Kenneth Rexroth

Four Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1966


Last week I went down to Coalinga to give a reading and lecture at Coalinga College. Imagine. Last time I was in Coalinga it had at least 50 brothels and not more than 50 books if you counted the telephone directories.

Now it has a college where poets come to read, and the head of the art department paints pretty good abstract pictures.

If you don’t know what or where Coalinga is, it’s like nowhere, straight west of Fresno, over a range of hills on a plateau at the foot of the Coast Range, which at this point interposes three separate ranges which act as rain screens. I think the rainfall is six inches a year.

Yet it is not quite desert, but an extreme example of the interior Coast Range dry savannah, sparse grass, enough for thinly distributed cattle range in the winter, and a long period of estivation (the opposite of hibernation) from May to December. Well water is undrinkable.

At one time water was hauled in, now it is processed by two new experimental methods, but it still isn’t very nice.

In recent years they’ve come to raise quite a bit of very long staple cotton, irrigating by wells, though how they keep the soil washed out of alkali I don’t know. Every year, of course, the water table drops deeper and deeper.

Coalinga came into existence as the central town of the old Kettleman Hills oil field. Every year too, the oil gets harder to get up. Yet the town persists and in fact improves.

From now on for a month the drive down there is one of the most interesting and novel you can take in the state. From 10 miles beyond Hollister I drove over 75 miles without passing a single car traveling in either direction, only those working on the road.

Coming back I passed three. There is more traffic across the desert to Timbuctoo.

We’ve had plenty of rain this year, so the wild flowers will be coming out around the middle of February, and you can take a side trip and see the Pinnacles.

You can come back through Fresno and see the Mall and realize what we could do with Market Street if we just had the gumption.

Coalinga is the perfect argument for a meaningful state arts council — not the thing Pat Brown cooked up to delude the beard-and-sandal vote and grease the limbs of a few artistical lame ducks and give a couple of Phi Bet’ foundation bums money to make Another Study — but a real, functioning booking and exchange and organizing center to use the facilities we have right now.

Think — many of the kids at both Coalinga High School and College have never seen a live actor or a live musician, except for a mickey mouse dance band.

All over the state, music groups rehearse for weeks and then put on a show for one night only. Really great plays are excellently produced and acted, often far better than the commercial theater, and then are seen two weekends by students and faculty of one school.

The number of pictures turned out annually, if laid edge to edge, would probably cover the state. It would be so easy to have traveling exhibitions showing all the time in all the Coalinga Colleges and High Schools.

Within a block in any direction of where I live in Haight-Ashbury there must be a couple of pretty fair young jazz musicians who never get a chance to play except when they can crowd to the stand after 3 a.m. on an off night at Soulsville.

Coalinga, like most of the towns in the poison-oak belt and in the far northern counties, used to be one of those places with the old sign out: “N——R, DON’T LET THE SUN SET ON YOUR HEAD!”

It would do such paleface villages a world of good to meet folks who come bearing music, whether dark brown ribs-and-chittlin music or pale tan tamale music. And the kids would eat it up.

Why don’t we get programs like this? Why can’t we even get one started in the City? The cost would be practically nothing. We spend enough to blow up one bamboo bridge, repaired in a night, to run such a program for a year. That’s why.

There’s no loot in it, no pork. And politicians are only interested in rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies at the swill trough. They better get with it, before it burns down around their ears.

[February 6, 1966]

Strindberg and Genet

The Father at the Actor’s Workshop and The Blacks at the Playhouse, both seen on one weekend, made for quite a massive dose of something or other, which it is easiest to call by its cant name, alienation.

Another cant phrase, now so popular, is “enlargement of consciousness.” Currently this just means getting intoxicated in a highfalutin way, and, as my friend Herb Gold says, from what he sees, most of these people with enlarged consciousnesses would have been well advised to have kept them small, as small as possible.

There was another phrase once that Matthew Arnold used of drama which enlarged consciousness. He said of Sophocles that he saw life steadily and saw it whole. Vision of this kind has practically vanished from the arts. We think of it as the distinguishing characteristic of the great classics.

In fact it was never very common. Maybe it can only be applied, of all the world’s dramatists, to Sophocles. Certainly not to Shakespeare, who is as neurotic as the best of us in Titus or Troilus and only steady and whole in vision in The Tempest. But Strindberg and Genet are something else.

Strindberg was an advanced sado-masochist, a pathological hater of women, and spent long periods of his life in a state of delusional mental illness.

Genet is a sociopath for the textbooks, both a confessed and convicted homosexual prostitute and thief, and, he would like you to believe, a murderer.

