Remembering the Six Gallery

In anticipation of Michael McClure’s book, “Mysteriosos and Other Poems”, (published in April by New Directions), Steven Fama wrote a blog post called “17 Reasons Why…I Love the Work of Michael McClure!”.

Number one on the list was the October 7, 1955 reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was McClure’s first poetry reading, and the first time Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” in public. Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder also read that night, and Jack Kerouac brought the wine.

Organized by Kenneth Rexroth and billed as a “a remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry”, the Six Gallery reading was pivotal at a time when San Francisco poets were stirring up something new and exciting, and resurrecting the art of poetry from what McClure describes in Scratching the Beat Surface as “the gray, chill, militaristic silence”.

In his 1956 New York Times review of these new, radical West Coast poets, Richard Eberhart wrote: “They have exuberance and a young will to kick down the doors of older consciousness and established practice in favor of what they think is vital and new.” Half a century later, Jonah Raskin, author of American Scream, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “All Americans might look back at the Six Gallery reading for inspiration.”

At a 2008 reading at UC Berkeley, McClure recalled the Six Gallery and read three of his poems from that night: “Mystery of the Hunt”, “For the Death of 100 Whales”, and “The Breech”.

When he wrote “The Breech”, McClure had a night job in a produce market. Working in the dark streets made him think of Rimbaud, he says, and inspired the poem:

The Breech

—A barricade — a wall — a stronghold,
Sinister and joyous, of indigo and saffron —
To hurl myself against!
To crush or
To be a part of the wall…
Spattered brains or the imprint
of a violent foot —
To crumble loose some brilliant masonry
Or knock it down —
To send pieces flying
Like stars!

To be the chalice of the hunt,
To handspring
Through a barrier of white trees!

At work — 3:00 in the morning — In the produce market
Moving crates of lettuce and cauliflower — Predawn
A vision — The rats become chinchillas — I stand
At the base of a cliff — sweating — flaming — in terror and joy
Surrounded in the mist — by whirling circles of dark
Chattering animals — a black lynx stares from the hole
In the cliff.

Rotten lettuce — perfume — The damp carroty street.

It is my head — These are my hands.
I don’t will it.
Out in the light — Noon — the City.
A Wall — a stronghold.

—Michael McClure

UC Press will publish Michael McClure’s Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems in January 2011.
This video was made at a 2008 Holloway Series in Poetry reading at UC Berkeley.