Introduction to Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays

Practicing writers and artists notoriously have very little use for critics. I am a practicing writer and artist. Long ago Edmund Wilson is reputed to have said that a critic was a book reviewer who wrote for magazines that paid little or nothing.

These pieces are not criticism but journalism. It is my hope that they find a modest place in what critics call a “tradition” — the tradition of Huneker, Mencken, Wilson. Not one of them has ever appeared in a Quarterly. They were all assigned in advance, written to a requested wordage and for an agreed fee. Otherwise I would never have written them. Poets are very ill advised to write prose for anything but money. The only possible exceptions are anger and logrolling for one’s friends.

Curiously enough, this is the only approach that permits the writer any freedom. As long as you avoid outright libel or misrepresentation of known fact, the better-class newspapers and slick magazines let you write pretty much what you want. They are interested in lively, engaging copy, and within reason, the more controversy the better. The Quarterlies and Critical Reviews, on the other hand, have a Party Line of unbelievable rigidity. It is a subtle blend of bankrupt, sectarian Bolshevism, the Ku Klux Klan, the provincialism of the subway Neanderthals, and the more blatant propaganda of the State Department. Furthermore, they permit not the slightest deviation from the canons of taste evolved at last year’s cocktail parties.

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. The 10th Street Club is the apotheosis of formularized academic painting. Kierkegaard is dull and silly. No adult can take Dostoevsky seriously. Pissaro was a better painter than Van Gogh and Tiepolo than El Greco, who is another artist for adolescents. Finnegans Wake is an embarrassing failure. You can’t associate continuously with immature minds and write poetry — even if it’s called Creative Poetry 1976520A and you get paid $18,000 a year for it. . . . Just say anything like that and see how far you get with Phil Rahv.

These essays are all jobs, except the one on Buber which I wrote to organize my own relationship to a thinker who has had a major influence on me. I might not have chosen these subjects if I had just been criticizing for fun. I prefer Tiepolo, Redon, Pissaro — or Ernest Briggs — to L├ęger. I think Lawrence a very great poet indeed, but a rather disgusting man, afraid of wildcats, red Indians, and children, who deliberately wrote erotic novels and then got up and left the room in a blushing rage when somebody told a dirty joke. There is a lot of bullshit in Lawrence, Miller, or Patchen — but their enemies are my enemies.

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 snarf, 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? Not because it makes you a partner in mass murder, which it does, but because it reduces all action to frivolity.

Once moral authority is delegated all action becomes meaningless. The institutionalization of creativity which is almost all-prevailing today is met with reluctance, secret recalcitrance, tedium vitae, however gaudy the rewards, or even however noble the ends. Reluctant engineers can build Dnieprestroy, reluctant intellectuals can implement Mr. Dulles’s lethal priggery in Taiwan, Spain, or Santo Domingo. You cannot write a reluctant poem or paint a reluctant picture. Those who pretend to are, on the face of it, institutionalized imbeciles.

Most of the writing, painting, composing done in the world today, on both sides of the Cold War, is done by people whose careers are records of bone-chilling frivolity. Once it was Cubism, then Futurism, then Surrealism. The dominant school today is the Pre-Frontal Lobotomy Movement. This produces framed canvases carefully painted all over to represent empty space, 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. Against the armies of the mindless I will take what few allies I can find, whatever their faults.

However, I will not take those would-be allies which Madison Avenue has carefully manufactured and is now trying to foist on me. If the only significant revolt against what the French call the hallucination publicitaire is heroin and Zen Buddhism nobody will ever be able to escape from the lot of this tenth-rate Russian movie called “The Collapse of Capitalist Civilization” onto which somehow we all seem to have wandered.

The Beat Generation may once have been human beings — today they are simply comical bogies conjured up by the Luce publications. Their leading spokesmen are just “Engine Charley” Wilson and Dr. Oppenheimer dressed up in scraggly beards and dirty socks. For this reason I have omitted from this collection all those articles which discussed the revolt or emotional suicide of young American writers, published back in the days when Madison Avenue and its outposts in the Quarterlies were all insisting that everything was conformity, peace, and professorships.

Success, alas, as it almost always does, led to the worst kind of emotional suicide. Those to whom that kind of success was a temptation have become the trained monkeys, the clowning helots of the Enemy. They came to us late, from the slums of Greenwich Village, and they departed early, for the salons of millionairesses.

Life with us goes on just the same. Born and raised in what they used to call “The Radical Movement,” I always look back with amused pride on those old-timers who didn’t smoke or drink and lived long and troubled lives absolutely devoted to one unmarried spouse — to keep themselves fit and ready for the barricades. The World, The Flesh, and The Devil are far subtler personages than those innocent Jewish mechanics and Italian peasants thought, but they still go about in the night as a roaring lion seeking whom they may devour. It behooves the artist to recognize and avoid them, especially when they wave red, or black, flags, as well as roar. Because art is a weapon. After millions of well-aimed blows, someday perhaps it will break the stone heart of the mindless cacodemon called Things As They Are. Everything else has failed.



Rexroth’s Introduction to his first collection of essays, Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays