Kenneth Rexroth

Four More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1965

Unlimited Responsibility

Whom the gods destroy they first make mad. The response of what Jim Baldwin calls the “white power structure” to the explosion in Los Angeles is hardly to be believed. I have always thought the term a misnomer. Now I know. White it is, structure it has none, power it cannot exert.

There is much talk today about disrespect for authority. I find, on the contrary, the greatest respect for true moral authority wherever it exists, most especially on the part of those categories — youth and racial minorities — who are supposed to have least of such respect. What there is no respect for is the vacuum where authority should be, the double talk and evasion on the part of those who should speak fearlessly.

What on earth is the purpose of the committee appointed by the Governor? What can millionaires, generals, corporation lawyers, judges, ever possibly find out about what goes on amongst the rats and broken glass in the Negro ghettos?

At least the Governor came back from Greece. As of this writing Mayor Yorty has yet to so much as visit Watts. Politicians, police, all the leading Toms, all are scampering about passing the buck. Passing? They’re playing ping pong with it. Always it goes to ground at last in the hands of “the hoodlum element,” “the cotton-picking recent immigrants,” the Black Muslims, “the barnacles of society who must be scraped off and removed” in the words of one of L.A.’s leading Negro Christian pastors.

But it isn’t a ping pong ball. It’s a hand grenade with the pin pulled. If the power structure, black and white, persist in tossing it back to the people who have nothing to lose, not even decent chains, it is going to blow up again and again.

How can a minister of Christ talk about scraping off barnacles, in referring to the very scorned and outcast Christ came to minister to? Yet what difference is there between his statement and Cardinal McIntyre’s? Answer: the Cardinal went to a better seminary, where they teach more prudent diction.

The Christian is a person who is always conscious of his own unlimited liability for the evil of the world. This is what the charity is that St. Paul speaks about. This is what the highest type of Christian prayer is, the offering up of the tragedy of man in the chalice of each individual Christian’s heart. This is what Teilhard de Chardin did when he offered up all the world in his Mass in the Gobi desert. I am responsible. I share. I communicate with all of it, the beauty and the horror, just as I communicate under the form of bread and wine.

Until every man, cardinal, governor, preacher, civil rights leader, bureaucrat, social worker, merchant, policeman, and you and me, whether we are black, white, rich, poor, sits down and says, “I am going to start with the assumption that I am responsible. How? Not Elijah Muhammad, not Chief Parker, not the white race or the capitalist system, but me, what is my guilt?” we are not going to take even the first step toward solving this problem. And the solution can’t delay much longer, or our society will fall apart.

[August 25, 1965]

After the Watts Riot

It seems to me there have been just about enough post mortems on Watts. However, the enthusiastic response to my own modest columns of observations has me puzzled, and I feel I should make matters clearer. I have received complimentary letters from the complete spectrum — of color and politics. If southern belles and race militants both think I’m right, I wonder if I am not either totally wrong or misleading, or just plain platitudinous. I’ll try to be coldly objective, like a scientific observer from another planet.

First, it is far later than we think. Young Negroes are simply rejecting outright the prospect before them. They want a total change, right now, while they’re around to enjoy it. They are refusing to continue in, or grow up and enter, the kind of life this society is prepared to grant them. In many, possibly the majority of instances, they are not prepared for any other, but their attitude is: “That’s your problem, Whitey. You made it the way it is, now make it over, now.”

Civil rights, educational schemes, poverty programs, political representation — it may look as if all these things were being opened up with great rapidity and maximum good will on the part of the white community. They are not. You may think it unjust and ungrateful of him, but the young American Negro feels that he is being paid back an enormous debt of 400 years’ standing in bits and dribbles. He feels that he is being fobbed off with token payments on the interest, and he wants the principal, now, in cash.

Every delay, every political run-around, every hypocritical or temporizing speech in the conflict over school desegregation or the administration of the poverty program, here, now, in San Francisco, is just another twist in the baling wire tying down the safety valve on a boiler that was ready to explode before these programs were ever started. If the delay continues, the boiler is going to bust, just like it did in Watts. I’m not taking sides — I’m stating a fact.

For years the leaders of the civil rights organizations have been telling the white society that it was all they could do to hold back violence and channel protest into socially constructive action. They have been called Communist agents for their pains. The wrath of Watts was directed against Dick Gregory, John Lomax, the Negro press and politicians, Martin Luther King, the local Negro clergy, just as much as it was against the Mayor and Chief of Police.

There are no end of problems the Negro community must solve for itself once it gets the chance, but the basic problem is a white problem and it must be solved immediately. Those who stand in the way of solutions, on boards of education or civic or federal committees, are inciting violence and endangering the lives of you and me. If hell breaks loose in Hunters Point, a CORE button, a sixty-fourth part of Negro ancestry, a Negro spouse, or “some of your best friends,” even dozens of them, aren’t going to do you a bit of good. You’re going to be “Whitey,” which is nigger spelled backwards. Of course this is an appalling situation, and there’s no justice to it whatever. There is still time to forestall it, but very little time.

[September 1, 1965]

Harassment in Haight-Ashbury

The Haight-Ashbury is in a swivet. The Blue Unicorn, famous on all ten continents, has been closed temporarily while its habitués pitch in with brush and hammer, wrench and screwdriver and bring it up to Health Department codes. They feel they have been, as the saying goes, harassed.

People leaving the Both/And, home of the John Handy Quintet, the most important musical activity in San Francisco, except for the Opera’s Lulu and Pelléas and the Tape Music Center across on Divisadero Street, have been rousted by the boys in the skunk car. In fact, I have a copy of a letter that alleges that the peace officer, as the polite name for a policeman has it, made insulting and inflammatory remarks.

