Kenneth Rexroth

Three More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1960

Poetry and Ballet

Thanks to the people who wrote or phoned about the Supervielle poem. No, there is no collection of his poetry in English. Yes, I have translated other poems by him, but I have never thought of publishing them. Any of the many local poetry publishers care to make an offer?

The good thing about this response is that it demonstrates once again something I am always saying, that people do like poetry. They like good poetry that says something to them. It is true that for many years there has been a very poor audience for most current American poetry. But why not? Most of it has been, not “modernistic,” but dull academic stuff by petty people who lead dull, petty, academic lives. In the right circles it has been thought terribly unfashionable to write about anything so vulgar as love, death, nature — any of the real things that happen to real people. The reason, of course, is that real things don’t happen to petty people, and if they do, they can’t understand them, much less assimilate them and glorify them for others.

As for any hint of social responsibility — for many years the poetry prizes and fellowships and teaching jobs have been controlled by a little clique of imitation Southern Colonels of literature, disciples of Thomas Nelson and T.S. Eliot, the “classicist, Anglo-Catholic and Royalist” from St. Louis. Who, pray tell, outside a Confederate Veterans Home, has been interested in such stuff as that?

On the other hand, poets as widely different as Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sell better, much better, than most novels. It has nothing to do with modernist or conventional verse. It has less to do with social attitudes. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, absurd reactionaries though they are, sell well, because they convey the immediate conviction of meaningful life. This is perhaps the primary function of the poet, to give life convincing meaning. “I am come that you might have life, that you might have it more abundantly.” People who fulfill that promise may be crucified, they are rarely ignored.

We should get over the cultural inferiority complex wished on us back in the days of H.L. Mencken. Who says America doesn’t honor poets? I have always been treated with a respect verging on reverence — as a poet — by my neighbors, and I have always lived in a very ordinary American working-class neighborhood. Not only that, but considerable numbers of the neighbors over the years have read the things I have written and enjoyed them. Mencken never seemed to notice that the people he abused so roundly read him. Fact is, he made a very good thing of it, moneywise.

More people by far in the United States go to symphony concerts than go to ball games. (Not that ball games aren’t fine, too.) Can the same be said for England or France? Indeed not. When I tell friends of mine who are editors of French papers that the readers of a San Francisco newspaper applauded my publishing a poem of Jules Supervielle, they will think I am kidding them. Oh well, some day doubtless we will outgrow our reputation as uncivilized frontiersmen. First, it would help if we outgrew it completely in our own minds.

Last Saturday we had dinner in Opus One. This is one of the more quiet and congenial places in North Beach. It is a great pleasure to eat where everybody seems to enjoy feeding you, and the food is good, half French, half Greek, cooked by Nausicaa, a Greek poetess who is one of San Francisco’s most remarkable personalities. (I might say that whenever, in this column, I recommend food or drink, “the management” knows nothing about it, and has not come through with any payola, not so much as a free drink.)

Then we went to see “Ballet 1960.” My, my, what a lovely evening! If the meal had been enjoyable because everybody seemed to have a good time cooking and serving and mixing drinks, imagine the pleasure of ballet where everybody in the company is having an absolute ball.

Ballet is terribly hard work. A ballerina works about as hard as a coal miner or a fry cook and counter man in a skid row restaurant. Most ballet companies are ridden with strife and jealousy. Nothing of this was apparent in “Ballet 1960.” They all acted like a bunch of model children have a hilarious romp. They knew what they were doing, they loved doing it, and they loved giving it to the audience. The effect on the audience was as might be expected. They went home in a state of profound euphoria. Everybody had a good time.

This is what makes the theater worth going to. This is “show business” in the real sense of the word. When perfect rapport and good will start flowing back and forth across the footlights you have something that the movies and television can never give. This is what makes “audience personality” and great audience personalities are very rare. Eleanora Duse had it — but so did Al Jolson, a ham if there ever was one, so did Pavlova, so did Danilova, so did Kreutzberg. Louis Armstrong has it, so does John Lewis. As Lester Young said of swing, “if you don’t have it, you’ll never even know what it is.” When a whole company has it — that’s something.

