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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Anastasios Kozaitis
Rexroth Today

8 February 2003, 12:53 PM

ASTORIA, N.Y. — As a poet, one would think Kenneth Rexroth’s poems resonate more for me than anything else. But, his poems hold a tertiary importance. His courage holds a primary appeal and his essays of secondary import. Yes, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” “When We with Sappho, “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” and other poems resound, but not nearly as much as his talk “The Function of Poetry and the Place of the Poet in Society,” given to the Conference of Western Writers in November 1936.

I believe that a class which owes its power to the exploitation of others has always had very little use for the poet. When such a class is struggling for power and later, for a short time, when it is consolidating the structure of the world outlook characteristic of it, the poet may be suffered to exist as a sort of refined court jester. Once the zenith of power is passed and the struggles of the ruling group become increasingly defensive and regressive, both in the fields of economics and ideas, as its position becomes increasingly desperate, the dominant class rejects the poet in fear. It has use only for the venal, propagandistic rhymesters.

His prophecy rings truer than ever today. We exist in a literary culture that fosters a personal ambition whose results hold pernicious consequences to poetic ambition. Looking for this ambition in actual poems leaves one lost in an empty, Beckett-like landscape. However, if you are looking for headshots, self-importance, cult of personality, you need not look far. See the “poets” on the covers of Poets & Writers, American Poetry Review, AWP Gazette, etc. and their repeating names announced on magazines’ marquees as if scrolling at the bottom of a CNN television screen.

The same names appear in all the email announcing the countless readings about the United States. Indeed, publishers and poets boast that more books sell today than ever, but more in this case cannot mean more. Money is a reality for poets. We must pay our bills. Unfortunately, verse does not pay the gas, electric, and rent. Many of us work a day-job, and I do not begrudge those who do not, those who have configured a lifestyle whereby they have the ability not to report to a workaday. Nevertheless, the camera mugging and grant sniffing does not guarantee a high quality poem. On the contrary, the compromising of integrity deters ambitious poetic pursuits.

Whether it was his bitterness or his pursuit of poetic greatness, Rexroth proved that the riches of popularity were not all that was important to him, and he repeatedly rang that bell. I do believe, though, that his pursuit of fame made him a bitter man toward the end of his life. Our contemporary state of affairs differs, however, from Rexroth’s 1936. Proof: “Our most significant poets, whatever limited prestige and reputations they may enjoy, are nonetheless outcasts from this society. We may not all of us be extraordinarily distinguished or considered tremendously significant in the world of letters, but insofar as we are poets, we are enemies of this present society.” His society no longer exists. Today, poets head the Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc. Beginning in the 1980s, higher education co-opted the poet. Meanwhile, a vibrant literary culture withered only to be replaced by a chatty on-line culture with little influence on the current dialogue. Whether for the good or not, poetry has taken a higher profile of late. The US Senate recently confirmed reactionary Dana Gioia as the ninth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Ed Hirsch has taken the reigns of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The State of New Jersey legislature and popular politically correct opinions have blackballed Amiri Baraka. The State of California and the UC-San Diego administration have ostracized Quincy Troupe for admittedly poor judgment. While on the subject look no further than Tom Paulin, this year’s poet invited to give Harvard’s Morris Gray lecture. Once his invitation became public, someone revealed remarks made by Paulin in an Egyptian daily where “Brooklyn-born Jewish settlers on the West Bank should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.” After his invitation was rescinded by the English department, applauded by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, Harvard Law Professors Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, and Charles Fried protested to have Paulin re-invited, and eventually he was. See the personages.

What would Rexroth do today, I recently asked a fellow writer? He answered that Rexroth would probably have become an ex-pat, would read a great deal of poetry in translation, and would probably paint an bull’s eye on “postmodern experimental poetics.” As our political and economic machines take more and more choices away from us, debunking the existence of subjectivity is irresponsible, short sighted, and foolish. Rexroth would definitely have pointed this out. Why does this matter? Even if he were to say such things, what would happen? No mainstream reader gives it much thought. A few members on various on-line discussion lists might banter about Rexroth’s opinions. Soon enough, however, the debate would end.

Rexroth said, “It is still possible to rally the American people to the defense of their democracy.” Before recent events (this being written in January/February 2003), I would have thought this naïve. However, after watching Illinois’ outgoing GOP Governor George H. Ryan commute 167 death penalties, I have new hope. Meanwhile, the US populace and world opinion sours more and more on the Bush II Administration’s war with Iraq (which, I assume will be done and done by the time this essay sees the light of internet day). On the domestic side of things, Mr. Bush’s abject pursuit to dismantle affirmative action and his crusade to make the U.S.’s wealthy even wealthier begin to illustrate his true allegiances. We are starting to see an American public disagreeing with White House positions, but media sources tell us war with Iraq is inevitable. The emotional closet of 9|11 reopens. The “usual unreliable sources” tell us, “The Bush administration raised the national terror alert from yellow to orange.” We Stand United in a farce. Who among the U.S.’s poets will point out the farce? As of this writing, poets have fortunately begun to organize.

On countless occasions, when it comes to writing poetry I have heard the mantra, “don’t try and save the world.” Indeed, the insignificance of poems that directly describe an unmediated experience is the Emperor without clothes. Yet, some find rewards for their simplicity: the $100 million bequest from the late heiress Ruth Lilly to Joseph Parisi’s Poetry. We are not supposed to say we are ungrateful for the gift. The New York Times hailed the gift in its pages. Director of the new PhD Program in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, Carol Muske-Dukes wrote an effusive opinion-editorial in the Times praising such generosity. Many have so little of significance to say, but we are encouraged to speak courteously and to speak truth quietly. Even when we do, we are told truth does not exist.

Rexroth would have loudly refuted such myths. When I think of him I imagine his determination and courage.

Anastasios Kozaitis rides his bicycle to work over the 59th Street Bridge from his home in Astoria, NY.

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Photo, top: Kenneth Rexroth reading his work to a jazz accompaniment
at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957.

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