Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco
Well, here I am. When I was a boy, back before the other war, my father had a friend whom he admired tremendously and of whom I stood in utter awe the critic James Gibbons Huneker. He was not just a critic. He was a journalist. When he wrote about de Pachmann playing Chopin, you could hear it. And he had a nose for news, an infallible nose, what in another context would be called good taste. He looked at the first exhibitions of modern art, back in 1908, and said that the Cubists would change the history of painting and that the Futurists were self-deluded fakes and would pass as a fad. He played Bach like an angel, but he also welcomed the first music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
Huneker had a true journalists whimsy. He wrote a fascinating guide to the beer of Europe, full of dry mockery of the wine snobs. He wrote about the tortured Danish philosopher Kierkegaard long before he was discovered by the intellectuals, in fact, before Sartre and the editors of Americas highbrow quarterlies were born. He did all this in the newspapers, back in the nineteen hundreds when nobody was supposed to know anything. In my adolescence I read all his books, imitated his attitudes and resolved to follow in his footsteps.
So I went to work on the old Chicago Herald and Examiner back in the wild days immortalized in The Front Page. After a spell of Chicago newspaperdom of the Twenties, I decided it was all too rough for me. My father had died of drink and I saw myself following quickly in his footsteps, not Hunekers. The years went by and I led a quiet life. About the time when, if I had stayed in the business and had kept alive, I just might have been offered a stint like Hunekers, the telephone rang and they said, This is The Examiner. Think of all the time Ive saved. Going on for 40 years, taking it easy. It just goes to show.
What is this column going to be about? Oh, just things, whatever strikes my fancy. One thing, for sure, I am not going to be a professional Angry Man. I think I live a fairly civilized life and I enjoy living it and I enjoy telling what it feels like. Maybe once in a while some Big Issue might turn up and I might be what they call fearless. I hope I dont even know it. I think one of the symptoms of being civilized is that you never know when you are being courageous.
One week maybe I will write about a book, another about a show of pictures, or maybe even just one picture, another week about jazz, another week about a good meal, another about a recital of Renaissance motets.
I like rock climbing, ski-mountaineering, dry fly fishing, maybe I will write about them. I am all for Issues, too, but I have the vulgar, journalistic opinion that Issues should be hung on pegs. If you talk to the public you should always talk about things, not about abstractions, however noble. If you cant find a peg to hang an issue on, probably it isnt an issue. In this the public is smarter than a lot of writers, and a lot smarter than most thinkers.
This all sounds like getting publicity out of me is going to be like shooting fish in a barrel. But dont fool yourself. Having been one, I just loathe publicity men. So dont come at me with any hot leads. Ill just run off. Everybody knows now that nothing fouls the nest of communications like payola. You can rest assured that when I write about a good wine or a good dinner it has not been a token of esteem or a little courtesy. Of course, I wont be above a little plug for my friends but they will be sincere plugs.
I got a lead for a plug for some friends this week and thought I might open with that. Alas, it was in the world of jazz and as so often in that world, things didnt work out, in fact, they got hung up. I went down to the sound studios to play sidewalk superintendent to a record Fantasy was making of Dave Brubeck playing a whole suite of Bill Smiths music, with Bill playing clarinet instead of Desmond on sax. And what happened? Everybody was hung up. The Weiss brothers were running around twiddling dials like a bobtail flush in the Avon Comedy Four. The musicians were just turning grim and speaking to each other with falsely jocular formality. If you please, Mister Brubeck . . . Everybody was tired. Theyd done all the easy ones and decided to put off the hard ones to another day. It will probably be a real crazy record. But I didnt have any story. So, for this opening piece, Ive just had to ramble off the top of my head.
San Francisco seems to have always had a peculiarly salubrious climate for personal journalism, the occasional essay, the intimate column, from Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce to Fremont Older and John D. Barry, its a great tradition. Today the papers are full of them, excellent, good, bad and indifferent. They are not now and never have been, these columnists, all of them sensationalists. Even the gossipiest ones have never been as invidiously gossipy as some elsewhere in the country. A lot of them have purveyed, between the lines, a lot of wisdom and light.
As I say, its a great tradition and Im proud to be associated with it. Anyway, Huneker, here I am!