Maybe I had better explain what “Ballet 1960” is. It is the inner circle, so to speak, of the San Francisco Ballet. It includes most of the more finished dancers of the parent company. They have formed a smaller group to gain greater freedom to do new things. This means freedom from expense and cumbersome technical responsibilities as much as anything — it does not mean some sort of “revolt.”

Many of the criticisms that have been made of the San Francisco Ballet, by myself and others, have been the result of conditions under which the company has to operate. Many of these conditions are beyond the power of the Christiansens or anybody else to change overnight. The smaller group has been formed to get around some of them. And get around them they surely do! This is ballet for dancers and balletomanes, for people who know what’s happening.

There seems to be a quite adequate number of such people around, maybe not enough to fill the Opera House for a long season, but plenty to fill a small theater several times over. The turnaway compared favorably with the Newport Jazz Festival or the Un-American Committee hearing — but was handled peaceably with the promise of many more performances to come.

I don’t really feel much like “criticizing.” We all had a real good time, especially our Katherine, age 5½. We sat in the front row, right on top of the show, in the tiny Contemporary Dancers Theater, and she got a clear idea of what it means to be a ballerina — the joy, the excitement, and the hard work. It was a pleasure to watch her face, solemnly taking thought of her own future.

One thing — some of the pieces were “jazz ballet.” These two words in combination raise more questions than even “jazz poetry.” Next week if I might, I’d like to take most of the column to discuss some of them.
[July 17, 1960]

Mathematical Elegance and Classic Fiction

Still brooding in the woods. Days and days of rain. Hardly a bee ventures out of the hive in the wall of the house during the day. At night an owl comes and sits under the eaves and grumbles. Curtains of rain obscure and reveal the low mountains. Tatters of cloud drift between the Douglas firs and the redwoods. Out of my window in every direction there is a Chinese ink-brush painting.

After a week of rain the California autumn, which isn’t a real autumn, begins to give way to the California spring, which comes four months early. The first green shoots appear under the withered grass. The yellow maple leaves fall, pulled down by the rain. The buckeyes fall from their jackets and the purple green plums of the laurel fall.

Slender varied thrushes come from the Northwest and sit silently, close to the fir trunks under the rain, or flutter through the branches of the madrone, eating the ripening berries. In the shabby gray patches of withered thistles, where there were goldfinches a while ago, now there are flocks of natty black, gray and white Oregon juncos.

There are mushrooms everywhere along the muddy lanes. The streams begin to rise. Soon the salmon will be coming up them to breed and die.

The earth is pregnant with another year.

I’ve been too busy lately with things of no importance. It is good to sit and look out the window at the drifting mist, to read, and write, and walk in the rainy forest.

It is good to read only books that have nothing to do with the problems of the day that are bound to pass. All the books on the shelf beyond my desk were written hundreds of years ago. I will reread some of them with sherry and a cigar beside the fire in the evenings. The others I can just look at. I know well what is in them.

People have written to ask what I meant by the five greatest works of prose fiction. They are there on the shelf, too, but first I would like to talk about the books that stand at the head of the row, and that, as a matter of fact, I have been reading now. They are Thomas Heath’s History of Greek Mathematics, his three-volume Commentary on Euclid, his Works of Archimedes, and Apollonius on Conic Sections. Taken together, these books are a presentation in English of the main body, or the heart, of Greek mathematics.

I discovered them when I was a boy of 19. Few books have influenced me more. I got them one by one from the library and read them in a kind of exaltation. Although they were frightfully expensive by the standards of a self-supporting adolescent, I saved my money and bought them as fast as I could.

Now the most important ones, the history, the Euclid and the Archimedes, are published as paperbacks by Dover Press for a few dollars. Since those days the mathematical works of Pappus, Proclus and Diophantus have been published in French translations in Belgium — amongst the most beautifully printed books I own — and there is a little set of Greek Mathematical Works in the Loeb Library.

