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Interview with Kenneth Rexroth

(David Meltzer, Summer 1969)

 

 

Summer 1969: A young poet journeys to an old poet. I took a single-engine propeller-driven “hopper” flight from San Francisco to Santa Barbara — rows of single seats divided by a narrow aisle, claustrophobic enough to know if the pilot’s deodorant was working. Carol Tinker, Rexroth’s wife, picked me up and we drove to their home in the hills of Isla Vista. Besides my backpack, I was lugging a Sony portable reel-to-reel recorder that weighed anywhere from twenty to fifty pounds, depending on my stamina. Their house was spare but elegant (unlike Rexroth’s old apartment on Scott Street in San Francisco, which was overwhelmed with books and art). The kitchen was like those drooling glimpses you get in gourmet magazines and PBS haute cuisine shows. Wine was opened, and Kenneth took me into the tree-shaded backyard to a table, where I set up the machine. He was uncomfortable about his distended belly and told me it was the result of some kind of hernia. I turned the tape recorder on and put the clunky microphone between us. After preliminary banter, Kenneth began talking, and I was instantly enthralled and deeply honored to be in his presence. You must understand that Rexroth was the bane of many poet-peers of my generation in the Bay Area in the fifties. His Sunday KPFA hour was often listened to for snotty laughs and eye-rolling groans (as well as envy and desire). We younger poets had different histories, mentors, loyalties, prospects. There was something unintentionally comic about his voice: a droning patrician W.C. Fields bluster and mashed-potato hauteur spouting off on a dazzling variety of subjects addressed with irreversible finality. Robert Duncan said that the “voice” Rexroth constructed through time bore little resemblance to the voice he brought to California from the Midwest. Carol created a chez Rexroth dinner for us, with considered wines to match the cuisine, which opened up off-the-record convivial chatter and ferment.

The next day we sat in another room of the house to continue our conversation. Rexroth’s stint at UC Santa Barbara was his first “official” teaching gig. He relished it, giving immense support and encouragement to his students; he made it clear that he was still un-squarishly hip and tuned into poetics, politics, and the subversive potential of sixties pop music. I was surprised that the catholic Rexroth was also very Catholic (in the Jesuitical mode) while, at the same time, deeply enmeshed in Japanese and Chinese thought and art. I sensed that he felt, as an elder, not venerated but displaced by the younger poets he considered his protégés. An exhilarating encounter further enhanced by Kenneth and Carol’s immensely generous hospitality. Rexroth died in 1982. He is greatly missed. —DM

 

Kenneth Rexroth (KR)
David Meltzer (DM)

1

KR: I came to California in 1927 to live. The day I got into town, San Francisco’s leading poet, California’s leading poet, killed himself. George Sterling. He pretty well represented the California scene in those days, which lived on its past. The San Francisco literary world was dominated by people to whom the native-son-and-daughter thing was all important, although most of them were not native sons and daughters. I don’t think Gertrude Atherton, George Sterling, any of these people, were born in California.

It’s hard to believe now, with all the tremendous activity that has been in San Francisco, that San Francisco, when we came there to live, was very much of a backwater town and there just wasn’t anything happening. There was this myth of Carmel, which is just like it is now . . . like the myth of Big Sur . . . and a lot of those people are still alive down there . . . they stagger, run around juiced, and bellow out folk songs.

That’s really the reason we stayed here, as it was a long way from the literary marketplace. We didn’t know anybody who wasted his time talking about what Horace Gregory thought of Oscar Williams. We met people who would say to you, “Who do you think is California’s leading writer?” And you would say, “Gertrude Stein.” They would say, “Who is that?” And then they would say, “Oh, yes!” They knew her, you see, her brother was in society on the Peninsula, but they didn’t know she wrote. It was a very strange scene. It’s like Santa Barbara now. It was a little time pocket.

DM: What was Robinson Jeffers’s effect on the California scene at that time?

KR: Jeffers wasn’t very well known in California then. He was just beginning to acquire a reputation among a very limited number of people. The people who dominated the literary scene in California looked down on him. They viewed him as being terribly modernistic.

We just didn’t have any competition. It was like Picasso dropping back into the world of Trollope. The leading painter in town, Maynard Dixon, came over to see me and looked at my paintings on the wall and said, “Hmmmm, I see you have been experimentin’ with abstract form, like Matissy and Picassio!” So it was a great place, you know, because there wasn’t any sweat. That’s why we came to San Francisco.

DM: Was it in the thirties that the California poets and artists became more involved with the world and with each other’s works?

KR: I don’t think there were very many people in the thirties. There were people in San Francisco who were writing and not publishing anything when I came. Most of those people became involved in red San Francisco. The interesting thing is that most of them became practical labor organizers, rather than bohemians sitting around in Union Square arguing about proletarian literature.

There was a real pattern there, due to the fact that there were all sorts of things wrong with red literature in the thirties in New York. But when the Communist artists’ and writers’ groups were formed, the John Reed Club . . . the one in San Francisco, they put up some pretty stiff qualifications. The members were actually artists and writers. They stayed around.

What happened in New York was that the clubs became dominated by bohemians who didn’t do anything except argue about Marx, whom they had never read, and they would avoid the artists and writers. It’s very hard to convey to the present generation what that was like. People talked about Communism in those days the way people talk about acid or smack. I mean, they bored you to death, and they didn’t know anything about it.

I was sort of the outdoor organizer for the John Reed Club. I was organizer of everything in the West, and, of course, the New York apparatus thought the West started at Hoboken, and that is one reason the Chicago organization was better — the reason it had people like Dick Wright and Farrell and people like that. Outside of New York, we tried to confine the thing to bona fide artists and writers. In San Francisco our people were actually involved in the real labor movement. You have to understand that there was an enormous amount of bullshit. People were running around talking about “the masses” and there wasn’t really any contact with the masses. But hell, I mean, I wrote The Waterfront Worker . . . all of the goddamn thing, week after week after week. A mimeographed thing we used to hand out on the waterfront long before the strike. All of us were actually involved. We were involved in the Agricultural Workers Industrial Union. I had somebody ask me one time at an anarchist meeting in Italy, “Is The Grapes of Wrath true?” One-eighth is true. In the novel, one guy gets killed. In a Bakersfield cotton strike, to which I took Steinbeck, eight guys got killed.

You see, all of us were very actively involved, and this makes all the difference in the world. Another thing, very few of these people were orthodox Commies, because the basic tradition on the West Coast was IWW. The attitude was really an anarchistic attitude, and for many years I treasured — to flaunt in the face of the FBI, if they ever bothered me — an application to the Communist Party that had written across it, “Comrade Rexroth is a very valuable comrade, but he is entirely too much of an anarchist to be good party material.” It was signed by Earl Browder, the general secretary of the party. This movement stretched all the way from Seattle, where the IWW dominated the intellectual and bohemian world in the years around the First World War and well into the twenties. People like Gary Snyder, over a generation later than myself, and I grew up in very similar worlds.

The first time I met Gary Snyder, he hitchhiked down and stayed at the house. He was on his way from Reed College, and I said, “Gee, you’re tan, what have you been doing?” And he said, “I have been working on a lookout outside of Marble Mount on the Sagit River in the Mount Baker forest.” And I said, “I used to work up there. I was a patrolman before they had lookouts. . . . The guy I worked for just got the job. He was a wonderful district ranger, his name was Tommy Thompson.” And Gary gave me a kind of funny look and he said, “Well, that’s who I was working for this year. It is his last year and he is retiring.”

Of course, there is another thing: people on the West Coast work. Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, “Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?” Ginsberg said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Ship out. Do you realize that when they go into the Bering Sea, you are in hot water? And you know what that means? That means double pay. You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!” I don’t know how many trips Allen made in the next couple of years. In the East people don’t think like that. We were talking earlier about Hart Crane. He spent all his time fretting about his economic problems, but if he had been a Westerner, he would have gone out and gotten a job in the woods or at sea or something like that, and he would have made a lot of bread. A hell of a lot more bread than he ever did writing advertising copy for candy.

