Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco



The Mafia Invasion of North Beach
Proposals for Chinatown
Bob Dylan
Cowboy Diplomacy
The Strategy of Peace
Wine — French versus Californian
After the Watts Riot
The Quiet Center
Poetry on Record
Voices Outside the Inn


The Mafia Invasion of North Beach

We started the New Year off not with a bang or a whimper but with a sigh of replete satisfaction. We had New Year’s Day dinner in La Strada where we hadn’t eaten for the better part of a year.

It is unchanged, still a wonderful restaurant with Italian high cuisine of a type rarely found in America — or Italy either for that matter, and with one of San Francisco’s most hospitable hosts, Nino Brambilla.

We hadn’t strolled on Broadway or sat on the terrasse at Enrico’s in a long time, either. It was a shocking experience. Is this what we want San Francisco to become? In all the mobs of teetering, drunken squares the sight of a good old-time beatnik was a relief. Alas, on closer inspection, most of them were obviously just plain hooligans or stilyagi.

Is it true that the Mafia are taking over San Francisco’s entertainment districts? Certainly any experienced night life observer, after a walk down our two nightclub rows, would say, “This is an Organization town.”

It is precisely in North Beach that the oldest and best of San Francisco’s traditions linger on. How strange the survivals look in the context that has suddenly sprung up around them. In the midst of the turmoil and fakery, the carnival of strip and clip, it is as incongruous to find a restaurant like La Strada as it would be to find a great restaurant from Verona flown through the air to alight in the midst of Calumet City or New Orleans’s French Quarter.

Enrico’s, La Strada, The Committee, The Jazz Workshop, Cho Cho, all these places are relatively new, but they are a genuine fulfillment of the best traditions of North Beach, which was until recently still one of the world’s greatest Latin Quarters or Bohemias.

But what are some of these other joints? They are the same kind of places, run by the same kind of people who long since destroyed Greenwich Village or the Near North Side in Chicago or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Can San Francisco afford to tolerate the growth of a night life slum?

Fisherman’s Wharf passed a point of diminishing returns and now is trying valiantly to reform itself. Nothing depreciates faster than the fast buck. The old North Beach, still hanging on for dear life, was our finest natural community, with the richest neighborhood life.

This is what made it a tourist attraction. It attracted tourists who fell in love with it and decided to stay and who, because they were the kind of people that loved this kind of life, made enduring contributions to San Francisco.

Unless this old North Beach can reform itself and reclaim the neighborhood, the whole district will go slowly down hill. The joints will eventually close; fast bucks are snow money and melt away. Like the Near North Side, there will be nothing left to do with the wasteland that was once our Little Vegas but to Urban Renew it out of existence.

[13 January 1965]


Proposals for Chinatown

Let’s hope The City’s decision to let Justin Herman’s urban redevelopment solve the problem of what to do with the old Hall of Justice sticks. As I said last week, I don’t agree with all his ideas, but at least he has clear, rational ideas and our civic buck-passing agencies are scared to death of them.

Portsmouth Square and Chinatown generally are extremely serious problems that everybody pretends aren’t there at all. If the block on the east side of the Square can be redeveloped into something, anything, that will be an asset to the community. Such redevelopment will ginger an all-out improvement for Chinatown.

God knows it needs it. There is only one kind of community in America which compares in vital statistics with San Francisco’s Chinatown and that is a rundown Indian reservation, Rates for TB, infant and mothers’ mortality, wages, cubic feet of habitation-per-person — in everything but social disorder and delinquency, Chinatown is one of the worst spots in the country. Yet we insist all this is quaint, it’s our greatest tourist attraction. It’s Old San Francisco. It’s Our Priceless Heritage.

Bunk. For example, there is nothing Chinese about the architecture of Chinatown except some curlicues applied to the roofs of tenements. Imagine Portsmouth Square lined with genuine Chinese architecture, both traditional and modern. Imagine Grant Avenue lined with beautiful arcaded buildings, the pavement gone and replaced by narrow gardens landscaped in the traditional Chinese fashion. Imagine the packed tenements gone, and above the arcades decent apartments whose minimum standards were at least those of the present Ping Yuen projects.

Then we’d really have a priceless tourist asset. As it is the street is actually deteriorating, except for a few banks and other large institutions that have come up with some very handsome designs in the last few years. But notice, with few exceptions, these are simply façade jobs and interior decoration. For three or four stories above, things remain basically unchanged.