[31 January 1960]
Spring has come to California. It began at the turn of the year, when the steelhead and salmon started up the rivers seeking the shallows to lay their eggs and die. We went walking in Devils Gulch, between the bright green hills and the dark forest and the males were surging and fighting in the riffles over the narrow thread of eggs. My little girls stole cautiously along the bank and cried out each time they saw them. Next week was Chinese New Year. The fish were still there, but worn and tattered. In a few days they were scattered, rotting along the bank. The first blue flowers of the hounds tongue were already out. Next week the first trillium were up. In Golden Gate Park the first almond blossoms were blooming, just as they bloomed for us last year outside our little villa near Aix-en-Provence, overlooking Cézannes Mont Sainte Victoire that he painted so often.
We took some foreign friends to Nam Yuen restaurant for Chinese New Years dinner and had a sumptuous meal. There was a stupendous battery of dishes, amongst others a very French dish of stuffed, boned chicken breast and wings (yung gai yick) which would have cost a pretty franc in Laperouse. We finished off with Ng Ka Pe (a liqueur made from a blend of herbs), which my friends thought a most odd drink with food. Then to Enricos for cognac or espresso, and the lively comments of that Belgian waiter named Moriarty. Then to the Cellar where a whole band of visitors was blowing up a storm behind Pony Poindexter. All the town was out. It looked like the Boulevard Montparnasse on a warm June night all over North Beach.
We sat and compared the scene with other places, other cafés, other times Piazza San Marco, the Closerie des Lilas under the trees by the great fountain in Paris where the poets used to go 50 years ago, the cafés along the wonderful boulevard in the Cour Mirabeau where the shade of the ancient plane trees is so thick it seems as if the world had sunk deep in an underwater seaweed jungle.
We agreed that these California crowds, out in the first warm nights of this early spring, were different. Obviously, they had more money. But they had something else, something that Europe once had far more than America, and now, it seems each year, has less and less. Good manners and a kind of radiant good will, the happy courtesy that is the sign of a full, confident, civilized life. Americans are supposed to be driven, frustrated, competitive, predatory, sex ridden. These people certainly didnt look it. They looked like they were having an easy time relaxing. Our marriages fail, our juveniles are delinquent. Nobody seemed to be noticing. Strontium 90, the Berlin Corridor, failure to plant the Stars and Stripes on the moon, everybody should have been harried and worried, but they werent. They were far from being the idle rich, either. Most of them were young white collar workers, but plenty were blue collar workers, out for the evening, in Ivy League suits, and all their wives looked, as my friend said, like fashion models.
There was another difference, though. In comparison with a European crowd, they had, with few exceptions, a strangely virginal, unspoiled look. To a European writer who had spent years under bombs and months in concentration camps, they looked childishly innocent. A few looked hard, but far fewer looked wise with that special expression of wisdom that comes only with experience of long drawn out social tragedy and final disillusion. It was just a little frightening to think that in the hands of these people between our two oceans lay the destiny of at least half the world. They didnt seem to know it, and it seemed they cared less. Furthermore, all unprejudiced observers agree that the crowds out for a holiday in Moscow are marked by a very similar innocence.
In spite of all the efforts of 40 years of propaganda, ordinary Russians seem to have difficulty keeping their own pictures as men of destiny in focus. Instead, the two peoples in whose hands does lie the destiny of mankind right now, act like good children trying out a reward called History just like it was a piece of pink candy. All except a few opinionated intellectuals, anyway.
Then we went to the Chinese theater. Whirling pheasant plumes, clashing banners, oversensitive heroes, weeping maidens, righteous magistrates, all-wise grandmothers who can always straighten everything out for at least 800 years, night after night in millions of theaters before billions of people, the Chinese drama has built and reinforced and ensured for perpetuity the dominant image the Chinese people have of themselves. This is all the common people knew of history or philosophy or literature but they knew it thoroughly. All our media from the funny papers to highbrow chamber music can hardly compare for impact. Communist China has absorbed this drama as it has everything else, but after a few false starts, they discovered that they could tamper with it very little too much alteration, and immediately they passed a point of diminishing returns. The public demanded an image of what it knew itself was like. By and large its an admirable image brave, magnanimous, sympathetic, temperate, and if need be, wily. Whatever happens to the Chinese people, even if werent for their immense numbers they would probably never come to disaster, simply because of the clear, confident, and yet very wise picture they have of themselves.
Back to the sidewalk café at midnight and it was easy to understand the difference between these crowds and those youd see on a similar night from the terrasse of the Coupole or the Deux Magots. The Image of Modern Man like the Chinese, those French crowds, too, have an image of themselves. It is a badly battered image, a lot of them dont like it, in fact they hate it, and one of its principal social functions is precisely that so many do reject it alienation they call it. But it is there to reject. One way or another it has to be coped with.
