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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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

[Originally published online in Jacket 23, August 2003.]

The memory of Kenneth Rexroth goes back into my distant past. I had been aware of him since the 1940s but with renewed interest during the 1950s & the emergence of the San Francisco Renaissance & that early Beat Generation for which he was an older spokesman. With David Antin & others, circa 1958, I was coming into contact with poets outside of our immediate neighborhood &, as with Kenneth, outside of our own generation.
     I think our first meeting with him was under the pretext of doing an interview for Chelsea Review, during its early period, when Robert Kelly & George Economou were among the co-founders & editors. I have a memory too of having caught up with Rexroth at the CBS Studios in New York, to watch him being interviewed by Mike Wallace, but David seems not to have been a part of that. Afterwards, we agreed to meet and do our own interview at the Five Spot, a popular jazz club in what would later be called the East Village, where Kenneth was performing nightly with Pepper Adams’ quintet.
     In that ambience the interview we did was secondary, but the chance to watch Kenneth was something I felt as memorable from the outset. By that I mean Kenneth talking & Kenneth doing jazz & poetry, all of it with an outrageous zest & for the moment at least with a belief in his own presence & power as a public person & a man who had the real goods & could well display them.
     Our interview was never published but I retained a copy of the manuscript and have recently dug it out of my papers and manuscripts at the New Poetry Archives of the University of California, San Diego. In 1958, it’s clear, there was no tape recording to fall back on, but I was busily writing down notes in a weird kind of shorthand that I had picked up while working for a sometimes questionable New York outfit called Writers Service. I can still hear his voice as I read through it, and I’m aware now, as I was then, of how much he was trying to dazzle us. We took it all in stride, including the irritability and impatience he displayed toward other poets, and learned later that it was a part of any encounter with Kenneth.
     For David and me there would be other meetings with Kenneth down the years – not too many but all of them comradely and without rancor. He was incredibly supportive of the work I did with ethnopoetics and with an avantgardism for which he was often an interested but skeptical supporter. We only found out, after his death, that our connection with New Directions – the poetry rather than the poetics – was largely of his doing. That he had never called this to our attention is something I find as moving as the support itself.
     What follows, then, is an unedited version of our interview with him, scribbled by hand at the Five Spot.

As Rexroth sat down a well-dressed woman over at the side pointed him out to a group of friends, speaking in an audible, almost passionate tone: “That’s him, that's the poet, the PO-ET!”

Rexroth: Feed him some peanuts (Laughter).

¶ R&A: How are things here?

Rexroth: Not bad...This isn’t the best town for what we’re doing. Too many other things to pull the crowds away.

¶ R&A: Better audiences here?

Rexroth: I don’t think so. I find a New York audience is less sophisticated. They miss all the better lines. I mean I like to throw out some patter before we start, to relax them. You do it here and they’ll sit right below the bandstand and never crack a smile...all the music and literary references go right by them.

¶ R&A: What are the differences outside of New York?

Rexroth: Well, we draw bigger there. We pack in crowds in some places they would never dream of here. You can’t match the enthusiasm. This is a big cultural event for a lot of those people. They’re quick to respond. Like in St. Louis I said, “We want to pay tribute to St. Louis’ two greatest citizens, Jimmy Blanton and Karl Schurz,” and some guy got up and applauded ...Wouldn’t happen here.

¶ R&A: In the Jazz-Poetry itself, what are you trying to achieve? What effects do you go after?

Rexroth: You don’t always get what you want, of course, but we’re learning ...What I try with my own stuff is to work the poem to a slow climax through a series of quiet painful dissonances. They (the musicians) aren’t dissonant enough for me. There’s too much funkiness. On a tour like this you can’t expect too much, playing with different groups.

¶ R&A: What’s the trouble?

Rexroth: A lot of the boys just don’t want to practice. I have some of my own Chinese translations in the book, and I try to get them to listen to tapes of Chinese music and build the jazz around it. There’s a tendency for it to come out like 42nd Street chop-suey music. Its not a bad effect altogether, but it isn’t what I want.

¶ R&A: Have you tried any Japanese waka or haiku?

Rexroth: I’ve managed some really good, short things with that, but there the Japanese music is essential. A lot of the boys are good instrumentalists, you know, but without imagination for this. It seems to me as if the 1958 bop style is swinging back to the old K.C. sound brought up to date –with harmonies invented by Beethoven. The funkiness always bugs in.

¶ R&A: Does any of this interfere with your poetry?

Rexroth: That question always depends on who you are. I find I’ve learned a hell of a lot about my poetry and poetry in general. Actually only about half the things in our book are my own. Then I read Durrel, Neruda, early Sandburg, a lot of other people.

¶ R&A: In what way does your approach to Jazz-Poetry differ from, say Patchen’s or Ferlinghetti’s?

