San Francisco Renaissance

From Academic Kids

The term San Francisco Renaissance is used as a global designation for a range of poetic activity centred around that city and which brought it to prominence as a hub of the American poetic avant-garde. However, others (e.g., Ralph J. Gleason, Alan Watts) felt this renaissance was a broader phenomenon and should be seen as also encompassing visual and performing arts, philosophy, cross-cultural interests (particularly those that involved Asian cultures), and new social sensibilities.


First beginnings

The poet Kenneth Rexroth is generally considered to be the founding father of the renaissance. Rexroth was a prominent 2nd generation modernist poet who corresponded with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and was published in the Objectivist Anthology. He was amongst the first American poets to explore Japanese poetry traditions such as haiku and was also heavily influenced by jazz.

If Rexroth was the founding father, Madeline Gleason was the founding mother. During the 1940s, both she and Rexroth befriended a group of younger Berkeley poets consisting of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. Gleason and Duncan were particularly close and read and criticised each other's work.

A movement emerges

In April 1947, Gleason organised the First Festival of Modern Poetry at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery, Gough Street. Over the space of two evenings, she brought twelve poets, including Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Spiceer to an audience of young poets and poetry lovers. This was the first public recognition of the range of experimental poetic practice that was current in the city.

During the 1950s, Duncan and Robert Creeley both spent periods of time teaching at Black Mountain College and acted as links between the San Francisco poets and the Black Mountain poets. Many of the San Francisco writers began to publish in Cid Corman's Origin and in the Black Mountain Review, the house journals of the Black Mountain group. Spicer's interest in the canto jondo also led to links with the deep image poets. In 1957, Spicer ran his seminal Poetry as Magic at San Francisco State College with Duncan as a participant.

The Beats

Around the same time that Duncan, Spicer and Blaser were at Berkeley, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch were attending Reed College together. these three were to form the nucleus of the West Coast wing of the Beat generation.

In 1953, Lawrence Ferlinghetti established the City Lights Bookstore and started publishing from City Lights Press two years later. Snyder and Whalen, along with Michael McClure, were among the poets who performed at the famous poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 13 (or October 7, sources vary), 1955. This reading signalled the full emergence of the San Francisco Renaissance into the public consciousness and helped establish the city's reputation as a centre for countercultural activity that came to full flower during the hippie years of the 1960s. A short fictional account of this event forms the second chapter of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Kerouac had attended the reading with some of his poet friends.


The Bay Area-based philospher and writer Alan Watts, in his autobiography, mentioned that by around 1960 or so " something else was on the way, in religion, in music, in ethics and sexuality, in our attitudes to nature, and in our whole style of life" (from Watts, In My Own Way).

It was the case that some of the songwriters of the upcoming rock-music generation of the mid-1960s and later read and appreciated writers like Kerouac, Snyder, McClure, and Ginsberg (e.g., Bob Dylan, for one, has talked about this). Hence, given that much of the late-'60s wave of groundbreaking rock music developed within rock's famous "San Francisco Sound," it seems very likely that the writers of the San Francisco Renaissance had an influence on the lyrics, both artistically and in terms of attitudes to living. Both Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure were featured on-stage in the rock-star jammed The Last Waltz, a documentary and concert film made by Martin Scorcese about The Band (who had an immense following in the late '60s to mid '70s) and a large number of their musical friends.



  • Wagstaff, Christopher (ed). Madeline Gleason: Collected Poems 19191979 (has a very useful historical introduction)



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