Of course it is true that the hundreds of little shops make plenty of tourist money. But this has nothing to do with the improvement of the Chinese community itself. Furthermore, if traffic were removed from Grant Avenue, in a few months they’d discover they were making more money, not less; the present congestion is bad, not good, for business. You don’t buy incense burners or pottery from a car window.

And certainly a block-by-block rebuilding of the whole street would increase enormously its tourist appeal.

There is only one way to enlist the support of the Chinese community, which is notoriously apathetic, and that is by demonstration. Maybe we can start with the Kearny Street side of Portsmouth Square.

[17 February 1965]


Bob Dylan

In the newspaper business it isn’t considered cricket to even notice the competition. This time I just can’t resist the temptation. Last Sunday an opposition column [probably Ralph Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle] led off with the statement: “the winds of change, which have blown so strongly in recent years that they have sharply defined the gap between the generations, have produced in Bob Dylan the most eloquent spokesman for human justice since Thomas Paine.”

This is certainly about as rash a statement as anybody could make, but, although I don’t agree with it, I’m not interested in disputing it. What is important is that it could be made, by a mature man with a sharp ear and a sharper taste in popular entertainers, jazz, folksongs and related subjects.

I suggest you borrow your kids’ Bob Dylan records and play them over for yourself, listening carefully. This treatment will doubtless give many a conventional parent running and barking fits. Let’s hope it gives the intelligent ones furiously to think. As it says on sundials, It Is Later Than You Think. The schism of the soul, as Arnold Toynbee called it, between the generations in the USA is deeper and wider than you think.

Bob Dylan’s songs are a cry of anguished moral outrage against the mess the oldies persist in making out of a world in which all men could be guaranteed lives of peace and modest comfort if only the will existed. The social protest, pseudo-folk singers of the last generation were ultimately derived from Café Society Downtown, and they were only too obviously politically motivated. For this reason alone few people listened to them for long, least of all the young, who have sharper ears than any critic for the cooked up voice of protest.

But nobody is manipulating Bob Dylan. This is a voice from the grass roots and the heartstrings of an ever increasingly alienated youth. Only a little while ago the limits of social protest, at least amongst white singers, was the team of Peter, Paul and Mary. Now the kids put them down as, for all their good intentions, “too show biz.”

Dylan and Joan Baez draw unlimited crowds. Joan, in fact, sings in the largest auditorium available wherever she appears, and ties up traffic. And neither she nor Dylan are buying any of it at all; their attitude towards our society is simply, flatly, that it is wrong.

This is why angry letters to the editor about how the students at Berkeley should be given a taste of strap oil and made to study their lessons, show only that the writers are unaware of the profound and constant sense of outrage felt by thousands and thousands of the most articulate and sensitive and intelligent young people today.

Even if the general public is not yet aware of the meaning of what is going on, the policy makers in Washington are, and so are those in the churches. When a society starts to split, to come apart at the seams, it is in danger of foundering.

[21 April 1965]


Cowboy Diplomacy

Now that Law West of the Pecos has become the guideline of our foreign policy and everybody in the Cabinet and the White House technocrat staff is limbering up the old six shooter, we’d ought to see some action pronto around the world. We’re off on a couple rearin, buckin little dogies, just a sun fishin and a twistin all over the lot, while the waddies [cowboys] of the old Washington corral set on the rails and whoop it up.

We used to call it gentlin, but some professor thunk up a new word, now we call it escalatin, and it’s a rippin, roarin, rootin, tootin sport.

Now that we’re up and mounted and a foot in either saddle and feelin around for more, where are we all goin to escalate to? Why to the American Way of Life, ain’t you heard?

The American Way of Life is pretty easy to find. You can locate it in the New England town meeting, at a picnic of the Lions Club of Waterloo, Iowa, at a PTA meeting in Berkeley, Calif., at a convention of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, at a grass roots conference of liberal Democrats in Fargo, North Dakota, or at any United Fund Drive in any of our towns of homes and churches — like Selma, Ala.

You know where it is, you have to know where it is, because it’s a well known fact you’re prepared to die for it — any place on earth, just as fast as old rootin tootin can fly you there.

