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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Samuel B. Garren
The Influence of Kenneth Rexroth’s Bird in the Bush and Assays on North American Poetry in the 1960s

This piece is 2,400 words or about six printed pages long

Although the 1960s were a fallow period poetically for Kenneth Rexroth, two collections of essays, Bird in the Bush (1959) and Assays (1961), helped to “open the field” for North American poetry at the threshold of the decade. These collections presented an alternative way of looking at United States culture, provided a new list of poets especially helpful for young people, and challenged the assumptions in the academic and literary establishment.

From the opening pages of the Introduction to the first collection, Bird in the Bush, Rexroth’s stance and tone are clear. Speaking personally, I can say that as a teenager living far from any major city, I delighted in experiencing Rexroth taking on figures of authority with zest and incisiveness. “The Quarterlies and Critical Reviews,” Rexroth writes in 1959, “have a Party Line of unbelievable rigidity. It is a subtle blend of bankrupt, sectarian Bolshevism, the Ku Klux Klan, . . . and the more blatant propaganda of the State Department” (Bird vii). Over the top? Surely. But for one young reader, a portal opened for the first time.

Here is another passage from the Introduction to Bird in the Bush:

Taste is an individual thing. If it is not wide-ranging and erratic, captious and unpredictable, it is not taste but snobbery. Just try saying: Mark Twain is a better writer than Henry James... Kierkegaard is dull and silly. No adult can take Dostoevsky seriously. Finnegans Wake is an embarrassing failure... Just say anything like that and see how far you get with Phil Rahv. (vii)

Although this may read like an average day on the subsubpoetics or E-Pound List, it was a rare tonic in the early 1960s.

Rexroth is not just the querulous outsider, the rejected poet unpublished by the more prestigious journals. Speaking of himself as someone “born and raised in what they used to call ‘The Radical Movement’” (x), Rexroth bases his attack on moral grounds. He writes:

Everybody has a lot of fakery in his make-up. When it is personal it is all right. A man can be forgiven for being a [...] vegetarian, or a frequenter of astrologists. He cannot be forgiven for being a parson or a social worker or a professor. No truck with the Social Lie. Why? Not because it makes you a partner in mass murder, which it does, but because it reduces all action to frivolity. (viii)

For Rexroth, the delegation of moral authority dominant in the United States with its resultant “institutionalization of creativity” produces, in his words, “columns of type indented on both margins and written by Professors of Creative Poetry, which are really elaborately camouflaged holes in the paper. It also produces hydrogen bombs” (viii-ix).

What does Rexroth support? He advocates a poetry that is direct, personal, socially committed and visionary. He attempts to connect United States poetry with the main modernist current to be found throughout the world, what he calls the “international idiom of twentieth-century verse” (Bird 95), resisting what he believes to be the policy of the literary establishment to ignore the rest of the world and to keep United States poetry insular. Finally, in these essays, Rexroth profiles dozens of active poets and names the publishers printing their works.

The first essay of Bird in the Bush, “Unacknowledged Legislators and Art pour Art,” presents Rexroth’s personalist approach to poetry, an approach that combines ethical and religious aspects. Rexroth writes:

The arts presume to speak directly from person to person, each polarity, the person at the end of the communication, fully realized. The speech of poetry is from me to you, transfigured by the overcoming of all thingness—reification --in the relationship. (12)

In this essay, Rexroth seeks to cut through aesthetic debate by means of a simplified definition of poetry. He extends, it, however, to include opposition to late capitalist society through the personalist challenge to alienation in a commodity culture, or, “reification.” The purity of the realization of each person in the poetic act takes on spiritual significance in a manner analogous to an “I-Thou” relationship. The only unsolicited essay appearing in Bird in the Bush is on Martin Buber, a “thinker who has had a major influence on me” (vii), according to Rexroth. Poetry is, therefore, for Rexroth, direct communication of the “most intense experiences of very highly developed sensibilities” (5). Poetry becomes a “symbolic criticism of values” when the personal responses of individual poets are absorbed over time by the greater society. Rexroth does favor what he refers to as “the art of random occasion” (7), but he does so from a personalist perspective, claiming that such art, ironically, is “strongly personal” and “individually communicative” (8). “After all,” Rexroth illustrates, “nothing looks so much like a Jackson Pollock as another Jackson Pollock” (7-8). His defense of the poetry of Gertrude Stein, however, moves onto quasi-mystical grounds. By focusing the reader’s attention on ordinary language statements, Stein is able to have her words “take on a kind of glow, the splendor of what is called an ‘aesthetic object,’ and passes over into abstract, architectonic poetry” (10). Rexroth went through a phase of literary cubism and elsewhere writes with enthusiasm of Pierre Reverdy.