It is true that guilt-crazy malevolent women like the wife in Strindberg’s play show up in the California divorce courts every day. Perhaps our divorce courts and lawyers manufacture them. And their number has both increased and become more vocal since his day. Still, the family scene of The Father is as typical as the relations of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

Genet’s The Blacks is a charade of race relations as seen from the Underworld, African Negroes and French colonials through the eyes of a thief, pimp and homosexual prostitute. It is as far from seeing things steadily and whole as can be imagined. Things are bad between the races and everybody is hurting — but not in this way.

Both The Father and The Blacks are great plays, indisputably modern classics. Why? How did these people ever get into the company of Sophocles?

It has been said, wisely, of King Lear that it is not a tragedy, but a comedy of horror. Certainly The Blacks and The Father are comedies, almost archetypes of “black comedy.” Rightly the local companies play them as comedies. If The Father is elevated to the stark generality of a Sophoclean tragedy, it is simply false. Any universal conclusion based on The Blacks would be silly paranoia.

I saw The Blacks in both Paris and New York, and this show stands up in comparison. Gene Frankel’s production was full of sparkling business, but the actors had too much show biz chrome plate. The Paris show was amateurish and suffered from being under the eye of Genet.

Our company gives the play a relaxed but rambunctious treatment, rather like the goings on in an old-timey store-front church, which is just what it needs. It would be unfair to single out anybody for special praise, there is an extraordinary sense of ensemble, of cohesion, which was noticeably lacking in New York and Paris. This and the roll-and-bump tempo keep the lines from dragging, the principal problem with garrulous old Genet. (I suggest cutting the dialogues between the two queens. They are hopelessly sluggish and redundant.)

It’s a wonderful show and a landmark in the history of the San Francisco Negro community, even it the majority of that community will never hear of it.

I disagree totally with one of my colleagues about The Father. I think all the cast were excellent, but most especially Wendy Wasdahl, who was the best I’ve ever seen in the role. Sure, she was frightened and ill at ease and gauche on the stage. She is supposed to be. What do you think Strindberg wanted a child to do in that domestic hell, skip rope and whistle?

Hancock’s conception of the play is thoroughly sound. A pendulum of love-hate, tenderness-frigidity, swings all through it, clocking the emotions of each character, even the orderly. It is emphatically not an arrow-straight march to death like Agamemnon and Electra, but an ambiguous and ambivalent comedy.

I’ve thrown the lamp myself, two different productions, and seen it thrown more times than I can remember. I think this was one of the most satisfactory and most profoundly understood, most Strindbergian, Fathers I’ve even seen.

I do agree that the set was quite a moment in the history of stage design. Hancock said he’d do a “fourth wall down room” realistic play. What a room! What a room! They should have the artist, Bob LaVigne, take a curtain call of his own.

[February 13, 1966]

Copper-Hearts in the Fillmore

The cops are still trying to chase Bill Graham out of the Fillmore Auditorium. Crooks and, ironically enough, policemen themselves have a term for the peculiar malevolent self-righteousness which is an occupational hazard of the police business — copper-hearted.

There are still an appreciable number of police officers who are absolutely convinced that free association of Negroes and whites of opposite sexes is just about the most evil sin going, and that if they could just break up all social miscegenation they’d go a long way towards solving the crime and delinquency problems of the community.

Worse still are long hair, bare feet, Cost Plus ponchos, boots, miniskirts, costumes from the antique clothes rack at the Goodwill.

Our rival paper’s Miss Lonelyhearts answered a mother who said she thought her honor student son looked fine in long hair and tight pants with her own jet-set brand of a snarl of sarcastic rage.

There are more beatniks than honor students dressed that way, she said. Dear Abby, there aren’t any more beatniks and haven’t been for years. This is a new thing altogether. It’s the vast and ever-growing subculture of the people under 35 who don’t like you — or me either for that matter.

The present coiffures and strange clothes of these people are the beginning of the sartorial revolution of the automated society. Within 10 years, mark my words, style will be optional over the whole range of historical costume from Egypt to science-fiction movies. At present long hair for men is simply a current fashion and all sorts of people do it, including me, in my modest way.

It’s no more a sign of dope addiction or of a yen for bedding races of different color than is a crew cut, even though the cops may still think so.

Is the accusation really true that Rabbi Burstein is the source of the heat on Bill Graham? I think it’s false. I think the police are just trying to pass the buck.

