When Time referred to Kenneth Rexroth as the “Father of the Beats,’ he said, “An entomologist is not a bug.” That seems a bit off, though, as he had an enormous influence on Beat writers in San Francisco. If anything, he was facilitating the evolution of hybrid poets according to his own multi-faceted interests: East Asia. Erotica. Classical and modern literature. Anti-imperialism. The high Sierras. Anti-New York literary establishment.
On Dec. 10, 2013 there was a “Kenneth Rexroth Appreciation” in the poetry room of City Lights. Paying homage were Ken Knabb (who has a huge amount of Rexroth material on his website, Bureau of Public Secrets), David Meltzer, a well-known Beat poet, and Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the Mars trilogy.
Rexroth was the MC at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955 where Allen Ginsberg read “Howl,” and which included Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, with a drunken Kerouac in the audience. He and Kerouac did not get along, especially after the latter wrote an unflattering portrait of him as Reinhold Cacoethes in The Dharma Bums. As Meltzer put it (he came here in 1957 at the age of 20), David and some of his poet friends thought Rexroth was a “blow-hard,” a bit stuffy, and too intellectual for their tastes. If he was thought to be their “father,” they may have had an Oedipal reaction, whereby he was neutralized and they were sleeping with his muse, or trying to.
He was 50 years old in 1955 (1905-1982) and was definitely from another generation. He was not given to a disordering of the senses to provide more insights. There is a “luxury, calm and order” (Baudelaire) to his writing. He was primarily a poet, but also wrote criticism, literary journalism, and an autobiography. It may seem odd to refer to luxury when talking about an anarchist who never had much money, spent time in prison at a young age, worked as a horse packer in the mountains, and relied on one or two of his wives for financial support. I am referring to the luxuries of time and intellect, of living without a 9 to 5 job and spending a month or more in the high Sierras every year for forty years. He rented a cheap cabin and a horse to pack in 300 pounds of supplies while writing poems or translating ancient Chinese writings. He spent as much time in the mountains as John Muir did, and was way ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental concerns.
It’s like finding a blueprint for the Beat Generation in one man’s preoccupations. He had a huge collection of jazz records, introduced Ginsberg to Gary Snyder, and lived in an old Victorian home on Scott Street with 25,000 books. He and Snyder were at odds for a while when Rexroth referred to his writing as “bear shit on the trail.”
Meltzer was amusing in his recollections of Rexroth. He is in his late 70’s and frail, but very candid. He talked about when he, McClure and Ferlinghetti (who considered Rexroth a mentor) visited Rexroth. They wanted him to contribute something to their Journal for the Protection of All Beings. Meltzer noted how each step of the stairs in Rexroth’s home was piled with books. They found him in a petulant mood, which he was known for on occasion. They may have seemed a little sketchy and/or intellectually dubious to Rexroth. He kept yawning while these inspired poets were talking to him, and finally walked over to a sofa, lay down with his back to them, and fell asleep.
His parents were cultivated radicals of the anarchist persuasion. They knew Emma Goldman. His grandfather was friends with Eugene V. Debs (one of the founders of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World), who would visit their home. By the time Rexroth was 14, both of his parents had died – his mother had been ill, and his father was an alcoholic. As a young man, he knocked around something fierce, managing to visit Mexico, South America, and Paris, along with the Pacific Northwest, finally coming to San Francisco in 1927.
He managed to not get “mangled” by the ideological struggles in the 1930’s. He was a leftwing libertarian who practiced “philosophical anarchism,” a phrase which Ken Knabb found suspiciously weak. He was a pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II, working as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital (shades of Ken Kesey). He also helped some Japanese-Americans avoid the internment camps by writing letters to get them into colleges in the Midwest. Knabb came to San Francisco in 1965 when he was 20, and sat in on a class that Rexroth was teaching at SF State. According to Knabb, much of the anti-authoritarian aspects of San Francisco culture goes back to the “implicit anarchism” of Rexroth. He wrote about his early years in An Autobiographical Novel, which I read a while back.
He was having salons in his home in the 1940’s, an anarchist/pacifist circle, out of which came KPFA in 1949. He had a show where he would talk into a tape recorder for 30 minutes and when the time was up the show was over. It is interesting to note that the Examiner, a Hearst newspaper, had a highly civilized poet writing a column for it through most of the 1960’s. (Hunter Thompson wrote a column for the Examiner in the late 1980’s, but not very well).
