San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



September 1960

The Circus
Lack of Imagination and Common Sense
Japanese Art of Grace and Modesty
Why I Like Opera




The Circus

As I was saying, it’s a time of change and catastrophe and overturn. Politics, art, science, technology are all turning somersaults in midair. History is being made every minute, and in places where the most intrepid explorers had not penetrated a century ago — atomic submarines at the North Pole, Marxist study groups where Livingston and Stanley once shook hands. How comfortable it must have been to have lived in the countries and times that have no history.

I, for one, get tired of writing about the new serialism in the cantata, painting as existential act, the revival of the sonata form in jazz, antitheater theater, the New Poetry, the Revolt of Youth, and the Awakening of Africa and Asia. Why don’t they stop? Where’s it getting them? I don’t care about the New Urbanism. I like our huge, high-ceilinged, bay-windowed flat in what my literary critics refer to as the slums. Beat poetry bores me.

Give me A.E. Housman. Let me alone — I want to grow old as a good gray sensualist. Wine, women, song and high cuisine, that’s what I want. Speculation in vineyards has revolutionized the wine classifications of Bordeaux that have held for a hundred years. Pete Seeger and ilk have done dreadful things to the good old songs. Food has become very confusing and women do worse things than vote. At least there is always the circus.

The circus is changing, but not too much. The Big Top is gone, they play in ready-built arenas and stadiums. The side shows are gone. The parade is gone, and with it the steam calliope. (Pronounced, as Vachel Lindsay pointed out, Cally-yope, not Cul-eye-opee.) The animal show is gone. The Wild West show is gone. The big names and most of the lesser ones of my childhood have vanished — only one big show is left and a handful of juniors. Hagenbeck and Wallace, Sells-Floto, Buffalo Bill, 101 Ranch, they have all gone, as the poet said, into a world of light.

I can see their glamorous posters on the fences of a little Indiana town, far away and brilliant, like the pictures in an Easter egg or a landscape wrong-end-to in a telescope. I remember the dents the elephants left in the asphalt on Second Street, as they came past our house in the hot August morning. I remember the balloonist in black tights and silver fringe whom my parents, I imagine in a moment of tipsy conviviality, invited home to dinner. Indeed, how could I forget that.

Years later, an adolescent boy, I spent two weeks cooking for a tramp circus, wallowing around muddy Arkansas after the cotton harvest, in five Mack trucks held together with bailing wire, with a moldy lion, a box full of snakes, a vindictive lady midget, as well as some diamond hard ladies who looked like that balloonist grown middle-aged.

That’s another thing that has vanished from the circus — the atmosphere of genial, harder than hard-boiled criminality. Today the artists are as square as television performers. There are no barkers or shills, there is nothing to bark or shill, and even a self-respecting “wino” has a hard time getting a job as a roustabout in the big show.

Once the circus was the end product, the Olympic Games, so to speak, of a vast world of tramp performers. All summer on Paris street corners and in Roman piazzas there were fire eaters, escape artists, one-wheel bicyclists, and quartets of trained dogs. Since the last war they are dying out. It is just too hard a way to make a living.

I used to live in the backlands of Montparnasse, near the corner of the Gaîté Montparnasse and the Avenue du Maine, and these types lived all about me. I don’t know about the “salt of the earth” but they were sure salty — the bitter, brave and joyful distillation of Paris low life.

One evening only ten years ago, I bicycled into a poor dusty town deep in the Auvergne, and there in the little square was an old man with a white beard, a little boy, and four performing dogs, Vitalis and Little Remi come to life from that most exciting and sentimental of all orphan stories, Sans Famille. All that was lacking was the crafty and indomitable monkey, Joli Coeur. Ten years, and they, too, are gone — to television or oblivion. There’s no money in it anymore.

I take my daughters to all the circuses that come by, here and in Europe. They laugh at the clowns and shiver at the trapeze performers. I watch them and wonder, “Is it the same old glamour?” I suppose it is, the acts that make up the modern circus go back to the beginnings of civilization.

But I think that in America at least, and in the big indoor shows, it has all become a little distant and processed. My girls like the poorer, one-ring shows of France the best, where the tent, the side shows, the stinky menageries, the crooked games, still survive, and a little of the bold dishonesty lingers on.

At its best the circus was not a pure spectator sport, there was plenty of audience involvement. The equestriennes flirted with the bald heads in the boxes, the clowns sat in the laps of schoolmarms and choir mistresses in the ringside seats, the magician smashed up the watch of the town banker, rubes were swindled on the wheels of chance, pickpockets prowled the crowd, and little boys got up before dawn to water the elephants. All that is gone now — the insurance companies object.

