Seven Things About Kenneth Rexroth
1. The surrealist poet Philip Lamantia took me to Kenneth Rexroth’s salon in 1955; Kenneth had translated some Artaud in Black Mountain Review and I was searching out Artaud poems. The only poetry of Kenneth’s that I’d read was The Dragon and the Unicorn and it was impressive. I began reading Kenneth’s other books and continued going to weekly evenings at his home. The walls were lined with books stacked in wooden apple crates from floor to ceiling, and the guests sat around the walls on hard chairs and an old sofa. Kenneth’s own early, cubist/modernist oil paintings were on display. The Rexroth flat was old-fashioned, as San Francisco was in those days, and there was something about it that felt odd, as if it were partly in another and calmer dimension than daily life. The first conversations I heard were about Stalinism, and I was curious about how these people, largely anarchists, reacted to the early Cold War politics. Most of it was over my twenty-two year old head, though I identified myself anti-politically as an anarchist . Over the evenings I began to sort out threads of Kenneth’s talk about The Pacific Rim; he told us that we were part of the West Coast and we had more in common with Japan, China, Korea, than we did with Paris and London. New Yorkers related to the capitals of Europe; we could relate otherwise and be natural with Asian religious and philosophical ideas and ways of seeing and making art. As a person of the Pacific Rim, I could experience history in a different way – I learned that I could relate to the T’ang or Chou Dynasty in China, as easily as the European Renaissance. Kenneth spoke one night on tomb jade; he held up a piece to show us how the decay of the anciently entombed bodies discolored the carved jade cicadas placed on their breasts at burial. That was one way to tell really ancient jade. I began to picture the forest jungles of pre-modern China, and they felt like Seattle where I had done much of my growing up near Pacific Rim forests. Kenneth told us how accessible nature was to San Francisco in the Fifties. We could drive to the top of Mount Tamalpais in minutes on the empty roads, we could go to Big Sur where Henry Miller and Jaime de Angulo were living, we could go to Death Valley in the Spring to see wildflowers and petroglyphs, we could walk by the ocean and gather mussels, steam them in a homemade steamer and have a beach party with a $1.80 gallon of Italian red wine and French bread. We could still see stars over the city before the pollution of urban light and hydrocarbons. We could get onto the Sierra trails and go walking. It was a way of thinking that jibed with my feeling – and I was angry about the USA trying to send me to Korea or Asia to carry on wars for the military industrial corporations.
2. In his neighborhood Kenneth Rexroth wandered around in sandals, chinos, and a white sweatshirt, and I’ve stood on the curb and spoken with him while he was lying under his old car repairing and replacing the transmission. Kenneth was also fastidiously and informedly elegant. He bought the almost-new castaway clothing of the wealthy from a store in Pacific Heights, and he would show us the details of fine tailoring in these clothes which he would wear with a bohemian silk tie. This was not unusual at the time, we all bought used clothes. Jess Collins turned-out Robert Duncan in an elegant wardrobe of patterned silk shirts and handsome suits that he picked up from the Goodwill. Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg got their clothing at used shops. I found a terrific three piece suit for six dollars. Kenneth’s learning and fastidiousness in clothing was matched by his taste, discretion, and knowledge of hand printing and he often showed us a fine press book and how we were to judge the excellence of the printing.
3. Kenneth’s oil paintings did not thrill me, but his skills with chalk pastels made him the master of an abstract, luminous and mystic style of his own. These pastels owed much to the North Coast surrealist mystic Morris Graves. I deeply loved the works of Morris Graves: the moonlit and supernatural birds and trees in their trembling natures. Rexroth had a collection of original pastels by Graves, and they were thumb-tacked up around the Rexroth menage. When I went in the children’s room, Mary and Katherine’s room, the Morris Graves pastels had been thumb tacked at the eye level of the little girls, so they could enjoy them. No one in those days could afford to frame a work of art. No matter that these were museum pieces. I had an illumination – get it up – thumb-tack it up. Love it, and see it now. And don’t worry what the kids will do to art, they must deepen their experience with it as we must. This was far from the bourgeois sensibility of fear for the streak of a child finger over a surface. It changed my ideas of art.
4. Kenneth was verbally swashbuckling, macho, and bombastic about himself and his adventures. In the early days I often thought he was lying. He had overblown stories about Black Sun Press and the wealthy, mad poet Harry Crosby and his wife Caresse Crosby. Sometimes I felt Kenneth was talking his way into history. Not long after that Kenneth and Marthe had dinner for Caresse Crosby who was passing through San Francisco. The meal Kenneth prepared was delicious somewhere, I guessed, between Provencal and Asian flavors. Kenneth was supremely courtly with Caresse and she was clearly an old friend and they had a laughing conversation about old times. Kenneth had huge opinionations and exaggerations but I have never seen Kenneth caught in a bald faced lie. On the other hand, I saw him often when he was delusional and needed help, after his wife Marthe ran off with Robert Creeley.