It’s a great thing, The American Way of Life, simple man to man democracy, share and share alike, just folks and neighbors together. We’ve already brought it to Taiwan, Ankara, Madrid, Lisbon, Bangkok, Teheran, Port au Prince, Seoul, Manila — they’re great little old towns now. You couldn’t tell them from Ashtabula or Oconomowoc.

I mean, all the folks there in those places are real folks, good neighbors, and honest as the day is long. They all get together and decide things friendly like, just like the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, one man’s say is just as good as another’s. And honest, they’re honest as the day is long. You take Teheran or Port au Prince, why you could find a gold watch and leave it hanging on a post for weeks until the rightful owner came along and claimed it — just like in Old Monterey.

I mean we’ve taught those people that honesty is the best policy, it’s just plain good business. An honest day’s work for an honest dollar, rapid turnover, high wages, high living standards to create consumer demand, and low profits but lots of them — just like Ford or DuPont.

That’s the way it is now in Haiti, under our benevolent guidance, and in the Philippines. That explains why our Marines are always welcomed so enthusiastically when they land. After all, the Dominicans are right alongside of Haiti, and they know all about it.

[12 May 1965]

NOTE: The style of this piece is a parody of President Lyndon Johnson (from Texas), who, in addition to continuing to “escalate” the American forces in Vietnam, had just sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic in order to overthrow a popularly elected left-liberal government. President Bush II’s even more fervently ignorant cowboy diplomacy has made this piece less dated than it might have seemed a few years ago.


The Strategy of Peace

This is the speech I prepared for delivery at the Berkeley “teach-in” last weekend, and would
have delivered if I had been permitted to do so in the manner and at the time agreed upon:

I am here tonight solely because I believe in peace. I want to make it very clear that this is a personal appearance. I speak for no one but myself, I represent no one, I belong to no organization, political or otherwise, except the Sierra Club, with which I often disagree. This is a first person singular to second person singular talk.

I am opposed to the war in Vietnam because I am opposed to war, and to all violence in the settling of human problems.

I do not oppose the American war in Vietnam with somebody else’s war. I am as opposed to Mao’s recent nuclear explosion as I was to those of the Americans, the Russians, the British or the French.

If the American advisers in Vietnam advise torture, I am opposed to it. If the Vietcong practice terrorization or torture, I am opposed to it.

I believe that there is only one thing that can oppose war, that is the opposite of war, and that is peace. I believe that the opposite of torture is kindness, the opposite of terrorization and hate is love.

I do not believe that war can be combatted by political action, but only by personal action, and then not combatted, but overcome.

Hate cannot be defeated by hate, nor violence by violence. The wars and revolutions of this century should have taught us that. They were all fought for democracy, for socialism, for freedom, and land, bread and peace. Today men are less free, more hungry, and more torn by violent contention, all over most of the earth, than they have been in centuries.

For a while we can delude ourselves that we are witnessing the breakup of an old social order, the decay of feudalism or capitalism and the triumph of socialism or democracy or the brotherhood of man. Eventually we realize that we are witnessing the breakup of human society itself, the foundering of all civilization, with the only possible end of the course on which we are all embarked the extermination of the human race. We cannot reverse this process by taking sides in the jungles of Indo-China or Africa — but only by reversing it in fact, by turning away from war and towards peace.

You say, what can we do about it?

Peace is not going to be brought about by bandying geopolitical catbelling on a windy soapbox in Berkeley round about midnight. This is the delusion of participation. You are not participating. You are not in the Kremlin, nor the Forbidden City, nor the White House — you do not have power in this sense. To act as though you have is only to dissipate the power you do have in abundance — the power of individual, personal, moral, direct, act.

The innocent and the unscrupulous say, “Oh, but you must belong to a political organization to be effective morally in this society.” A hundred years of experience should have taught everybody that this is the certain way to lose all moral effectiveness. We have seen a succession of political organizations, all claiming the highest moral aims, realizable very soon, if everybody just joins up. They have brought nothing but impotence and depersonalization to the individual and disaster to society. Experience, alas, is the poorest of all teachers.

You have power. It is your power — yourself as a free moral agent. You can decide. You can act on your decision.

“But how can I be effective if I don’t have a membership book that says I am and an organization that gives me things to do?” You can only be effective by assuming personal responsibility. Perhaps the things you do will seem tame and simple to the people intoxicated with political melodrama. They will be things you do, on your own initiative, for peace in all human relations, for love, for kindness, for the respect of the human dignity of others.