In the old days the show wasn’t a success unless it left behind in town a couple of hundred potential lawsuits.

At least the circus makes no demands. It is one thing that has come down to us from the ages when there was nothing for the historians to write about. Freud haunts the ballet and Marx was driven out of the movies by main force. Every form of entertainment nowadays comes at you bristling with [two illegible words]. They all, in one way or another, annoy you to join up or buy a pill. The circus asks nothing whatever of you but pleasure unadorned.

Blue-nosed philosophers of history have been telling us for centuries that what destroyed ancient Rome was panem et circenses — bread and circuses. What destroyed Rome was barbarism, superstition and the rule of irresponsible generals and mutinous troops. Nobody ever died, or even declined and fell, from too much bread and too many circuses. The world could do with a lot more of both right now.

Everybody talking about peace ain’t getting any. There’s always peace at the circus. It’s one place you can relax and laugh and wonder, and commit yourself to nothing whatever. Isn’t that awful? They call it “escapism.”

[September 4, 1960]



Lack of Imagination and Common Sense

I keep a little book in my head of topics for upcoming columns. I want to play the role of tribune of the people, with a note of moral earnestness beneath the brittle laughter — like Mort Sahl, for instance. Today, as so often, I’ve got an embarrassment of riches.

“The Welfare,” as they call it on Relief, closed up Lila Joralemon’s nursery school in Berkeley because she taught the kids to sing the alphabet, appreciate good music and speak a bit of French. The authorities said that teaching children the alphabet too early may lead to acne in adolescence.

The first statewide meeting of Negro leaders was held at Stanford and all white people, including the press and academic hosts, were barred.

The Immigration authorities tail a British student for months because he booed the un-American Committee, and refuse to extend his student visa.

There’s the international situation, the Congo, Cuba, the elections, a show of African sculpture, Bert Brecht’s Threepenny Opera coming up. It’s shooting fish in a barrel. But what fish, and how about the whole barrel? It should be possible, as the politicians say, to “link up” all these issues. Or as they say on Madison Avenue and/or in academia right now, “to integrate the material and project a unified image.”

“All I know is what I read in the papers,” said Will Rogers long ago. And what he learned from reading the papers was that there is a conspicuous shortage of good sense in the world, and that, short of the brink of disaster, people who allow their acts to be governed by something else than common sense are funny. Other people, so devoid of common sense as to spend immense sums of money to drink diluted liquor in a smoky nightclub, roar with laughter when the follies of their fellow man are pointed out to them.

I think I will just throw away a batch of columns in as many sentences. I have always been utterly baffled by the obvious fact that all qualified authorities, and all the unqualified victims — the long suffering parents — agree that California’s educational system, and especially San Francisco’s, is not Progressive or Permissive, but simply abominable. Yet nobody does anything about it, and the people responsible manage very well to remain absolutely deaf to all criticism.

I would like to ask the editors of the Negro papers of the state what headlines they would write if the leading white editors, clergy, professors, trade union leaders, social workers, met to discuss race relations and barred all Negroes, including the press and the Negro members of the faculty of the school that invited them?

Let’s not think about Moscow, Minsk, Pinsk and Irkutsk. What sort of headlines do the local bureaucrats at the Immigration Bureau think they drew in Cairo, Reykjavik and Auckland for their little caper?

All these are cases, not of viciousness, not even of “reaction,” but of lack of common sense, lack of imagination, and devotion to routine.

There is an additional factor at work in the Case of the Tailed Student. Don’t be put off by the star-spangled self-advertising they write for the magazines. ALL government bureaucrats, and this includes the most august flatfeet, are passionate devotees of WPAism, the Gospel of Made Work. The poor student didn’t have a tail, he had two tails at once. Two Keystone Cops in constant attendance, as conspicuous, from the first day, as the moon in the sky — as two moons. If student Christopher Bacon had been a leaf, this would have been called “leaf raking.”

Maybe Burns first wrote that poem of his for the papers. Certainly, it’s been used often enough by them since. “The gift to see ourselves as others see us . . .” this is the essence of common sense, imagination, and sense of humor, in human relationships. It is this deep ocean current of good sense — the short-range views, the Lack of National Purpose, the paltry round of narrow interests — all those other abusive terms applied to the little people of the world — that keeps the world going.

