Kenneth Rexroth

Four More Columns from the San Francisco Examiner of 1966

Sophocles and the Black Theater

Through the surviving fragments of a Roman popularizer of world history, quoting an obscure Alexandrian Greek historian, we know that the plays of Euripides and Sophocles were performed in Afghanistan, near the present city of Kabul, in what was then the last free Greek state, a remnant of the far-off Greek kingdom of Bactria.

Again we hear of Greek drama at the courts of what would later be called the Huns in the same regions of inner Asia. A locally made pot from the Punjab with a scene from Sophocles’ Elektra can be seen in a museum in Lahore.

I thought of this as I watched Sophocles’ Oedipus the King at Delta College in Stockton the other night. I was there taking part in a panel on the golden age of Greek culture. We had Greek food and dancing, the discussion, and then the students put on the play.

We were a long way from Athens, in, as far as Sophocles would feel if he came back, a much stranger land than Afghanistan. The play was pretty good, well designed and directed, and the students were charming. Sophocles was still alive.

What is this Western Civilization that got under way in the fifth century B.C. and is now coming to its end? How did it all get started?

Scholars and philosophers have debated the matter ever since, and our little panel came to no conclusions. How can we preserve what is left of that heritage and keep it meaningful in this new Dark Ages we have been entering since 1914?

Maybe the future ages won’t want such a heritage at all but will respectfully hand history back their tickets.

I’m off now to North Carolina to conduct discussions on the topic Religious restatement in an age of faithlessness. Then back here to do the same thing at the Bishop’s Ranch over the Memorial Day weekend. We, in this particular present in which we find ourselves, are given the task of making the past meaningful to a future which will bear very little resemblance to it.

I was reminded, watching Sophocles in Stockton, of a conversation some years ago in Paris with the poet Sedar-Senghor and another Negro intellectual who has also become a head of state. Said Sedar-Senghor, “You hope to see a Black Africa in the forefront of civilization, with the plays of Racine and Sophocles performed on the shores of Lake Chad. I hope for an African civilization in which my traditions are most meaningful, and my ancestors, like yours, were cannibals.”

Sophocles today competes with African sculpture, Chinese poetry and Buddhism for the attention of a new kind of civilization. What will get through and how will it be transformed when it does?

When LeRoi Jones was out here he was very sarcastic about the Aldridge Players performing The Trojan Women. He obviously hadn’t read the play, or he would have realized the entirely new meanings imparted to a Greek play about slavery by a Negro cast.

My one objection to SF State’s drama department is that they almost never “intercast” — presumably with the hoary excuse that it “destroys the illusion.”

How about a Negro girl as Cleopatra? Why not some Negroes in Leon Katz’s otherwise excellent production of The Lower Depths? Or how about de-Russifying Gorky’s play and giving it an all-Negro cast? What lower depths is most meaningful to our experience?

I don’t know what good it will do to recommend a last month’s magazine, but you can try the second-hand magazine shops or write the publishers if you want it badly enough. (1820 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill.) Anyway, the April issue of the Negro Digest is given over to a discussion of the Negro in the American theater. There are articles by Frederick O’Neal, LeRoi Jones, Ossie Davis, Ruby Lee, James Baldwin, Robert Burg, Woodie King, and our own Ed Bullins.

The most radical in their approach are LeRoi Jones and Ed Bullins, but their radicalism is radically different. Jones’s article is an incoherent tirade, designed to frighten and thrill white people, a kind of Bela Lugosi playing Uncle Tom.

Ed Bullins writes in clipped, closely reasoned sentences and marshals all the arguments for a truly indigenous, truly autonomous Black Theater.

Actors of course can be, and are being, “integrated.” As a playwright, Bullins has a more difficult and acute problem. He wants to tell it the way it is, and he wants Negroes to come and see and listen.

Against him is the rejection of the mulatto culture of the Negro middle class and the censorship of the white authority, which will accept plays full of slashing razors, dope, violent miscegenation, but which cracks down on dialogue which authentically reproduces the speech of the Negro “Lower Depths.”

The Digest reprints from the Negro press. I wish some local publication would reprint Bullins’s article from the Digest. I wish him luck. Salaam.

[May 15, 1966]

Petitioning for Peace

Recently I signed, with many other professional people hereabouts, a call for measures to end the war in Vietnam which was sponsored by SANE, the committee for a sane nuclear policy.

I did so with some qualifications, which, as is usual in these things, there was no opportunity provided for me to express. All these manifestoes are partisan, perhaps necessarily so because they are designed to exert pressure on the United States government, which is very specifically the administration of Johnson the Second.

The signers are exercising their right of petition to the government, and criticizing its policies. Petitioning the enemy seems meaningless, petitioning the neutrals futile. Only criticism of the American government by its citizens for what they believe to be its wrongdoing seems effective.

I believe this policy is a mistake. In the case of nuclear testing it was only when the Russians began to feel the pressure of the international community of responsible people which seeped through and affected their own intellectuals and leaders that they came around to agreement.

