The “San Francisco Renaissance” is the name given to the emergence of writers and artists in the Bay Area at the end of World War II. It was not a single movement, but rather a collage of many different communities that migrated to San Francisco during the postwar era seeking out the remnants of bohemian culture in America. Kenneth Rexroth, one of the central figures of the San Francisco Renaissance, described the era’s prevailing attitudes: “This is the world in which over every door is written the slogan: ‘The generation of experiment and revolt is over. Bohemia died in the twenties. There are no more little magazines.’”
Although the poets were united in eschewing a poetic mainstream they felt had turned back to formalism and abandoned the innovations of modernism, they were not united by a single particular aesthetic style and often were at odds with one another both artistically and politically. However, many of their poems shared an elegiac quality, responding to both the devastating aftermath of both world wars as well as the restrictive cultural climate. Their work often expressed a longing for the lost world and an attempt to restore it with visions of nature and distant cultures.
Recalling the expressive exuberance and regionalism of Walt Whitman’s poetry, the poems of the San Francisco Renaissance were frequently confessional and deeply evocative of their Pacific coast and San Francisco surroundings. The poets’ influences ranged from European Modernism and Surrealism to Eastern religions and literature. Isolated from the poetry mainstream in New York by geography and style, the San Francisco poets started many of their own publishing houses and small magazines and journals, including City Lights and Evergreen Review.
Some of the major writers involved in the San Francisco Renaissance included Rexroth, William Everson, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, and Michael McClure. Though more associated with the Black Mountain movement, Robert Duncan introduced many of the central figures of the San Francisco Renaissance to each other while teaching poetry workshops at San Francisco State College. This loosely bound group often gathered in Rexroth’s home for frequent discussions on literature, politics, and theology. Others followed Spicer into bars and parks to hear his fierce opinions on poetry and publishing.
Rexroth became a reluctant godfather to the Beat Movement, which grew out of the San Francisco Renaissance. In 1953, Allen Ginsberg arrived at Rexroth’s door bearing a letter of introduction from William Carlos Williams. Two years later, in October 1955, Rexroth curated a legendary reading that featured this new crowd—all unknown poets at the time—including McClure, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Ginsberg captivated the audience that evening with a powerful reading of an early draft of “Howl.”
For more information, read Michael Davidson’s book The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century.