Personalism is Rexroth’s answer to the approach he finds dominant in the universities, textbooks, and critical writings in the United States: the poem as an object, impersonality, even the avoidance of personality, and disapproval of poetry as social statement. He is especially scornful of the New Critics and the Southern Agrarians, with their roots in the Fugitive Movement. At his most caustic, he refers to this group as the “pillowcase-headdress school” (Assays 172) of poetry. In general, he describes the “dominant tendency in American poetry” as being “politically reactionary and stylistically conservative” (187). His essays seek to counter that position.

I would like to focus on two essays by Rexroth appearing in Assays (1961). I believe that they were influential in stimulating new interests in poetry within the United States. These essays are “The Influence of French Poetry on American,” an essay “written in 1958 as an introduction to an anthology of American poets in French published in Paris in Europe” (Rexroth’s note, Assays 143), and “The New Poetry,” published in the New York Times Book Review on February 12, 1961. The second of these essays, due to its appearance in a prominent journal, had considerable effect on readers, I believe, possibly being a major determinant in the poetic choices of a generation. The first essay, published in France, would have had less initial impact in the United States, but the important ideas it contains gained a larger audience by its inclusion in this collection.

In “The Influence of French Poetry on American,” Rexroth traces a tradition in the United States existing from the beginning of the twentieth century that was similar in spirit and often directly in contact with the poetry in Europe that was most open, daring, and new. Contrary to what he believes are the views of the academic establishment, Rexroth writes, “It should be made clear . . . that the New England tradition . . . is [not] characteristic of the rest of America” (Assays 146). Important for the developing taste in North American poetry, Rexroth provides a detailed account of this history. He gives the names and assesses the quality of many poets in the United States and France who have been influential since the 1960s but were not commonly known throughout the United States in 1958. To illustrate from the United States, Rexroth discusses favorably the poetry of Walter Conrad Arensburg, Mina Loy, Marsden Hartley, Harry and Caresse Crosby, Laura Riding, Gertrude Stein, Walter Lowenfels, Louis Zukofsky, Muriel Rukeyser, Carl Rakosi, and others. French poets mentioned include Francis Carco, O. V. Lubicz-Milosz, Renee Vivien, Judith Gautier, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Andre Salmon, and Louise Labe.

Throughout the essay Rexroth discounts the influence of Pound and Eliot in order to oppose the teachings of Brooks and Warren and to expand the sense of what is occurring in United States poetry. For example, the “first intimation” (Assays 153) of the power of Chinese verse conveyed to United States readers, he feels, came from Judith Gautier’s Livre du Jade, not Pound’s Cathay. The technique used by Eliot in The Waste Land, Rexroth asserts, derives from a poem by the Belgian poet Jean de Bosschere published in a “face en face edition, French and English,” and entitled “Ulysses Builds His Bed” (153).

Rexroth’s essay is a maverick history of United States poetry in the twentieth century. He claims, for example, that the “greatest American poet of the turn of the century did not write in English at all, but in French” (147)—Stuart Merrill. He also states that the “real leader of the group to which Eliot and Pound belonged in London was . . . Wyndham Lewis, and Lewis’s narrative style is Laforgue reduced to a formula: ‘Describe human beings as though they were machines, landscapes as though they were chemical formulas, inanimate objects as though they were alive” (156). As idiosyncratic as some of Rexroth’s individual claims may be, the essay provides a helpful list of names, many of them new no doubt to his readers. One of his judgments is not eccentric. The “greatest of . . . the classic American modernists,” in Rexroth’s opinion, and “America’s greatest living poet” is William Carlos Williams. For some recent United States poets, Rexroth believes that French influence has been negligible. At the time that he wrote the essay, modern American poetry had sufficient “developments of its own” (171), precluding definitive French effect. To these poets Rexroth turns in his more widely read essay, “The New Poetry” (1961).