There’s another thing that I would like to point out, and that is that there has been right along in San Francisco a pretty consistent, relentless organizational activity. At the time of the Moscow Trials and the general bankruptcy of orthodox Bolshevism, relatively few people in San Francisco became Trotskyites. The people who did were pumped in from New York and were connected with the Sailors Union of the Pacific. Most people just backed away and went back to what they were before. All during those years we always had poetry readings and discussions, and then during the war we set up a thing called the Randolph Bourne Council in which we gathered up the radical intellectuals in town that were not Stalinist. We tried to gather the Trotskyites, which was hopeless. Immediately after the war we simply organized an open and aboveboard Anarchist Circle. We used to have bigger meetings than any other radical group. All of these people, my generation and slightly younger, were involved in it, they all came . . . Bob Stock and a couple of other people who were in the group had poetry readings too on another day of the week . . . all closely tied with the Libertarian Circle. The whole purpose of the Libertarian Circle was to reevaluate and refound the movement. You have no idea of the degree to which orthodox Bolshevism had completely conditioned the minds of the generality of intellectuals in those days. We used to shock people because we used to say, “We don’t proselytize, we don’t have any agenda, we don’t have any chairman.” There were 200 people and there was no chairman, and it was all very orderly. It was necessary to work out these techniques of group relationships, techniques of discussion which you might call a new kind of dialectic, and then information . . . week after week after week people led discussions, people would volunteer to speak about libertarian literature, education, agriculture, everything under the sun. It was a long process of education for the whole generation of people. These people are now between forty and fifty. We had all kinds of college students . . . all of the San Francisco poets of that period, lots of writers . . . people who became psychiatrists, people who became college professors, people who became engineers, they are still around.

Out of the group came KPFA. Lou Hill was a member of our group as well as most of the people who were the original KPFA staff. The station was devoted to the reeducation of its audience on what you might call libertarian principles. There was a constant dose of poetry, for instance. Later they all began fighting with one another and became impoverished. They cannibalized an immense library of tapes. The first tapes Dylan Thomas ever made . . . I was in England immediately after the war and taped readings and interviews and sent them back to San Francisco. These things were priceless. David Gascoyne, Dylan, Henry Treece, Alex Comfort, Herbert Read, and George Woodcock . . . discussions with the whole English anarchist circle.

We kept pumping in stuff from all over, in German, in English, in French. . . . I sat up night after night writing letters abroad, and this material just flooded in, and it didn’t go to New York. I was corresponding with Simone Weil, Camus, before the Partisan Review ever heard of them! Later they were turned up for New York by Dwight and Nancy MacDonald. The person in New York who dug this thing at all was Dwight MacDonald, with his magazine Politics . . . to which none of us would contribute. This annoyed Dwight very much!

We set up a thing in San Francisco in the thirties called the Artists’ and Writers’ Union, which generated a strong tradition. People who are that old remember it with great fondness. The members were all highly qualified artists and writers. Then the WPA came along. We had certain contacts in Washington, and we knew this was going to happen, so we were ready to capitalize on it. Before they ever set up the WPA, when Roosevelt first came in, they started shoveling out money to relieve the crisis. They set up a thing called the Public Works of Art Projects, and I got a telephone call in the middle of the night from Washington, and I was told they were going to set it up. So when the director of the De Young Museum and a rich patron and our big rich commercial artist met for their preliminary meeting, there were about 250 people in the court of the De Young Museum, notified overnight! And they were all bona fide artists. We just took over.

We decorated Coit Tower. It looks like the Diego Rivera funny papers, but it was a very great achievement. Nobody else in the country did a goddamn thing except take government checks. An awful lot of stuff was definitely accomplished. No other WPA program later put out anything like those magazines we put out . . . and we were responsible for a book, American Stuff. We got creative projects set up. There were all kinds of people who we told, “Here is your check, go home and write.” Eventually, we got people on creative writing projects all around the country. People wrote books of poems, novels, and some got themselves Ph.D.s, but of course all this had to be done quietly because of congressional criticism. But a tremendous amount was accomplished. Between 1950 and 1955, the necessity for organization began to die out because other people could become activist. It was no longer necessary to educate somebody to make an anarchist poet out of him. He had a milieu in which he could naturally become such a thing. But for years it was a slow process of breaking down rigid ideologies and then creating a different thing.

 

2

The Vietnam War was a disaster because until the Vietnam War got hot, the dominant tendency in the movement in America was anarcho-pacifist . . . and religious in various ways. What happened with Vietnam, and the Russian-Chinese split, was that the movement again fell into the hands of people who were representing other people’s foreign offices. American radicals are placed in the ridiculous position of supporting the foreign policies of Ho Chi Minh or Chairman Mao or Fidel Castro or Tito or Israel. That may be better than Stalin, but it is still an army, it is still a foreign office, it is still a state, and I think that were we let alone and the Vietnam War ended, this would die out. You see, the Vietnam War gives . . . in the strict sense of the word . . . a political complexion to the movement which it had almost got rid of.

Today, so much in the movement is dominated by state-ism. What is Israel? Israel is another bourgeois state. Not only that, but it is a theocracy. You walk up and down the streets of Tel Aviv publicly eating a pork chop sandwich and find out what happens to you. You know! Here’s a Negro in San Francisco, and he is running around in African clothes, and he’s talking about the glories of the Congo or Nigeria or Ghana or whatever side he has taken. Why? What for? It is just another state. It is the same old shit come back, as Marx said. This doesn’t mean that I am supporting the Vietnam War or that I am pro-imperialist, pro-Arab . . . but with all this national tension there has been a recrudescence of state-ism in the American movement, but it is only the leadership. Students don’t have this attitude. For students it’s all a lot of crap, except for a few blacks who just discovered it — who just read Fanon.

The student participate in issues that involve them. They participate in an anti-Vietnam demonstration because they are going to be asked to murder and they are going to be murdered. The participate in actions against the deadly system of the university which is designed to turn them into murderers. The objection to the Vietnam War on the part of the students is an organic objection. They have never been able to understand why anybody went to war. I look at a guy marching down the street in a uniform, and I can’t understand it. I can’t understand anybody doing that. Somebody comes around to me and says, “I could never face my mother, my family, the social pressures . . .”

I once spend a day with a leading Comintern representative in Hollywood, a wealthy movie actor, and a couple of sophisticated top Communists in the movie star’s yacht arguing with Eisenstein, trying to persuade him to stay in America. Any movie company would have given him anything, anything! I’ll never forget it. We all got sunburned as hell, and the argument was just hopeless. He said, “No.” The Russians told him that if he defected, they would expose him as a homosexual. And somebody on the yacht said, “Well, so what?” And Eisenstein said, “It would kill my mother.” So he went back to Russia, and Stalin destroyed him . . . artistically. I never really understand people who yield to pressures like that.

I don’t understand anybody who goes into the army. Who in the hell wants to go into the army and shoot anybody? I just can’t conceive of it, for any reason, I mean, any prison is better than the army . . . any prison. So when a movement objects to a war, the rank and file, whatever their leaders represent, the rank and file have a perfectly natural organic objection.

The university is set up today, and is set up for no other purpose, to provide bureaucrats for the military-industrial complex and to hold bodies in cold storage — off the labor market. It is set up for nothing else.

The students object to this because it is soul-destroying. The human relationships in a university today are soul-destroying. The fabric is soul-destroying. The way the classroom is set up with that one-armed crippled furniture, like an old-time cafeteria . . . the way you can’t turn around to look at somebody; the way you have to face the boss on a podium. When I go into one of my seminars, I break this up completely. We sit on the floor. We get a room where we can move the furniture out of the way. I sit in the back amongst the people. Or we sit in a circle. The university is not unique: there is built into all society today actual physical soul-destroying structures. Did you ever take a chick into a motel in Southern California? It has a fucking machine in it. The bed fucks. You put a quarter in it and the bed fucks. You don’t have to do any work. Right here in Santa Barbara, within walking distance, is a motel, and every bed has a fucking machine in it. This is not a joke, this is true. They say it is a Relaxicisor, a Jacuzzi, or something . . . but that’s what it’s for.

The whole civilization is like this, so that the revolt of the movement, young and old, is against the destruction of the human race. All these people come around, yellow, black and Latin American, and say, “Oh, man, all you have to do is just to follow our boss and do what the state tells you to do. Go to Israel and live in a kibbutz, and all your problems will be solved.” That’s a lot of crap. They’re not solved at all, as is self-evident from Czechoslovakia or the relation between Russia and China.

I have complete sympathy for the movement, but I no longer belong to anything. (I guess I belong to Resist. I think I signed something and sent them some money, because its purpose is the oldies to help the youngies. And the leadership . . . people like Chomsky, Reisman, and Fromm . . . I look on these people as considerably to the right of myself . . . of course, Chomsky is changing.) I think it’s a disaster that this new wave of revolutionary nationalism has become reflected in the American movement, with which it has nothing to do.

DM: In a sense, though, this is a reflection of the powers that they are in resistance to. This happens often, don’t you think so?

KR: Sure. What do you think would happen to you if you marched down the streets of Peking with a banner saying: “Free Grass, Free Huey, Free Love”? . . . Oh shit! [laughter] All these regimes are extremely puritanical, and their art is . . . did you ever read Chinese Literature, the magazine they put out? It’s just appalling.

DM: As bad as reading Soviet Literature?

KR: That’s Gertrude Stein and James Joyce compared with the stuff that comes from China.

DM: What about the radical art of today? Do you see anything beyond propaganda in the poetry and in the fiction?

