Kenneth Rexroth

Four Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1965

A Sense of Crisis Abroad

As the journals of opinion come in from foreign countries it is possible to measure the acute sense of crisis that has swept over the world since the first American raids on North Vietnam. The United States, Russia and China, the largest nations, are extraordinarily insulated from outside opinion, they by force, we presumably by choice.

Except for the liberal weeklies, most of the American press seems to have turned the war over to the sports desk. Comment resembles nothing so much as the speculation on the eve of a heavyweight championship bout. Nobody dares suggest that hydrogen bombs are not boxing gloves. But the rest of the world, from right to left, is badly scared and every variety of opinion is mobilizing to call off the match.

Sen. Wayne Morse has made the unqualified accusation that the Johnson Administration is deliberately planning to provoke the Chinese into intervention, whereupon the American Air Force will destroy China’s nuclear facilities and threaten her cities.

This is a worse than rash charge if Morse cannot sustain it with evidence. If he has this evidence he should not make inflammatory speeches on college campuses, devoid of specific details. He should present his case to the world from the floor of the Senate, with systematic substantiation of his charges. At present he is believed by most of the rest of the world and laughed at by most Americans.

The increased intervention in Vietnam is only one factor in the worldwide sense of crisis. First, China has announced another nuclear explosion for the middle of this month. It may well occur before this column is in print.

Second, the Asiatic Cordon Sanitaire put together by Foster Dulles has now not just collapsed, but vanished from the face of the earth. In its place, from Syria to Indonesia, they have constructed their Sanitary Cordon. We are left with Persia, Thailand, the Philippines, Formosa, perhaps India, and two imaginary nations, South Vietnam and South Korea.

Third, the United Nations is today in worse shape than the League of Nations was after Manchuria and Ethiopia. It was established, to be honest about it, not as a Parliament of man but as a public arena in which the two contending power blocs, led by Russia and the U.S.A., could grind out their high tensions.

This is no longer the alignment of forces in the world. The prime contenders today are the West, led by the U.S.A., and Asia and Africa, led by China, weak but intransigent, with Russia in the position of America on the eve of World War I.

This is the shape-up. In America, the Right says, “Bomb!” The liberals say, “Negotiate!” The Left says, “Get Out!” In Europe, with almost no exceptions, all three say, “Negotiate!” Whatever is going to happen, it is not going to be a Golden Gloves Tournament.

[March 10, 1965]

Bob Dylan

In the newspaper business it isn’t considered cricket to even notice the competition. This time I just can’t resist the temptation. Last Sunday an opposition column [probably Ralph Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle] led off with the statement: “the winds of change, which have blown so strongly in recent years that they have sharply defined the gap between the generations, have produced in Bob Dylan the most eloquent spokesman for human justice since Thomas Paine.”

This is certainly about as rash a statement as anybody could make, but, although I don’t agree with it, I’m not interested in disputing it. What is important is that it could be made, by a mature man with a sharp ear and a sharper taste in popular entertainers, jazz, folksongs and related subjects.

I suggest you borrow your kids’ Bob Dylan records and play them over for yourself, listening carefully. This treatment will doubtless give many a conventional parent running and barking fits. Let’s hope it gives the intelligent ones furiously to think. As it says on sundials, It Is Later Than You Think. The schism of the soul, as Arnold Toynbee called it, between the generations in the U.S.A. is deeper and wider than you think.

Bob Dylan’s songs are a cry of anguished moral outrage against the mess the oldies persist in making out of a world in which all men could be guaranteed lives of peace and modest comfort if only the will existed. The social protest, pseudo-folk singers of the last generation were ultimately derived from Café Society Downtown, and they were only too obviously politically motivated. For this reason alone few people listened to them for long, least of all the young, who have sharper ears than any critic for the cooked up voice of protest.

But nobody is manipulating Bob Dylan. This is a voice from the grass roots and the heartstrings of an ever increasingly alienated youth. Only a little while ago the limits of social protest, at least amongst white singers, was the team of Peter, Paul and Mary. Now the kids put them down as, for all their good intentions, “too show biz.”