This is almost all there is left of Greek mathematics, less than a two-foot shelf of books. Western civilization is founded on these books, just as much as it is founded on the Bible and Homer, Plato and Aristotle, and the Greek tragedians. Like Homer and the tragedians, and in a sense, like the other books, too, they are great works of art.

The Greeks scorned any practical application of mathematics. Apollonius’s Conic Sections were a study of what seemed a minor aspect of geometry, with no connection with everyday reality whatsoever. For over a thousand years this continued to be true. Then Descartes restated conic sections in modern algebraic terms, and they became the foundation on which is reared most of today’s science. The orbits of the heavenly bodies are conic sections. Without them, the equations of Einstein and Max Planck would never have existed. The curves of statistics are formulas of a similar kind. Artificial satellites follow such curves.

In the first instance, however, the great mathematicians have always been artists. We can use their formulas to fly to Mars or to exterminate the human race, their equations and constructions are indifferent to the morals of the use we make of them. As such, in themselves, they have something more important to teach us.

The mathematical term for beauty and perfection in the work is “elegance.” In this term are embodied a group of moral qualities — the human mind’s confidence in its own order, nobility and discipline, and the realization that the order of the universe, beyond the narrow confines of the human mind, is also of the same kind. On this realization, all art, philosophy and science are based. It is the first human lesson of experience, and if it is not learned, man, in the words of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, is only an animal, and the thing of a day.

The greatest works of literature are great because they too share this grandeur and show it forth. The great works of prose fiction are great, not because they try to talk about deep things, as do so many novels of the passing day, but because they are themselves profound.

Any fool can chatter about nobility and magnanimity and courage. It is another thing to embody these virtues. The love life of a Japanese prince, the conflicts in a Chinese harem, the adventures of a crazy country gentleman in Renaissance Spain, the sad story of chivalry and betrayal in a Britain that never existed, the capers of a pair of fantastic giants, the domestic affairs of a handful of Icelandic farmers, a boy and a young Negro drifting down the Mississippi, the guilty troubles of three neurotic Russian brothers, a little English boy growing up, the disasters of a French popinjay — out of these unimportant materials, as trivial in themselves as the lines and circles of Euclid, the great prose dramas of mankind have been made.

These are the books which have, each in its own distinctive guise, each so different from the others, the same nobility and mystery that Archimedes surprised in the spiral and Apollonius in the parabola. To them too, in the mathematician’s sense, can be applied that rare word of final artistic approval — elegance.

The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki; The Dream of the Red Chamber by a doubtful Chinese author; Cervantes’s Don Quixote; Njal’s Saga; Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur; Dickens’s David Copperfield; Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel; Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; and not least of all, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Not everybody has the equipment to follow the speculations of the great philosophers, saints, scientists and mathematicians. Everybody can read a good story, and in these stories, so widely different and so absorbing, the human mind is again at its finest. Today they can all be found in cheap paperback editions. One by one I hope, as the months go by, to write about them.
[November 27, 1960]

Robert Duncan

The poet Ebbe Borregaard and his wife Joy have opened a gallery above the old pool hall at Post and Buchanan streets. The other night they gave a coming out party for Robert Duncan’s new book of poems, The Opening of the Field. The gallery and its location raise several very interesting questions, but first I want to talk about Duncan.

Robert Duncan was born on January 17, 1919, in Oakland. He attended the public schools and the University of California. In his late adolescence he spent a year or two in and around New York, where, with poet Sanders Russell, he founded and edited The Experimental Review, and, again with Russell, helped edit James Cooney’s magazine, Phoenix. (These two magazines were the first seeds of the flourishing contemporary school of personal, libertarian, romantic writing.) A few years ago he lived for a year in Mallorca and in France. Otherwise his life has been spent in the Bay Area.

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, although he could hardly be said to be a California writer. With that sole exception, Robert Duncan is certainly the most important poet ever born in the state. In the strict sense of the word, he is California’s leading poet.

I don’t know that “California-born poet” is a very large or significant category, but certainly no one qualified to give an opinion could dispute Duncan’s preeminence in it. But he is more important than that. Out of San Francisco, beginning here at least 20 years ago, has come, not just another “Poetry Renaissance” but a whole new literary temper, a new way of writing and looking at life. In the last five years it has become the dominant style of young writers, not just in America, but all over the world.

