Jerome Rothenberg & David Antin: A first interview with Kenneth Rexroth (1958), redux
The memory of Kenneth Rexroth goes back into my distant past. I had been aware of him since the 1940s but with renewed interest during the 1950s and the emergence of the San Francisco Renaissance and that early Beat Generation for which he was an older spokesman. With David Antin and others, circa 1958, I was coming into contact with poets outside of our immediate neighborhood and, as with Kenneth, outside of our own generation.
I think our first meeting with him was under the pretext of doing an interview for Chelsea Review, during its early period, when Robert Kelly and George Economou were among the cofounders and editors. I have a memory too of having caught up with Rexroth at the CBS Studios in New York, to watch him being interviewed by Mike Wallace, but David seems not to have been a part of that. Afterwards, we agreed to meet and do our own interview at the Five Spot, a popular jazz club in what would later be called the East Village, where Kenneth was performing nightly with Pepper Adams’s quintet.
In that ambience the interview we did was secondary, but the chance to watch Kenneth was something I felt as memorable from the outset. By that I mean Kenneth talking and Kenneth doing jazz and poetry, all of it with an outrageous zest and for the moment at least with a belief in his own presence and power as a public person and a man who had the real goods and could well display them.
Our interview was never published, but I retained a copy of the manuscript and have recently dug it out of my papers and manuscripts at the New Poetry Archives of the University of California, San Diego. In 1958, it’s clear, there was no tape recording to fall back on, but I was busily writing down notes in a weird kind of shorthand that I had picked up while working for a sometimes questionable New York outfit called Writers Service. I can still hear his voice as I read through it, and I’m aware now, as I was then, of how much he was trying to dazzle us. We took it all in stride, including the irritability and impatience he displayed toward other poets, and learned later that it was a part of any encounter with Kenneth.
For David and me there would be other meetings with Kenneth down the years — not too many, but all of them comradely and without rancor. He was incredibly supportive of the work I did with ethnopoetics and with an avantgardism for which he was often an interested but skeptical supporter. We only found out, after his death, that our connection with New Directions — the poetry rather than the poetics — was largely of his doing. That he had never called this to our attention is something I find as moving as the support itself.
What follows, then, is an unedited version of our interview with him, scribbled by hand at the Five Spot.
As Rexroth sat down, a well-dressed woman over at the side pointed him out to a group of friends, speaking in an audible, almost passionate tone: “That’s him, that’s the poet, the PO-ET!”
Kenneth Rexroth: Feed him some peanuts (Laughter).
Jerome Rothenberg & David Antin: How are things here?
Rexroth: Not bad … This isn’t the best town for what we’re doing. Too many other things to pull the crowds away.
R&A: Better audiences here?
Rexroth: I don’t think so. I find a New York audience is less sophisticated. They miss all the better lines. I mean, I like to throw out some patter before we start, to relax them. You do it here and they’ll sit right below the bandstand and never crack a smile … all the music and literary references go right by them.
R&A: What are the differences outside of New York?
Rexroth: Well, we draw bigger there. We pack in crowds in some places they would never dream of here. You can’t match the enthusiasm. This is a big cultural event for a lot of those people. They’re quick to respond. Like in St. Louis I said, “We want to pay tribute to St. Louis’s two greatest citizens, Jimmy Blanton and Karl Schurz,” and some guy got up and applauded … Wouldn’t happen here.
R&A: In the Jazz-Poetry itself, what are you trying to achieve? What effects do you go after?
Rexroth: You don’t always get what you want, of course, but we’re learning … What I try with my own stuff is to work the poem to a slow climax through a series of quiet painful dissonances. They (the musicians) aren’t dissonant enough for me. There’s too much funkiness. On a tour like this you can’t expect too much, playing with different groups.
R&A: What’s the trouble?
Rexroth: A lot of the boys just don’t want to practice. I have some of my own Chinese translations in the book, and I try to get them to listen to tapes of Chinese music and build the jazz around it. There’s a tendency for it to come out like 42nd Street chop-suey music. It's not a bad effect altogether, but it isn’t what I want.
R&A: Have you tried any Japanese waka or haiku?
Rexroth: I’ve managed some really good, short things with that, but there the Japanese music is essential. A lot of the boys are good instrumentalists, you know, but without imagination for this. It seems to me as if the 1958 bop style is swinging back to the old K.C. sound brought up to date — with harmonies invented by Beethoven. The funkiness always bugs in.
R&A: Does any of this interfere with your poetry?
Rexroth: That question always depends on who you are. I find I’ve learned a hell of a lot about my poetry and poetry in general. Actually only about half the things in our book are my own. Then I read Durrel, Neruda, early Sandburg, a lot of other people.
R&A: In what way does your approach to Jazz-Poetry differ from, say Patchen’s or Ferlinghetti’s?
