Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) – Photograph by Jonathan Williams

Today, December 22 – the first day after the Solstice.
Kenneth Rexroth was born on this day.
An eclectic figure, significantly influential at one time (his star seems to have somewhat surprisingly, and disturbingly, waned). He was, to quote his friend and former student,
Thomas Sanchez, “(a) longtime iconoclast, onetime radical, Roman Catholic, Communist fellow traveler, jazz scholar, I.W.W. anarchist, translator, philosopher, playwright, librettist, orientalist, critical essayist, radio personality, newspaper columnist, painter, poet and longtime Buddhist”, “the Grand pooh-bah of the ‘Frisco literary scene”, (to quote another literary commentator William Hjortsberg), the pivotal figure in early post-war San Francisco bohemian culture (he actually gravitated to the West Coast somewhat earlier, in the ’20’s, and so, a generation older than many of the poets, artists, writers and filmmakers that attended his legendary Friday-night soirees in his book-lined second-floor apartment at 250 Scott Street)

At the heart of the San Francisco Renaissance, Rexroth was also instrumental/central to the nascent Beat movement, most importantly, along with Allen, helping organize (and, famously, emcee-ing), in 1955, the legendary Six Gallery Reading

Check out “The King is Dead Long Live The King” – by Uri Hertz – “A Critical Study of the Literary & Cultural Impact of Kenneth Rexroth’s Poetry & Jazz on the 1950’s San Francisco Literary Bohemia”

As Hertz points out: “For Rexroth, as for the Beats, poetry went beyond the bookish art relegated to hushed libraries, buttoned-up bookstores and hallowed halls of academia” (for a while, though not a “Beat” himself,  he was happy to be their “grand-daddy”, their intellectual spokesman).

“Nevertheless (he) was skeptical of what he considered (their) co-opting of the San Francisco Renaissance and their vulgarization of poetry and jazz into a tattered pop stereotype”

The Beats themselves likewise were critical (see Kerouac’s satirical account of the Six Gallery reading in an early chapter of The Dharma Bums – “old Rheinhold Cacoethes” – that was Rexroth)

After an initial honeymoon, (generational gaps – and a little jealousy, perhaps), there was no love lost between them.

Hertz again – “The older mentor (Rexroth) was writing dismissively about the Beats not long after he had first championed them in the press. In a piece he wrote ten years after the fact, (he) described Kerouac and Ginsberg as a couple of out-of-town rubes who glommed on to the San Francisco underground and ran it into there ground – “…two prize students..showed up in San Francisco…Their names were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Both were extremely conventional writers with an inflexible Madison Avenue orientation. The liberating San Francisco atmosphere, free of market pressures, exploded them or maybe just gave them an incurable case of the bends. They took up and vulgarized any number of San Francisco customs – poetry and jazz, for one – which they almost immediately succeeded in destroying…”

The key text that links Rexroth and Ginsberg is Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, his excoriation of the “squares” who, he believed, had driven Dylan Thomas, via alcoholism, to an early grave – “You killed him with your Brooks Brothers suit, you dirty sonofabitch”

Significantly in that poem, Rexroth uses the word “Moloch”

Allen, in 1987, speaking to Regina Weinrich:   “I had probably picked it up from Rexroth but I had forgotten that. I think that was a neurotic block, partly because I thought Rexroth’s poem was too crude, too accusatory, negative in a sense. It was in a sense the classical beatnik poem, ingenious poem, right-minded and right-hearted, but it lacked an elegance that I wanted to see in my poetry, or maybe I’m being too snobbish.. Do you know that poem? Very famous. I think it was put out by City Lights as a pamphlet …it was a big thing in San Francisco among poetic circles at that time…….it made a big imprint on me, impression on me because it was even more bohemian than my bohemian, even more beat than my beat. I wanted to say “I’m with you in Rockland”, not “I’m against you out there in the world”. I wanted to accentuate the positive or do an alchemical job transforming lead into gold, so I think in order to accept guilt by association I recognize the Rexroth. That really was the catalyst for Howl. So I certainly should give him credit…”

Here’s Rexroth on Ginsberg in 1969, in a review of Jane Kramer’s Allen Ginsberg in America   (work he read as well-meaning, but finally bland, domesticating, journalism):

“Probably the best journalistic picture of Ginsberg available is Paul Carroll’s many-page interview in the April 1969 issue of Playboy, and the real kernel of that is Allen’s little discourse on the ecological breakdown that threatens the extinction of the human species within a comparatively short time, and the necessity for an ecological revolution against the life-destructive forces that are corroding everything about us. The point is Ginsberg is a very serious man. He actually believes with Whitman and with Whitman’s master, “I am come that ye might have life, and that ye might have life more abundantly.” He may be mistaken as he has made many mistakes along the way that he is now trying to correct and at the end he will probably be crucified in some socially acceptable way, one of the ways of the American Way of Life, but it won’t be for not trying. It is quite impossible to domesticate a person like this, even in the most sophisticated stately homes of Scarsdale where New Yorker “Profiles” go when they die.”

He concludes:

“I see I have done just what bugs Allen, written of him as a sociological phenomenon rather than as a great literary artist. Oh well. Jeremiah and Isaiah are great poetry as well as great prophets. Ginsberg’s verse broke the iron crust of custom of the self-styled Reactionary Generation, deprovincialized American verse and returned it to the mainstream of modern international literature. So, Allen, you’re a great literary artist.”

Kenneth Rexroth at New Directions   (still, happily, many of his books are still in print)

Kenneth Rexroth reads from One Hundred Poems from the Chinese and ‘In Defense of the Earth’ and discusses poetry in translation.  Recorded by the Poetry Center, at The Little Theater, San Francisco State College, July 13th, 1955 – here, here, here, here here and here

Further Rexroth readings from the Poetry Center may be accessed here and here

Kenneth Rexroth – The Signature of All Things, the filmed celebration from back in 2015 (at Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles, on the occasion of the Rexroth Centennial) is now available in its entirety – free for viewing, throughout the month of December – here 

For more Rexroth on the web, check out The Bureau of Public Secrets (BOP Secrets) – Kenneth Rexroth Archive and San Francisco in The Sixties,  their complete listing of columns and articles from the..Examiner, the..Bay Guardian, and San Francisco Magazinehere 


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