Kenneth Rexroth

Three More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1962

The Persistence of Pseudoscience

Off to Aspen to take part in a seminar on “The Public Understanding of the Role of Science in Society.”

Meanwhile, another man has gone around the world in a great hurry, the Federal Radiation Council has issued a report characterized by ingenious ambiguity, and the Blue Chips — meaning in many instances public investment in the commercial exploitation of new scientific developments — have led the market way, way down, and then way back up again, and now are oscillating nervously.

Here are three recent and dramatic instances in which science impinges on the interests of the ordinary man. What does he understand about them, scientifically speaking? If by ordinary, you mean really, honest-to-goodness ordinary, the answer is — nothing.

For the vast bulk of the population, of however many years of schooling, the terms and procedures of science are as awe-inspiring and as incomprehensible as the dances and spells of a witch doctor, and the end of science is still magic, the coercion of fate by mystery.

My earliest memory of the public image of the scientist is the man in the white cost who used to subject a popular brand of canned beans to rigorous scrutiny in a test tube while a white coated colleague, his face alight with the glow that shone from Watt’s tea kettle, transcribed his discoveries in a notebook.

They are still doing it, but now beans seem to sell themselves and they’ve gone to work on deodorants, cigarette filters and lipstick. Otherwise, the public is acutely aware that a group of Bela Lugosis and Boris Karloffs were locked up inside a cyclone fence in the New Mexico mountains and cooked up something that blew up a couple of Japanese cities and now threatens to blow up the planet. Beyond this meager image lies only a vast, dim, frightening confusion.

You think I am kidding? One of California’s best educated candidates for Governor [Upton Sinclair] was a passionate supporter of the Abrams Electronic Diagnosis Machine. Another writer [Paul Goodman], perhaps the most trenchant social critic of my generation, and an excellent poet, dramatist and short story writer as well, is to this day a devout believer in the Orgone Therapy of the late Wilhelm Reich. Movie producers, major stock market investors, industrialists, as well as the Sage of Big Sur [Henry Miller], plan their daily activities with the aid of pulp magazines of astrology.

These are all educated men, some of them even learned, yet any Boy Scout who had passed his Science Merit Badge could expose their utter ignorance of the simplest scientific facts.

In the common meaning of the term, this is the Public. Far worse than their ignorance of matters of fact is their misconception of the nature of science. Most people, even in the civilized nations, still live in a prescientific age.

Abrams Machine, Orgone Box, astrology, cancer cures, trick diets, fake medicine, dianetics, cybernetics, pseudo-psychiatry, tiger’s milk, or the lost continents of Mu and Atlantis — in every case we are dealing with the manipulation of reality on the basis of unsupportable hypotheses for the purpose of easing the minds of the insecure. This is precisely what the Arunta in the Australian Desert do when they chop holes in themselves, fill the gashes with emu feathers and point sharpened sticks in the direction of their enemies’ village.

This is why the public will give its enthusiastic support to expensive and spectacular toys like space rockets and view with indifference the impending revolutionary breakthrough in the cheap desalting of seawater.
Space gadgets are reassuring precisely because they are spectacular and expensive. There is nothing spectacular about a glass of water, while an astronaut around the earth is as great a solace as a bag of asafetida around the neck. When the Russians had two beeping balls and a dog aloft at once, the country was beside itself. We’d been out-magicked. Our shamen, on whom we’d spent all that money, had failed us.

I wonder if the hundreds of scientists who have taken part in the last few years in just such symposia as I am going to, realize what thin ice they are skating on? It is true that we need improvement in the science education offered by our schools; we need to close the gap between Sir Charles Snow’s “two cultures,” between the scientist and the humanist; we need to preserve the integrity of science in the face of the demands of Big Business and Big War; we need to cherish and nourish the informed lay public that does exist; we need to spend more money on research and less on “development” — that is, gaudy hardware; we need to rout the comic and/or subversive image of the egghead and the highbrow from popular mythology, and so on and on.

But these are all concerns of an elite, the scientists themselves and the genuinely informed laity. Both these groups live in and on the wider public. As long as this circumambient public is, scientifically speaking, living intellectually in the Stone Age, the scientists and their own small “public” are going to be as ill at ease as salt water fish who have been forced to adapt to life in fresh water.

[June 10, 1962]

American Poetry Since 1940

Off to the University of Oregon to give a series of lectures. I am beginning to feel this summer a bit like Eleanor [Roosevelt] in her prime, or even like Stephen Spender. I remember a letter from Dylan Thomas shortly before his death that went something like this: “I am at a Writers’ Conference in Prague. It’s not that I have any special sympathy with the government, but it’s the only one in the world I could find that wasn’t being attended by Stephen Spender.”

After I’d signed up for the series of talks they handed me a subject: American Poetry Since 1940. You guessed right — this took me considerably aback and my immediate reaction was — “Don’t mention it.” Is American poetry since 1940 really worth talking about for an hour a day for two weeks?

The ancient Chinese Buddhist poem says:

The fish in the waterfall
Cannot see himself,
And has no hands to touch himself,
And so can never know
What kind of creature he is.

Immersed in life we have almost no perspective; those who are immersed in the practice of an art have less than none. However an assignment like my present one has caused me to cast about and try to see where I am. After all, my primary life commitment after my family is to the integrity of my own craft of poetry.

What has my generation and the one after it accomplished? How do we stack up against the great dead, or against the classic generation of American modernists, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings and the rest of them? How do we compare with the Proletarians of the 30’s or the self-styled Reactionary Generation that came after them?

Long ago, standing in the Sistine Chapel and looking at the clamorous rhetoric of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, there stole into my mind a thought: “You know, Kenneth, art is by and large a failure.”