KR: Fiction, you know, is like painting. It’s become so commercialized that it destroys the people who create it. Mitch Goodman, in a number of Liberation, talks about Mailer. He says what everybody knows about Mailer. He criticizes Mailer for the long attack on Paul Goodman, which I thought was simply scandalous. The reason that a guy like Mailer comes into existence is that there was this young radical kid running around Okinawa or Guadalcanal or someplace jumping from foxhole to foxhole, and jumping behind him is a publisher’s scout or an agent with a checkbook and a contract. Look, the first American antiwar novel was John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers. It came out in the middle twenties. These other guys were brought up right away to give them something really antiwar . . . but they got all the gold when they were twenty years old and haven’t been a damn bit of good since. The same is true of painting. Painting has become incredibly commercialized. If a Buick agency was run with the ruthless commercialism of a modern art gallery, it would go out of business. It would be just too commercial. You have to be just a little human to sell Buicks.

And poetry . . . book poetry in bulk has come to be dominated by the professor-poet. Publishing a book of poetry is part of the publish-or-perish setup. You go to any university today and you are up to your ass in poets.

I get this stuff that comes to me for review. People say, “Why don’t you review it?” I can’t read through any of it because it is toilet-paper poetry. Every sheet looks just like every other sheet. It’s fantastic.

In the McCarthy period, when the only expression of any kind of radicalism was confined to science fiction, I used to review science fiction for KPFA. I sat around one night making a tape for them. I had a bunch of science-fiction books stacked up before me . . . you read them, you know, zip! Just like that! I’d put the unread ones in one pile and read them and put them in another pile, and I went to take a piss and returned and picked up a new book, read it, and Christ! I get fifty pages into it and realized, gee, have I started on the wrong pile? I have already read that!

Well, the poetry is the same way. You know where the poetry is. The poetry is in song. The poetry is in direct relationship. The poetry is the kind of thing existing in San Francisco, that continuous human contact. At one time just the Libertarian Circle and Bob Stock’s basement and now . . . God knows how many . . . there must be a hundred poetry readings a night in the damn city, in crash pads, in coffee shops, everyplace under the sun.

A person like Leonard Cohen, for instance, was getting nowhere with the literary establishment. You had to go to Canada to even hear of Leonard Cohen. But the minute Leonard started singing, he went like wildfire all over the USA. He can’t sing. So much the better. (This is something you run into all the time. People are always saying, for instance, Dylan is terrible, he can’t sing . . .) Leonard Cohen can’t sing, but that’s part of the thing, and they don’t understand this. The thing that makes Leonard Cohen what he is, is that he doesn’t give a fuck whether he sings or not. I mean, he is communicating . . . he’s in direct communication with people, which is one of the reasons, of course, that he opts out of show business.

You know what happened last year . . . he had a tour set up, and he started out on it and soon he said, “To hell with it, I’m going back to the Greek isles.” He had lost human contact. This is where poetry is. The poetry here is in the same place that it is in France. The greatest postwar French poet is Georges Brassens . . . the poet-singer. It sure as hell isn’t Yves Bonnefoy, who is a kind of bad combination of Yvor Winters and H.D. Jesus Christ, what good was 2000 years of civilization to produce that?

Now there are hundreds of people, and they are all over the map. There are a few great ones. People like Anne Sylvestre . . . incidentally, all the young singers and poets are anarchist. Listen to their records, they make all sorts of sly digs at Léo Ferré, Louis Aragon, and the old guard. From the days of Apollinaire to the present, the leading French poets worth their salt all wrote for direct presentation; the modern tradition goes back to the nineteenth century, to Charles Cros and Aristide Bruant, and continues to the Middle Ages. That is why I’m so interested in the stuff you do, because you are the only one of the San Francisco group who has really made a very professional thing out of this, nobody else has. I would if I had the time, but I am getting old and have just so much time to do what I have to do.

Back in the days of poetry and jazz, Ferlinghetti, Patchen, and myself were all well aware of this. The essence of the thing was in the direct speech of one person to another. Since none of us were singers, we read. Also there were other reasons for that. It gave a jazz musician much greater freedom. And poets were a hell of a lot easier to get along with! Just talk to a jazz musician and ask him what he thinks of a singer.

DM: Would it be possible to talk about the poetry and jazz? For instance, when did you actually begin experimenting with it?

KR: When I was a young kid in my teens. I ran a place in Chicago, with a couple of girls, called the Green Mask. We used to have poetry readings there all the time. The girls were a couple of carny and show-business women, and the Green Mask was a hangout for show-business people. One of those old-time places where everybody goes after the show, where people get up and sing. Maxwell Bodenheim (who couldn’t write for sour owlshit) and Langston Hughes and myself used to do poetry and jazz with a Chicago group, the Austin High Gang.

Dave Tough was the youngest member of the group and washimself a poet. Dave Tough was just about the first hipster. He was a head, and most of the time lived with gay women, and he wrote poetry — real far-out poetry. There was another drummer, whose name I forget, who lives in Florida now, who has Dave’s poetry. I have tried to get at it. I turned Barney Rosset on to it, but I don’t know what happened. It wasn’t amateur illiterate stuff. Dave Tough was, of course, the greatest organic drummer . . . the only musician, except Mary Lou Williams, who went from the old-time jazz to the new-time jazz. Nobody else did.

DM: I remember hearing Pee Wee Russell playing “Blue Monk” recently . . .

KR: Yeah, but played in that strange Pee Wee way. I mean, the thing about Dave Tough is that he moved from Chicago jazz into modern jazz. He was in the first Herd with Woody Herman, for instance, and through it all became a thoroughly modern drummer. He was certainly as interesting as Roach or even Elvin Jones.

Later, in the John Reed Club we used to do a certain amount of revolutionary verse. I did a thing with Louis Aragon’s “Red Front” . . . and then it all sorta died. Jazz died. There was very little action in jazz for years.

See, the great problem is that to do a thing really well in the first place the poet has to know a great deal about music, either play an instrument or be able to write music or both. He should have some idea about what is happening. Then the band has to rehearse. You don’t just get up and blow. And if you lived in San Francisco, the better bands were not available, because they were on tour. The musicians were moving around all the time. That’s why we started in The Cellar, because the owners were the band. The piano player (Bill Weisjahn) and the drummer (Sonny Wayne) were the owners. And Bruce Lippincott on tenor . . . they were the house band. Other musicians came and went and played with the band. (Mingus and I did something a long time ago in The Black Cat during the war, just for fun one night.) As soon as Ferlinghetti did it, then Patchen brought out his record with a highly trained group. Mingus and Langston Hughes played the Five Spot in New York after I did, and I understand it was very successful.

Two things happened during the Beat Generation time. The hucksters couldn’t understand it at all. I remember having a conference with a record company, with Laughlin and the New Directions people, about marketing Patchen’s record. The executives of the company didn’t know what they had at all. They didn’t know how to sell it. The only thing that was selling at all was this Ken Nordine record . . . which was to us what Rod McKuen is to Ginsberg. A strictly commercial scene.

Steve Allen got that same idea. I don’t know how he formed his friendship with Kerouac. I was booked into the Village Vanguard, and Kerouac recruited the gig. They throw you out of the Musicians’ Union for doing something like that, but he went to Max Gordon and recruited the gig. He said it would help build up my show. Well, he was pissy-ass drunk every night, vomited on the piano, and made a general ass of himself, and Max said to me, “Look, I’ll buy your contract.” Steve was very upset. I said no to Max. (Max started out in life as an anarchist poet; very few people know that.) Well, this started a thing so that in every Greenwich Village coffee shop and bar for about two years, all kinds of bums with pawnshop saxophones put together with scotch tape, and some other guy with something called poetry, were, like, you know, blowing poetry, man, dig? And it was absolutely unmitigated crap. It had a terrible effect. There wasn’t anything like it in San Francisco, because we had done the thing in San Francisco. . . . People knew it, people knew all about it, even though there was an awful lot of trash at the Coffee Gallery, but by and large the music was better, and the poetry was better, too. But the stuff in New York was ridiculous; and, of course, it’s that whole New York commercial scene. That was all it was for. To make the tourist go to Greenwich Village. You went down there where the first miniskirts were worn, and the miniskirted chicks were waitresses, and you got yourself a free grope, and you listened to free jazz and poetry done by a couple of stumblebums who weren’t being paid anything, and it killed the whole thing. Then Lipton in Southern California staged the first big show. It was very successful, Shorty Rogers heading one group with me and Freddy Katz heading the other. Lipton, Stu Perkoff, and some others. This was quite a show. And it ran for weeks and drew all kinds of people and made all kinds of bread. The musicians were top musicians.