Dylan and Joan Baez draw unlimited crowds. Joan, in fact, sings in the largest auditorium available wherever she appears, and ties up traffic. And neither she nor Dylan are buying any of it at all; their attitude towards our society is simply, flatly, that it is wrong.

This is why angry letters to the editor about how the students at Berkeley should be given a taste of strap oil and made to study their lessons, show only that the writers are unaware of the profound and constant sense of outrage felt by thousands and thousands of the most articulate and sensitive and intelligent young people today.

Even if the general public is not yet aware of the meaning of what is going on, the policy makers in Washington are, and so are those in the churches. When a society starts to split, to come apart at the seams, it is in danger of foundering.

[April 21, 1965]

The Alienation of Youth

I do wish people would give me $75,000 each to write little reports telling them what is wrong with the University of California, the San Francisco Master Plan, North Beach, San Francisco Culture, and such like.

I always look around me, speak my piece, and go on about my business, and then after many great flaps, some committee of experts is hired at an upwardly mobile fee, and along comes a study which says just what I said in the first place.

I’ll tell you a secret. This is what the future is going to be — people making studies of people making studies of people making studies. The new youth culture that has taken over after the death of the Cools, the Angries and the Beats is simply a worldwide society of young people who have decided to live in the accomplished fact of an automated and affluent society in which the Puritan ethos of “work and pray, live on hay” has become silly and irrelevant — a society where war and poverty and onerous labor have become mummies from the past, kept alive by artificial means.

Their elders had already figured this out, but they were more hypocritical about it. They set up a little conspiracy; a key club to which admittance was only by Phi Beta Kappa key — the society of experts of the obvious. These boys have been, for a generation, the funnels and squirt guns through which the taxpayers’ money and the wealth of the great foundations has been injected into the gears of a Keynesian economy.

I am prompted to this by the Byrne report on the ailments of the university. I have been saying all this for years, strictly for free, and so have thousands of other people. What is wrong with the university system is that it is administratively obsolete. What is wrong with the university society is that it is inhumane — it is not a community but an enforced association, like a prison, the Army, a madhouse, a hospital, or any one of a hundred other groups of people who are gathered together regardless of consent, with a minimum of consent, or with consent only to a lesser evil.

What is wrong with the professors is that most of them are not great artists, which is what a pedagogue has to be, they are simply pusillanimous. They are men who stayed in school because it gave them security, they had only to associate with people who were juridically their intellectual inferiors, and their own self images were never subject to the strains of adult standards.

What is wrong with the students is that they see very little sense and a great deal of horror in the world they are being prepared to take part in.

I ask you, gentlemen, my contemporaries, as you sit with the scrambled eggs on your cap, the stars on your jacket, the three squawk boxes on your mahogany desk in the inner recesses of the bank, the little sign, “The Buck Stops Here” — if you knew, when you were at Harvard, what you would be doing at 50, wouldn’t you have been marching up and down and carrying a placard?

We didn’t change the world, although we thought we would. The people under 30, who are far more adult than we were at their age, will probably fail to change it, too. But at least they know that if they don’t, it’s going to change them — to radioactive dust. They don’t have our option. They can’t say, “It will last my time, or at least till I get it in a bank in Zurich.” It isn’t going to.

The word for seceding youth was “alienated” — they aren’t alienated anymore. It is the establishment which is alienated.

Meanwhile, the best of the student community, here or in Moscow, has adopted the slogan of the civil rights movement, “NOW.” They aren’t much interested in trade unions, or political socialism, or in joining up, as we were. We make a great mistake in thinking that they are.

They are interested in making, as a first step in their participation in the Great Society that is welcoming them, a fundamental moral decision — a decision — a radical, complete cut. And then, with that commitment, they are going to try to live by it, and if enough of them live by it — why that will be “society.” It’s that simple.

Today we are dealing with a subculture, but it is a subculture that is worldwide, unorganized but with its own, spontaneous “international,” and it numbers millions. They believe it when they say, “We shall prevail.” After all, they are convincing their contemporaries. That’s all they have to do. Have you consulted your almanac lately? There are far more people in the world under 30 than there are over it.