Call it unimaginative devotion to food, clothing, and shelter, wife, children, family, nevertheless, it is out of this universal soil of human experience that imaginative sympathy for others springs. When these roots are cut off, imagination in social relationships turns into its opposite and becomes dangerous and at last malicious.

Ideals are fine, but only when they have clay feet. Three little acts of folly, the result of unreal application of high principles. In each case these principles were not principles at all, but unimaginative routine, divorced from human reality.

Now — watch the act of prestidigitation — what has this got to do with Bert Brecht and African sculpture? Brecht was a Communist. His Threepenny Opera is one of the most successful productions ever to appear on the American stage. It was only permitted a brief showing in Russia after his own death and Khrushchev’s “thaw.” His plays have seen many more hours before the public in San Francisco than in all the Soviet Union.

Brecht was one of these artists, like many painters and musicians, who was out of his depth the minute he left the creative act. His head was full of egregious nonsense about why and how and what for he wrote plays. Any part of his system of ideas and ideals would have got him exterminated in Russia, every year on the year from 1927 to 1953. His plays are full of warm, rich, deep, gutty humanity. People everywhere love them because they recognize their own common garden variety of trivial and eternal selves in them.

Go through the audience next time Shakespeare comes to town and ask who Essex and Burleigh were. Someday the audiences of The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage will be equally ignorant of the names of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Offstage, Bert Brecht was an inhuman crank and bigot. Onstage he was more human than human. He’s dead now, but his humanity is immortal.

Walking through the Palace of the Legion of Honor Sunday, I was impressed by the large number of Negroes visiting the show of Negro sculpture, and it was borne in on me that the important thing about this great tradition is no longer today its effect on Picasso, the Cubists, Modigliani and the rest.

Today, perhaps not at the moment in the embattled Congo, but in Ghana, Guinea, the Mali Federation, even in South Africa, modern Negro artists have returned to their classic art for new inspiration. They have found in it spiritual materials for a contemporary vision of humanity, sometimes imitative of the past, but always somehow subtly different from the European modernist “abstract” use of classic Negro sculpture.

Injected into the “humanist tradition” by bored French intellectuals, African sculpture was welcomed because it seemed anti-humane. Today, considered on its own terms and reinterpreted by its own heirs, it stands forth, like all great art, as profoundly human and humane — common.

[September 11, 1960]



Japanese Art of Grace and Modesty

You’ve got to admit it, the “Season” in San Francisco certainly opens with a bang. Opera, theater, Arts Festival, Pacific Festival, sports, Jazz Festival, even the movies, everything bursts out all over the place. And what a nice “season” it is, too, without a capital — a kind of dreamlike half autumn, half summer — halcyon days straight out of Tennyson’s “Lotus Eaters” or a science-fiction utopia.

For the Pacific Festival the de Young Museum people have put together a splendid Japanese show, gathered mostly from museums on the Pacific coast. Honolulu and Seattle particularly have sent some of their finest things. (Is Honolulu on the West Coast? Sort of, I guess.)

There is nothing to compare with some of the great masterpieces in Boston or Washington, or even Kansas City — those collections were formed long ago when the Japanese were ashamed of their traditions and sold some of the world’s most important paintings for a song. But the general level of this show is far higher than for instance any single late-formed Western collection like the one recently acquired by the city.

One of the loveliest paintings I know is here from Seattle, a gold and green and blue Descent of Amida with Attendant Saints. It is a perfect representative of modest religious painting. There is none of the breathtaking impact of the famous Amida and two bodhisattvas rising like triple moons over the mountains by Eshin Soozu Genshin which you can find in most books on Japanese art. This is a quiet, gentle, lyrical painting, like, as they say, a cool hand laid on the brow.

All the best pictures in the show are of that character. There is an unpretentious ink blot landscape by a disciple of the great Sesshu. There is a brisk brush drawing of the Chinese poet Tu Fu riding along on a mule, wrapped in thought. Tu Fu is my favorite of all the poets in the world, and I have myself over the years translated some 50 of his poems. There are plenty of paintings, Japanese and Chinese, of the poets Li Tai Po and Po Chu I — but Tu Fu is an uncommon subject, so first thing I did was stock up on reproductions of this one at the desk. That, incidentally, is one of the nice things about this show, there are a lot of reproductions available to remember it by.

How calm and mature Far Eastern art seems in comparison with our own! I will never forget once when I had only one day to spend gallery crawling in Washington. I spent the morning looking at the great Far Eastern collections in the Freer and ate lunch in a little French restaurant, strangely uncrowded for Washington, and then went across the park, still rapt away in the bright interior peace of the morning, and started through the National Gallery.