I was always luckier than anybody else because I knew more about what I was doing. I got top musicians. The people I had working with me at the Five Spot were part of the Blakey organization: Bobby Timmons, Doug Watkins, and the star of those days, Donald Byrd, and Elvin Jones on drums, and then Pepper Adams on baritone. The same in Chicago. The band I worked with up and down the coast was built around Brew Moore, who was a Lester Young-type tenor. He was very good for Kansas City soul. An awful lot of work went into this, long rehearsals. I always worked with head arrangements. Patchen worked with stuff that was all written down.

But you discover that jazz audiences don’t know shit from wild honey . . . and that includes a lot of the musicians. One of the things that I did, and still do, is done against Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1.” It is called “This Night Only.” People always think it is a George Shearing number. I used to do a thing with a Neruda poem to a 12/8 samba rhythm. I remember sitting down with two of the leading New York critics who were supposed to know something about music, who write about pop culture, jazz, and stuff like that . . . and they said, “Kenneth, why you know, that boogie-woogie number you did was very good.”

The interesting thing was that they didn’t know what 12/8 was, but they dug the 12/8 which was the essence of Jimmy Yancey, of boogie-woogie. Yet they didn’t know it was Latin music. Dig? They were jazz habitués. In the Five Spot at least one night a week. That’s one of the things that’s heartbreaking about jazz.

Today, you have a highly trained audience which has grown up listening to, you name it, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger. They have good taste in rock, which is why they put down most rock now because it has been debauched. You have a trained audience, which you did not have in the days of bop.

People still say the most absurd things. “You know, that Charlie Parker is polyrhythmic and atonal.” Oh, my ass! I mean, there isn’t anything in Charlie Parker than isn’t in Beethoven!

DM: They have reissued tapes of Parker playing in nightclubs, and often the audience chattering is louder than the music. . . .

KR: Of course, that’s another thing. You play in New York and you discover what hard bop really is. Hard bop is music for people who don’t listen. I would never put up with it. In the first place, I have a lot of projection, and I won’t permit any nonsense. I’ll just stop in the middle of a poem . . . but the minute I got off the stage and the band took over, everybody would start talking again. It was scandalous! Beautiful musicians like Watkins and Timmons, you know, young guys . . . no wonder they never got anyplace. Well, shit, I can see why. Bobby would play a solo piano number, and these motherfuckers would be talking at the top of their lungs. Cash resister banging, waitress clinking around . . . that’s what I always loved about John Lewis. “The waitresses don’t hustle drinks during the set, the phone doesn’t ring, and take the bell off the cash register.” Boy, that’s really twisting the arm of the owner! But Lewis and Mingus are the only people . . . Lewis, of course, was polite, whereas Mingus was rough. But John is the only person who has been able to get away with demands like that when his group performs at clubs.

DM: I get the feeling that jazz today is even more neglected than at that time. . . .

KR: Neglect? It’s lost connection, partly because it’s so blatantly lowbrow and partly because it’s so crazy racist. And its racism really doesn’t have anything to do with black or white, it’s just that there are too many pigs at the trough. . . .

The black dominance of jazz is due to the fact that there just aren’t enough gigs to go around. Blacks have got their leverage, and they levered other people out. This is all tied in with bohemian black negritude, which has divorced them from their sources. Folks don’t buy this. This whole Ayler, LeRoi Jones scene cuts them off from folks, from black people, so that they lose their roots. Their white audience will only take so much of it, and then they get bored. People get tired of being told musically, “You motherfucker, you kept me in slavery for 300 years.” The average guy in the audience didn’t, he came over here to escape Hitler or Pilsudski. Then they discover that and they say, “You dirty Jew!” The audience gets tired of this after a while. Masochism is only fun for a little while. That’s been a big factor.

Also the fact that they won’t get away from these songs which provide them with certain kinds of changes which they can work on, but the lyrics of which are absurd. Look at all the jazz standards, and then think of the words to them. There has been a demand, you see, for lyrics of a counterculture. I mean, jazz really wasn’t enough of a counterculture, because jazz really isn’t . . . jazz was, after all, music played for dance halls and cabarets, and anybody who says it isn’t is crazy. It’s not the voice of a counterculture that most radical rock is.

I mean, you couldn’t get out of the Sunset Café for less than $30. It cost you more than that to go to the Cotton Club. Langston Hughes said a wonderful thing about the Cotton Club. “You know, they didn’t let in common niggers like me. It was for people like Bojangles Robinson.” That isn’t quite true, because I went to the Cotton Club with Langston . . . but it is roughly true. Above it all, like God in his heaven, was Duke. It was disgraceful, you know. The show would just make you vomit. Talk about Tom minstrel shows . . . these spade chicks walking around pretending to be cannibals . . . it was just terrible! No wonder Duke is so imperturbable. He would die of shame, otherwise — not for himself, because his music is magnificent, but the whole atmosphere of the Cotton Club was horrible.

The thing in music that has happened in the last ten years is not as assimilable.

There’s a lot of stuff that’s assimilable, and the square can’t tell the difference. Time magazine is always discovering some new rock group offering wonderful lyrics about I-love-America, sung by people that look like Norman Rockwell Coca-Cola ads — but it doesn’t go. Neither does the phony acid rock go. The audience won’t take it.

I went to the Both/And Club one day to hear Philly Joe Jones. Philly Joe Jones is a great drummer. He’s another organic drummer like Dave Tough. It’s like a heartbeat, you know. It doesn’t have to be loud. I mean, he could make a great thing with just one brush. And everybody in the audience was gray-haired. It was very funny. I said to the owners, “God, it’s old home week!” And the owners said, “Yeah, it sure is. I don’t know. Changes have been taking place, you know. I feel like we are booking Bix Beiderbecke.”

Students of mine, even Negro students who really dig jazz, stop with Ornette and Mingus and maybe three or four other musicians. This savage hard bop, I mean postbop, that has come up in the last couple of years in New York . . . civilization is breaking down. Don’t forget that jazz musicians work for a living; they have to work in clubs and they are not living off in communes. If you play a guitar you can say, fuck it, and walk out under a redwood tree. But jazz musicians are tied into a very fierce and ugly scene which is controlled by the Mafia. . . . What kind of a world is this to work in? A modern folk singer or a modern rock musician doesn’t have to do that at all . . . he is not getting tied into the gangster world. . . .

 

3

DM: There is a seemingly different response to spiritual matters in the West Coast, a type of lifestyle and response more basically rooted to Oriental and preinstitutionalized Judeo-Christian concepts. . . .

KR: One reason is simply that oceans, like steppes, unite as well as separate. The West Coast is close to the Orient. It’s the next thing out there. There are a large number of Orientals living on the West Coast. San Francisco is an international city, and it has living contact with the Orient. It also has an internal Oriental life. Once a week you can go see a Buddhist basketball game, if you want to. There are Buddhist temples all over the place. To a New Yorker this is all ridiculous — the Orient means dime-store incense burners. It is very unreal.

For years I noticed in Pound’s Cantos two ideograms that were upside down. I used to pester Laughlin about this. I used to make fun of it. Ezra by this time had gotten very dim-witted, so he didn’t notice it. This was after the war. . . . Laughlin said something to Eliot about it, and Eliot burst out laughing and thought it was a great joke. Not that they were upside down, but that it would worry me. He said, “But, you know, no one pays any attention to all that sort of stuff. You know, that Chinese thing. Nobody reads Chinese anyway.” Eliot’s attitude toward Ezra’s interest in the Orient was that it was a great deal more ridiculous than his interest in Social Credit or his other crackpot ideas.

Large numbers of people have gone to the Northwest and to California to get away from the extreme pressures of a commercialized civilization. On the West Coast it is possible to beat the system. It’s possible to be a fly alive on the flywheel, which it isn’t in New York. I would have been an utterly different human being if I had gone back to New York. That’s why I stayed on the West Coast. Of course, there is another aspect to the whole California business: religious communities and new religions and swamis; you know, maybe that’s just because of the large number of middle-aged women. You know what they called those swamis in old-time show business? They called them “rag heads on the menopause circuit.” But, at the same time, a guy like Krishnamurti, who certainly plays the menopause circuit, not out of his own wishes . . . I mean he doesn’t ask for it, they come to him . . .Krishnamurti is a very impressive guy. His stuff is very intelligent. He is no Kahlil Gibran. He has wonderful answers to give.

This is all part of the wartime thing, too. Allen Hunter at the Hollywood Congregational Church is the guy who turned on people like Auden, Aldous Huxley, Pravananda, Gerald Heard, and, of course, Isherwood, who is still around. All of these people were extremely influential on the pacifist and anarchist movements. This was another focus. And it all fed into the thing that made the San Francisco scene. People would come down from the CO [conscientious objector] camps to us in San Francisco, but they would also go down to see Isherwood or Aldous Huxley or somebody like that. Something definitely was being built up.