[21 February 1960]
By now I guess everybody who planned to see Ionescos Jack and The Chairs that the Actors Workshop has been giving at the Encore has done so. The plays were held over by popular demand for several weekends. This last sentence is usually used for super spectacles, light comedies and an occasional mystery. That in San Francisco it should be applied to plays by Ionesco, Beckett, Adamov, Genet, Arrabal, the whole new school of theater, never ceases to astonish wandering highbrows from Manhattan and points transatlantic. Not only that but Sam Becketts Endgame is coming next, returned by popular demand. As far as local popular demand is concerned, the boys could still be playing Waiting for Godot to full houses. It was threatening to become San Franciscos unofficial City Anthem when the actors finally took it off because they were tired of playing it. What sort of new and strange popular demand is this?
Dont let anybody fool you, these playwrights may be the sensation of Paris and London, but they dont draw any such audiences there. They hardly draw audiences at all in Great Britain, where their plays are put on before tiny clubs. In Paris, up until very recently, they played in tumble-down converted nickelodeons, with really amateur casts, straight out of the American Little Theater movement of the twenties, to indifferent audiences, largely of foreigners, for very short runs. In New York, they flopped, hard. There must be something to this notorious San Francisco sophistication. Maybe we are creating the basic patterns of mid-twentieth century culture here. Everybody says so — the networks, the news services, the picture magazines, BBC, the European weeklies. The news has even penetrated Hollywood; alas, as yet only on the Grade B (or is it C, or possibly even X?) level.
I think the real difference is that the rest of the world has come to these new plays with overly self-conscious attitudes. They are not all that intellectual. The Theater of Anguish, Theater Cruel, Anti-Theater balderdash. The first thing that comes to mind after the curtain comes down in Jack is, what a vehicle for Buster Keaton and Zazu Pitts in their salad days! And then, fine as the Actors Workshop people are, you realize how much Buster Keaton and Zazu Pitts would have improved the play, tightened it up, given insistent pace and, not least, meaningful contemporary reference.
Possibly in Bordeaux they still need to satirize the folkways of the French lower middle classes of the middle of the last century. But there are far greater evils and follies abroad in modern Paris, and San Francisco, too, for that matter, and a satirical art which beats only dead dogs is, perhaps, not Anti-Theater, but it is certainly anti-satire. It leaves the audience with comfortable feelings of amused superiority. Likewise The Chairs. This is potentially a fulminating cap of an idea: Properly hitched up, it could set off a charge of TNT. But again, good as our actors, Symonds, Linenthal and Israel are, and they are splendid, think of Laurel and Hardy and Ben Turpin. The upper classes may just be discovering this theatrical medium, but it has been there under their noses all the time, in the tent shows at village fairs and in the low dives of the slums of Paris or Berlin. When we saw Waiting for Godot in San Francisco we immediately recognized it for what it was, a deepened and enriched burlesque routine, a wonderful chance for four broken-down, wino, gravel-voiced, unemployed, burleycue clowns to put across what they really thought about it all.
Beckett is a great dramatist. He touches all the hidden nerves that lie at the sources of life and at the same time he is a perfect conjuror of all the enthusiastic monkeyshines that are the pure essence of show business. Ionesco, no. His plays are clockwork mechanisms of dramaturgy. They race and rattle along, ominous ticks are heard in the air, bells ring, the cuckoo bird pops out and says, “Angel Food” in deaf and dumb hand language — but the characters are completely devoid of interiors. The objects of Ionesco’s satires are not relevant. Everybody can have a relaxed time disapproving of the feudal imbecilities and servilities of a bygone concierge of a ruined castle in Graustark or of the stultifying lives of the petty bourgeois families of the French provinces, three generations ago. This is entertainment, not drama, and if its exoticism didn’t throw us, we’d recognize it as pretty commercialized entertainment. Think on the other hand of the impact if the Old Man and Old Woman of The Chairs were called Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima and the scene was the closed mansion of a “progressive” millionairess, off seeking strange gods in Haiti for the winter season. Think of the things wrong with the contemporary American family or the contemporary French one (the same things, by the way, and dont let any Francophiles tell you any different) that might have given substance to the story of Jack.
No. This is not humour noir black humor of bitterness and revolt — it is just plain theatrical merchandise light comedy with a few gimmicks borrowed from the surrealists and existentialists. Its much vaunted mystification is no more mysterious than the inexplicable goings on that used to go on in the Marx Brothers or Olson and Johnson its just a little more clumsy, and so seems highbrow to misguided Americans.