5. I’ve watched Kenneth sitting in his front room by the window above Scott Street while he spoke his reviews of scholarly and political and religious and scientific works into the microphone of an old tape recorder, preparing them for his KPFA broadcast. He would pick up a book and hem and haw in grand style while flipping the pages and eyeing the front and back material, and then deliver a learned, unrehearsed review to the machine. I was never sure whether he was reading the book as he flipped the pages, or if he was stalling to remember it. I am convinced that Kenneth had very great recall of what he read. Kenneth was a genius of the first water. The areas of information that he knew reached from to Byzantine theology and Church history, to Hesiod’s Orphic theogony to Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, to backpacking and mountain trailing, to Eskimo songs, to Cubist poetry, to Natural History, especially sharp was Anarchism and the labor movements. All of these studies were creative and rebellious in his use of them.
6. Kenneth’s manner of speech and reading poetry is unlike any other I have ever heard, and many of you have either heard him in person or on recording. It was called eccentric. Those who didn’t like Kenneth, and some who did, compared his speaking to the way they imagined Major Hoople in the old comic strips. Certainly there was much of the Wizard of Oz in voice and intonations. Many of us had our own imitations of Kenneth’s voice – it was fun and we had to do it – it was not really mockery, but to play with the oddity of his phrasings, volumes, and intonations. The odd thing is that although all the imitations sounded like Kenneth’s voice no two of the imitations sounded alike. My favorite Kenneth-thing was to sit in the car as someone drove and recite a spontaneous parody of The Dragon and the Unicorn, in my imitation of Kenneth’s voice. I was able to rattle on about the passing scenery and the imaginary memories it brought to mind. I made it sound like Kenneth’s seven syllable line and his voice. Here’s a spontaneous attempt almost fifty years later.
As the car passes down Franklin Street
There is the fire-destroyed wreck of the brothel
Set aflame by the crypto-Ethiopian princess
As she escaped from the white slavery
Of Joaquin Miller’s doppelganger. It
Brings to mind a song sung by camel drivers
Of Samburu, as they gather at dawn to sip
Mare’s milk, while what appears
To be countless billions of stars on
The shadow side of the dunes is discovered
To be reflections in the eyes of colonies
Of tiny mole rats…
7. It was a pleasure to play with the personalisms of Kenneth’s voice and because I have always loved his great travel poem. I internalized the sound and some of the collage techniques and Faustlike jumps of Rexroth’s verse. Much later, in seriousness, and in projective verse I wrote “April Arboretum” for Kenneth and it was published in the same issue of New Directions Annual as Eliot Weinberger’s funeral piece for Rexroth.
When writing the poem, I was using a pondside bench under some cedars in The San Francisco Arboretum for my office.
Here is the first section of the poem:
For Kenneth Rexroth
THE KILLDEER CRIES CEASELESSLY IN THIS MANICURED NATURE
and the dark brown molehills gloat with their life.
The book in hand states
that an earlier chapter,
“has identified an intensified
capacity for anticipation
as an important characteristic
that sets it apart
from a dead matrix.”
Inertness is a possibility of life
when it reaches deep
into the substrate.
creates that which is less
to carry it, to preserve it, to float it.
Poems are notes
to bring one into
agnosia of blackness.
This is one way that we awake from our dreams.
over conglomerate pavement
and peer through the heap
of pruned branches
with glint-yellow eyes
that see nothing:
is a contretemps
as innocent as a haiku
in mimesis of imagined experience.
whip-whip, whirr, whirr
whirr, say the sprinklers
and the truck roar
looms leeward over the cypresses.
The abandoned coke bottle
is information if
it affects the future
but that is the business
of the future
which, says Whitehead.
is to be dangerous.
Always I die in the present
as I seek in the dense
“… the evolutionary process
that has brought anticipation
to a critical level in living
systems also occurs
in the abiotic world.”
The three band-tailed pigeons
flying over will tap their beaks
on the earth.
The mass of pink and white blossoms
will always be there
by the pattern of daisies.
Walking on I find a swan preening, rubbing looped neck against
crop, under a white rhododendron in mix of sun and shade. A hen
goose hobbles over and bites my pants leg and boot and then
settles down by my foot. Turtles jump from a log into the pond.
Mallards and their chicks paddle in the dark water. A heavy brown
rabbit disappears in the tangle. A sky-blue and shark-blue jay in
the herb garden is fine as the lilac-breasted roller of Africa. The sun
of April morning drives cobwebs from my back. There are rain-
bows in the sprinklers under the redwoods and the eucalyptuses. I am
sampling the thyme and sage and rosemary and picking lavender to
press in my notebook.