You’ll soon find you have plenty of work, and if you keep at it, you’ll soon find that you are presented with ample opportunity to act decisively. If you, personally and persistently, wage peace — you’ll discover that the showdown is not long in coming — and it will stay there all the rest of your life.

It makes no difference which side wins, if peace does not win.

[30 May 1965]


Wine — French versus Californian

Sydney Harris’s column on California wine was certainly one of our most successful bits of journalism these last few months. That night at the Spring Opera everybody was talking about it. All sorts of people have written me letters — “Have at him!”

If he had advocated joining the Trotskyites, or come out in opposition to Mother, or preached anti-Semitism, he couldn’t have raised near the ruckus. Of course he doesn’t know what he is talking about, generally and in detail.

In the first place, almost all French wine is very bad indeed. It is not raised in the great wine country — Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire, the Rhone — but in western Provence and southern Languedoc, from the Spanish border to Marseilles and Nîmes and westward to Toulouse, and it is much worse than any California wine whatsoever.

This is the wine the ordinary French workingman drinks if he does not drink Algerian port, a more lethal, muddy syrup than anything to be found in the Bowery or on Howard Street. As for the peasant — he drinks the stuff produced by the peasant cooperatives, so heavily dosed with sulphuric acid that it is the only wine I have never been able to drink at all, not even two ounces.

Ordinary middle-class people in France drink third and fourth grade wines from the famous wine districts or first-class imitations thereof produced in Algeria.

Except for southwest France with its coarse wine, all of France lies at the geographical limits of uniformly successful grape culture.

It is precisely because Bordeaux, the Moselle, Burgundy, are not good grape country that the wines produced there have “character.” However, this means that some years they are hardly produced at all and most years they are deficient in natural sugar.

In the first case, wine or juice from the same or similar varieties of grapes is imported from Spain — in the same huge tank trucks you can see hauling juice in the San Joaquin Valley — mixed with or entirely substituted for the local product, and “bottled in Bordeaux” or wherever.

In the second case, and somewhere in France this is true practically every year, the wine is “chaptalised” — sugar is added before fermentation. These processes are supposedly regulated by strict laws, but people are constantly being tried for evading the laws. Needless to say, sugaring does not improve wine, but produces something like the stuff we drank in Chicago in Prohibition.

The first and second class wines of France — the great châteaux — do not bottle wines under their own label if the vintage is abominable.

It is usually said that California wines do not have vintage years. Napa, Sonoma, Santa Clara, San Benito counties and the Livermore Valley are optimum regions for the growth of table wine grapes and the weather hardly varies at all from year to year during the ripening season.

Our problem usually is to keep the natural sugar content of our grape juice down.

Our wines tend to be a little rich and stout and highly flavored, certainly in comparison with Rhine wines, or those of Bordeaux, the Cher and the Loire. As a matter of fact, certain vineyards have had a few extraordinary “vintages” with individual varieties of grapes.

1949 saw some of the greatest wines of all time, wines that are still improving and reach fantastic heights. Inglenook Charbono 1949 is coming to resemble the finest Château Ausone.

Roosevelt was a whiskey drinker and to him wine was something produced by those Republicans in upstate New York who never received him or any of his family socially. Since repeal our federal and state tax system has discriminated against wine — in favor of whiskey — in comparison with France or Germany.

It is expensive to keep wine very long in America. But you can always keep it yourself. Even so, all the reputable table wine producers in northern California turn out wines as good as the best French troisièmes crus — the third growths — and our best wines compare favorably with the second growths, which number many of the world’s most famous wines.

Some of our stouter reds, if kept for 20 years, are spectacular. Very few European wines can be kept that long and still be drinkable. Similarly, our whites, even the driest, will keep and improve steadily long after all but French dessert wines like Château Yquem have gone off and become unpotable.

Our best producers no longer market their wines under French or German names, but as the variety of grape. Each conscientious producer, without exception, has at least one really excellent wine on his list.

Try: Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Inglenook or Buena Vista; Zinfandel, Assumption Abbey; Charbono, Inglenook; Pinot Noir, Berlinguer Brothers or Charles Krug; Gamay (this is a light Beaujolais type), Paul Masson or Digardi; Barbera, Sebastiani or Louis Martini; Grignolino, I.V.C.; I see I’ve left off Souverain and Martin Ray, try them for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Wente Brothers; Semilion, Beaulieu, Cresta Blanca or Concannon; Chardonnay, Stony Hill or Wente; Pinto Blanc, Almaden; Chenin Blanc, Souverain; Johannisberger Riesling, Hallcrest; Gray Riesling, Mirasou; Traminer, Krug; Sylvaner, Buena Vista; Emerald Dry, Masson; Green Hungarian, Souverain.