It was like switching from Gregorian chant, say the Office of Compline, heard before going to bed at Solesmes Abbey itself, to John Philip Sousa parading down Fifth Avenue on the Fourth of July. Even the Raphaels seemed to bellow at me from the walls. I couldn’t take it, but ran away and went for a walk in the park amongst the autumn leaves.

How seldom Western religious art seeks, let alone conveys, peace, grace and illumination. What a lot of beheading and disemboweling and riot and melodrama! When she was little, I used to show my daughter Mary the favorite picture books of my own childhood, one of them Masterpieces from Doré. She always used to say, when we came to the Paradise Lost pictures, “Here’s them angels, fighting again!”

I have seen most of the great museums and private collections of the world, and I can think of only a handful of paintings to compare with the best from the Far East in this quality of grace and illumination — untroubled spiritual magnanimity. They are all distinctly “minor” pictures. There is one major exception, Velasquez’s Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha, where the transfiguring presence of Christ is somehow caught up, as in a sacrament, in the lustrous still life in the foreground, and maybe Piero della Francesca.

There is the portrait of Luca Pacioli, the monk and mathematician, in Naples, demonstrating a theorem under a mysterious crystal — you can find it in Burckhardt’s Renaissance [The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy] and it is on the cover of Newman’s World of Mathematics. There is the “Wilton Diptych” in London — the Blessed Virgin descending from Heaven with a bevy of mild girlish angels rather like Kate Greenaway’s maidens. There is Filippo Lippi’s Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard in the Badía in Florence, which you can find in most books on Italian art.

It would pay a spectator of sensibility to look these up in books of reproductions and then go and study this unspectacular but thoroughly representative collection of Japanese art, and ponder on what they have so easily, and what we have so seldom.

Of course, concentration on nuance, on refined sensibility and quietness has its dangers, too. Our art, even at its greatest, may get lost in noise — think of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Japanese art, and especially Japanese poetry, can dribble away in sentimentality and finicking.

I think this is why the currently popular American imitations of Japanese haiku — the 17-syllable little poems that are epigrams of the sensibility — almost never come off. American poetic imitators of the Japanese miss the deep foundations of the culture — all too seldom they do not come over at all in translation — and seize on the superficial sentiment.

At its best, Japanese poetry makes a perfect introduction to the understanding of Japanese painting. Since my one venture into verse translation in this column provoked a rash of pleased fan letters, once again I’ll leave you with some little poems to bear in mind when you look at the pictures. They are all from the classic period of Japanese verse, in the “long” form — of only 31 syllables.

As I watch the moon
Shining on pain’s myriad paths,
I know I am not
Alone involved in Autumn.

—Oe no Chisato

I go out of the darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.

—Lady Izumi Shikibu

As certain as color
Passes from the petal,
Irrevocable as flesh,
The gazing eye falls through the world.

—Lady Ono no Komachi

As I approach
The mountain village
Through the Spring twilight
I hear the sunset bell
Ring through the drifting petals.


[September 18, 1960]

Some more of Rexroth’s Japanese translations can be found here. Some of his Tu Fu translations can be found here.



Why I Like Opera

As the opera season rolls along I will probably be writing about one or the other of the shows each week. First off, I’d like to say something about opera as such, or at least what it is for me.

I enjoy opera as mass entertainment, just like the circus or the funny papers, but more expensive. For my taste it can stand just so much intellectual content and then it becomes dull. I don’t even like “great music” in opera, unless Verdi is great music. I consider Wagner the all time low of bad taste in the history of art. The only Mozart operas I like are the funny ones.

Deep, pretentious operas with difficult and ambitious music like Wozzeck give me the shudders. I go to opera for the same reason I listen to Frank Sinatra. When Frank starts reciting The Waste Land to twelve-tone jazz, I won’t be there to listen.

Carmen has always struck me as being about as serious as opera can get and survive as entertainment. Bizet’s music is clean, bright and efficient. Prosper Mérimée was not a first-rank writer of his time. Nowadays he would be a successful, steady contributor to the better grade second-rate magazines.

In Carmen he created a tragedy whose characters hover on the narrow line between the Great Archetypes of the major classics and the Great Stereotypes of mass culture. The librettists sharpened the story into a compact drama, and in obedience to French formula, added the balancing “good girl,” Micaela. It is easy to object to formulas like this — but they are all right if they work. Racine added just such a good girl to the dark and bloody tragedy of Hippolytus and Phaedre. He certainly didn’t improve Euripides, but he certainly made the story French.

