Kenneth Rexroth

Three Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1962

Poetry and Song, French and American

Sitting down to write this column, I am a little tired because I have been busy for the last few hours putting together a show for the San Francisco Poetry Festival coming up June 21. I think we’ve got it shaped up. I hope so, because it is a scheme dear to my heart.

As everybody knows, the great trouble with American poetry is that almost nobody reads it. In recent years a movement for the oral presentation of poetry has spread from San Francisco over the country. Any poet of any reputation at all with sufficient stamina could now make a good living on the college poetry reading circuit. The schools have discovered that it is one of the most popular, as it certainly is the cheapest, assembly programs they can get.

This is all to the good, but still it is a limited and specialized audience. After school is over and the kids have gone out into the world, there surely isn’t much poetry lying around.

A few years back Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I revived the reading of poetry to jazz. It was very popular, and very successful. In no time at all we found ourselves in the big time of the entertainment business, seriously considered as a brand new gig in the pages of Variety. And then the Beats pulled the rug out from under us. Soon every Greenwich Village and North Beach bistro had a barefoot bearded boy reading free verse doggerel to a pawnshop saxophone. That was the end of that.

There is another way of doing it, though. The average person who listens to Edith Piaf, Juliette Greco, or Germaine Montero does not realize that the majority of the numbers on most of their records are by very well known poets indeed.

In the middle of the last century the French poet Charles Cros (who incidentally invented the phonograph) was himself a café chantant entertainer. Yvette Guilbert made Ronsard’s sonnet “When you are old and seated by the fire” a popular song. Aristide Bruant, whose café was immortalized by Toulouse Lautrec, wrote a whole batch of songs that are possibly the greatest poems of low life ever written. Germaine Montero sings them on an Angel Record. Brassens, the lyric social satirist, one of the most popular entertainers in France, is an excellent poet. No contemporary satirical poetry in English can remotely compare with his.

Not only do the singers write poetry, really poetry, for their lyrics. The leading poets of France are sung in cafés chantants and night clubs. Apollinaire, Eluard, Prévert, Queneau, Cocteau, Desnos, Jacob, Cendrars, Aragon, Mac Orlan, Carco — the leading poets of the last generation — I have heard them all sung in clubs to typical melodies of the café idiom.

The younger people are carrying on the tradition even more vigorously. One of the most enjoyable records I have is the harpist and singer Douai singing songs by the editor of Poésie, Pierre Seghers.

If we could only get something like this started in America maybe we would have a breakthrough into a vitally interested adult audience. There is no point in putting down the environment as beneath the dignity of poetry. What is wrong with American poetry is that almost everything imaginable is beneath its dignity. Homer and the troubadours sang for audiences not a whit different. The medieval Goliards were out and out barflies.

It’s the other way around. The problem is to find poems by American poets that say something to people who are not literary specialists. Sex, candy and bloodshed, the subjects that interest the widest audiences, interest few poets, or it they do they keep quiet about it. Most contemporary poets write complicated poems about how hard they find it to count their thumbs.

Anyway, I have gathered up some typical café songs by major French poets, and got a jazz musician to write some “club tunes” to some modern American love poems, and got a pretty and melodious girl to sing them. It should be a gas, and best of all it should be foolproof. You have to have some sort of skill all along the way and I don’t see how it can be invaded and destroyed by the human airedales.

If it goes over, maybe we can move it to the Eye or the Onion and after that who knows, maybe we’ll have started a sounder and more enduring craze than the late lamented “poetry and jazz.”

[April 1, 1962]

Religion and the Enhancement of Life

During most of last week I was conducting a seminar at Big Sur Hot Springs on “Religious Restatement in an Age of Faithlessness.” A subject to which we found ourselves returning again and again was the role religion plays in the enhancement of life. Perhaps this is its primary role, if we confine ourselves to people’s behavior rather than to their beliefs about why they behave, religiously, the way they do.

Certainly all religions, even atheistic ones like Buddhism, deal with the ultimate significance of life. So does philosophy. But religion embodies significance in acts, in responses of the whole man. Philosophy reduces significance to notions. So the total response of religion transfigures life in a way philosophy does not.