The big influences in the Northwest were Mark Tobey, who was a Bahai, and Morris Graves, who was a Vedantist. They were both very serious about it. Mark Tobey is a big wheel in the Bahai movement, insofar as they have big wheels. And Morris Graves is very serious. A lot of western migration was in the first place to get away from the destructiveness of the big metropoles and then to find new spiritual roots. That’s true of all classes of people, not just intellectuals.

I think it’s a great mistake to put down the thought of an old retired couple in Moline, Illinois, who decide to get themselves a little house in the rose-colored slums of Southern California after going to a Vedanta meeting. There’s nothing wrong with that. The guy comes home and says, “Ma, I think I am going to sell the secondhand car business. I think it is a rotten thing. I think we got enough money and we will go to California. I was sure impressed by that Indian fella we heard at that lecture, and I think we’ll go out to Glendale. . . .” What’s wrong with this? Is it any different than Allen Ginsberg?

I have always said that the greatest shock Kerouac ever got in his life was when he walked into my house, sat down in a kind of stiff-legged imitation of a lotus posture, and announced he was a Zen Buddhist . . . and then discovered everyone in the room knew at least one Oriental language.

You have to realize, too, that KPFA fed us an awful lot of this stuff. For years and years, Alan Watts and I were back-to-back on Sunday. Alan was handing out the Sunday sermon. This was all very influential. The very name, “Pacifica Views,” Jimmy Broughton’s brother was, I think, the financier of it. There are lots of connections here that go back to the war years.

Then, too, consider the large numbers of conscientious objectors who made up the movement in San Francisco. Most of them were real young kids who just didn’t know any better, and they went on doing what their Sunday school superintendent told them to do after he stopped telling them what to do. They found themselves out here in concentration camps. They had no roots, no background at all. They didn’t really understand what had happened to them. And they began to put together a thing. Look at the tremendous Catholic, pacifist, anarchist movement that exists today. Well, Christ, the San Francisco Fellowship of Reconciliation assumed the responsibility of feeding the Catholics in CO camps. It was impossible to do it. They damn near starved to death. I can remember when the Catholic Worker group numbered in the whole USA about two hundred people. Lots of those people came to the Bay Area and settled here. Today, it’s an enormous movement all over the world. It’s now universal. Civilization is in a state of total collapse. We live in a corpse, and more and more people know this and seek for a way out. . . .

An awful lot of these people stopped writing or write very little. There was a whole group of people around Berkeley those days who were not part of Bob’s Berkeley Renaissance and were members of the San Francisco circle. They are still around but most of them are not writing. One, of course, who is still writing is Philip Lamantia.

He has an incomparable European reputation but is not well known in America. Of course, the thing about Philip is that he doesn’t promote himself at all. I mean, not at all. And he is always away. You know, he is off someplace. He is in Mexico, or he is in Tangiers, or he is in Spain, Paris, and he is ignored by the American avant-garde establishment. Yet everybody knows . . . you ask Ferlinghetti or Duncan or somebody like that, and they all acknowledge Lamantia’s importance — but he is not around when the prizes are awarded. And, of course, Philip represents, as all of us represent, something that for many years has been an absolute obsession with me — and that is the returning of American poetry to the mainstream of international literature.

I have said on lectures that the source of infection in Czechoslovakia was the Viola, the nightclub. They used to read Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg to records by Thelonious Monk. They originally wanted to call the club The Cellar. But then somebody had a chick named Viola, so they called it Viola. But, believe me, there was never a club between the wars in Prague where they would read Allen Tate to Stephen Foster. That didn’t occur! Today, we are all a part of the world literature, and we have a profound effect on world literature.

You get off a plane, and a guy picks you up from the Society of Cultural Relations in German. He says, “I understand you live just a little ways from the commune of The Mothers,” or “I understand John Handy is a friend of yours. . . .” Now he’d say, and don’t think he wouldn’t — “Have you heard Dave Meltzer’s new record?” The San Francisco scene dominates world culture.

Between the wars, an extraordinary combination of Ku Kluxers and bankrupt Trotskyites in New York dominated American literature, and made it totally provincial. American literature was back where it was before the Revolutionary War. It was a provincial imitation of English baroque literature . . . Anne Bradstreet. It had no connection.

You talk to these people about contemporary literature, and they don’t know who you are talking about. Allen Tate, for instance, is a good friend of mine, but Allen Tate goes over to Europe, and you discover that he lives entirely within the world of Paris-America . . . he doesn’t know anybody . . . they are shut away from the whole . . . you see, the world economic crisis obliterated the whole Paris-America scene. A person like Eugene Jolas and a magazine like transition became inconceivable . . . and this all led to the provincialization of American literature.

DM: It lasted quite a while, didn’t it?

KR: Oh, Christ! Since most of the people, except the Southern Agrarians, had been one-time Stalinists, they just took over all the techniques of Stalinism . . . you know, hatchet reviews and logrolling and wire-pulling and controls of foundations and academic jobs and so forth . . . they had the thing absolutely by the balls, just like the Commies had had it just before them. If you got in the Partisan Review you could put up your little pattie and get a job on any English faculty in the USA.

We fought these people continuously . . . a lot of them had been taking exercises so that they could keep fit when they were put in the prisons during the coming war, the Imperialist War, and what happened? They were all in the OSS and now the CIA. They all were! Every single motherfucking one of them was! Name anyone that wasn’t! I know all of these people. They were all chairborne on a gravy train of human blood. And don’t think that we didn’t say so. We said so continuously. I mean, we never stopped! Once I pinned the name “Pillowcase-Headdress School of Literature” on Red Warren and Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, it stuck! You have no idea the domination of these people. They are afraid of me, because they have never dominated me.

You go back to New York, immediately after the war, you know, and Phil Rahv takes you out to dinner and with tears in his eyes says, “Why don’t you contribute to the magazine? Why, we publish Zukofsky!” But don’t forget, all these people were forgotten: Zukofsky, Walter Lowenfels . . . all these people were as though they had never been. And if you mentioned them, Rahv looked embarrassed, like you had just farted.

I was at this big poetry powwow that The Groves of Academe was written about. They were having this long discussion on the History of American Poetry, and I said, “You have left out the whole populist period!” And they said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “William Vaughan Moody, Carl Sandburg, James Oppenheim, Lola Ridge, Vachel Lindsay.” (Most of whom were socialist.) With an expression of utmost contempt on his face, “Cal” Lowell said, “Well, of course, in the West, Rexroth, you haven’t learned that those poor people aren’t poets at all.”

I don’t think they were very good, but it was a question of history . . . it wasn’t a question of fashion. . . .

The poems in Sandburg’s first two books, before he supported the First War, are really terrific. I mean, all that stuff about dynamiters and prostitutes and so on . . . it’s terrific.

We finally broke it. Nobody else broke it. We broke it. And we had damn few outlets. Most of these people are not acceptable today. A few years after the war I was asked to do a survey of modern poetry and an anthology for the New Republic . . . and I had Olson and Creeley and Denise Levertov and Duncan and Lamantia. I wrote an article and gathered their poems and sent the material in to the New Republic. I didn’t hear anything, but they paid me. I said, “When are you going to print it?” Finally, I got an abusive letter saying: “Rexroth, you and your provincial poetaster friends . . . what are you trying to do? Trying to foist something off on us?” This is the way it was. But we broke it.

Bly has done wonders. When I first met Bob, he was a real young guy, and we used to talk about this domination. The young people coming up need to be reconnected with the avant-garde tradition of the world. This was something that he agreed with. This is the reason for his publishing Vallejo, Trakl, Neruda, and other world poets. All you have to do is go to the university, and anybody with gray hair is still teaching the seventy-seven types of ambiguity in the poetry of John Donne. It’s interesting that these cats are all juicers, too. They will come around here in Santa Barbara and say to me, “Say, remember that party in Berkeley when Roberta pissed out the window?” They are the greatest argument for grass that you ever saw in your life! And they are still teaching this shit. I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot, I mean, those critical methods.

On the other hand, the people that came up after the war are now also locked into the establishment. Like LeRoi Jones. What is LeRoi Jones? Is he a genuine motherfucker? He is a college professor! How does he make his living? He has never been anything else but a college professor. If he isn’t working now as a college professor, it is because he is a pie-card artist. He is a professional bureaucrat. Roi’s a college professor. He has never in his life been anything else.

They can’t understand that they are now the establishment. Ginsberg does. Of course, Allen has ten times the brains of the rest of them. He has sense. He has a sense of what happened to him and where he is. He has insight, and, of course, he has connections with the younger people. He’s like Dave Tough. After all, Allen is the only beatnik who is still alive. The rest of them are dead. I mean mentally. . . . Allen is never uptight. He is always available. I would go nuts if I was as available as he is. Christ, I would go out of my mind! He is always available, and he is always connected with people. Gary Snyder is the same way, except it is more systematized. He’s the old type, really.