Why has no one ever written a successful opera using Hamlet as a libretto? Or Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, or Ford’s Broken Heart? Both of them are even more “operatic” Elizabethan plays than Hamlet. The reason, of course, is that they are too good, too deeply moving as drama. The text would destroy the unity of reaction in the audience.

Someone will raise the objection, “But the Chinese and Japanese produce opera which is Great Art, why can’t we?” That’s just it, the Chinese and Kabuki plays are no great shakes as literature, and the music is by and large routine. Every dramatic situation has a musical formula which varies little. They are great popular art.

It is the modern western world which makes the distinction between Great and Popular. Carmen has its own kind of greatness. One of the things that makes it truly great is that it is a perfect blend of all the necessary ingredients of popularity.

There is a practically ideal Carmen this year. One problem has always been that not very many opera singers look like the people in Mérimée’s story. This year’s caste looks more real than real. Maybe the real life Carmen looked like the late Lupe Vélez, but Jean Madeira looks like a somewhat more noble Dolores del Río of twenty years ago. What more could you ask? Jon Vickers looks like a top sergeant, and a Basque one, to boot. Mary Costa has just enough of the faithful shepherdess about her to be completely convincing. As for Mario Zanasi, if he walked into a bull ring anywhere in the Spanish world, the management would just assume he was a new man sent by the union.

There’s none of that good old operatic “interpersonal conflict.” Everybody fits together like the gears of a fine watch. I’ve heard more spectacular and acrobatic singing of each of the major roles. These people achieve what is more important, convincing dramatic unity. I’m old enough to remember the Golden Age, when any and all operas were nothing but a series of competitive solos. The change is all for the good.

What a contrast with the current Threepenny Opera! Unless somebody does some serious carpentry work on this show and gets it nailed together, it runs the danger of flopping so badly it will never be able to finish its projected tour.

In the preview performances it was about as incoherent as it could well be. Much of this is due to the band, which simply doesn’t comprehend the music. All Brecht’s plays, even those without music, have a definite rhythm, a pulse or beat which holds the whole thing together.

Furthermore, the German music of the low dives of Berlin between the wars, which is what Kurt Weill was parodying, has a characteristic swing — like New Orleans jazz or the songs of the Paris cafés chantants. It’s all there on the Lotte Lenya records. Why didn’t these boys listen? (What makes square musicians square? Tin ears.)

This swing provides a kind of moral tone and gives the actors what might be called emotional cues. If it is lacking, even with the best actors in the world, the play will fall apart. Too bad, because the Actor’s Workshop could have provided a band of the best local musicians, all of whom “dig” Weill’s score thoroughly.

The publicity gives the impression that this is “the original New York company.” It isn’t. It is made up of some people who have played the show in New York down the years it’s been there, others picked up here and there, some in Los Angeles, and Anna Sten.

Lucy doesn’t belong in the play at all. She is a nice and pretty girl, the perfect Playboy foldout type, and she doesn’t sing any worse than anyone else, but she is about as at home in Brecht’s world of brilliant, brassy sordidness as a Smith girl on her Junior Year Abroad in a Paris joint off the Rue Saint-Denis. Macheath is fine. It is a new interpretation of the role — he looks exactly like our well-known young gentleman about town, Grover Sales, and I’ve never thought of Grover as Macheath — but now I have a new appreciation of the complexity of Grover’s character. Polly is fine, too, even if a trifle innocent and American. The thieves and the Street Singer turn in professional jobs.

Poor Anna Sten! She has been criticized as being too corny. That is just it — she knows what the play is about. She, after all, is a “good European” and the same iron has entered her soul as bit Bert Brecht. Brecht’s theory of the theater involved the projection of just exactly the kind of corn she tries to put across.

In her first number, Jenny’s famous scalp-tingling song about the pirate ship, she carries the band, or at least the brass, with her. After that they never let her get back on the bicycle. When she does, they knock her off. Too bad, anybody who ever saw her as Grushenka in the German The Murderer Karamazov and thinks she can’t act needs his head examined. Maybe it is good for an audience to be subjected to a play as incoherent as this. Now you know why directors grow old before their time.

We are likely to forget, surrounded by white ties and orchids, that Carmen is a play of low life, too. In this instance, it is more convincing — more true to life, or at least more true to theater.

[September 25, 1960]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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