Rexroth: Well, Larry came to it late and didn’t really know much about jazz to start with. But he’s a good foil for me. We work well together. I’ve been around jazz and jazz musicians most of my life. In my teens I ran a joint in Chicago. Dave Tough was a very good friend of mine. He was a great musician and a really good poet too. I knew them all back in Chicago.
R&A: He’s got some really top musicians there.
Rexroth: There’s six men, but they double in everything under the sun. Some of their climaxes come out sounding like the Pines of Rome. With my own group I like to keep it loose. They have to counter rather than go with me. When they stop I like to be moving.
R&A: Like cross rhythms?
Rexroth: That’s right. You have the voice moving free across the bar line. It’s something like a solo riff. Kenneth’s arrangements are a lot tighter. I think they’ve got it worked out to the hemi-semi-demi-quaver.
R&A: Do you think it’s all heading somewhere?
Rexroth: Sure, it’s the only way you can return poetry to its audience.
R&A: What are the chances of this developing into something like drama?
Rexroth: You can’t tell yet. Actually out on the coast very soon, there will be a performance of my Phaedra to jazz accompaniment. It’ll be jazz with sort of modal harmonies. My wife called me on this from out there, and I told them to hold everything till I got back. The essence of all these plays is in the absolute starkness, as in Noh drama or Yeats. Did you know I staged the first performance in America of At the Hawk’s Well ? Well, in the Phaedra also the staging is bare. You have two choruses — four people sitting at the sides who are also the musicians, and the main chorus, a beggar and a prostitute, sitting on a sort of step in front. They narrate what the characters are doing and also pick up their lines and speak for them in their own voices. Now originally I had this scored for flute and percussion and something like a guitar. That’s pretty far away from the new version, and I want to make sure it doesn’t get loused up. When they put this on in New York back in the forties, it was one of the great disasters in the history of drama. Thank God I wasn’t there. Later I heard they played it in orgone boxes …
R&A: What’s your present view of that which is called “the Beat Generation”?
Rexroth: Oh hell! Do you know what I said about that? It’s all a Madison Avenue gimmick that’s going to go out with the Fall book list.
R&A: Just sticking to the writers around San Francisco …
Rexroth: Those two (Kerouac and Ginsberg) aren’t from San Francisco, they’re from the San Remo. I mean, I think Allen Ginsberg is a very good poet. Don’t get me wrong. I said and I still feel that he has great potential as a really popular and hortatory poet.
R&A: How about Kerouac? Have you changed your mind about him?
Rexroth: I have no interest in Kerouac whatsoever. I’ve done my stint for him. As far as I’m concerned, Kerouac is what Madison Avenue wants a rebel to be. That isn’t my kind of rebel. I mean, I’ve been an anarchist all my life, and I know a lot more about Greek and Latin than Allen Tate.
R&A: What’s your opinion of Howl?
Rexroth: I’ve gone through it very carefully. It’s a skillfully put-together poem, if you understand what he’s doing. I mean Allen handles a colloquial line — of the type of Sandburg before he imagined he was Abe Lincoln — very well.
R&A: Does the “hipster” vocabulary bother you there?
Rexroth: I don’t think it’s inherent in the verse line. It’s part of the content, but that’s something different. What I was talking about was the rhythm of the line … the use of a natural speech line. Allen works very hard at it. He’s really a poet.
R&A: And Kerouac?
Rexroth: No! I think that Jack busted the crust of custom, and as far as that went I was for it. At least he made all the right enemies.
R&A: In your own poetry it’s not just the natural speech line, is it? You use syllabics …
Rexroth: Oh yes … mostly. But the syllabic structure is just a device, and behind it there’s the organization in terms of rhythms. Eluard did that also. Or you find it in Laughlin, where you have to know what he’s playing it off against … the jazz feeling behind it. Do you know this? (Leaning over and chanting)
Met you in the supermarket
And gee you were nice.
R&A: Is that what you mean by cadenced verse?
Rexroth: The basic line in any good verse is cadenced … building it around the natural breath structures of speech.
R&A: What about Williams’s claim to have discovered a new type of American prosody?
Rexroth: Well, Bill I think is a very great poet, but I’m afraid he’s created such an elaborate smoke screen about his discoveries that he’s come to believe them. It reminds me of the story of the painter who went through a big show of stirring his paints very carefully, and someone asked him what the secret was, and he said, “It’s all in the mureatic acid.” Bill just got to believe the hoax.
R&A: You wrote, in the Prairie Schooner I think, that most of the San Francisco people, except Denise Levertov, were “uncivilized.” Did you mean anything special by that?
Rexroth: No; just that Denise is the product of an old and rich culture … her family is grounded in the humanistic tradition. I don’t think it’s that important. I mean, there are a lot of different kinds of people on the San Francisco scene. And I’m not talking about Kerouac. He doesn’t belong there. I don’t think he’s been in Frisco more than three months in his life.
R&A: This Marie Ponsat is quite different than the others, isn’t she? More like Lowell, or someone in the Donne tradition?