You go around to the universities and you meet guys that are emeritus. I had dinner once at the University of Pennsylvania with a lot of cats who remembered Ezra Pound, and they were all swingers. White-haired old men . . . seventy-five years old . . . but they were real swingers and real scholars. They knew Provençal and they knew Latin or English literature or whatever . . . and these other people don’t know anything. They write a doctor’s thesis on T.S. Eliot, and it puts them on a step of the escalator and there they stay. Eliot! Shit, they write a doctor’s thesis on Elizabeth Goodge and Ruth Suckow. You have no idea!

DM: What changes do you advocate in the university? What changes do you offer as a teacher?

KR: I don’t believe in universities at all! I believe the university should be totally dissolved. I think there should be more colleges than high schools. At least as many as grammar schools. They should be in the neighborhoods. In a climate like California, most of the activity should be outside. And the teachers should be beautiful people with long white whiskers and white robes sitting under oak trees and answering questions like Krishnamurti does. Leave all this superstructure and infrastructure to the engineers, the slipstick boys. Leave the buildings to them. But the humanities, I think, should be human education, dissolved into the neighborhoods and available to anybody. Everybody, young and old, should be able to come on in and sit down. This is what we were talking about. I am no advocate of Krishnamurti — he means little to me — but his way is the way to educate people.

I point out all the time: you can’t teach creativity in the university system. The creative personality survives in spite of it, by living contact. Creative education, development, liberation, occurs more often in coffee shops off campus than on the campus. If you really want to do something about creative people, move the coffee shop into the curriculum.

It’s like that class of mine: we come in and we kiss one another. We play a track off the new Airplane album, or something like that, and dance. The Esalen technique applies it from the outside like a mustard plaster. I had this student who goes to Esalen all the time, and I said, “You’ve got to realize that unless this stuff is done in context, it is unreal . . . it is like carrying a party card in the Association for the Advancement of Cunnilingus. Like, who needs it? Who needs it?” I said, “You evolve things in the activity, the doing. . . .” This was a revelation to her. She said just by being confronted with that problem, she learned more than she learned from seminar after seminar at Esalen, which cost all kinds of money. More than she learned in all the group gropes she had gone to. She learned she didn’t really know how to evolve this communion out of a given context, and since she didn’t know, she was fundamentally a square. Because who needs to be taught to grope? The answer is most of America. I am not putting down Esalen and its poor benighted uptights.

It takes a whole year. It’s only in the spring semester that you begin to get a real interaction with your students. Everyone is relaxed, and they all know one another by that time.

There’s a guy on the faculty who said to me, “I don’t understand what principle you are using to do this. They tell me you let your students get away with murder. How do you discipline them?” And I said, “I don’t. It is all self-discipline.” He said, “Well, who is the authority?” I said, “There isn’t any authority.” He said, “Who is responsible?” I said, “We are all responsible together.” “Yes, but on what principle do you keep the thing going?” “And I said, “Well, I guess you’d call it agape.”

Now this man is a Ph.D., fifty years old, and he looks at me with his mouth open, muttering, “Agape. What . . . what . . .?” And I say: “Comradely love. Agape. It’s a Greek word, The class is like an underground Mass.” And he mutters.

Then we talk some more and I realize what this idiot thinks I mean. A Black Mass! This shows how totally isolated he is. I mean, this is a guy who has spent his life at the bottom of a disused missile silo. I mean, he doesn’t know about anything! In the first place, he had so little idea about the universe, the world, people were put together that he could think I could get away with a Black Mass, if I wanted to. . . . He hadn’t read the newspapers, he had never heard of an underground Mass. He didn’t know anything about changes in the Catholic Church.

I told my students about the discussion and said, “We might as well be hung for wolves as dogs.” A girl said, “I’ll get up on the table and take off my clothes.” And another one of my students said, “I’ll swing the incense pot.” If a guy like George Leonard knows . . . George wrote that book, Education and Ecstasy. Did you ever read it? It is kind of corny . . . he belongs to that world of Howard Gossage, Jerry Ets-Hokin, and Herb Caen, the Squirt Set, the junior jet set. He can’t help it. But his ideas are right.

I would like to talk about music and poetry as the real pivots, the top and bottom pivots of the door into the counterculture, into the alternative society.

The stuff that isn’t a part of that, in my opinion, just doesn’t count. This is not a question of fashion. But I’m inclined to think that it’s not going to win. Within a fairly short time, the suppression is going to be unbelievable.

See, Americans think that there are such large numbers involved in various things that nothing can happen to them, that they are protected. For years, blacks have been saying, “We got ten percent of the population.” But Hitler exterminated six million Jews and six million other people in a population of sixty million. And they weren’t as conspicuous, they didn’t have black skin. So what is it? Twenty million blacks . . . that’s nothing. They can make them into Gold Dust Twins soap and sell it at a premium in Orange County supermarkets and never miss them.

I said this long before . . . I think that if this thing isn’t stopped . . . anybody who stands out, like black people or anybody else, just doesn’t stand a chance anymore. They will be eliminated. I think the same is true for the counterculture. They are just not enough people, really. This is why, again, poetry and music are so important. Because all these politicos, all these guys representing somebody else’s foreign office, they believe in marshaling people around like troops. Confrontations . . . horrible as the People’s Park episode was, let’s hope some people learned their lesson. I mean, what’s this one whirligig about a can of poison gas? Shit! That was the end of it. And here these people are marching . . . thousands of people . . . up and down Telegraph Avenue, like the troops of Frederick the Great. And one little heap of junk can fly over them and scatter some dust and the thing is gone, destroyed. It’s all right to say that power comes out of a gun, but, shit, man, their power comes out of the hydrogen bomb, and when push comes to shove, they have Teller’s doomsday machine in Livermore . . . and it’s goodbye. To everything!

The techniques of massive paramilitary confrontations are, in my opinion, absurd. The ”Sunflower Sutra” has more effect than a Columbia University takeover. It does. It’s just a fact. Because all you have to do is co-opt most of these people. They found it out with the blacks. All you have to do is pick a government office at random . . . take the Yellow Pages and look up the United States government and shut your eyes and put your finger down, read the address, and go to the office. Walk into the guy and say, “You motherfucker, I am going to cut your gizzard out,” and he says, “Here is a twenty-thousand-a-year job!” It’s a fact!

The head of the Poverty Program in the Fillmore was a notorious three-time loser, an extortionist, somebody that no Negro would touch with a ten-foot pole with a six-inch extension. He’d been thrown out of the Muslims, been thrown out of the Panthers, been thrown out of everything . . . and here he was, the boss man. All you have to do is co-opt people like that. And if you can’t co-opt them, then you destroy them.

Whereas the counterculture as a culture, as a way of life . . . you can’t catch up with it, it’s in the bloodstream of society. You can’t pin it down. Its effect is continuously corrosive. It’s these capsules they stick in people that keep feeding medicine into the bloodstream for twenty years. The more the poetry or music is massive confrontation, the less effective it is. It may be effective in a very limited range, but the other thing is effective over a long term. This is true of the whole protest-rock and protest-folk bit. Young people are wise to the fact that Donovan is more revolutionary than Dylan. The whole thing that has grown up around Leonard Cohen is more subversive than Country Joe and the Fish. And as the years go by, it becomes completely phony. Play Pete Seeger singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” . . . it would make you throw up. . . .

DM: To my mind, Pete Seeger has always been a singer of the radical movement. . . .

KR: Seeger was brought out in café society downtown. Christ, that goes back a long time. It’s cooked, you know. A lot of Pete’s stuff is cooked. Woody was much better because he was less a part of the apparatus and more uncontrollable, more of a natural.

You used to hear cats singing in the International Labor Defense Organization, you know, records can still be found, “Swing Low Sweet ILD,” supposed to be a Kentucky miners’ song. Horseshit! That’s artificial . . . that’s the cooked thing! Seeger just can’t get away from it, except in some individual songs.

And people like Joan Baez, people like that, are too innocent, and they don’t believe in being hypercritical. I don’t know a single song of Joan’s, either on record or in concert, that is that kind of cooked party-line stuff — whether it is anarchist or Communist. She doesn’t do things like that. That’s her instinctive taste. If you were to talk to Joan about things like this, she would be offended. She thinks I am a baddie. She doesn’t like me at all because I am a man of violence.

Look at the effect she has had. Her effect is radically subversive. There’s a wonderful story about Joan Baez. She was responsible for the big Wolf Bierman bust in East Berlin. They had a Vietnam thing in East Berlin, and Joan gets up after Bierman has sung and says, “I am going to sing a song dedicated to my good comrade Wolf Bierman. The song is called ‘Freiheit.’ ” Joan sings the song in German. The next day they called Bierman down and said, “What does she mean, ‘comrade’?” He said, “She isn’t my responsibility, I didn’t have anything to do with it. . . .” They told him to give in his work permit and his travel permit . . . they busted him for a year.

