The occasion was a benefit reading for San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center, established in 1954. The fashionable crowd was buttoned-down, well shod, well coiffed. Ladies wore pearl chokers and sweater sets. The men, many of them San Francisco Renaissance poets associated with the Beat Generation – like Ferlinghetti and Snyder – wore white shirts, sensible shoes, slacks, and expensive leather jackets, as did poet Michael McClure, a commanding figure with a white mane who showed up to cheer on his contemporaries.
It was a kind of poetic gentry that included students, teachers, polite political activists, and re-activists, and even a few former anarchists. It was not a raucous, party-pad crowd like the old days of Beat poetry readings. Rather it was a social meeting of a poetic family that crammed into the 300-seat hall. Fugazi Hall, built in 1913, was once a dance hall and Italian cultural center – a site for immigrant families to gather, talk politics, chaperon their children at social dances, and later hold gala wedding receptions. It is now renowned as the theater where kitschy Beach Blanket Babylon has excited visitors and locals alike since 1974.
Snyder and Ferlinghetti alternated in their readings and moved from some of their early work, which the hip audience greeted with applause as some mouthed recognizable stanzas. Each poet stood before a microphone and read from hand-held published books or manuscripts.
Snyder, now 81 and living in the Sierra Nevada, was pensive and witty by turn, reading from his Zen-infused, pastoral works like “Danger on Peaks” written in 2004 and invoking the Mt. St. Helens catastrophe. But he created a pang of remembrance for 9/11 and doomed couples leaping together from the twin towers, when he recited this from “Falling From a Height, Holding Hands”:
Better than burning,Ferlinghetti, standing tall and confident at 92, read convincingly from some of his best work. The audience reacted with warmth, which prompted several conversational digressions. The patriarch of San Francisco’s Poetry Renaissance paused and recalled that in the 1950s, he had appeared on the Fugazi Hall stage in an ill-named event called “Poets’ Follies,” and sharing the bill with him was the burlesque queen Sally Rand.
We will be
Two peregrines diving
All the way down.
After reading from his masterpiece “Coney Island of the Mind,” Ferlinghetti brought the evening to a close with a poem he had written only a few weeks earlier, “The First and the Last of Everything.” Snorting an anarchist’s fire from his nostrils, he stated in part:
The birth of vast national paranoiaAnd that’s the way it went at Fugazi Hall last month.
The birth of American corporate fascism
The next to last free speech radio
The next to last newspaper raising hell
The next to last independent bookstore with a mind of its own
The next to last leftie looking for Obama nirvana
The first day of the Wall Street occupation to set forth upon this land a new revolutionary nation!
Ernest Beyl is a poetry devotee of the San Francisco Renaissance. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org