I believe that the international community of scholars, science, the arts and letters, is far more important than the nation states and their political leaders.

We forget that Herb Gold, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Diebenkorn, the Bay Area’s array of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, will be remembered when Pat Brown or Hubert Humphrey or Mr. McNamara are known only to scholarly researchers in the dusty back shelves of history.

The most important thing for an artist or a scientist to do at this juncture in the long history of the suicidal follies of empires is to assert his international and timeless membership in the enduring community of mankind.

He cannot do this by even seeming to take sides in a military contest where both sides are behaving, from the point of view of that community, immorally and foolishly.

He is in the position of a priest who must minister impartially to the wounded on the battlefield, whatever their uniform.

Therefore, I think it is best for such a group of intellectual leaders to appeal to the political leaders of both sides in the simplest possible terms: “Stop this war now.” If they ask “How?” the answer should simply be, “That is your job. That is what your citizens pay you for.”

However, if signers of manifestoes must play international politics, and they all want to — it is what I have called the delusion of participation — then let them carefully balance their advice to both sides.

Let them say not only: “Stop the bombing. Announce a willingness to negotiate directly with the Viet Cong. Declare a truce to take effect at the first overture from Hanoi.”

But also: “Reconvene the Geneva Conference. Reactivate the International Control Commission of that conference. Halt the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops during the truce.”

So far these proposals have proven unacceptable to the Russians, much less to the Chinese. They feel, obviously, that the longer the war goes on, the more America will lose. “The war,” as an entity, cannot be won or lost, because it is no clearly defined entity; what can be and is being lost, and what may never be recovered, is American leadership and respect all over the world.

In 1946 the United States emerged unscathed from the most terrible war in history. All peoples looked to the Americans for moral leadership in the reconstruction of a new world order. That opportunity, the greatest in history, is now gone forever, utterly vanished away.

Common people everywhere are growing to fear America, and many of them to hate us. We too, like the Chinese, live in a garrison state. Even if we travel abroad, we never see or hear what is happening all about us. We are locked in the Berlin Wall of our own smug self-satisfaction.

This is fine with the Russians. They have only to wait until we are so utterly discredited that the people prefer defiance of our bombs to submission to our control or acceptance of our free-enterprise morality.

Meanwhile, Johnson the Second and his generals are fighting Russia’s war against China. Chinese troops are now concentrated in the southeast. They are no longer massed along the borders of Turkestan and Siberia and Mongolia.

I am opposed to all wars as such. I am opposed to this war because it violates all the conditions laid down by Catholic theologians for a just war.

I think it does this — on both sides — to a very special degree, although I also agree with most contemporary theologians that the very concept of a “just war” is no longer applicable.

I am opposed to the participation of my own country in this war because I am certain America is losing far more all around the world than she can ever gain in a corner of Asia, amongst a population who will never cease to hate us.

But I am also opposed to the cynical exploitation of the war for their own ends by the politicians of the Kremlin and the Forbidden City. And I am opposed to the timidity of the neutrals, who fear that if they press too hard in the United Nations they will lose their subsidies from both Russia and America.

And I am opposed to the cynical manipulation of purely local, national politics, by America’s allies and former allies. Harold Wilson, General de Gaulle, Chancellor Erhard, all are far more interested in consolidating their own power than in speaking for humanity.

As a writer, a member of an international community, my job is to so speak. I speak for Russians and Chinese, British and Americans, Africans and Indians, when I say simply, “Stop! Now!” Let “them” figure out how. They got us into this bloody cockpit, let them get us out.

Surely the longshoremen or harvest hands of California, the rice farmers of both Vietnams, the peasants and steel workers of Russia, the black-haired, cotton-clad millions of China — they didn’t start it, and they don’t want it to go on.

[July 31, 1966]

Camouflaging the Rape of the Environment

The Sierra Club certainly came up with a great advertising slogan: “Shall we also flood the Sistine Chapel so the tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” They put the finger on the spurious propaganda of the organized onslaught on all and every conservation force and tradition.

The proponents of the Grand Canyon dams say they will not injure the canyon in the least, but will improve it. They will improve it, open it up for recreational use for the common people, at the expense of only a few feet of out-of-date fossils.

What are our National Parks for, a few Sierra Club kooks who enjoy climbing El Capitan and shooting Niagara Falls in a barrel, or for healthy happy families who can dash around the lakes that will appear on the floor of the Grand Canyon in power boats and get a close-up view of the wonders of its geology?

What is more important, petrified cuttlefish, or human beings? True conservation is conservation of people, not rocks.

There are arguments like this for every single attack on what remains of our wilderness and our natural beauties. The anti-conservation organizations pay good money to PR people to think them up. Soon the lumber companies will have logged off all the virgin stands of redwood except for the small state parks and a few roadside strip groves.

They will be left for automobile tourists to photograph. That’s all the tourists want anyway.