Joan gets very few dates in the hard Iron Curtain countries like Bulgaria, East Germany, and Russia. She has been to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and, I guess, Romania. She may have gone to Poland during the thaw. But they all know. When she gets up and sings “Barbara Allen,” it is subversive.

The real things about your stuff, or Joni Mitchell’s stuff, for all kinds of people like this, and all kinds of people that are not getting recorded and booked, is that it involves and presents a pattern of human relationships which is unassimilable by the society. What the songs speak of cannot be assimilated. I mean, here is a love song . . . but the kind of love it sings of can’t exist in this society. The song gets out like a bit of radioactive cobalt. It just foments subversion around itself as long as it is available. I think this is much more important. Because everything else can be crushed.

I mean, you can have wonderful communes in New Mexico, or sleep under a tree, or sleep in a canyon, but you never heard of a latrine there, and the food is always burned, and the kids get ringworm . . . in New Mexico they play with the Spanish kids and get lice, and pretty soon the thing falls apart because they don’t know how to live, and all the Gary Snyders in the world aren’t going to teach them. I mean, he can’t go on handing out merit badges in Woods Communes forever. It ain’t going to do them a fucking bit of good. He is going to get tired of saying, “A real Zen master says, ‘Don’t shit on the ground, especially alongside the sleeping bags.’ ” It’s not going to have any effect. These people are all vulnerable, and they are still living on money from papa and mama. And they are all rich. When those people hit New Mexico, it was amazing how those people went and bought up land. And they are still buying it up. And the land has tripled in price!

DM: It seems clear that so much of the revolution is middle-class consumer oriented. The middle class consumes revolution, makes it into stuff, goods, and takes the life out of it.

KR: Yes, of course . . . that’s why the spades hate it. You know Hannibal Williams? He’s a guy who has been fighting relocation in the Western Addition’s Citizens’ Organization. Hannibal is a very nice guy, and I remember having a discussion in the coffee shop in the Howard Church. I had just come back from Europe and the flower children had decayed, and it was obvious that the Mafia had taken over the neighborhood. This conference was all about the relation of the hippie community to the Haight-Ashbury resident community, primarily black. And, of course, the reason the Haight-Ashbury developed was that it was red San Francisco. It was full of retired longshore organizers whose kids now smoke pot and sing Pete Seeger . . . and blacks . . . it’s a genuinely integrated neighborhood. That’s how the people got in. They wouldn’t have gotten to first base if they had gone to the Sunset or Richmond District.

Anyway, some guy got up and said he had just hitchhiked from a very rich suburb, and he was stoned and dirty and he was fat and had a lot of beads, and the hippie stuff he wore was all new . . . and he said something about the relation between the hip community and the straight community. I was going to say something, but Hannibal jumped up and said, “You got it right, man, but you got it ass backwards! You are the straight community, and the community you are invading is the hip community! You come into this neighborhood and you imitate my clothes. I wear blue jeans because I go to work! You even smear paint and plaster on them . . . yet you wouldn’t know which end of a paint brush to hold! And you take over my house or my flat and you play my music on your fucking $2000 hi-fi sets, which you turn up so loud you keep my children awake all night!”

When he got through, the people reeled . . . but then it reeled right off of them. . . .

Allen Cohen, who was editing and putting out the Oracle at that time, attacked me. And I said, “Look here, it’s true. You are all engaged in a bourgeois enterprise. Don’t shit me, man! You are a businessman! You are engaged in a bourgeois enterprise! Face the fact that you are middle class. . . .”

On the Great Grass Road, you know, you find a chick dead in a ditch fifty miles out of Kabul, barefoot, clothed only in a blanket with a hole in the middle of it and a rope around her waist, and she’s got a bindle, a bag, and in it is a diary about all the Arab truck drivers she’s sucked off and been cornholed by, and strapped to one leg she has two hypodermics and some medicine . . . and strapped to the other leg, $10,000 in travelers checks! That’s an actual case. There are thousands of them . . . all you have to do is just make the Great Grass Road . . . go from one of those places to another, from Casablanca on . . . you can’t pass Burma . . . to Calcutta. These people are all rich. I mean, rich, not just middle-class!

The real far-out hippie is the person who is actually engaged in a personal revolt against the very evil family, a corrupt society, and so forth. It is not a massive social phenomenon, except it is a social phenomenon reflecting the collapse of this society. People are crazy enough to think it’s the revolution. I mean, this is ridiculous. It is as ridiculous as believing that the circle of princesses around Rasputin was the revolution. Because it is the same thing. Exactly the same thing. There’s not the slightest bit of difference between Rasputin’s circle and upper-middle-class hippie life.

DM: A majority of the new consumers consider themselves to be the revolution because they are consuming the cultural ideas of what is relevant: the records, the books, stuff like that. . . .

KR: You see, you have to draw the line. A lot of these people just don’t know anything at all. All they are interested in is cunt or cock and dope . . . and preferably spade meat. . . .

Down the street from me in San Francisco is a so-called shoeshine parlor. I don’t know why they don’t call it an athletic club. The only thing they use the shoeshine stand for . . . I pass by sometimes, and the door is open and some chick is balling some guy . . . these old cats in bib overalls: asphalt spreaders and ditch-diggers and one thing and another . . . middle-aged blacks, most of them juiced all the time. These chicks . . . will fly to San Francisco from Sweet Briar, and they take a cab from the airport to the Haight-Ashbury. They go to a Salvation Army and get some old rags and real hip threads, and they buy some beads at the Psychedelic Shop, and they head down Haight Street. And they come to the shoeshine parlor, and there will be a big old black grandpa leaning up against the window, chewing snuff and juiced out of his mind and dirt all over his bib overalls, and a chick will walk up to him and say, “Sir, would you care to enjoy my body?” This scares the shit out of these guys when it first happens! And they will come to me and say, “Mr. Ken, what is this? Are these chicks crazy?” And the young chicks go back to Sweet Briar and they say: “Girls, do you want to come up to my room? I had a lover in San Francisco . . . an authentic Negro. And I have the most interesting little parasites. They are the same kind that Negroes have. They are called crabs, and I want to show them to you.”

Like the cat Hannibal had the rap with — I said to him, “When do you think ‘Howl’ was written?” He said, “Huh, man?” I said, “You know, ‘Howl,’ Ginsberg . . . the Ginsberg that runs the secondhand clothing store at Fillmore and Haight . . .” (there isn’t any such place). He said, “Oh, yeah, man, I get all my threads there. . . .” I told Hannibal that I didn’t invent this guy, God sent him to me.

The reading that we gave for the Planning and Conservation League (June 30, 1969, Norse Auditorium) was very significant. Because in the first place, nobody really knew who they were. I’m supposed to know all this stuff, and I didn’t know anything about it. But everybody responded immediately to what it was, and the people came out. And the people who came out were very interesting. The last benefit that I had read at was for the Free Medical Clinic at the Straight Theater. There was all the difference in the world. Because that Norse Auditorium conservation thing was full of flower children. It was full of people like the people were five years ago. They were serious people . . . they weren’t meth heads . . . they were an entirely different kind of people than those who would be brought out for something in the heart of Haight Street. They knew, they were well informed. They knew who the poets were at the reading, and they had also come out for this ecological bit. We forget that this thing is going on under all the noise.

On the other hand, there is this thing which is strictly controlled by the Mafia. The world of the zombies in the Haight-Ashbury. They are not interested in all that psychedelic baloney that everybody was talking about before. They don’t want that. They want massive destruction right away. They don’t want any LSD . . . they are not interested in that . . .or an expanding consciousness . . . they want to get stoned. They want to stay stoned. Like hit on the head with a half-ton stone.

You remember the cat they arrested? They took him to the Park station because he had been going around the neighborhood, up and down the street, telling people that he had a peace pill to sell. He said that he had a friend that worked in the chemical warfare laboratory and that he stole this stuff and pressed it into pills . . . and he told his customers that it was a fifty-fifty chance that the pill would either give you the greatest high you ever had, stone you out of your mind for four days, or it would kill you. A fifty-fifty chance. And all it would cost would be $10. The cops busted him, and they were going to beat the shit out of him . . . but he said, “Look, man, it is just an aspirin.” So the cops let him go. But it shows . . . he was making all kinds of money selling aspirin tablets that might kill you. It is so easy to confuse the two things.

These rabid apologists for the dope-culture, like Burroughs, they confuse the issue. Of course, Allen to a certain extent did that for a while. All this stuff of Alan Watts’s . . . I think the two things are quite different, and I think you lose sight of the lost dogs that are running around, of what is really going on underneath. These people may dress the same, but actually with a sharp eye you can distinguish the differences.