Rexroth: Well, Larry came to it late and didn’t really know much about jazz to start with. But he’s a good foil for me. We work well together. I’ve been around jazz and jazz musicians most of my life. In my teens I ran a joint in Chicago. Dave Tough was a very good friend of mine. He was a great musician and a really good poet too. I knew them all back in Chicago.

¶ R&A: He’s got some really top musicians there.

Rexroth: There’s six men but they double in everything under the sun. Some of their climaxes come out sounding like the Pines of Rome. With my own group I like to keep it loose. They have to counter rather than go with me. When they stop I like to be moving.

¶ R&A: Like cross rhythms?

Rexroth: That’s right. You have the voice moving free across the bar line. It’s something like a solo riff. Kenneth’s arrangements are a lot tighter. I think they’ve got it worked out to the hemi-semi-demi-quaver.

¶ R&A: Do you think it’s all heading somewhere?

Rexroth: Sure, it’s the only way you can return poetry to its audience.

¶ R&A: What are the chances of this developing into something like drama?

Rexroth: You can’t tell yet. Actually out on the coast very soon, there’ll be a performance of my Phaedra to jazz accompaniment. It’ll be jazz with sort of modal harmonies. My wife called me on this from out there, and I told them to hold everything till I got back. The essence of all these plays is in the absolute starkness, as in Noh drama or Yeats. Did you know I staged the first performance in America of [Yeats's] At the Hawk’s Well ? Well, in the Phaedra also the staging is bare. You have two choruses — four people sitting at the sides who are also the musicians, and the main chorus, a beggar and a prostitute, sitting on a sort of step in front. They narrate what the characters are doing and also pick up their lines and speak for them in their own voices. Now originally I had this scored for flute and percussion and something like a guitar. That’s pretty far away from the new version, and I want to make sure it doesn’t get loused up. When they put this on in New York back in the forties, it was one of the great disasters in the history of drama. Thank God I wasn’t there. Later I heard they played it in orgone boxes ...

¶ R&A: What’s your present view of that which is called “the beat generation.”

Rexroth: Oh hell! Do you know what I said about that? Its all a Madison Avenue gimmick that’ll go out with the Fall book list.

¶ R&A: Just sticking to the writers around San Francisco....

Rexroth: Those two (Kerouac and Ginsberg) aren’t from San Francisco, they’re from the San Remo. I mean I think Allen Ginsberg is a very good poet. Don’t get me wrong. I said and I still feel that he has great potential as a really popular and hortatory poet.

¶ R&A: How about Kerouac? Have you changed your mind about him?

Rexroth: I have no interest in Kerouac whatsoever. I’ve done my stint for him. As far as I’m concerned, Kerouac is what Madison Avenue wants a rebel to be. That isn’t my kind of rebel. I mean I’ve been an anarchist all my life, and I know a lot more about Greek and Latin than Allen Tate.

¶ R&A: What’s your opinion of Howl ?

Rexroth: I’ve gone through it very carefully. It’s a skillfully put together poem, if you understand what he’s doing. I mean Allen handles a colloquial line — of the type of Sandburg before he imagined he was Abe Lincoln — very well.

¶ R&A: Does the “hipster” vocabulary bother you there?

Rexroth: I don’t think it’s inherent in the verse line. It’s part of the content, but that’s something different. What I was talking about was the rhythm of the line...the use of a natural speech line. Allen works very hard at it. He’s really a poet.

¶ R&A: And Kerouac?

Rexroth: No! I think that Jack busted the crust of custom, and as far as that went I was for it. At least he made all the right enemies.

[To be continued]


WAS said...

Aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh! This is gold. And a bit humbling for me (all this time I thought I was the only one who had ever thought of a clever way to use "hemi-semi-demi-quaver" in sentence). Are there people like this even around any more? If so, I'd sure like to meet them.

Ed Baker said...

there really are a few of "us" yet around

but, damn few of us left

KR was a friend of Rudd Fleming ...

one day with a cup of coffee I went into Rudd's office
sat down in a chair and was introduced to their visitor..... (there, at U of Md. to do a reading)

when I reached over to shake his hand I upset the coffee and it flooded Rexroth's papers that were on
Fleming's desk... he just smiled/shrugged it off

this was about 1972 when I was over at Hopkins and came back to Md. to visit Rudd and read him some of my recent "stuff"

a treasure of mine :


(check out the dedication) and KR's brush-work / brush-mind):

Slowly the moon rises

Over the quiet sea.

Slowly the face of my beloved

Forms in my mind

this IS an huge poem via an huge poet like that last line
take us/me into far-beyond realms of and the erotics (also) of

zero reference said...

Cool, this is very interesting. I wish I knew of more central resources on poetry and music....hip-hop and technology have opened up a lot of doors for some of what Rexroth describes (and is where interests of mine are) but theoretical resources and functional advice are thin on the ground.