But, say “scientists” hired by the advocates of total logging, after the appallingly destructive floods of last year, “The redwood forest is not a true climax formation. It springs up best on burnt over land, gullied hillsides, and the sandbars left by massive floods. Redwood is a rapidly growing tree and the new forest will reach true maturity, which is the size sufficient to make it valuable once again as lumber, in less than 50 years.”

Or: “The lands being filled along the shores of San Francisco Bay are useless mudflats at present, many of which, at low tide, are unsightly swamps. The only people who get anything from them are the salt manufacturers and the duck hunters. The Bay will be greatly improved if it is lined with lovely housing developments for the small boat set, in imitation of Venice, California or Italy. It will be a far greater tourist attraction and recreational asset than it is at present. What are we conserving, ducks, shrimps or human beings?”

Or: “If we flood an area in Alaska larger than Lake Erie we will create a wonderful recreation area, open to easy access by ordinary people, in what is now a useless wilderness, and we will be giving the people of Alaska badly needed electric power, and besides, the land is mostly free. What are we conserving, wolverines or men?”

Or: “The Park Service admits that it cannot operate the National Parks efficiently. Their policy of limited use has broken down. What we need are more roads, opening up the country to the common people, who are not kooky foot-burners who like to hike, but good robust Americans in portable homes. We need more, not less, recreation facilities, dance halls, bars, restaurants, ski lifts, funiculars, camp grounds in easy walking distance of the beauty spots, bear feedings at the garbage pits to entertain the kiddies. People go to the National Parks for vacations — for relaxation, for a good time. If free enterprise is permitted to meet this demand, the National Parks can be put on a sound financial basis.”

We are of course conserving men, not chipmunks or glaciers. But we are trying to conserve them by preserving for future generations what little is left of the natural environment, in which the species man came into existence in the first place, and flourished for a million years.

Our radical destruction of that environment is, in the American West, a matter of only two generations. Two generations out of at least 350,000. Think of that line of people going back in a series of begats like the genealogies in the Bible to the Ice Age.

And yet we seldom think of that inheritance when we hear someone say, “When my grandfather came to California there were grizzly bears where Skyline Boulevard is now.”

Or: “I’ve seen the bunch grass go and the Spanish oat take over in that land since I was a boy. You can’t raise beef on it anymore unless you feed all year round.”

Or: “Let me show you a series of pictures. It took just 10 years for Williams Meadows to turn into a rocky gully a hundred feet wide.”

We have reached the tipover point. The man-made environment is so vast that nature survives only in small islands, threatened constantly by biological changes from outside even under ideal conditions of protection.
We hold this land in trust for the 350,000 generations still, D.V., to come, barring our own passion for self-destruction.

Contact with the environment from which he came is strong medicine for the preservation of the species of man, it recreates him in the true sense, and it may well be essential to his survival.

We may discover that once we are all living in Megalopolis under a Dymaxion roof, we simply will start to die off.

Certainly the urban civilizations of the past, far less artificial, have never replenished themselves except by immigration from the countryside.

A virgin redwood forest, an unpolluted Lake Baikal, may be like hormones, tiny particles of the face of the globe, without which we cannot go on living.

[September 11, 1966]

Poetry from a Computer

STUTTGART. — We went to call on Professor Max Bense at the Technical High School. He is one of the world leaders of the concrete poetry movement — the others are in Japan and Brazil.

You’d think, reading the poetry, that it was written by starving youths in disheveled pads. Indeed not. It is part of the general movement of exact esthetics, electronic music, computerized color organs and similar automated art which is growing throughout the world.

Its exponents occupy an anomalous position between the writers, artists and musicians of other schools, and the technicians and scientists. Neither group takes them very seriously, but they take themselves with deep draughts of earnest solemnity. They really believe that soon they will be able to feed a computer a program of metaphor clusters and personal relationships and it will buzz and blink and come up with Aeschylus or Sappho, only better.

I suppose, as the machine’s built-in obsolescence takes over, it will come up with Oscar Wilde — transistorized.

All this stuff is very interesting, but except for some electronic music, it is as primitive as the first chipped pebbles of Eolithic Man.

The sensible experimenters in the field are the ones who know this. The others are cranks. Many of them have no interest in literature or the arts as such — all that, they’re sure, will soon be forgotten, once their miniature circuits begin to buzz.

Professor Bense was quick to point out that, once perfected, the machines of exact esthetics are simply tools and depend as much on intuition and unanalyzable factors in the programmer as brushes depend on painters.

Most of the poetry struck me as pretty simple-minded, of the sort anybody could do once he caught on, like:


But there were pages and pages of little hieroglyphs, where the computer had traced a series of evolving “most satisfying” relationships, in Golden Section rectangles, rather like Mayan glyphs, which were in fact interesting enough to read, like a mysterious book of magic in an unknown language, at least for a couple pages until your attention tired.

[October 27, 1966]

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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