To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jerome Rothenberg & David Antin: A First Interview with Kenneth Rexroth (1958), Part Two

[continued from earlier posting 10 August 2011]

¶ R&A: In your own poetry it’s not just the natural speech line, is it? You use syllabics ...

Rexroth: Oh yes ... mostly. But the syllabic structure is just a device, and behind it there’s the organization in terms of rhythms. Eluard did that also. Or you find it in Laughlin, where you have to know what he’s playing it off against ... the jazz feeling behind it. Do you know this? (Leaning over and chanting)

Met you in the supermarket
And gee you were nice.

¶ R&A: Is that what you mean by cadenced verse?

Rexroth: The basic line in any good verse is cadenced ... building it around the natural breath structures of speech.

¶ R&A: What about Williams’ claim to have discovered a new type of American prosody?

Rexroth: Well, Bill I think is a very great poet, but I’m afraid he’s created such an elaborate smoke screen about his discoveries that he’s come to believe them. It reminds me of the story of the painter who went through a big show of stirring his paints very carefully, and someone asked him what the secret was, and he said, “It’s all in the mureatic acid.” Bill just got to believe the hoax.

¶ R&A: You wrote, in the Prairie Schooner I think, that most of the San Francisco people, except Denise Levertov, were “uncivilized.” Did you mean anything special by that?

Rexroth: No; just that Denise is the product of an old and rich culture ... her family is grounded in the humanistic tradition. I don’t think it’s that important. I mean there are a lot of different kinds of people on the San Francisco scene. And I’m not talking about Kerouac. He doesn’t belong there. I don’t think he’s been in Frisco more than three months in his life.

¶ R&A: This Marie Ponsat is quite different than the others, isn’t she? More like Lowell, or someone in the Donne tradition?

Rexroth: Oh sure, there’s just the widest variety out there. Josephine Miles, Robert Duncan — all of them are different. You can’t call this a movement.

¶ R&A: You wouldn’t want this to tighten into a single poetic point of view?

Rexroth: No; when I was teaching a workshop course there, the only thing I tried to impress on my class was certain fundamentals of any writing — directness and clarity of observation, and fidelity of the poetic situation. Not any special forms or styles.

¶ R&A: How do you take to people who work in more or less traditional metrics, like Richard Wilbur?

Rexroth: No, I’m just not interested. It bores me. What would you call the now — the neo-alexandrianization of the baroque tradition? I mean I can still read Callimachus, but not Eratos. I draw the line there ... no interest whatsoever. You can fall into the same thing by modeling your work around Saintsbury’s Minor Caroline Poets.

¶ R&A: Does that hold for Lowell too?

Rexroth: I don’t think Lowell’s like that.

¶ R&A: He writes a stanza like Drayton's ...

Rexroth: Yes, but there’s a personal element here. I’ve always felt with him a considerable violence and bettering of form. But even so, he’s not one of the people I like best.

¶ R&A: Who would you consider the rating American poets?

Rexroth: I don’t know ... Williams. He’s one of the very few we have in the general European tradition. All these quarterlies and all that exist in the backwash of the English tradition ... something apart from the modern movement. Williams is the peer of the Europeans — a world poet.

¶ R&A: How about Pound?

Rexroth: Well, as a poet I find his verse soft and mellifluous ... a limp soft line. It’s not what I’m looking for at all. The difference is like that between Wyatt and Surrey. And he’s beneath the backwash also. I just don’t think it’s very fruitful.

¶ R&A: Which European poets do you prefer?

Rexroth: Mostly French, though I read the Italians also. Reverdy and Apollinaire in particular.

¶ R&A: Any younger French poets?

Rexroth: I don’t care for the post-war ones in general, though I did translate some of [Oscar] Milosz. I like the sentiment. I’m in favor of that.

¶ R&A: How about post-war Germans?

Rexroth: Those I don’t know. Is there anything there? See if you can find some.

¶ R&A: Back to the French, what about Rene Char?

Rexroth: Well, don’t forget that he’s a sort of A.E. Housman in a modern idiom ... in the same way that Prevert is really their New Yorker poet, which shows how much ahead of us they are. Larry [Ferlinghetti] always thought he’d modeled himself on Prevert, but I think he’s got a much harder line, more like Queneau.

¶ R&A: Are there any older poets to whom you return?

Rexroth: Those I read continuously are Burns and Landor. Simple, stark quatrains ... things my little girls can enjoy.

¶ R&A: There’s been a growing interest in oriental verse recently, in which you played a part. What do you think of it?

Rexroth: In California — not Los Angeles but in Frisco — there’s direct contact. They’re open to the sea, so that something of the real flavor comes across. And Frisco, remember, is full of Buddhist churches. Mary, my little girl, was confirmed in a Buddhist temple. She saw the Life write up on Buddhism, with pictures of the ceremony, and she said she wanted to be confirmed there because she only liked Jesus as a kid. She was a little disappointed in him when he grew up. But anyway, the orientalism in Frisco isn’t all the ten cent incense burner variety. A lot of us — Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, myself — read the languages.

¶ R&A: Do you include the current Zen craze in this?

Rexroth: Oh, I don’t much care for that. Do you know what the Japanese call it? Buddhism for white people. It’s too easy, something set up for a popular market.

¶ R&A: Do you think of yourself as a Buddhist?

Rexroth: Not really ... or if I am, if I am a Buddhist, I’m a Buddhist of a very primitive sort — not a Rhys Davids Oxford Hinayana Buddhist. If I have any religious belief at all, I suppose I believe in the primacy of religious experience. In Buddhism the religious experience is purely empirical.

¶ R&A: Do you mean they’re continually searching, but nobody gets to Nirvana ... like the laughter of the Buddha and the Bodhisatvas about the path?

Rexroth: It’s like what you find in the statues — the bored look on the face of the Buddha — or the Bodhisatva’s vow made out of a kind of good humored indifference or insouciance. But I’m not a Buddhist anyway. I’m an aetheist.

¶ R&A: That searching for the path isn’t like Kerouac’s search for God’s face, is it?

Rexroth: Look, that’s all a lot of talk. You don’t become a saint until you lead a good life whether in Tibet or Italy or America. When the hipster picks this up, he cheapens it. I don’t like hipsters. The hipster is a louse on jazz ... a mimic of jazz and Negroes who believes the Negro is born with a sax in his mouth and a hypodermic in his arm. That’s despicable. In jazz circles it’s what they call Crow Jimism.

¶ R&A: And in religion?

Rexroth: I just don’t know where they drag the saints into this. You can’t become a saint by taking dope, stealing your friends’ typewriters, giving girls chancres, not supporting your wife and children, and then reading St. John of the Cross. All of that, when it’s happened before, has typified the collapse of civilization ... and today the social fabric is falling apart so fast, it makes your head swim.

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