Right now in Paris there is an Ionesco on, all about how everybody in a village gets a new disease, rhinocerositosis, and turns into rhinoceroses, except one indomitable soul who says, No! Never! Not me! I am human and human I shall remain. The parable is obvious. Too obvious. Too convenient. The Communists can say, He means Fascism. The Fascists can say, He means Communism. The chauvinists may say, He means Americanism. Theres something in it for everybody. And who is it who accuses our mass media of never treading on anybodys toes? After all, everybodys human, nobodys a rhinoceros, yet.
Still, this whole new departure in drama is refreshing. It does mean new style, new formulas, new kinds of plot, and the return of the theater to its popular base in ancient, enduring folk forms, the circus clown, the burlesque comic, the nightclub turn. Nobody anywhere does it any better than the Actors Workshop. Furthermore, they say they want plays by local writers, they want to build up our own kind of new departure in the theater. (They, to hark back to last weeks column, do have sets by Bob La Vigne, and even a show of Bruce Conner out in the hall!) Coming up soon is a new play by James Schevill. I wish others hereabouts who think they can write would come up with some plays. Whose medium is this anyway? I say, after watching the rather aimless and trivial dilemmas of Jack, “Buster Keaton belongs to us!
[6 March 1960]
Shakespeare in town. King Lear at the Golden Hind, Hamlet at State College, and then on tour of schools in the Bay Area throughout April. Too many people put down performances like these as amateur, and so miss the opportunity to see something of Shakespeares every year, year in and year out. Not only that, but I, for one, greatly prefer simple, moderately amateur or student productions of Shakespeare to most of the more sumptuous efforts of the commercial stage and its great names.
In the first place, they are more like Shakespeare. They are usually more or less like the stage of Shakespeares day, with few or no changes of setting, and therefore rapid pace, with simple costumes that convey clear ideas of the characters, and with a forthright, no-nonsense sort of acting. Shakespeare on Broadway or in the movies is usually a vehicle for a star and this almost always throws the play out of balance. Big names have power. Stars and directors can force their special interpretations on Shakespeare, and they tend to do this very self-consciously. If you have seen an awful lot of Shakespeare I guess this is all right, but I certainly would not wish to have made my first acquaintance with him via the last movie versions of Hamlet or Macbeth. Student actors who try such eccentricity just flunk the course and are never cast.
Shakespeare may be very deep and complicated and psychological, but it is my opinion that he is too deep and complicated and psychological to be trusted to the interpretation of any but the very greatest actor or director. His profundity, insight into human motives and character, his sense of the unending interrelatedness of men and their actions, all these things should be allowed to come across the footlights on the simplest terms. Behind the rich Elizabethan language his own art of drama is a pure and lucid medium, so transparent that we become aware of its tremendous depths only as we ourselves acquire depth, insight, experience, wisdom, if you will, to bring to it. We judge our own lives, our own selves, in plays like these and those of the Greeks.
Doubtless the great tragic heroes of Shakespeare mean very much to a famous international star, but his rather gaudy and tempestuous life, as he brings it and projects it through Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear, is not my life or yours, and so, all too often, we get less, not more from the play. Speak the lines clearly and simply, the poetry will come through, it doesnt need to be interpreted. The most vulgar cannot miss the slapstick, the blood and thunder, the broad jokes, the pathos. The wise will find wisdom past philosophy. The job of the actors, the director, the designer, should be just to let Shakespeare do the work. So I go to all the Shakespeare I can find and I always take my children. I hope I gain each time in insight, and they, for sure, are never bored, although they are only 5 and 10 years old.
Some day I would like to write about King Lear. It is a special play, unlike any other, a sort of savage, terrible comedy. The spirit which moves all through it is a comic, not a tragic spirit. And the structure is that of a conventional comedy. It is as though Shakespeare had decided that comedy, if pushed far enough, could find a sorrow, and a pity and terror, beyond tragedy. This is a big and different subject. First things first today there are some things I want to say about Hamlet.