In dealing in this second essay with the “young poets who have come into notice since the Second World War” (Assays 185), Rexroth repeats two ideas from the earlier essay on French influence. He emphasizes “direct, personal communication” as the touchstone for poetic achievement. He also claims that the poets to be discussed mark a “return to the mainstream of modern verse” after the “reactionary” turn that American poetry took in the previous generation. When Rexroth characterizes these poets as being “popular,” “avant-garde,” and “intensely American” (185-86), he seems to wield quite a broad brush.

Nonetheless, the turnabout in direction for United States poetry Rexroth dates to the “years immediately after the Second World War” (188). Who was responsible? Rexroth answers, “Cid Corman, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, Richard Emerson and their magazines Origin, Black Mountain Review, Jargon, Golden Goose, laid the foundations for a new, minor Renaissance in American verse” (188). After again summarizing the history of American poetry in the twentieth century, Rexroth prepares a road map for the highly influential, recently published anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). Rexroth profiles and recommends over a dozen poets. For special praise he singles out Denise Levertov, “Unquestionably the best of the lot” (189); Robert Creeley, “Second only to . . . Levertov” (190); Robert Duncan, “As mentor and example, Duncan’s influence on the younger men of the New Poetry is incalculable” (192); and Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, “the most promising of the new additions to the San Francisco group” (193). In addition, Rexroth mentions other individuals of the “Black Mountain group” like Paul Blackburn; “Surrealists” like Philip Lamantia; Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso of the “Beat Generation”; and poets of the “New York group” like Barbara Guest and James Schuyler (191-95). In concluding, however, Rexroth voices one caveat, saying, “I am not sure that anyone has come up who is sheerly as good as the classic modernists of America verse—Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore and the rest” (195).

To respond personally once again, I recall vividly reading Rexroth’s essay from the New York Times Book Review issue in my high school library, writing furiously on a piece of notebook paper the most highly regarded names, as if making out the lineup for an all-time, all-star baseball team. Time was wasting. I had just turned eighteen!

One attraction of these essays was their style. I liked the sureness, irreverence, and bite. Here are a few examples:

  1. Seven hundred capitalists is a lot of capitalists to see at once. But it is not as breathtaking as you might think. (Bird 143)
  2. . . . [T]he silliness of the Hemingways notwithstanding, there is far more to Spanish culture than this. Sancho Panzo . . . was only interested in avoiding death in the afternoon. (Assays 229)
  3. If you drive your prophets mad, you don’t have to bother to crucify them. When a prophet refuses to go crazy, he becomes quite a problem, crucifixion being as complicated as it is in humanitarian America. (Bird 76-77)
  4. For forty years [Francis Parkman] devoted himself to justifying the triumph of anal over oral sexuality—or, in the words of another great Puritan, the ways of God to man. (Assays 176)
  5. [And, in a different tone:] Death is the absolute, unbreakable mystery. Communion and oblivion, sex and death, the mystery can be revealed — but it can be revealed only as totally inexplicable. (Bird 203)

I was also attracted to the range of Rexroth’s interests. In addition to literary subjects, he writes of painters from the Pacific Northwest to the southern Sung; Gnosticism; the Kabbalah; Native American song; and Chinese science. Rexroth was largely self-taught, his formal education having ended when he was expelled from high school at the age of sixteen (Hamalian 12). His knowledge has the surprises of the autodidact without becoming cranky. In two books Rexroth provided me with a curriculum for a private education extending far beyond the limits of the ones that I encountered in the schools. Part of the education involved seeking out as many of the books as I could find written by the living poets he praised. Thinking myself not alone in this endeavor, I believe that, with their spirit, breadth, learning, and strong outsider stance, the essays by Kenneth Rexroth in Bird in the Bush and Assays played a significant role in developing the view of North American poetry in the 1960s.

Works Cited

Hamalian, Linda. A Life of Kenneth Rexroth. New York: Norton, 1991.

Rexroth, Kenneth. Assays. N.p.: New Directions, 1961.

———. Bird in the Bush. N.p.: New Directions, 1959.

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