The heat seems to hit the interracial places mostly. There is something about a mixed couple that makes the typical policeman see black and white with red spots. Again, the beard and sandal set get the roust. Every place with unconventional shades or hand-painted stained glass windows is suspected of being a dope pad. Every barefoot boy and girl is assumed to be walking along the street with a hypodermic stuck in a vein somewhere. Equally interesting places that are predominantly for black people, even if they are very famous, like Connie’s, are seldom bothered.

I think we need to bring this business all out in the open. I feel a special responsibility because some people say that the series of news stories we did on Haight-Ashbury provoked all the heat. I don’t think this is true, rather the opposite. The stories carefully emphasized the upbeat, avoided considerable and very inviting temptations to sensationalism, and by and large portrayed the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon as what it is, de-slummification without aid of bureaucracy.

Somehow the administration of the City and the Police and Health Departments must be persuaded to cooperate with the new population of the district rather than opposing it all along the line, and to understand the meaning of the social changes taking place.

Bohemia has deserted North Beach because of the evil place it has become, just as I prophesied it would.

The old Italian population of the Beach doubtless are saying good riddance, but when the bullets start flying through the windows and the pineapples explode in the doorways and you have to pay off to the Organization to run a shoeshine stand or a family grocery, they are going to long for the good old days of Isidore Gomez, Mirtokleia, Mona and the Beatniks — not least because their property values will have hit the skids.

I suggest that Bob Stubbs, owner of the Blue U, Shef and Delano, owners of the Both/And, maybe Connie, and a couple of the solid artists, for instance the potter Sylvia Clark and the painter Ovid, get together with Lieutenant Andreotti, head of the Human Relations operation of the Police force, for a little public meeting of the kind Andreotti has held to cope with other neighborhood problems. I know a couple of clergy who would be glad to participate and it would be easy to air the discussion, both of the panel and from the floor. Perhaps the Divisadero studio of KPFA could be used.

[October 11, 1965]

Poetry on Record

San Francisco is considered the place where the revival of oral poetry, now immensely popular all over the world, first began. Poetry readings draw enormous audiences — if the poets have something to say those audiences wish to hear. Dylan, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg are runners up on the Beatles, and I don’t do so bad myself.

The pre-war generation of reactionary Metaphysicals, the boys in the textbooks and square type anthologies, are lucky to bring out 50 people, but the new poetry of direct speech and social responsibility has become an effective force in modern civilization — in San Francisco, Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow or Barcelona, it’s the same story, poets once again are at the growing point of society.

I’m moved to these observations by James Broughton’s new record, which he just sent me for Christmas. Thank you, James. It is thoroughly entertaining and yet deeply moving.

Broughton is a master of the whimsical tone, the unexpected insight and the hidden bite. With the harpist Joel Andrews he has worked out a method of presentation that differs from the poetry and jazz combination Patchen, Ferlinghetti and I popularized years ago, and has more in common with the use of modern poetry in the French café chantant, an old and certainly socially effective form.

It would make an ideal Christmas gift for most any literate person of any age. The Bard and the Harper, James Broughton and Joel Andrews, Gleeman Records, MEA Box 303, Sausalito, Calif.

There is a lot of this stuff around now, some of it very good indeed. Caedmon Records have been doing the leading poets, mostly of the old Establishment, for years and years. Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Ogden Nash, Edith Sitwell, E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, they managed to get practically the entire generation of classic American Modernists, one of the great outbursts of creative activity in the history of literature, before they had passed away. Besides, they issue all sorts of other poetry albums, from Homer to Jean Cocteau.

Their taste is strongly conservative, but the attitude of the two young women who started the company on little but hope and a mouth’s rent, years ago, was “first things first.”

Lately they’ve been doing the complete plays and poems of Shakespeare, performed by the best actors they could obtain, and they are now almost through. I decided to splurge and bought a whole mess of them for my daughter for Christmas, seeing as how she is certainly committed to the theater.

Poetry is not something in print. It is living speech to living, participating people. I would rather recite my poetry to jazz in any night club, or on any soapbox, than have it appear in the most prestigious literary quarterly. If you can’t be there, at least you can have the voice on records and certainly Shakespeare wrote for the voice and ear and not for the book and eye.

All the major recording companies are now slowly moving into this field and some of their plays, particularly, are very good. Trouble is, the big outfits are geared to the manic commercialism of Mad Alley and they don’t have the low overhead and resulting flexibility and courage of an anti-Madison Avenue operation like Caedmon. On the other hand, if you dig something more far out and contemporary, there is that, too.

If you want the postwar poets, who mostly write specifically to be read aloud, there are records of the major San Francisco poets, Patchen, Robert Duncan, Brother Antoninus, Ferlinghetti, Louis Simpson, I think McClure, myself, and an anthology of all of them. Badly needed are records of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. And there are records of Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg.

These things do not enter the ordinary channels of “exploitation” and promotion, and so are seldom reviewed anywhere, and they are sometimes trouble to find. San Francisco retailers, with few exceptions, enthusiastically discourage such orders.

I thought I’d do a full dress piece on the subject for you, since people are always wondering if it might just be possible, just for once, to find an unusual Christmas gift which was specifically suited to an individual taste. Well, if your giftee likes poetry, you’ve got everything from Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon to Allen Ginsberg to choose from, and even Allen Ginsberg likes Shakespeare — anyway I guess he does. I’ll ask him. Somebody ask Bob Dylan.

[December 12, 1965]

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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