All great actors want to play Hamlet, even Charlie Chaplin. Of all Shakespeare it is the play most easily corrupted by special interpretations, and it is the one which benefits most from modest, straightforward presentations. It is enormously popular, everybody in the world likes Hamlet except Mr. T.S. Eliot. People like it for reasons you might never suspect if you sat down and spent a couple of years reading a small part of the vast mass of Hamlet criticism. It is a simply plotted, fast-paced action play. It has everything in it that you can find in the paperbacks in the rack at the drugstore a ghost, a mystery, adultery in High Society, social satire, suicide, a family scandal, a rebellious son, a shipwreck, and buckets of bloodshed The Floating Virgin, or the Case of the Poisoned Cup.
It is one of Shakespeares most profound plays, but its profundity is so simply presented that a large portion of the worlds critics, literary and academic souls knowing little of life, have missed it completely. Hamlet has become the very name for a mind divided against itself, for the man who cannot act, for the sick will. Time and again the play has been treated, not as a work of art, but as a psychiatric case book. Oedipus Complex, death wish, impotence, incest, mother fixation, and not least, plain ordinary schizophrenia, the psychological critics have found them all. You would think, if you never read the play but just some of the critics, that nothing goes on in it more decisive than nail biting.
I think the facts of the story reveal quite the opposite situation. Hamlet is proud, sensitive, impetuous the typical Renaissance prince. His virtues and faults are the standard aristocratic ones. Contrasted to him are three essentially comic middle class characters, the family of Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia. Polonius is a pompous, dimwitted bureaucrat who has forgotten nothing and learned nothing in a long life. Laertes is an overgrown innocent, half way between a Joe College type and an Organization Man. Ophelia is far from a heroine, so weak willed and weak witted that she permits her father and brother to forbid her to see Hamlet for no better reason than inverted snobbery. It is she who is destroyed by her inability to make up her mind and act with courage and conviction.
Once Hamlet becomes convinced of his stepfathers guilt he moves steadily and carefully towards his destruction. The only interruptions are those necessary to create suspense and make a play. It is his impetuosity, his rashness, not his procrastination and will-lessness, which is his tragic flaw. In a moment of rage and folly, he kills Polonius. This action is the key which unlocks all the rest of the play. Once it is done there is no turning back. From it flow, inexorably, all the terrible consequences. And the point is that Poloniuss murder is not just a pathetic accident. Polonius is carefully drawn as just another of the vast mass of nonentities that take up space on the earth as a man so trivial that he is beneath the wrath of a hero, so far beneath, in fact, that to permit oneself to become angry at him, let alone to destroy him, destroys all heroic value. The hero is autonomous, he moves himself and others. But the man who permits himself to become trapped by involvement with fools loses all ability to act for himself and is swept away in a torrent of events as senseless as a shower of falling stones.
Such, I think, is the Hamlet which emerges from the modest and direct, amateur if you will, presentation. In the long run I think this simple wisdom is more profound than all the passing fancies of amateur or professional psychiatrists who have so confused the play.
[27 March 1960]
NOTE: Two other Shakespeare plays, Macbeth and The Tempest, are discussed in Rexroths Classics Revisited.
For a week now I have been traveling through the South, talking to all manner of people. I have had one serious problem. I have not been able to find a single example of an intelligent, articulate person who refuses, at least in private conversation, to accept the fact of fairly immediate abolition of Jim Crow and the establishment of a workable structure of legal, but of course purely legal, racial equality.
With very few exceptions, people have prepared themselves to go into this with all the good will they can muster. Of course, there is a centuries old accumulation of bitterness on one side and a certain fear of the first few months or years of adjustment on the other. Nobody expects social equality for a long time. Most intelligent white Southerners know that after years of educational and economic equality, social equality is bound to come. Negroes, of course, are not, at this stage of the game, concerned with social equality at all. What they want is simply full American citizenship.
Both sides know that at first this will make little observable difference. It will make enormous difference in the heart, which is the same color on both sides. The white South will lose its guilty conscience. The black South will gain new pride and hope. Maybe all this is better, in spite of manifest difficulties ahead which everybody recognizes, than the smug self-satisfaction of an enlightened Northern city like San Francisco, where we still have a long way to go to reach even ordinary equality of opportunity, let alone free social equality. At least here a large number of people know they are face to face with the fundamental social moral problem of our time and only hope and pray they can measure up to it.
