A howl-out to San Francisco’s Beat Museum for National Poetry Month

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(photography by Gary Geboy)


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Nestled between neon-flashing strip clubs on the corner of Broadway and Columbus bordering San Francisco’s Chinatown is a homing beacon for poets and a haven for hipsters.

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It’s called the Beat Museum and it sits diagonally across a tawdry intersection from the infamous City Lights bookstore – literally in howling distance from the definition of obscenity.

Unlike most contemporary museums, visitors don’t exit through the gift shop. They enter through it – an eclectic collection of cool chap books, postcards and extended play LPs. I forgive the crass commercialism when admission only costs $8 and comes with a personal invite to a “beat conference” in June.

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The museum is so unpretentious it’s like stepping into a 1960’s living room with scrapbook-style exhibits curated by a proud mom who saved every souvenir of a child who turned out to be famous. There’s even a comfy tattered sofa to tune in and drop out for a while. The effect is unexpectedly intimate and revelatory.

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Take Ginsberg’s early draft of “Howl,” for example. The epic poem now associated with stream-of-conscious venting of cool didn’t just spew forth in a drug-induced fit of unfiltered genius.

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Look closely at the tormented typewriting. You can practically smell the white-out correcting fluid. The best minds of Ginsberg’s generation started out mystical instead of hysterical. They hallucinated anarchy before he settled on Arkansas. Any writer who has ever been returned a manuscript bloodied with red ink feels instantly soothed, even buoyed when able to study the suffering of a giant.

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Another exhibit is the balm that must have soothed Ginsberg himself. Every writer should be sent a telegram from Lawrence Ferlinghetti quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

Who knew? Even South Carolina Educational Television was once beat
Who knew? Even South Carolina Educational Television was once beat

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