The younger generation of rabbis, some of whom even wear longish hair or tight pants, and who are assistants in congregations in neighborhoods no longer predominately Jewish, like the Fillmore, are asserting their vocation as men of God to undertake the cure of souls in their immediate community, whether Jew or Gentile.

Another friend, a Catholic priest, was all upset because the cops raided a long hair, tight pants, mixed race party “within just a few doors of my church!”

“Do any of these people come to St. Soandso’s?” “No.” “Do you know any of them?” “No.” It seems to me a great opportunity. Why don’t you pay them a friendly call?”

Dear Elliot, why not invite Bill Graham to give a somewhat more modest community party in the social hall of Congregation Beth Israel?

[April 25, 1966]

May Day

May Day now means “Help! Help!” Once it meant “Revolution’s a-coming, better watch out!”

In 1934 the Artists’ and Writers’ Union, which I helped to organize and which among other things was responsible for the murals in Coit Tower, marched in the May Day parade up Market Street.

It was a big parade and ours was a big contingent. At the head of our group we carried a beautiful flag, designed by a beautiful girl member — 13 red and white stripes, charged with a rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.” The most popular flag of the American Revolution. We had not gone far before one of the point captains came up to me and said, “Sam Darcy says get that petty bourgeois counterrevolution flag out of the parade.”

“Tell Sam Darcy to go ——” said I. (Darcy was the District Organizer of the Communist Party.)

We got more cheers than anybody else from the spectators along the curbs, and rightly so. Our banner meant that we were staking a claim to a tradition older and sounder and far more honest than that represented by Comrade Darcy . . . and far more revolutionary.

Tomorrow I am invited to participate in this committee on cultural activities in San Francisco which has been set up by the Mayor, to advise the two specialists in urban problems, Knowles and MacFadyen, imported to straighten things out by Harold Zellerbach.

I’d like to use this column to speak my piece. I hope I won’t be considered unethical in thus anticipating the meeting.

The overwhelming rejection of Proposition B, the Opera House bond issue, was a vote of no confidence in the Establishment. And why is there no confidence in the Establishment? Because it clings to social forms, mechanisms, attitudes, which have no relevance whatever to modern society. It does not even know that most of the artistic activity for which San Francisco is famous so much as exists.

Mrs. Patron has never heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, much less that his books of poetry have sold over 250,000 copies. Ann Halprin’s dance group can rock Europe and appear in the Teatro Fenice in Venice, the world’s most beautiful theater. Yet she has never performed in the Opera House and the Establishment, with few exceptions, in unaware of her existence.

If either Ann or Ferlinghetti were ever seen or read by the Establishment they would be rejected as crazy, subversive and obscene. Conventional critics may be hurt by the intellectuals’ allegation that more important contemporary music comes from the Both/And, an “obscure jazz room on Divisadero Street,” than from our gorgeous Opera House with all its stellar events. But alas, it is true.

If that’s unacceptable — since Gerry Samuel has been connected with the Oakland Symphony and the Aptos festival he has produced more vital contemporary music than the SF Symphony has in its entire existence.

Ronnie Davis was expelled from the parks, although San Francisco was famous in every theatrical magazine in the world for having his Mime Troupe performing free in the parks. A musician performing at the Both/And, relaxing between sets, quietly talking to his wife, was rousted by the police. A former entrepreneur of the Mime Troupe, Bill Graham, has been subjected to unbelievable harassment by the police for running rock and roll dances at the Fillmore Auditorium. To all this the Non, and now Anti, Establishment artist replies: “Don’t Tread On Me!”

I am not taking sides in the brouhaha, I am just stating facts, as a sociological commentator.

It would seem that I am to function on this culture committee as the representative of the avant-garde, our man from Uncle Picasso. If the Establishment thinks I am the avant-garde, this shows how the Establishment thinks.

I am 60 years old, the author of over twenty books, most of them very lucid poetry, concerned largely with love and nature, those Established platitudes. My reading is confined largely to classic literature and scholarly books, and my listening to Renaissance and late Medieval music. But I know what’s happening, Mr. Smith.

San Francisco, like the rest of the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, is falling apart. It’s what Toynbee called schism in the soul. The intellectual elite, whether French Cardinals or Russian poets, or San Francisco dancers, are seceding from this society. We are witnessing the moral equivalent of “No taxation without representation.”

It’s what Teilhard de Chardin called the great waves of moral strikes against the principles of our civilization which, he predicted, will replace the economic and political strikes of the early twentieth century.

If Toynbee and Teilhard be treason, make the most of it. But, say the modern artist and writer and intellectual and student, “DON’T TREAD ON ME.”

[May 1, 1966]

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