I have talked to Negro mechanics, warehousemen, janitors, to the gambling boss of Negro New Orleans, to white college professors from old Southern families, to college students, to carpenters. Every newspaper man or woman who has interviewed me on this lecture trip, Ive interviewed right back. I was at the first Louisiana sit-in with a girl from the local paper who had interviewed me that morning. She was typical, full of dying prejudices, misinformation and superstitious fears. But she knew it. She was trying to change. Well, the sit-in did a good job of changing her. It was terrific. A group of gentle, well-bred, sweet-faced kids from Southern University filed in, hand in hand, fellows and girls in couples, and sat down quietly. Their faces were transfused with quiet, innocent dedication. They looked like the choir coming into a fine Negro church. They werent served. They sat quietly talking together. Nobody, spectators or participants, raised his voice. In fact, the bystanders did not even stare rudely. When the police came, the youngsters spoke softly and politely, and once again, fellows and girls hand in hand, they filed out, singing a hymn, and got in the paddy wagon.
The newspaper girl was shaken to her shoes. Possibly it was the first time in her life that she had come face to face with one of the great moral issues of being a human being. She came to the faculty party for me at Louisiana State that night. Her flesh was still shaking and she couldnt stop talking. She had come up against one of the big things in life and she was going to be always a little different afterwards. After all, how many of us do face life in these terms and how often? Mostly, life just goes on. Lucky for us we are not often called upon to be all out moral human beings. There was nothing wrong with this girls response and she had not been prepared by past training to make it.
We forget that Gandhi did more than free India. He gave the British Commonwealth an awakened conscience. Not everywhere, not, alas, in South Africa, and not all at once and to everybody, but in the long run, the decisive people were affected. Today it is an inspiriting thing to read in an editorial in a small town Carolina newspaper, the last line of a sane and sad evaluation of the situation in South Africa at the moment, a quotation from Alan Paton: Let us not, in our pride, think there is any consolation for us in South Africa. Captivity has been taken captive, and by little handsful of modest, friendly school children.
I talked with a young man from an old aristocratic family, with a county named after them in Georgia, who teaches at a state university. He said the old chestnuts about the mammy who raised him and the faithful retainers whom everybody loved and the drunken gardener who his uncle, a judge, had to get out of jail every second weekend. All the old stuff that they say in filibusters. But he said it with a new meaning, a sense of a new kind of responsibility facing him and his family in a new pattern of social relationships. And he meant every word of it.
In the world of 1960, and all over the world, if we dont learn to live together as full human beings pretty quickly, we are going to have to get ready to die together pretty quickly. Not so long ago I despaired of the future, I thought we were incapable of learning. In the last few years it has seemed to me a new feeling of mutual humanity, a new wisdom, is slowly seeping into the stubborn heads of quite ordinary people everywhere. It is a fine thing to watch the tears streaming down the face of a piney woods housewife out on a shopping tour and brought suddenly face to face with dignity, courage and total lack of hatred.
We have heard plenty about the violence and antagonism in American life. From others we have heard about America as a Glorious Republic. Maybe now we are witnessing something new the emergence of America and the first emergence right in our most troubled part of the country of America as, in the words of that famous painting by a naïve Quaker painter so long ago, America, a Peaceful Kingdom.
[10 April 1960]
NOTE: A more in-depth account of the civil rights movement can be found in Rexroths Beginnings of a New Revolt.
The last few weeks have been exceptionally troubled ones in the history of the world. The papers have been full of earthquakes, riots, bitter quarreling between the two nations who hold in their hands (in the hands of a few fallible and none too saintly men) the destiny, in fact the survival, of the human race.
Still, unless somebody pushes the wrong button, it will all pass away soon and men will ask what all the fuss was about. Only the earthquakes will have made a small difference in the earths surface.
Horace said it long ago, and after him Shakespeare, and then Théophile Gautier. Homer has outlasted Troy more than 3000 years, and a poem to a girl all the Caesars, and a book of sonnets and plays the rise and decline of the mightiest of all empires.
Three poets have been in the news in this time of moving and shaking. Boris Pasternak died, officially dishonored in his own land that he so stubbornly refused to leave. Certainly the day will come when one of the few things remembered about Khrushchev is that he embarrassed the old age and hastened the death of a great poet.
Future ages will probably see little difference between our commercial mass culture and the Russians except over there you have to like it, you cant get away from it, and it is pretty much all there is. Imagine what life would be like if they looked you up for insisting that you didnt like Wouk or Welk. What makes vulgar literature vulgar is the lack of all true comedy or tragedy.
The Russians, or rather their leaders, are still convinced they can afford little of either. Pasternak was certainly their greatest writer, and his work reminded me of that other great disillusioned revolutionary, Turgeniev, full of the wry pathos and comedy and melancholy of Russian life somber nights, the flowing of vast rivers, plans that come to nothing, obscure lives that might just as well never have been. This is hardly wholesome literature for a nation constantly striving to overtake and surpass itself and everybody else. Its bad for business.
Jules Supervielle was one of the most inconspicuous of all modern poets. He never wrote anything startling, he never did anything startling. He never signed any manifestoes. He was never part of any movement. His poetry was quiet, whimsical and uncomplicated. When he died last month the French realized, with a start, they had lost one of their greatest writers.
Like some of the other greatest poets in history, he wrote modestly about the great platitudes. In a period of rampant experimentation, he introduced a few valuable innovations in poetic technique, but so quietly you had to be a poet to notice them.
Supervielle wrote mostly about himself, nature, animals, lovers. He had no unusual ideas about any of these subjects. In many ways he was very much like Pasternak, if Pasternak had flourished in a less troubled country, or like our own Robert Frost. Wry pathos, sad comedy, melancholy all life has it, not just Russian, but in France it was easier for Supervielle to laugh. He and his work both seemed so simple and unpretentious. But looking back, now that he is dead, all the critics realized that here, for once, they could apply to a writer a word magnanimous which isnt merited by many writers nowadays. A great heart, a noble purpose, a quiet voice, how many modern poets have them?
In the midst of international turmoil and domestic politicking, the United States Congress authorized the preparation of a special gold medal, and instructed the President to give it to Robert Frost. No reason just admiration and good feeling. Here again the future may well call this a lucid interval in a time of lunacy.
They say that President Eisenhower has been far from happy lately. He wanted to go down in history as a man of peace. He hoped that his last year in office might mark the beginning of a great new epoch in history, the beginning of the time in which men turned, at first little by little, away from war, and never turned back. Had this happened, surely he would be remembered with gratitude for many hundreds of years by men everywhere in all the world. It didnt happen. Lets hope he can console himself for a moment with this one small act of peace and honor.
Robert Frost doesnt need the honor. His poetry will probably be here after both Congress and the Politburo are gone. But the President, acting for the American people, shares in the immortality of Frosts poetry and of all great art, and acknowledges that, when all is said and done. it is a greater thing than the reputations of statesmen.
Since certainly no other paper in America, and few in France, will have quoted anything by Supervielle, and since you, patient reader, will probably never hear of him again, I think it would be nice to leave you with his farewell poem, written some years ago when he learned that he had a fatal disease. The translation is my own.
HOMAGE TO LIFE
It is beautiful to have chosen a living home
And stayed there awhile, and to have let the hands
Light on the world, as on an apple
In a little garden, to have loved the earth,
The moon and the sun, as old friends
Who have no equals, and to have committed
The world to memory as a bright horseman
Gives himself to his black steed, to have given a face
To words like woman, children, and to have been a shore
To the wandering continents, and to have come upon the soul
With quiet strokes of the oars, for it is scared away
By too brusque an approach. It is beautiful to have known
The shade under the leaves, and to have felt age
Creep over the naked body, accompanying the pain
Of the dark blood in ourselves, and gilding its silence
With the star, Patience, and to have all these words
Moving around inside the head, and to choose the most beautiful of them
And make a little feast with them, to have felt life,
Hurried and loved, to have ended it
In this poetry.
[3 July 1960]
NOTE: Rexroth later published a somewhat different translation of this poem.
This coming week the Kabuki Theater from Japan will be here, and in our family, for one, we are all going. Our two little girls are devoted to Oriental theater and we go to all the shows in Chinatown and to Japanese and Chinese movies, at least to those that reproduce the conventions of the old time theater. I can imagine nothing more entertaining for children, including the circus.
When my oldest daughter was 4 she loved to get dressed up in kimono and swords and give a performance of Benkei on the Bridge, a Noh play which she had seen just once in a movie. I see they are giving some episodes from The Forty-Seven Ronin on the second bill. This should hold spellbound even those little boys who care for nothing but horse operas on television.
Really great Japanese troupes seldom leave the country. About 30 years ago the Kengeki Theater played here for several weeks mostly to a Japanese audience, in what is now the Marines Memorial Theater. There was a Kabuki company at the Worlds Fair. A few years ago a popularized and feminized version of the Kabuki toured the world and came to San Francisco, where it played to enthusiastic, crowded houses.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the company and the girl star were violently attacked for misrepresenting themselves. True, they were not authentic Kabuki, but I thought they were fine and so did the rest of the family. We went every night. This coming week will be the real thing, the most beautiful and the most profoundly moving theatrical form left in the world.
