San Francisco Renaissance

With the United States out of war and many troops home, the end of World War II was a time of celebration for many. While some struggled with the adjustment and a renewed sense of freedom, American society was bustling and growing. Thriving during a period of invention, social advancements, and political change, America saw changing trends and began defining its own identity. 

San Francisco Renaissance San Francisco Renaissance

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    A renaissance, French for "rebirth," is often a period of revival or when society shows a renewed interest in something, often dealing with the arts and culture. The San Francisco Renaissance is an important part of post-World War II America, as the writings and philosophies of the poets that were part of the movement helped to culturally and philosophically mold the America we know today.

    San Francisco Renaissance, Golden Gate Bridge, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The poets of the San Francisco Renaissance were a close-knit group of writers centrally located in the San Francisco Bay Area for two decades after World War II.

    San Francisco Renaissance Meaning

    The San Francisco Renaissance isn't an official movement. Rather it is a group of writers in the San Francisco area following the conclusion of World War II. The writers held varied social and political views; however, they all were inclined toward modernism.

    Modernism is a period of artistic, musical, and philosophical change that occurred in America's early parts of the twentieth century. It was a movement that aimed to align the arts with growing societal beliefs and values that were prevalent in modernized and industrialized society. Characteristics of modernist writing are a rejection of traditional forms, a focus on the individual experience, the use of symbolism, and experimentation with form.

    San Francisco Renaissance Literary Theory

    The San Francisco Bay Area Renaissance and the poets that formed the group had many similarities with other groups during that time. Many innovative and young thinkers, seeing a need for change and development of the arts, were focused on a common goal of bringing poetry and artistic expression back into the mainstream and for the general public. They yearned to reestablish the need for creative self-expression in the lives of the common American and felt that poetry had a rightful place outside of learning institutions.

    The San Francisco Renaissance poets hoped to use poetry as a political platform and to inspire social change. Some of the other groups during this time who held the same beliefs and were commonly associated, either through collaboration or by philosophical ideals, included:

    The Beat Movement

    The Beat Movement was a social and literary movement that originated in the 1950s and centered around bohemian artists and their communities in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Although "beat" originally meant weary or tired, the definition used by the group was refashioned to connote the musical sense of the word and spirituality. As they were also known, Beatniks expressed alienation from the conventional and mainstream society by adopting a detached persona, a uniform dressing style, and jargon or vocabulary from jazz musicians. The beat poets often gravitated away from traditional forms of poetry and favored more turbulent verse, which was even sprinkled with obscenities. The movement paved the way for other writers' literary and social acceptance, such as the Black Mountain Poets.

    The Black Mountain Poets

    The Black Mountain Poets was a group of poets associated with Black Mountain College. This educational institution took an innovative and different approach to learning and focused on including the arts and holistic learning as an approach to a complete education. The Black Mountain Poets, like the beat movement, turned away from traditional styles of structure and form, favoring a more modernistic approach. They were experimental, and their work is noted for its use of colloquial language.

    San Francisco Renaissance, Asheville North Carolina, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Black Mountain College was located in Asheville, North Carolina amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    The New York School

    The New York School is a group of poets who lived in or worked in the Manhattan area of New York. They were extremely collaborative and influenced by impressionistic painters. Their works aimed to do with words what the impressionist artists did with paint and brush strokes. Because many of them were working as art critics or even as curators in the Museum of Modern Art, their social circle made it possible for them to form lasting professional and personal relationships with each other and with artists. Like the San Francisco Renaissance poets, their writing focused on daily life, politics, social issues, and reform.

    Sometimes understanding a poet's background, their political beliefs, and a little about their personal life can help you understand the underlying meaning of their poetry.

    San Francisco Renaissance Poets

    The San Francisco Bay Area Renaissance poets were crucially influential in making poetry accessible to the masses and using language that would be relatable to the common citizen. Some of the most important poets of the San Francisco Renaissance were:

    Madeline Gleason

    Born in Fargo, North Dakota, Madeline Gleason (1903-1979) was a San Francisco Renaissance poet, playwright, and painter. She founded the San Francisco Poetry Guild, and is responsible for organizing the first public celebration of poetry in the United States, the Festival of Modern Poetry, where the San Francisco Renaissance is believed to have originated. At the 1947 Festival of Modern Poetry, readings by Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan were featured. As a driving influence of Bay Area poetry, Gleason's work to introduce and promote new poetry proved influential in moving the genre from strictly the classroom and educational institutions into the daily lives of the public.