Rexroth: Oh sure, there’s just the widest variety out there. Josephine Miles, Robert Duncan — all of them are different. You can’t call this a movement.
R&A: You wouldn’t want this to tighten into a single poetic point of view?
Rexroth: No; when I was teaching a workshop course there, the only thing I tried to impress on my class was certain fundamentals of any writing — directness and clarity of observation, and fidelity of the poetic situation. Not any special forms or styles.
R&A: How do you take to people who work in more or less traditional metrics, like Richard Wilbur?
Rexroth: No, I’m just not interested. It bores me. What would you call the now — the neo-alexandrianization of the baroque tradition? I mean, I can still read Callimachus, but not Eratos. I draw the line there … no interest whatsoever. You can fall into the same thing by modeling your work around Saintsbury’s Minor Caroline Poets.
R&A: Does that hold for Lowell too?
Rexroth: I don’t think Lowell’s like that.
R&A: He writes a stanza like Drayton’s …
Rexroth: Yes, but there’s a personal element here. I’ve always felt with him a considerable violence and bettering of form. But even so, he’s not one of the people I like best.
R&A: Who would you consider the rating American poets?
Rexroth: I don’t know … Williams. He’s one of the very few we have in the general European tradition. All these quarterlies and all that exist in the backwash of the English tradition … something apart from the modern movement. Williams is the peer of the Europeans — a world poet.
R&A: How about Pound?
Rexroth: Well, as a poet I find his verse soft and mellifluous … a limp soft line. It’s not what I’m looking for at all. The difference is like that between Wyatt and Surrey. And he’s beneath the backwash also. I just don’t think it’s very fruitful.
R&A: Which European poets do you prefer?
Rexroth: Mostly French, though I read the Italians also. Reverdy and Apollinaire in particular.
R&A: Any younger French poets?
Rexroth: I don’t care for the post-war ones in general, though I did translate some of [Oscar] Milosz. I like the sentiment. I’m in favor of that.
R&A: How about post-war Germans?
Rexroth: Those I don’t know. Is there anything there? See if you can find some.
R&A: Back to the French, what about Rene Char?
Rexroth: Well, don’t forget that he’s a sort of A.E. Housman in a modern idiom … in the same way that Prevert is really their New Yorker poet, which shows how much ahead of us they are. Larry [Ferlinghetti] always thought he’d modeled himself on Prevert, but I think he’s got a much harder line, more like Queneau.
R&A: Are there any older poets to whom you return?
Rexroth: Those I read continuously are Burns and Landor. Simple, stark quatrains … things my little girls can enjoy.
R&A: There’s been a growing interest in oriental verse recently, in which you played a part. What do you think of it?
Rexroth: In California — not Los Angeles but in Frisco — there’s direct contact. They’re open to the sea, so that something of the real flavor comes across. And Frisco, remember, is full of Buddhist churches. Mary, my little girl, was confirmed in a Buddhist temple. She saw the Life write-up on Buddhism, with pictures of the ceremony, and she said she wanted to be confirmed there because she only liked Jesus as a kid. She was a little disappointed in him when he grew up. But anyway, the orientalism in Frisco isn’t all the ten cent incense burner variety. A lot of us — Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, myself — read the languages.
R&A: Do you include the current Zen craze in this?
Rexroth: Oh, I don’t much care for that. Do you know what the Japanese call it? Buddhism for white people. It’s too easy, something set up for a popular market.
R&A: Do you think of yourself as a Buddhist?
Rexroth: Not really … or if I am, if I am a Buddhist, I’m a Buddhist of a very primitive sort — not a Rhys Davids Oxford Hinayana Buddhist. If I have any religious belief at all, I suppose I believe in the primacy of religious experience. In Buddhism the religious experience is purely empirical.
R&A: Do you mean they’re continually searching, but nobody gets to Nirvana … like the laughter of the Buddha and the Bodhisatvas about the path?
Rexroth: It’s like what you find in the statues — the bored look on the face of the Buddha — or the Bodhisatva’s vow made out of a kind of good-humored indifference or insouciance. But I’m not a Buddhist anyway. I’m an aetheist.
R&A: That searching for the path isn’t like Kerouac’s search for God’s face, is it?
Rexroth: Look, that’s all a lot of talk. You don’t become a saint until you lead a good life whether in Tibet or Italy or America. When the hipster picks this up, he cheapens it. I don’t like hipsters. The hipster is a louse on jazz … a mimic of jazz and Negroes who believes the Negro is born with a sax in his mouth and a hypodermic in his arm. That’s despicable. In jazz circles it’s what they call Crow Jimism.
R&A: And in religion?
Rexroth: I just don’t know where they drag the saints into this. You can’t become a saint by taking dope, stealing your friends’ typewriters, giving girls chancres, not supporting your wife and children, and then reading St. John of the Cross. All of that, when it’s happened before, has typified the collapse of civilization … and today the social fabric is falling apart so fast, it makes your head swim.
[Originally published online in Jacket 23, August 2003.]