Here is a chick in a poncho and tights and beads made out of chicken vertebrae around her neck. And here is another chick, and she seems to be dressed just the same, but you can tell the difference . . . it’s a subtle thing. Yet neither one of them comes from the working class . . . they are upper middle class. They are people who are opting out of the military-industrial society. They wouldn’t have the option if they weren’t up at the top of it. You can’t get any options, otherwise.

 

4

KR: For those people that we fought [for?] as they grew up, poetry is an important experience. Poetry is life affirmation, they really dig all this Gary Snyder bear-shit-on-the-trail poetry, they have contact with nature, and, of course, as you know, the genuine ecological revolution’s rolling now and involving thousands.

If Diane di Prima had stayed making the scene around Tompkins Square, she would never be writing for an ecological crisis news sheet. And don’t forget KPFA’s connection with all this. KPFA has given hundreds of programs, thousands of programs, in the past twenty years on the ecological crisis. And I, on my own program, have never let up on it. There has never been a book, even a bad book, on ecology and on the environmental problem that I haven’t reviewed and used the book as a peg to hang a long ecology speech on. KPFA has had countless people of importance talking about Famine II and Famine III and Famine IV. And all this DDT uproar that has now hit the papers. The DDT thing has been on KPFA for over ten years, since the first evidence began to come in.

The use of the power structure, the subversive use of their techniques by Dave Brower, was decried immediately by his old rock-climbing comrades — who are now corporation lawyers and other shits of that sort. I mean, fuck, these people who are corporation lawyers, they know perfectly well that the success of a business is measured by its indebtedness! I mean, that’s the way you measure a business. A successful business owes five million bucks, and an unsuccessful one owes nothing. They accused Dave Brower of running up enormous debts for the Sierra Club. Yet he was using the techniques, the basic techniques: utilizing the bourgeois publishing scene, Madison Avenue lobbies, everything his detractors’ clients use all the time. This is what happened in the Sierra Club. They objected to Dave Brower because he was fundamentally subversive. They made the most shameful appeals! “How we used to have a good ole hiking club and used to go out and eat peanut butter soup and put raspberry jam on the snow in the passes . . .” and all this kind of crap. Well, the “good old days” are gone. Very few people in Berkeley know this, but there is a native-son-and-daughter Berkeley establishment that really runs the university. They are also the people that run the Sierra Club, and, of course, they think they are the most liberal souls on earth. But the ecological crisis is of such a grievous nature that it is only by the most massive action that anything will happen at all . . . and probably what should happen is not going to happen. You know, there is no way of extrapolating into the future that will be effective. The only people who know this as a mass, all of a sudden, are the counterculture who latched onto it because it explains what is happening.

All this struggle against papas and mamas, in which idiots lead mass demonstrations in Berkeley and think they have the offensive, they don’t have the offensive at all, they have the defensive. I mean, it is the papas and mamas that have the offensive. This is why it has such a family character, because it is fundamentally . . . it is a phenomenon of species death due to the breakdown of the biota of the ecological relationship.

A few years ago, they were saying the reason the dinosaurs became extinct was because the volcanism of the Jurassic filled the sky with dust and cooled the climate, and the marshes got too cold for the dinosaurs’ balls, and so they became infertile. Well, the dinosaurs didn’t become extinct because they had cold balls. They ate all their eggs. Say this and people who are listening dig it. It’s like being converted to Methodism. The whole thing clears up. They can understand what it is all about. And this is why the whole ecological thing that Gary’s been preaching — you know, he has made himself the leader of it — is so important. It is the key.

Charismatic, you see, everybody says Bolshevism broke down, that other things were never tried because they could not envisage a real alternative that would work or, to use correctly the misused slang, a “viable alternative,” something that wouldn’t be stillborn. An ecological revolution can scientifically extrapolate into the future certain essential conditions. It can say this and this must occur. There must be so many people to so many acres. There must be so many people to so many square feet. There must be certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of agriculture: there are all kinds of things that must be, and this necessitates certain methods of production and distribution, etc. You create, as they say in science or math, a model and it is a clear model. The Bolsheviks had no model. They had no model at all.

It is just like the blacks. They have stopped doing this, but whites used to say: “What do you Negroes want?” And people like Roi would say, “That’s your problem, motherfucker.” Well, they don’t say it anymore, because you can’t do anything with that. After a while you get your head beat in, you get shot. “That’s your problem, motherfucker” is not a suffiicient prescription for the future. You don’t want to go out and get yourself killed for that.

The ecological crisis provides — the way that Marxism with all its bullshit about scientific socialism never did — a scientific model for a just society. The interesting thing is that this resembles far more the thing that Marx and Engels attacked: utopian socialism.

You want to know what the future should be like? It should be like William Morris’s News from Nowhere. He was far more right than Marx. He talks about an idyllic underpopulated England with the old type of Japanese gardening and pre-Raphaelite costumes. And he is right and Marx is wrong. Until recently, Doxiadis was talking about a world of 200 billion people, all kinds of shit like that, and then suddenly he woke up. I used to argue this with him. Then I met him in Athens recently and he had awakened. He has become obsessed now because it had come to face him: the famous honey of Hymettus, the long mountain above Athens, is no longer available. The bees are gone. They have gone over to the other side of the mountain. Athens is like San Francisco. It is a wind-swept city, but the smog has driven the bees off the slopes of Hymettus . . . so Doxiadis doesn’t talk about 200 billion people living on the Earth anymore.

Look inside the Iron Curtain countries. Part of the revolt against Moscow has been that formerly orthodox Marxists have said, “Look, man, we are up to our asses in steel mills. We need uniformly planned development for a stable population, and we don’t want to be a breadbasket for Moscow.” The thing that really turned me against Communism, I mean orthodox Bolshevism, long, long ago, was not the Moscow Trials or the expulsion of Trotsky or the right wing, or the trial of the engineers, or anything like that at all. I expected most of that, even as a kid. It was this. The Russians used to put out a magazine called Economic Review of the Soviet Union. I had a job for The Nation, or some fellow-traveler periodical; I was asked to write an article on the Soviet lumber industry. So I did. Out of the Economic Review of the Soviet Union, which had various references, I got information and did a tremendous lot of research. They brief all this stuff in English. They put out scholarly publications in agriculture in the days before Stalin killed them. They would have briefs in the back of the trade papers in French or English. Knowing a little about lumbering, I discovered that the Russians were doing the most ruthless and destructive lumbering in the world. And, furthermore, it was being done by slave labor. That Weyerhauser was the Sierra Club in comparison to what they were doing in the mountains of Georgia or the forests at the edge of the tundra. I became more interested, and I discovered that there wasn’t any difference. It is all, East and West, production for production’s sake. No human values are involved.

The Chinese know this, but the Chinese can’t deal with the problem because they have an enormous reforestation difficulty. They plant twenty trees here, yet they have to cut down 200 there because of population pressure. The two different agencies in the country work at cross-purposes.

You see, this involves an important matter: human relationships. Human relationships that are expressed in the lyrics of the best modern songs. Human relationships in song that is unassimilable. These are ecological sound relationships. They imply a society which is quite different, and the difference is an ecological difference. Everything ties into it.

Right now there is a Moholy-Nagy show here. I knew Moholy. . . . We went with a student of mine, a girl, and she thought it was great. She was very excited, but my ex-wife, Marie, and Carol and I — we were very depressed. In each one of those little pictures and circles and squares and lines, Moholy thought he had something that would reform the world . . . it would go out from the painting and create a new society. He thought that it would do this by using the production methods of capitalism. He was wrong and he failed. He was absorbed as a design consultant. There are Moholy-Nagys all over typography ever since. The whole Bauhaus scene . . . that’s what it all meant. And, of course, that doesn’t mean much to people anymore, now. The professors don’t explain this to anybody, and they don’t understand that this is what it was all about. It is all so tragic to see those beautiful pictures and to think that they are all essentially failures, because they didn’t do what they were intended to do.

The whole problem is to find works of art which remain permanently unassimilable and permanently corruptive. This means that they don’t really differ very much from anybody else’s work of art. The songs of Shakespeare are permanently indigestible and permanently subversive.

I think we have talked enough.

 

 


This interview was conducted in summer 1969 at Rexroth’s home in Santa Barbara, California. It was originally included in David Meltzer (ed.), The San Francisco Poets (Ballantine, 1971). An expanded edition, San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (City Lights, 2001), includes interviews with several more poets along with a few additional comments by Meltzer. The book is copyrighted by David Meltzer. David died in 2016. The last time I saw him, I asked him if I could reproduce this interview and he graciously encouraged me to do so. This reproduction is dedicated to his memory.

See also, from the same book, Talking About Rexroth (Morgan Gibson and Ken Knabb, interviewed by David Meltzer and James Brook).


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