    Kenneth Rexroth

    Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was an American translator, essayist, and poet. He began publishing early in life, during his teenage years. He is the central figure of the San Francisco Renaissance. He often rejected traditional forms of education. As a teenager, he dropped out of school and followed his own curriculum, read diverse pieces of literature from around the world, and learned theology, anthropology, and different languages. With his long literary career, Rexroth was often instrumental in creating a social network for poets, and organized weekly gatherings for artists and thinkers to share ideas and collaborate. The self-taught intellectual is also credited for being extremely influential to the Beat poets.

    Robert Duncan

    Although commonly associated with the Black Mountain Poets mentioned earlier, Robert Duncan (1919-1988) also had a dynamic connection to the San Francisco Renaissance. He was close friends with Madeline Gleason, who was an avid supporter of Duncan. Duncan's poetry is evocative, musical, and can be obscure. His writing reflects his belief that poetry is the source of feelings and thoughts rather than an expression of them.

    Michael McClure

    Michael McClure (1932-2020) was an American poet, songwriter, novelist, and playwright. He moved to San Francisco in his younger years and found fame reading at San Francisco's Six Gallery.

    Jack Spicer

    Jack Spicer (1925-1965) was an American poet who spent most of his writing years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Spicer was a linguist by trade and adamant about his beliefs. He felt a poet's work was to be a host for language rather than the creator of self-expression. Poetry, for Spicer, was less about the poet and more about the language used. He would often dictate his work and felt that the immediacy of the language used was more authentic than the written form because it was less altered by the poet.

    San Francisco Renaissance Criticism

    The poets of the San Francisco Renaissance saw a deep-rooted error in society. While America was struggling to recover from war, it was also struggling with a restrictive cultural climate toward women, discriminatory towards minority races, and was divisive at the core. As such, their poetry responded to the devastation of war, the struggle of the general human in society, and expressed a longing to return to simpler times. Their writing was often infused with regional details unique to the Bay Area and sometimes confessional.

    Confessional poetry often deals with private experiences and an individual's personal response to them. Topics often include feelings about death, life, love, human connections, and trauma. It often employs everyday language and colloquialisms and can be autobiographical.

    San Francisco Renaissance, Reflection Eye, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Confessional poetry is introspective and reflective, exploring a person's unique views and internal thoughts.

    San Francisco Renaissance Importance

    The San Francisco Renaissance was important in helping to shape the American identity and in encouraging Americans, and society in general, to accept non-mainstream ideas. In the hands of the San Francisco Renaissance poets and their contemporaries, poetry was moved from the ivory towers of education institutions to the streets of the city. Poetry became a valid means of self-expression and a way to approach important societal topics.

    San Francisco Renaissance - Key takeaways

    • The San Francisco Renaissance was a group of writers located in the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II. Their writing was experimental and used daily language in the hopes of bringing the written word and the poetic form back to the general public instead of exclusively in institutions.
    • The San Francisco Renaissance had much in common with other groups of the time, including the Beat Movement, The Black Mountain Poets, and the New York School.
    • The writers held varied social and political views; however, they all were inclined toward modernism.
    • The San Francisco Renaissance was strong during the two decades following World War II.
    • The San Francisco Renaissance is an important part of post-World War II America, as the writings and philosophies of the poets that were part of the movement helped to culturally and philosophically mold the America we know today.
    Frequently Asked Questions about San Francisco Renaissance

    Who were the prominent writers of the San Francisco Renaissance? 

    Prominent writers of the San Francisco Renaissance include but are not limited to: Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Michael McClure, Jack Spicer, and Madeline Gleason. 

    How did the San Francisco Renaissance impact American literature? 

    The San Francisco Renaissance is an important part of post-World War II America, as the writings and philosophies of the poets that were part of the movement helped to culturally and philosophically mold the America we know today.  

    When was the San Francisco Renaissance? 

    The San Francisco Renaissance spanned approximately the two decades following World War II. 

    How did the San Francisco Renaissance originate? 

     At the first public celebration of poetry in the United States, the Festival of Modern Poetry in 1947, is where the San Francisco Renaissance is believed to have originated.

    Was the San Francisco Renaissance a movement? 

    The San Francisco Renaissance was a group of like-minded individuals in the San Francisco area following the conclusion of World War II. The writers held to varied social and political views; however, they all were inclined toward modernism. 

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