most popular ever presented on KPFA and are played again and again, long after the author’s death. Indian Tales has illustrations by the author and blurbs from Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Dr. Harry Tschopik of the American Museum of Natural History, New York. (Williams was to have written the introduction to the book but was prevented from doing so by a stroke.) The book begins,
“Come on, get ready, we are going to start this morning,” said Bear coming back into the house. He was talking to his wife, Antelope. “The sun is shining; I don’t think it will rain any more for a while. We must go and visit your sister who is living with the Crane people, and it’s a long way from here. Come on, gather up your things, strap the baby on the cradle-board, pack enough food for a few days—jerked meat and dried fish and acorn meal—enough for several days on the trail. It’s a long way from here to the village of the Cranes. Come on, Fox Boy, get ready. Let’s get started.”
• Gary Snyder enters graduate school in the East Asian Languages Department at UC Berkeley. He continues his studies through 1955. In the Autumn of 1953 he meets Kenneth Rexroth.
• Philip Lamantia attends the peyote rituals of the Washo Indians in Nevada and lives for a time with the Cora Indians in Nayarit, Mexico.
• Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind—his first book published by the Polish language Instytut Literacki—is published in Paris with translations into English and French.
• Ruth Witt-Diamant founds The San Francisco Poetry Center, which she establishes as half-funded by San Francisco State College (where it is located) and half privately funded, in order to insure its independence. The inaugural reading is given by Theodore Roethke in February, 1954. In 1951, in a ceremony for the dedication of the new S.F. State Campus on 19th Avenue, Witt-Diamant had brought W.H. Auden to speak and to present a plea for the Humanities. Auden delivered his lecture, “The Hero in Modern Literature.” He also surrendered his honorarium ($200) to help fund the Poetry Center. Witt-Diamant had earlier brought Dylan Thomas to read in the Bay Area, and the two became close friends. Visiting Thomas in Wales, Witt-Diamant attended the Eistenddfod festival. Thomas is said to have remarked to her, “There’s a lot of nasty ideas you poets out here [in San Francisco] have. You should have a poetry center.” James Schevill writes in a letter to Jack
Foley, “The Thomas readings in San Francisco and Berkeley [in 1950], and then again in 1952, establish a new standard of quality and popularity for poetry readings on the west coast, which enables Ruth to raise money and schedule a second series of readings downtown at the S.F. Museum of Art. She appointed Robert Duncan as assistant director to help schedule readings and run poetry workshops.” In A Companion to California (Oxford University Press, 1978), James D. Hart writes,
Affiliated with San Francisco State University, [the Poetry Center] has sponsored frequent readings both by prominent local poets such as Ginsberg, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, and McClure and by obscure ones, as well as by distinguished visitors. It has created an American Poetry Archive and Resource Center for its more than 1,000 tape recordings and sponsors a Poetry in the Schools program.
Directors of the Poetry Center include James Schevill (who began the Poetry in the Schools program), Ishmael Reed, Jewelle Gomez, Stan Rice, Frances Mayes, Kathleen Fraser, Mark Linenthal, Robert Glück, Rosemary Catacalos, Frances Phillips, and Steve Dickison.
Bill Morgan writes in The Beat Generation in San Francisco (2003),
Allen Ginsberg gave one of his earliest readings at the center on November 20, 1955, just a few weeks after the Six Gallery reading. Ginsberg remembered that Witt Diamant “asked me not to say any of the ‘dirty words,’ because she was afraid she’d get busted or it would create a scandal for the Poetry Center.” As a result, his reading wasn’t very relaxed and he substituted the word “censored” for the actual words in the poem. The recording was later released as a commercial album. [By Evergreen Records, see Entry, 1958. Note: The order of the strophes in the recording is different from the order in the published version: Ginsberg may have been improvising—ed.]
• Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices,” is performed at the YMHA Poetry Center in New York City on May 14. The performance, which has Thomas in the cast, is recorded and made commercially available.
• Dylan Thomas dies on November 9, at the age of 39. Kenneth Rexroth distributes “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” his memorial for Thomas. In the introductory note, Rexroth explains that the poem is directed “against the twentieth, the Century of Horror. It says the same thing Hölderlin or Baudelaire said of the nineteenth century, but it has the benefit of what the philosophers call ‘an inclusion series’: one hundred more years.” Allen Ginsberg hears Rexroth read the poem—which has certain elements in common with “Howl”—at one of the older poet’s weekly seminars at 250 Scott Street. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” begins,
For half a century now, every day,
They have hunted them down and killed them.
They are killing them now.
At this minute, all over the world,
They are killing the young men.
They know ten thousand ways to kill them.
Every year they invent new ones.
In the jungles of Africa,
In the marches of Asia,
In the deserts of Asia,
In the slave pens of Siberia,
In the slums of Europe,
In the nightclubs of America,
The murderers are at work.
They are casting him forth from every city in the world.
Under the Welcome sign,
Under the Rotary emblem,
On the highway in the suburbs,
His body lies under the hurling stones.
He was full of faith and power.
He did great wonders among the people.
They could not stand against his wisdom.
They could not bear the spirit with which he spoke.
They have murdered him,The Baby of Taliessin.
There he lies dead,
By the Iceberg of the United Nations.
There he lies sandbagged,
At the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
The Gulf Stream smells of blood
As it breaks on the sand of Iona
And the blue rocks of Canarvon.
And all the birds of the deep sea rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
“You killed him! You killed him.
In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
You son of a bitch.”