Anyone caring to pay me $75,000 can mail it to The Examiner in a plain envelope.

[May 16, 1965]

The Generation Gap

“Do go on with last week’s bit on the war between the generations.” It has replaced the war between the sexes as one of the most important and characteristic factors in modern life. Yet an awful lot of people don’t know it’s happening, and they’re not just the oldies.

They look puzzled when someone says, in regard to the rumpus at Berkeley or the rumbles at Lowell or the distant reverberations in far northern California where once you couldn’t tell the natives from the side hill dodgers, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” The lack of communication is total.

Of course it has been ever thus — but not nearly so much. Just as most people really believe they will never die, so most people forget they were ever young and substantially deny they were ever children. They lose the very diction, syntax and inflection necessary to communicate across the age barriers — or nowadays, barricades.

“My, how you’ve grown.” “What grade are you in in school?” “Do you like your teachers?” “I bet you’re like crazy, man, about the Beatles.”

The last from the aged hippies who think they are really with it. It makes your scalp crawl. Yet these are just the lead-ins, the openers. After five minutes, unless enforced, the conversation vanishes in quiet “Yes, Sir,” mechanically repeated, like the young Stan Getz saying, “Yeh! Man!”

Recently I gave a reading and talk in a local high school. The people and I got along fine. One fellow who looked like the young Aquinas, cherubic and innocently worldly wise, wanted to know if W.H. Auden was ever married to or had a love affair with Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika, and if so, why the fact had evaporated from all his biographies. I’m pretty sure he knew the answer, but I explained that it was largely a marriage of convenience between two good friends. It enabled her to get British or American — or possibly both — citizenship in the days of exile, disorder, and early sorrow before the Second War. We briefly discussed the ethics of marriage of convenience, about which the audience had information and opinions.

Then a modest, quietly dressed girl asked if I didn’t think American poetry would be improved by the presence of someone like post-War One revolutionary Dadaist poet and painter, the inventor of rubbish art, Kurt Schwitters. I agreed, flatly. “Why don’t they exist?” she asked. I explained that Americans were fat and sassy and had never experienced the utter heartbreak that went with the betrayal and collapse of civilization in 1914-1918.

“Ah, but we’re in a worse state now than they were then — why doesn’t our crisis result in great literature?” “Because dissent has become a hot commodity — just another aspect of the affluent society.” So it went.

My only problem was to keep my questioners from jockeying me into a position of leader in their struggles with teachers and the educational establishment generally. I certainly believe that the essence of education is struggle with the educators — the most important of whom are the students themselves. I believe students should subject all establishments to the most searching criticism.

But I had no desire to add to the manifest discomfort of the faculty chaperon, a most well intentioned young man. As far as Old Rexroth was concerned, he was himself a representative of youth. This of course his students would find out in five to seven years when some of them would be teaching high school themselves and worrying themselves sleepless about students who belong to the League for Sexual Freedom, read the IWW paper, make junk sculpture and are rumored to smoke pod.

Howsomever, two good friends, who surely think of themselves as “rebels who know how to use the Establishment without it using them,” met me there. They sat through the session, delighted with the euphoric rapport. One was a most likable man, the head of a large, national, or really international, creative and thoroughly up-to-date educational enterprise that spends millions really civilizing America, at least a little.

As we came away in the car he said to my daughter, “What grade are you in in school?” Then, “My, you are certainly mature for your age!” Then, “Aren’t you proud of your father for writing all those beautiful poems?”

Then, after a noncommittal answer, “Do you write poetry yourself?” She said, “Sometimes, when I don’t have time to do a regular paper, but my English teacher doesn’t think it’s poetry.” An answer in the great tradition of Shorty Pederstein. Then, “Are you going to be a poet when you grow up?”

As I watched the misnamed Electra complex rear and then stand on its tousled head, it was all I could do to restrain myself from violently commencing a conversation about the weather. Yet this was an enlightened man and one of the great, and in fact largely realized, hopes of a new pedagogy.

Oh well, Mary liked him very much anyway, so nothing was lost.

[May 23, 1965]

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