Someone mentioned that he liked to combine jazz and poetry. Meltzer had some conflict with it, saying there was no relation between the music and the words, that it was “sprechgesang,” (which he defined as “speak-song”), whereas Meltzer liked to be more loose and improvisational when he read with jazz musicians. Ken Knabb later took issue with that, saying that when Rexroth read “Married Blues” to a Duke Ellington tune it was timed, there was a rhythm to it. Knabb also read from “Thou Shall Not Kill.” He noted it was a vast verse protest poem written two years before “Howl.”
Here are some excerpts:
They are murdering all the young men.
For half a century now, every day,
They have hunted them down and killed them.
They are killing them now.
At this minute, all over the world,
They are killing the young men.
They know ten thousand ways to kill them.
The hyena with polished face and bow tie,
In the office of a billion dollar
Corporation devoted to service;
The vulture dripping with carrion,
Carefully and carelessly robed in imported tweeds,
Lecturing on the Age of Abundance;
The jackal in double-breasted gabardine,
Barking by remote control,
In the United Nations;
And all the birds of the deep sea rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
“You killed him! You killed him.
In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
You son of a bitch.”
Meltzer and Knabb also disagreed on a Rexroth poem which Meltzer started reciting, but then found “too preachy.” Ken said he was missing the point. David said, “I’m known for that.” Ken skipped to the last few lines, with David saying maybe Rexroth should have begun with those.
One night, when he began a reading, he asked the audience: “What would you like to hear: sex, mysticism, or revolution?” A woman replied, “What’s the difference?”
Robinson noted the “stupidity of SF State” (I did time there) in not hiring Rexroth when he needed a job in 1967. No one would hire him or give him health insurance – a man who was such a cultural force in the community, and who had lived here for forty years. San Francisco give him the back of its hand. What made it worse was his sense of being slighted by the attention given to the Beats, who could have acknowledged him a little more. I wouldn’t say they wouldn’t have existed without him, but he did raise the roof beam. He was more or less ignored by the New York literary establishment (which preferred someone like Robert Lowell), and was devastated when one of his wives left him for the poet Robert Creeley.
He ended up having to leave town and go into exile, as it were, moving to Santa Barbara. He was a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara from 1968 to 1973. As if there wasn’t enough insult and injury connected to that move, his jazz records (including Jelly Roll Morton and Blind Lemon Jefferson) were packed up and shipped but never arrived. They were stolen by the mover who later showed up in London and opened a record shop.
A personal note of some regret: Like Meltzer and Knabb, I moved to San Francisco when I was 20 (in 1972). I had been living in Los Angeles and reading some of the Beat writers, along with Rimbaud. I’m not sure why I didn’t make an effort to visit Rexroth, who was right up the coast from LA. I hitchhiked on Highway 1, going through his town a few times, and had an old truck which broke down on the outskirts of Santa Barbara. There are worse things than being stranded in the vicinity of Kenneth Rexroth.
During the q and a, I asked how Rexroth made a living in this town in the early years. Knabb said he wrote reviews, taught art classes at SF Art Institute, had a stipend from his weekly column, WPA assignments, wives who worked, and was sometimes on the dole.
There was a woman in the audience who lived in Rexroth’s home in Santa Barbara for a year. She said he liked to recite dirty limericks at dinner with conservative teachers. She quoted one:
There was a young man from St John’s
Who wanted to bugger the swans
“Oh no,” said the porter,
“Please take my daughter,
The swans are reserved for the dons”
There was more about his libertarian sensibilities, his internationalism, and his humane openness. As Meltzer noted, you could discuss new things like psychedelics with him, but “for any topic he put a larger perspective on it,” finding connections and associations with the past. He thought psychedelic art was boring, but then compared it to the mystical visions of a woman in the Middle Ages.
Someone asked about his background as a Catholic, and if he could be considered a Catholic writer. He didn’t go to church, but held onto his Catholicism. There were theological journals in his home.
The panel ended by reading a few poems by Rexroth, including “Floating” from the 1940’s. Here is the ending:
Move softly, move hardly at all, part your thighs,
Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
As the river slides beyond this lily bed,
And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
In our mortal, timeless flesh.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).