I was twenty-three years old and the youngest to read; it was the first time I had read my poetry to an audience. Listening to a surviving audiotape of the event I was surprised by my sureness and my presence. I read a poem for the deaths of one hundred killer whales that had been machine-gunned from boats by NATO service men, near the coast of Iceland. It was a poem of outrage and anguish that called upon Goya to be the tutelary witness of this mass murder, and that closed with a call to D.H. Lawrence to witness the mindless assassination of these great erotic beings whom he had addressed in his poem “Whales Weep Not.” The poem linked together Buddha’s Fire Sermon and my perceptions of physical anthropology. I was looking, as we all were, for a poetics that would go beyond the unloved art of poetry, which was at that moment the bastard stepchild of twittery academics. The poetry was then, as it is now, irretrievably and subjectively searching for liberation, for nature, for physicality and for what I call soul-making.
Bespectacled, vulnerable and almost willowy in stature, Allen began his poem in a clear, precise and measured voice, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” And as he entered the sweep of his new master work he moved into the realm of the bardic. But more than anything else, in my memory is the growing awareness, of first one person and then another that a challenge was being thrown out to the grim, fearful and war-obsessed fifties. The ominous and overwhelming powers of censorship—both those powers of the brutal government and the self-censoring processes of the individual in propagandized society—had been challenged. But there was something more—in this act of nerve and bravery there was a generosity. This poem was not only a condemnation of society in a prophetic mode; it also kindly offered a helping hand. If this young and vulnerable man could speak out so clearly, broaching one unmentionable subject after another, why could not anyone do the same? Further, if it was possible to speak so, then why could one not go a step further and act?
The reading of Howlwas like a series of awakening shocks—each one a bit harsh in its sudden newness but also exhilarating in the unveiling of the unspoken—or the secretly spoken—obvious. The homosexual, the pothead, the artist, the gagged professor, the downtrodden aging failure, the aspiring bright spirit, the soul in growth in the automobile graveyard, the victimized boy and girl, the politically suspect, the fearful idealist, the budding voice of revolt against brutal mechanized greed, the crazed neurotic caught in the pinchers of mindless social conformity, the older woman with secret dreams of freedom, the conscientious objector, the dejected parents wondering about the future of their child, and those who were defying (or almost ready to defy) racism and the creators of nuclear armaments for the final war, everyone, heard a humane voice that was greeting them with a new sounding hello. At the end of the reading the audience was on their feet with the realization that a new limit of individual expression had been reached. Almost everyone there, from anarchist carpenter to society lady, was willing to put their toe on that new line and to refuse to be made to step back without a struggle. The Six Gallery on October 7th, l955, was the venue of the first group reading of what has come to be known as the Beat Generation.
Howlmarked a dramatic and public shift in performance art, affecting dance, theater, music, art poetry, literature and film. John Cage premiered his first Happening performance at Black Mountain College in 1952, Theater Piece No. 1, with Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham; the event featured a combination of painting, poetry, music and dance. Seymour Locks created the first light show in 1953, at San Francisco State College. The Rat Bastard Protective Association was formed in 1958 by Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, Jay De Feo. Manuel Neri and Joan Brown as a kind of quasi-coalition of artists. Rat Bastard group was productive and active, making “rat” pieces, and mocking their artistic training, teachers and the politics of the era. Wallace Berman was arrested in 1957 at the Ferus Gallery, indicating the social effects that the freedom of the era was inflicting on rigid social restraints. The same year, George Herms installed a Secret Exhibitionover a section of city blocks on La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. Herms only revealed his achievement to Walter Hopps and John Reed. Experimental Beat films such as Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, and Bruce Conner’s A Moviecombined art with poetry and found footage to create new standards and push creative and socially defined boundaries. Even Jay De Feo’s monumentally influential painting, The Rose, was recorded in photography and film with the artist posing next to her work.
To the artists of the Beat Generation, living in the Bay Area allowed them the freedom to experiment, concentrate and make artistic leaps. Jay De Feo’s The Rose, and its long creation characterize the attitudes of the Beat artists and their dedication to craft. De Feo began work on The Rosein 1958; it would take her 7 years to complete to 129” x 92” x 8”, 2300- pound, mandala-shaped oil painting and would eventually have to be removed by a crane from her Fillmore Street house in Berkeley. The event was historically recorded in Bruce Conner’s Beat film, The White Rose. In the painting, the central image seems to represent De Feo’s fascination with sculptural painting that began in the ‘50s. As probably the most important Beat Generation painting of the Bay Area, The Rose reflected the San Francisco Beat Generation’s interest in Eastern thought as well as the interested in combined mediums—De Feo introduced bits of glass and beads into the thick-skinned oil painting, skewing the lines between painting, sculpture and assemblage.
Just as they were occurring on the West Coast, Happenings began to emerge in newly formed hangouts on the East Coast—cafes, galleries and bookstores were meeting places for artists and poets to share ideas and present. Jack Kerouac, John Cage, and the Black Mountain College students and instructors collaborated on performance and exhibitions similar to those happening on the West Coast. Publications such as the Village Voiceand articles in the New York Timesand the Evergreen Review brought vital attention to the beat movement in New York. Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine were given shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jim Dine’s Car CrashHappening at the Judson Gallery, and the first jazz/poetry readings at the Brata Gallery signaled the importance of experimentation and cooperation in contemporary art. The interdisciplinary exchange of artistic ideas spread across the country heralding a new era of creative expression.
As you leave the Beat Generation and Beyond, I believe you will indeed find that these artists truly had a lyrical vision. They combined theater, music, painting, poetry, film, assemblage and sculpture. Their intention was to keep the galleries open at all costs, and in doing so, gave artists in San Francisco a place to express their creativity freely. The hope in my heart is that the rich culture of a land so diverse can be preserved through the many modes of expression these artists exemplify.