This idiom, this life attitude may owe its inspiration to older writers — Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen — who live hereabouts, but essentially it is the creation of those young people who were of draft age during World War II. Of this group, Duncan was, and still is, the undisputed leader.

(I might say that all this has nothing to do with the Beatnik craze, which was a hoax cooked up by a leading picture magazine and based on the capers of two delinquents from the classes of the most conservative English professor at Columbia University, who happened to be casual and distressing visitors to San Francisco.)

Duncan has been more than the leader and inspirer of a new literature of personal communication. The generation before him was permanently scarred and warped by the fiasco of literary Bolshevism.

For 15 years an alliance of ex-Bolsheviks and so-called “Southern Agrarians” (which just means “reactionaries”) ruled American writing. They controlled jobs, publications, awards and fellowships. That would not have been so bad, but they also, in an excess of penitence for their own rather stupid political sins, broke all international connections with the general tendencies of world literature in our day, and drove American letters back into a narrow pen of academic provincialism.

There was a time when Robert Duncan was one of a tiny handful of writers of his age who stood against this conspiracy of mediocrity. Today his side has won, and his opponents are in the process of being forgotten outside of their own classrooms. But for 15 years it was pretty grim going. All the major and minor Powers That Be simply pretended that people like Duncan had never, did not now and never could exist.

In the clique-ridden world of professional log rollers, wire pullers and back stabbers known as “literary circles,” integrity like Duncan’s does not come cheap. The members of the Establishment are taken care of with fellowships, scholarships, prizes and academic jobs from the cradle to the grave. To the best of my knowledge, Duncan has never received an important literary award. Although he has published ten books, this is the first one to be issued by a national publisher. True, this is partly his own fault. He has preferred to have his books done hereabouts, where he could oversee their production.

What kind of poet is Duncan? If I may be permitted to quote myself:
Of all the San Francisco group, Robert Duncan is the most easily recognizable as a member of the international avant-garde — the world style of our time. In Mallarmé or Gertrude Stein, Joyce or Reverdy, there is a certain underlying homogeneity of idiom, and this idiom is, by and large, Duncan’s. But there is a difference. Modernist verse tends to treat the work of art as purely self-sufficient, a construction rather than a communication. Duncan’s poetry is about as personal as can be imagined. So it resembles the work of poets like David Gascoyne and Pierre Emmanuel, who, raised in the tradition, have seceded from it to begin the exploration of a new, dedicated personalism. What is the self? What is the other? These are the questions of those who have transcended the “existentialist dilemma” — Buber or Mounier. Duncan may have changed or developed their language, but his theme too is consistently, the mind and body of love.
Finally — with this book, Duncan takes his place, indisputably, as the most mature, accomplished and profound poet of his generation. He is a much broader and deeper poet than Denise Levertov, and incomparably more mature than Robert Creeley, his only competitors. It is a little awesome reading these poems. They have a gravity about them we don’t expect from our contemporaries, a deep sonority and steady pace like a Lenten processional chant. It is not that they have solemn [indecipherable word], though some do. It’s a clear reflection of an inner life of seriousness and devotion. It’s not just dignity — maybe it’s wisdom. We are so out of the habit of expecting wisdom from literary people nowadays that maybe it’s hard to recognize it when it appears.

It is more than wisdom — this is poetry of personal responsibility and personal communion. That means that it is singularly reverent. It does, as the act of a work of art, what the philosophers of communion and responsibility discuss. Of course, these poems could be all these things and still not be poems at all, just wordy tracts for the life of wisdom. They have what is most important of all, a solemn, unforgettable beauty.
[December 11, 1960]

A comprehensive biography of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) can be found at The Poetry Foundation.

(Editor's Note: The complete columns — more than 760 of them — that Kenneth Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner can be found as a separate section on Ken Knabb's great website, The Bureau of Public Secrets. My thanks to Ken for permission to reprint this selection."
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