The arts do this too, but in a different way. They adorn life, but they do not demand commitment. Bach or Cézanne, you can take them or leave them alone.

One of the things we are always being told is that in our modern secular society, this enhancement of life is withering away. Discussing this question during five days of intense conversation, I think some of us began to wonder if this were in fact true.

Because Christianity arose in a period of disillusionment, alienation, life tedium, “failure of nerve,” so many religious apologists seem to believe that if they can just convince us that we are living in the same kind of time, we will all join up.

There is no question but that we are living in a period of widespread social disorder. There are groups and tendencies in society headed all too obviously toward disaster. There are millions of people who are hopeless, frustrated, frightened. It seems to me there is a difference. We know it. This is a highly self-conscious age and its very self-consciousness is a powerful corrective.

I once shocked Vance Packard severely by pointing out to him over lunch that he was himself a hygienic device of the Madison Avenue he has devoted himself to exposing.

Similarly, religious leaders like Niebuhr, Tillich, Maritain, Dawson, Buber, Berdyaev are not broadcasting to us from another planet. They are themselves highly articulate members of the same society where nerves are failing and lives are tedious. They are all demanding that we might have life, that we might have it more abundantly.

Such a demand is meaningless if it is not widely accessible. Then it is not a demand, but a pious hope.

Before you can enhance life, you’ve got to have it, at least in considerable measure. Today in America and Europe, in the very society that is supposed to be disintegrating, men are well enough, well educated enough, and possess enough leisure to begin to ask the important questions in very large numbers indeed.

I doubt if they were any better off in the “Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries.” Then, too, we are self-critical enough to seek for the sharpest questions.

On her deathbed, Gertrude Stein asked, “What is the answer?” Nobody replied. After a bit, she said, “What is the question?” and so died.

[April 4, 1962]

The Atomic Arms Race

By the time this column gets into print the first bomb may have exploded above that island named for the night on which angels appeared in the air singing, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Let me say at the beginning that I agree completely with Linus Pauling and Bertrand Russell in their charges that we are victimizing unborn generations with the genetic effects of radioactive fallout and that we are headed straight towards a war of complete extermination of the human race. Who denies this?

I have nothing but contempt for those who assure us that an atomic war is not going to hurt, much, and that atomic warfare does not differ in the moral issues it raises from any other kind of warfare in the past.

Neither President Kennedy nor Chairman Khrushchev agree with the school of thought represented in the public mind with Edward Teller. Both of them agree with me — or with Linus Pauling or Bertrand Russell. At least they have said so enough times. Presumably they are the two best informed men on the subject and know what they are talking about.

Yet, barring a miracle, both sides will resume atmospheric testing this summer, and will continue it indefinitely.

All mankind is caught up in the overwhelming inertia of power politics. Nobody can break away — at least nobody in power. Even at its best, politics is not a moral art. It is the art of the expedient. This may be sufficient when politics is concerned with the location of freeways or even, give time, with the extension of the franchise in Alabama.

The issue of atomic warfare poses the ultimate problem, the problem that mankind has never been able to solve. Today it is stated as simply and starkly as possible. Either the human race learns, and that quickly, to moralize politics or the species will cease to exist in the not too distant future.

A power struggle which can only end in the mutual extermination of the combatants and of all the bystanders as well is the final expression of the politics of despair.

President Kennedy has said that we can look forward to 30 more years of the Cold War, the arms race, and power maneuvering in the former colonial world. And then what? What lies at the end of this? A kind of radioactive decay of the human conscience? What is the answer?

I believe that at present the only possible answer open to the individual is precisely individual. Demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and Times Square are not going to stop this avalanche towards death, and for one very simple reason — there are no comparable demonstrations in the Red Square and on the Nevsky Prospekt.

All that we can do is to so act as individuals that we, within the tiny limits of our individual power, keep the moral issues alive and constantly before the eyes of those to whom the power of decision has been delegated.

If we are men of peace we can point to the possibility of a world at peace. Against despair we can raise hope. Our hope can have meaning and content for all men as despair cannot at all.

It is that or nothing. Nothing at all.

[April 25, 1962]

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