Possibly I have listened to too much music, read too many books, seen too many pictures, but past middle life, I seem to be predisposed always to weigh the achievement against the promise and wonder.

Recently, teaching a class in 19th and 20th century French painting, I was appalled to discover that my favorite painter was Pissarro, and before him, Chardin. Their aims were modest, but they accomplished them, completely. As Tennyson says in Locksley Hall, “Better 20 minutes of Puccini than a cycle of Wagner.”*

When we think of the vaunting programs of the Movements and Revolutions in poetry since Baudelaire, contemporary American poetry seems very modest indeed. The surrealist André Breton used to talk about how surrealist poetry would “fundamentally reorganize the human spirit as such.” It didn’t. My contemporaries and successors don’t seem to have any programs at all, not in that sense; they just write poetry.

I guess it is this unprogrammatic attitude to life and art that social critics are talking about when they refer to “Post-Modern Man.” We have outlived the Communist Manifesto and the Imagist Manifesto as well.

The Proletarians of the 30’s used to talk about going to the masses. They never got further than the literary cafeterias of Greenwich Village and the disorderly desks of the WPA Writers’ Project. Today with necks and brains well scrubbed, a surprising number of them occupy the top executive desks along Madison Avenue.

The Reactionaries talked about creating Mythic Archetypes for Conservative Man. Honest, they really did. Well, my columnar colleague Barry Goldwater may have his faults, but one of them is not the stylistic influence of T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom. For that we can be thankful.

The conspicuous thing about contemporary poetry is that it has, without thinking about it, become enormously popular. If I could stand the gaff, I could live on the lecture and reading circuit and make between two and three thousands dollars a month. So could any one of some twenty poets of my age or younger.

Books by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti outsell all but the most popular novels. This is not, as you might think, the scandalous success of the Beatniks. The conservative, conventional poetry of Robert Lowell sells almost as well.

Creative writing classes in every college are now busy turning out a kind of mandarin poet; soon you will not be admitted to the ranks of the professional, technical and administrative intelligentsia unless you have published a slender volume of Neo-Metaphysical verse, just like ancient China.

There is no question but that people are listening. The question is, what are they listening to? As poetry slowly diffuses through the social body like milk through water, what is happening to it? What qualitative changes are taking place? Is it any good?

That is another story. Maybe after I have talked about it for two weeks I will know the answer.

[August 5, 1962]
*Archivist's note. Tennyson ’s poem (1842) was far too early to have referred to Puccini and Wagner. Rexroth is doing a wry takeoff of the following lines from it: “Through the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day; / Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”

The Death of Marilyn Monroe

Like everybody else I am still haunted by the death of Marilyn Monroe. I suppose everyone with any sensibility at all heard the first news with a sick qualm at the pit of the stomach. Partly it was the realization of the long foreboding, the doom had been there in the background, dimly visible through the publicity releases for a long time. “It’s happened at last,” we all said. And since she provided millions with an erotic image, how many must have been seized by a little spasm of fantasy, “If only I could have prevented it.” The dream recoiled and involved the dreamer in an instant of imagined responsibility.

We talk about the American Dream. Alright, if Marilyn Monroe was the American Dream, what has gone wrong with it? Lillian Russell didn’t die so, nor Gaby Deslys, nor Sarah Bernhardt, nor Dolly Varden, nor Ida Rubenstein, and Mercedes DaCosta is still alive and recently published her memoirs. Actresses and dancers and singers and great courtesans who have given the public what in dreams they couldn’t find privately have by and large been successful at it. Morgan put his mistress on the silver dollar, and Dolly Varden fish are a nuisance to anglers in all the trout streams of northwest America. I am sure that every time Morgan’s girl spent that silver dollar, her faith in herself was enormously renewed. Perhaps they were priestesses of the Bitch Goddess, but she took care of her votaries. At each contact with her they gained strength, like the demigod who could fight with Hercules as long as he could make contact with his mother, the earth. They didn’t ask too much meaning from existence, and not too much love. The meaning was in the doing, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

Hercules held his opponent over his head until he grew weak and then he strangled him easily. What was the contact this girl couldn’t make? On the face of it, how absurd it seems to talk about her insecurity. True, she was cheated out of the role she most wanted to play, and could have played perfectly — Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. The part was given to a cold girl who can only do three things well, walk, walk faster, and run — but a girl who minded. The remarkable thing is that that is the only time the industry ever double-crossed her. In its own immense bumbling way, like River Rouge trying to manufacture Alençon lace, it tried to find things for her to do.

When she really got the chance, she did them very well. She must have known the satisfaction of good work well done. Why wasn’t it enough?

Now Aphrodite was a slippery and adulterous goddess, but she never cried out of the gloom of any of her shrines and said, “I cannot believe in the existence of what I am the goddess of.” The goddess bespeaks the minds of her worshipers. We have the idol we deserve.

The marriages which break up today are so often the ones that, seen from the outside, look ideal. Actresses and physicists at the pinnacle of success commit suicide. The worst beatniks are to be found at the Ivy League colleges, the worst delinquency areas are the two-car garages, three-bathroom suburbs.

Now the extraordinary thing about this state of affairs is that no one at all has anything resembling a convincing explanation. It isn’t materialism. Most Americans still cling to some kind of vague belief in some kind of Deity, and on the other hand, the entire Far East has always been godless in our sense. It is certainly not imaginary entities like Oedipus complexes. If they exist people have always had them.

The society we have invented for ourselves to live in seems to be, like the hydrogen bomb we have invented to exterminate ourselves, too vast a thing for us to comprehend. Somewhere a feedback valve has got connected to the refuse pipe and is pouring poison into the control center — and nobody knows what it is or where it is. At least I don’t. Do you?

[August 19, 1962]

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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