That had ought to hold you, and you too, Mr. Harris.

[4 July 1965]


After the Watts Riot

It seems to me there have been just about enough post mortems on Watts. However, the enthusiastic response to my own two modest columns of observations has me puzzled, and I feel I should make matters clearer. I have received complimentary letters from the complete spectrum — of color and politics. If southern belles and race militants both think I’m right, I wonder if I am not either totally wrong or misleading, or just plain platitudinous. I’ll try to be coldly objective, like a scientific observer from another planet.

First, it is far later than we think. Young Negroes are simply rejecting outright the prospect before them. They want a total change, right now, while they’re around to enjoy it. They are refusing to continue in, or grow up and enter, the kind of life this society is prepared to grant them. In many, possibly the majority of instances, they are not prepared for any other, but their attitude is: “That’s your problem, Whitey. You made it the way it is, now make it over, now.”

Civil rights, educational schemes, poverty programs, political representation — it may look as if all these things were being opened up with great rapidity and maximum good will on the part of the white community. They are not. You may think it unjust and ungrateful of him, but the young American Negro feels that he is being paid back an enormous debt of 400 years’ standing in bits and dribbles. He feels that he is being fobbed off with token payments on the interest, and he wants the principal, now, in cash.

Every delay, every political run-around, every hypocritical or temporizing speech in the conflict over school desegregation or the administration of the poverty program, here, now, in San Francisco, is just another twist in the baling wire tying down the safety valve on a boiler that was ready to explode before these programs were ever started. If the delay continues, the boiler is going to bust, just like it did in Watts. I’m not taking sides — I’m stating a fact.

For years the leaders of the civil rights organizations have been telling the white society that it was all they could do to hold back violence and channel protest into socially constructive action. They have been called Communist agents for their pains. The wrath of Watts was directed against Dick Gregory, John Lomax, the Negro press and politicians, Martin Luther King, the local Negro clergy, just as much as it was against the Mayor and Chief of Police.

There are no end of problems the Negro community must solve for itself once it gets the chance, but the basic problem is a white problem and it must be solved immediately. Those who stand in the way of solutions, on boards of education or civic or federal committees, are inciting violence and endangering the lives of you and me. If hell breaks loose in Hunters Point, a CORE button, a sixty-fourth part of Negro ancestry, a Negro spouse, or “some of your best friends,” even dozens of them, aren’t going to do you a bit of good. You’re going to be “Whitey,” which is nigger spelled backwards. Of course this is an appalling situation, and there’s no justice to it whatever. There is still time to forestall it, but very little time.

[1 September 1965]

NOTE: For the situationists’ much more positive take on the Watts riot, see The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy.


The Quiet Center

Last week I was away, in a cabin deep in the woods, recollecting myself. No papers. No radio. No phone number. I go away as often as I can, which is not very often. Sometimes I write. Mostly I don’t even think. I just contemplate — the forest, the world beyond it, myself, or the object of contemplation that comes when the mind empties itself of itself. Sometimes all existence seems to slip into focus. All its violence and tragedy and disorder take on a form and meaning that the mind can grasp briefly. Then the turmoil of existence seems a matter of scarcely perceptible changes of phase, like an ever so slightly varying colored light shifting over an immense diamond.

A message got through to me. The paper was going through a change of phase, and this column along with it. Now I will be, for a while at least, on a page of writing on general cultural matters. The column won’t change much. It’s just me anyway, what I think about what interests me, whether it’s jazz, or conservation, or painting, or the Free Speech Movement, or racial equality, or civic affairs, or war and peace, or chamber music, or international politics. But The Man said he’d like it if I led off with some general observations about culture.

