Rexroth to Kerouac

Bob Perelman’s “hats off to Donald Allen” sent me back to The New American Poetry. [1] Allen’s brief preface sketches out an open field of postwar American poetry, from the modernists to a “strong third generation” which “has at last emerged.” [2] Bob remarked upon the curiosity of Allen’s “second generation”: his motley list surprises us today by presenting a strange — and perhaps welcome — bump in the road from the modernist masters to “our avant-garde.” Bishop and Lowell are understandable in 1960; Denby and Zukofsky, remarkable; and then there’s Rexroth.

Kerouac famously captured this perverse elder statesman of the Beats in his 1958 The Dharma Bums: as Rheinhold Cacoethes, Rexroth was “the father of the Frisco poetry scene,” a “bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud.” [3] On the night of Japhy Ryder’s (Gary Snyder’s) farewell party, we hear Cacoethes holding forth on the state of poetry: “I guess the only real poets in this country, outside the orbit of this little backyard, are Doctor Musial, who’s probably muttering behind his living-room curtains right now, and Dee Sampson, who’s too rich. That leaves us dear old Japhy here who’s going away to Japan, and our wailing friend Goldbook and our Mr. Coughlin, who has a sharp tongue. By God, I’m the only good one here.” [4] Rexroth claims his place between Williams and Ginsberg,  the good doctor behind the curtains and the howling young man in the yard.

To Kerouac’s alter ego Ray Smith, Cacoethes is dismissive: “‘Well I guess he’s a Bodhisattva in its frightful aspect, ‘ts about all I can say.’ (Aside, sneering, ‘He’s too drrronk all the time.’)” [5] The Dharma Bums rewrote On the Road, replacing Sal Paradise’s search for “It” with the dharma, while Ray Smith’s way to nirvana skewed the rarefied derangement of midcentury American Buddhism — led by Snyder and approved by Rexroth — with wild eyed confusion. This frightful Bodhisattva is on display in The New American Poetry: Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues opens the Beat section of Allen’s anthology, twelve choruses which recall the Buddha inflected delirium of his world.

These choruses embody the capacious vision of the anthology: the Buddha talk embraces everything and nothing, leaping “Across Arabies of hot/ meaning.” [6] Oriental sagacity is shot through with the blues in Mexico City: these poems assume the meeting of east and west, north and south. For many of the poets in Allen’s anthology, the open space of poetry was part and parcel of a spiritual conversion. To read Kerouac’s entry is to recall how astonishingly open this practice was — and to remember a longing for self-transformation inseparable from social transformation. Bob’s appreciation of The New American Poetry crucially noted that the anthology was not capacious in terms of gender or race; instead, Kerouac and his ilk layered modernism’s formal modes of inclusion with the Whitmanian fantasy of incantatory social inclusion.

Cacoethes’s censure of Ray Smith demonstrates the baton passing from an arbiter of poetry to an imbiber of it. Donald Allen’s 1998 afterword to The New American Poetry discusses its reception, concluding with a vitriolic review: “as for the majority of Mr. Allen’s poets they are kids who took up poetry the way one takes up marijuana, Buddhism, switchblade knives, wife swapping, or riding in boxcars, neither more nor less seriously than other ‘kicks.’ Happily, however, they are no threat to poetry.” [7] A remarkably accurate depiction of Kerouac, down to the end: Kerouac gave up Buddhism the way he abandoned everything else. But, as he writes in his 179th Chorus, “I was the most beautiful / Boy of my generation” — a child “waiting for philosophy’s / dreadful murderer / BUDDHA.” [8] In the late 1950s, Rexroth was holding on to “real poets,” but he could only look on while Kerouac demonstrated that it was all for kicks.

Allen’s afterword recalls his initial plan to lead off with the first two generations of American poets, which was nixed by Olson, who said, “If the thing we are now in is it is just in its own character.” [9] In The New American Poetry, the strange profusion of “it” in Olson’s insistence on excluding “grandpas” opens into Kerouac’s “It” of transcendence: of course, they couldn’t help but install themselves within a poetic lineage, but Allen’s anthology freed them from their predecessors. These new American poets were drrronk with a new beauty that awaited — and invited — dreadful murder.

[1] Bob Perelman, “The New American Poetry.” Lecture presented at “Poetry in 1960 — A Symposium,” University of Pennsylvania, PA, December 6, 2010.
[2] The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen, ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1960), xi.
[3] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: The Viking Press, 1958; New York: Penguin, 1976), 14, 11.  Citations refer to the Penguin edition.
[4] Ibid., 193–94.
[5] Ibid., 194.
[6] Jack Kerouac, “113th Chorus,” in The New American Poetry, 168.
[7] Don Allen, afterword to The New American Poetry, 450.
[8] Jack Kerouac, “179th Chorus,” in The New American Poetry, 170.
[9] Don Allen, afterword to The New American Poetry, 448.