Sunday, February 28, 2010

Kenneth Rexroth and the Dull Petty People

"...Something I am always saying, that people do like poetry. They like good poetry that says something to them. It is true that for many years there has been a very poor audience for most current American poetry. But why not? Most of it has been, not “modernistic,” but dull academic stuff by petty people who lead dull, petty, academic lives. In the right circles it has been thought terribly unfashionable to write about anything so vulgar as love, death, nature — any of the real things that happen to real people. The reason, of course, is that real things don’t happen to petty people, and if they do, they can’t understand them, much less assimilate them and glorify them for others."   — Kenneth Rexroth, S.F. Examiner, 17 July 1960.

Kenneth's sharp distinction between academic poets and those whose work was based on meaningful life-experience was commonly heard throughout the 1960's and presented a compelling argument. Writers who were actually out on the streets doing something—participating in liberation movements and street protests, sexual politics, the revolution, psychedelics, lifestyle experimentation, and Heaven knows what else—were universally neglected by the publishing establishment and professional media, and therefore forced into all kinds of samizdat or underground distribution operations to disseminate their offerings. The university, peacock-like, had its collective head buried in the sands of contemporary cultural irrelevance, its poetical horizons extending no further than to the pre-War modernists, or maybe, if you were from Boston, to the poems of  Robert Lowell.

How far have we come in the past 50 years? Well, on the up side, university life is a lot better, with no lack of  current cultural issues up for discussion in our highly-priced literature, history and writing classes. As for the academic poets, they have all become creative writing teachers, and their number must be legion, if it is indeed the case, as I've read, that several tens of thousands of students in the U.S. now take creative writing courses each semester.

But the writing teachers remain subject to the same deficits that Kenneth was talking about. Either one gets into a lot of awfully clever writing about trips to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket or about the recent visitors to one's bird feeder, or else one relapses into some species of empty, fake-modernist formalism whose abstract utterances defy analysis and have to be intuited subliminally—as if there were anything there to comprehend to begin with.

As for street poetry—which started with Francois Villon in the 15th century—in which life-relevant discourse arises and  where in Kenneth's words "real things" happen—it doesn't exist any more because the streets don't exist any more, at least not as a venue for cultural production.

Imagine jazz music or beat poetry or revolutionary politics or hippie culture springing into life in a yuppified, high-rent, digitized America. Innovations in popular culture have depended on urban, low-rent neighborhoods and people interacting on an eyeball-to-eyeball basis. Digital communities may abound, but their enthusiastic adherents misapprehend as if blinded the extent of their own social marginalization, as well as their own historically unique condition of powerlessness within the social system at large.

For "real things" exist only in real communities, not in digital reproductions of communities. Really, one wonders where to go looking for some real things. If there are any left, I wouldn't expect to find them in the streets of San Francisco.

[Thanks to San Francisco Fifty Years Ago, an ongoing project to post all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), at Bureau of Public Secrets.]


  1. I'm glad you brought Kenneth back to life. My favorite quote has always been: “Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense — the creative act.” I still have to believe there is a tiny minority out there on the streets you lament the loss of. There being no real community, we've had to cocoon ourselves.

  2. I remember Rexroth as well. He used to have a book store on Union Street where I would go to buy books. I learned what little I know about poetry from talking to him - it was over 40 years ago and I don't remember as much as I want to. Can you imagine a book store on Union Street now, run by a poet and full of great books from independent presses? There are communities of artists here in SF but they tend to hunker down in protective mode. I am part of a very small artists roundtable and we've started getting together for other events but we are a tiny group and likely to stay that way. All of us have tried to connect, in one way or another, with the "younger" generation but there is little way of bridging the chasm between us "older folks" and those who grew up with a digitized, plugged in all the time media where the ratio of noise to sense is another sad commentary on our current times.

  3. Kenneth's bookstore on Union Street was full of freebies he received from book publishers while he was a book critic at the Oakland Trib -- or so he maintained. He was always proud of himself for putting the review copies to such good use. It may actually have been true, since unlike most bookshops, there was usually just one copy of each book available.

  4. Your memory is better than mine on this. I had no idea where he got the books and I sure didn't know enough about the book trade at the time to figure it out. I loved the room; I seem to remember it was an upstairs room with huge windows overlooking the street. I still have a few books that I bought there - one is a book of poems by Robert Duncan which I still cherish.