Is its fine for the children good theatrical criticism? It certainly is. The greatest plays in history deal with permanent and characteristic human types involved in relatively uncomplicated situations, the simple predicaments all men everywhere might get into. True, the heroes and heroines and villains may have quite complicated responses to those simple situations, but these complications must be, as they are in life, deeply imbedded in clear and definite actions.
Psychological and moral depth must be there, but there only to be discovered by those in the audience who themselves have such depth. These qualities cannot be written on the surface or they destroy the integrity of the action. The surface meanings of the action must be such that anybody but a fool could understand them immediately. It seems to me that this defines a drama which can be understood at its simplest level even by children.
I have always taken my girls to every performance of Shakespeare, no matter how amateurish, that turned up in San Francisco. They never seemed to have the slightest trouble understanding what was going on. True, the understanding was in their own terms but they kept track of the actions and enjoyed the jokes and thrilled to the tears and deaths. Behind the surface they saw lay mysterious tangles of the human mind that critics and psychoanalysts will argue over for centuries. I suppose that it is in this way that the greatest drama can be said to teach life. From our first experience we are tempted to take the pill by the sugar coating, but in drama, without the sugar coating there is no pill.
This does not mean that great drama is not true to life that is the way life is. They may not deal with the most wholesome subjects, or with situations that we think of as common in our society, but who would deny that a child, or the simplest adult mind, could understand the great Greek tragedies of the family troubles of Orestes and Oedipus?
On the other hand, simplicity in itself is nothing. It must be like the lead at the tip of a pencil the sharp point of action behind which lies a whole instrument or vehicle, made up of troubled and struggling human minds. At hand we have two perfect examples, both, it so happens, dealing with the Orient. The World of Suzie Wong is not a vulgar and trivial play because it makes prostitution attractive. It is immoral because it falsifies life and reduces human motives not to a simple, but to a silly pattern.
Its star is one of the most beautiful and talented young actresses I have ever seen in my life. Is it good entertainment? I think not. If you are easily moved, its fun to watch, but afterwards you feel tricked. You do not feel tricked by A Winters Tale or The Merry Wives of Windsor, both of which, incidentally, were written for no other reason than to make money.
So with the Japanese Kabuki and Noh plays. You may feel a little like a non-Catholic who has strayed for the first time into a Solemn High Mass on Whitsunday at a cathedral. Everything is in an incomprehensible language. Every motion is accompanied by mysterious music and outlandish chanting. The actors are busy doing things for no apparent purpose, yet they behave as though each act had the most tremendous import. Everyone is robed in the most splendid garments of red and gold. People treat each other with the most elaborate courtesy.
You say, This is all a meaningless ritual. Then suddenly, for no reason you can tell, it all slips into place and you are caught up in the dramatic illusion, carried away by the spell. Gradually you realize, by means of the very ritual itself, that the performance is dealing with the most important issues of life, stated in the noblest terms.
The vulgar theater pretends to be realistic. Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Kabuki, each is a more fantastic illusion than the other. Kabuki is far more formal than classical ballet, and like nothing that ever was really on heaven or earth. Yet when you come away you dont feel tricked. Instead, you feel that, for a little while you have lived on another planet, where the ordinary life we live is restated in noble terms, with a beautiful clarity and ritual elegance.
[10 July 1960]
Thanks to the people who wrote or phoned about the Supervielle poem. No, there is no collection of his poetry in English. Yes, I have translated other poems by him, but I have never thought of publishing them. Any of the many local poetry publishers care to make an offer?
The good thing about this response is that it demonstrates once again 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 dont happen to petty people, and if they do, they cant understand them, much less assimilate them and glorify them for others.
As for any hint of social responsibility for many years the poetry prizes and fellowships and teaching jobs have been controlled by a little clique of imitation Southern Colonels of literature, disciples of Thomas Nelson Page and T.S. Eliot, the classicist, Anglo-Catholic and Royalist from St. Louis. Who, pray tell, outside a Confederate Veterans Home, has been interested in such stuff as that?
On the other hand, poets as widely different as Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sell better, much better, than most novels. It has nothing to do with modernist or conventional verse. It has less to do with social attitudes. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, absurd reactionaries though they are, sell well, because they convey the immediate conviction of meaningful life. This is perhaps the primary function of the poet, to give life convincing meaning. I am come that you might have life, that you might have it more abundantly. People who fulfill that promise may be crucified, they are rarely ignored. [...]
[17 July 1960]
First part of Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.