San Francisco Renaissance

In the two decades following World War II, an overarching reevaluation of art and its purpose occurred. This reconsideration gave rise to a number of identifiable movements and schools worldwide in the same period; even though those movements had some philosophical and aesthetic similarities, each had distinctive qualities that set it apart from the others. In the United States, the postwar period saw the simultaneous emergence of four particular poetic phenomena: the Black Mountain School, Beat Poetry, The New York School, and the San Francisco Renaissance. There is much description and definition that might seemingly fit any or all of these, and there are many individuals whose names legitimately are listed among the notable figures of more than one of them. Warren French, who tends to conflate the Beat and the Renaissance, sets the outer limits of the Renaissance period between the 1944 launch of the first issue of Circle and the deaths of Kenneth Rexroth in 1982 and Robert Duncan in 1988 (xviii), a span of 40 years, but focuses on 1955–1960 as the most significant time. Michael Davidson marks the Renaissance period “from the late 1940s to Jack Spicer’s death in 1965” (6) and firmly situates it in the San Francisco Bay area.

Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth

One of the reasons for the familial relationship between the so-called Beat generation and San Francisco Renaissance is that the renaissance, the rebirth of poetry in San Francisco, is commonly dated from the incredible moment in October 1955 when the Six Gallery was the scene of Allen Ginsberg’s first public performance of Howl, undoubtedly one of the most important moments in American poetry; the master of ceremonies that evening was, Rexroth, who was a precursor influential in the development of most San Francisco Renaissance poets, some of whom also read at that remarkable event: Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Michael Mcclure, and Philip Lamantia. Jack Kerouac was also there, liberally pouring out the wine and musically urging the readers on with exclamations of “Go! Go!” This is the night which prompted Lawrence Ferlinghetti to send Ginsberg the famous telegram, echoing Emerson’s to Whitman, welcoming him into his career and asking to publish the poem. The selection of poetry presented that night provides examples of the variety of technique developing in these poets and eventually encompassed by the term San Francisco Renaissance: “a vatic, confessional mode; imagist precisionism; satire and self-projection; surrealism; personalist meditation” (Davidson 4). Robert Duncan, Lew Welch, Kenneth Patchen, Bob Kaufman, Diane Di Prima, and Lenore Kandel are also among those whose names often appear in assessments of the renaissance, but any version of the list might include up to 30 names, from Amiri Baraka and Charles Bukowski to Anne Waldman and David Rafael Wang; not surprisingly, due to prevailing 1950s attitudes, there were few women and few minorities.

The diversity of style so evident in the work of these poets is balanced by a common goal and concern. San Francisco Renaissance poets wanted a reborn American romanticism to embody poetry’s return from academic institutions to the masses in the streets, to speak in the language of the ordinary person (in the tradition of William Carlos Williams) rather than of the academy, and to concern itself with populist issues. Although oral performance is integral to their poetic practice, renaissance poets also found outlets for their work in the pages of such periodicals as George Leite’s Circle (1944) and, later, Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review (1957), and such publishing houses as Rosset’s Grove Press, James Laughlin’s New Directions, and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books. Ferlinghetti, scholar and poet, has also been described as “that rarest of persons—a practical-minded, visionary businessman” (French x). It took a San Francisco poet-publisher to recognize and promote so readily this poetry of place (although he resisted the strictures of regionally based definitions). The component parts of San Francisco that provided the impetus for the renaissance are its “long history of alternative religions . . . [and] long tradition of political radicalism” (Davidson 11). Critic Michael Davidson’s analysis of the period acknowledges, in fact, it stresses, the meld of historical context with cultural conditions that produced this particular poetics of place. Aboriginal and Asian religions, for example, are a major part of that “alternative” mix and help to explain how San Francisco had “escaped the Puritan ethos” (Davidson 11) so dominant in the East. The hybrid culture produced in the Bay Area came up against the diffused disillusionment of the post–World War II generation and thus generated a regionally identifiable response. Only part of this response is a concern shared by the New York Beat and renaissance poets.

By virtue of his dual citizenship in these schools, Ginsberg marks the similarities and differences in Beat and renaissance sensibility. He is the clearest exemplar of the Beats, because his is enormous poetry, relentless and overpowering, often right at the edge of comprehensibility. It sustains an excruciating balance through the constant tension of its (and all Beat and renaissance poetry’s) guy-wires: sex, politics, and mysticism—the human body, mind, and spirit. The poems are physical without shrinking from bodily function, intellectual without resorting to theoreticism, and spiritual without reduction to preaching. Although he speaks to the universal, he does it through the particular, explicitly rather than metaphorically. These common aspects, however, do not encompass all of the central concerns of renaissance poets. Ginsberg’s decidedly East Coast, urban poetry has no trace of the pronounced and paradoxical urban ecopoeticism of San Francisco. The West Coast was still close enough to its wilderness past and present for the natural world to be an essential thread in the genetics of northern California poetry, and its poets were still affected by that wilderness as much as they were by the city. Kerouac’s city-boy inability to cope mentally with the seclusion of Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur or, on Snyder’s suggestion, the isolation of a firewatch tower in the Cascades is partially the result of an eastern detachment from nature and is the perfect demonstration of a fundamental difference between the two groups.

Further Davidson points to the characteristics that differentiate the San Francisco poets from each other by identifying their personal literary lineage: the apocalyptic and bardic style of romantic William Blake and Whitman in Duncan, William Everson, and Rexroth; the biting satire of Guillaume Apollinaire and Jacques Prévert in the café poems of Ferlinghetti; Asian nature poetry and British romanticism in Rexroth, Snyder, Welch, and Whalen; the introspection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in McClure, Whalen, and Duncan; Surrealism in Philip Lamantia, Duncan, Jack Spicer, Ferlinghetti, Kaufman, and McClure (17). These poets led very individual lives, unlike the somewhat communal Beats, traveling and living apart at great distances for long periods; Snyder spent nearly a decade living in Asia. What unites them is their activist impulse, driven primarily by their environmental conscience and pacificist anarchism and addressing civil rights, gay rights, environmental issues, and American foreign and domestic policy. These poets spoke in the vanguard of social and political movements; Ginsberg, for example, voiced an antiglobalization position long before the term was coined. Davidson reports that, as “early as 1958, Ginsberg was arguing with his father over the need to reject monolithic solutions to world problems in favor of more personal transformations” (29).

Snyder likewise believed in the need for an immediate and local understanding as part of personal development. Ultimately knowing place is essential to knowing self, as the world is “an intense geography that is never far removed from [the] body” (qtd. in Davidson 13). The landscape is part of the person, not something to have dominion over, but something to honor and respect. This is an example of how the multireligious historical background of San Francisco influences local attitude: The earth is not to be conquered and dominated in the way of the Old Testament, but it is to be lived with harmoniously, recognizing that it is not separate, not an adversary. In Hallelujah Anyway (1960), a book of picture-poems blending language and image, Patchen writes, “Inside the Flower there is room for every sower,” but “The Best Hope Is that one of these days the ground will get disgusted enough just to walk away,” because people are so involved with declaring platforms that they neglect the one on which they are physically supported. In “Junkman’s Obbligato” (1958), Ferlinghetti knows “The real earthquake is coming. / [He] can feel the building shake” and waits, in “I Am Waiting” (1958), “for forests and animals / to reclaim the earth as theirs.” In these ways the poets warn of the dangers of abuse and neglect of the planet at the same time as they underscore the reciprocity inherent in all aspects of place. Any surrounding is more than merely a place to be—it affects the way of being.

Ginsberg would have us put our own “queer shoulder to the wheel” (“America” 1956), whatever kind of shoulder we may have and whatever our wheel might be. The personality and disposition of the San Francisco Renaissance poets varied widely; Thomas Parkinson describes “the genuine vigor and force of Allen Ginsberg . . . the extraordinary wit and hilarity of Lawrence Ferlinghetti . . . the obvious intelligence, learning and decency of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, the hard integrity of Michael McClure” (qtd. in French 57). These characteristics and the combination of common speech and oral performance in San Francisco Renaissance poetry create a dialogue between speaker and listener, removing traditional boundaries so that the immediacy and intimacy of the poetry become a personal call to a personal response of experience and activism. By example, the poems model the need both to feel and to act in the body, mind, and spirit.

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
French, Warren. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance 1955–1960. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

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