On October 7, 1955 Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Phillip Whalen and Phillip Lamantia (reading the poems of the deceased John Hoffman) read together at the Six Gallery, an auto repair shop turned into an art gallery first by Robert Duncan followed by six young painters from the San Francisco Art Institute. Kenneth Rexroth was the M.C. and 150 people listened intently, as Allen Ginsberg gave the first public reading of Howl with Jack Kerouac shouting, "Go! Go!" to the spiraling cadences. This was the reading that changed the course of American poetry and speech and brought the Beat Generation to the battlements of the war for the American mind.

It was the beginning of a war that would break through the fortress of conformity and materialism, and open up the cultural and psychic space for the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Hippies, Liberation movements for, the New Age movement, and Buddhism and other meditative religions, and by a weird twist of fate the puritanical reaction of the Reagan-Bush years.

The longest ongoing open poetry reading in North Beach was at the Coffee Gallery on Grant Avenue, now called The Lost and Found. In the 50s there were intermittent readings, benefits and spontaneous poetry and jazz there.Then regular open readings began in the early 60s, lasting until 1977. These readings were a trial by fire for the poet who often faced heckling by a crowd of drunks, tourists and poets for those who read too long, too loud, too low, or too badly. Sometimes a bottle or a lit cigarette would come hurtling out of the darkness at the poet. But when the poets got that audience riding with them, they knew they were nearing the center of meaning. It took a brave and firm referee to M.C. these readings. Over the years I remember Carol Lee Sanchez, Wayne Miller, Tom Cuson, Ruth Weiss, Blue, the Kentucky lioness, Steve Levine and Luke Breit steering the Coffee Gallery ship.

North Beach poetry has become characterized and maligned by some poets and critics as having a style, or being a school of poetics that is identified with some of the Beat writers. Most of the criticism falls into three modes: First, it is generational - the sons (the young poets) slaying the fathers (the beat poets) in a rebellion against an international notoriety that keeps the sons from their own ascension; Second, the aesthetic attack on the sometimes flamboyant, excessive and repetitious overabundance of the style; Third, there are elements of class warfare in the criticism - the refined, educated and theoretic view of the academy and the middle class applied to the disorder and Dionysian ebullience and even the political radicalism of the bohemian and the dispossessed.

What is the North Beach style? It is the spontaneity of Kerouac and Neal Cassidy and Charlie Parker and the cubism of Ginsberg's Howl and the rhythmic apocalyptic listings of Bob Kaufman. It puts its roots down to Walt Whitman, the symbolism of Baudelaire and the surrealism of Artaud and Rimbaud. Religiously and ethically it's with Thoreau in jail, Gandhi on the march to the sea for salt, St. Francis talking to the animals and Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. Politically, it looks to Tom Paine bringing the message of freedom to America and France. It is anarchistic believing that humans are born good and can live cooperatively and populist in that it honors a day's work done well.

The style seems to attract the young poets - the raw, untrained, self educating, struggling with the meaning of life and love poets who need the space to roll around in. Some will tighten their style and grow in their powers as poets and communicators and some will continue to wander in the inner spaces of their own symbolic galaxies but a few will come back with a new world to show us.