You may not think so, but I was making such in the first paragraph. What holds a civilization together, and makes the difference between creative growth and decay? What is the foundation that underlies and sustains all the activities of a people and energizes and forms that special unity we call culture? Peace. The peace which comes from the habit of contemplation. It is not intellectual knowledge of the unity of human endeavor, nor a philosophical notion of the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is an inward sense and an abiding quality of life, a temper of the soul. It is not rare nor hard to find. It offers itself at moments to everyone, from early childhood on, although less and less often if it is not welcomed. It can be seized and trained and cultivated until it becomes a constant habit in the background of daily life. Without it life is only turbulence, from which eventually meaning and even all intensity of feeling die out in tedium and disorder.

Culture. Back there in the city orchestras are rehearsing, painters are painting, singers are warbling scales, actors are learning parts, writers are pacing the floor or pounding the typewriter. People are struggling to achieve their ends, to make themselves known, to make money, to find love, a million million little electric charges of acquisitiveness surging through a huge dynamic field. What holds it all together? Only that inward peace in which acquisitive tensions are resolved. To the disorderly it is disordered. To the rapacious, man is wolf to man. To the futile, life is meaningless. It does not have a meaning which can be summed up in a mathematical equation, an order with a conclusion which can be demonstrated by infallible logic. There is no “proof” of existence. There is only creative response. The source of that response is the quiet habit of openness to a harmony which is beyond the individual, but which contains and fulfills him.

When this creative response and its sense of the wholeness of life is widely diffused through a society, we can speak of culture or civilization. The society is alive and growing. As it dies out, the society withers. When it is gone the society is dead, though it may last, massive and sterile and affluent, like a golden mummy, for centuries, or, on the other hand, be only a geographical expression for vast chaos and misery.

[13 September 1965]


Poetry on Record

San Francisco is considered the place where the revival of oral poetry, now immensely popular all over the world, first began. Poetry readings draw enormous audiences — if the poets have something to say those audiences wish to hear. Dylan, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg are runners up on the Beatles, and I don’t do so bad myself.

The pre-war generation of reactionary Metaphysicals, the boys in the textbooks and square type anthologies, are lucky to bring out 50 people, but the new poetry of direct speech and social responsibility has become an effective force in modern civilization — in San Francisco, Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow or Barcelona, it’s the same story, poets once again are at the growing point of society.

I’m moved to these observations by James Broughton’s new record, which he just sent me for Christmas. Thank you, James. It is thoroughly entertaining and yet deeply moving.

Broughton is a master of the whimsical tone, the unexpected insight and the hidden bite. With the harpist Joel Andrews he has worked out a method of presentation that differs from the poetry and jazz combination Patchen, Ferlinghetti and I popularized years ago, and has more in common with the use of modern poetry in the French café chantant, an old and certainly socially effective form.

It would make an ideal Christmas gift for most any literate person of any age. The Bard and the Harper, James Broughton and Joel Andrews, Gleeman Records, MEA Box 303, Sausalito, Calif.

There is a lot of this stuff around now, some of it very good indeed. Caedmon Records have been doing the leading poets, mostly of the old Establishment, for years and years. Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Ogden Nash, Edith Sitwell, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, they managed to get practically the entire generation of classic American Modernists, one of the great outbursts of creative activity in the history of literature, before they had passed away. Besides, they issue all sorts of other poetry albums, from Homer to Jean Cocteau.

Their taste is strongly conservative, but the attitude of the two young women who started the company on little but hope and a mouth’s rent, years ago, was “first things first.”

Lately they’ve been doing the complete plays and poems of Shakespeare, performed by the best actors they could obtain, and they are now almost through. I decided to splurge and bought a whole mess of them for my daughter for Christmas, seeing as how she is certainly committed to the theater.

Poetry is not something in print. It is living speech to living, participating people. I would rather recite my poetry to jazz in any night club, or on any soapbox, than have it appear in the most prestigious literary quarterly. If you can’t be there, at least you can have the voice on records and certainly Shakespeare wrote for the voice and ear and not for the book and eye.

All the major recording companies are now slowly moving into this field and some of their plays, particularly, are very good. Trouble is, the big outfits are geared to the manic commercialism of Mad Alley and they don't have the low overhead and resulting flexibility and courage of an anti-Madison Avenue operation like Caedmon. On the other hand, if you dig something more far out and contemporary, there is that, too.

If you want the postwar poets, who mostly write specifically to be read aloud, there are records of the major San Francisco poets, Patchen, Robert Duncan, Brother Antoninus, Ferlinghetti, Louis Simpson, I think McClure, myself, and an anthology of all of them. Badly needed are records of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. And there are records of Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg.

These things do not enter the ordinary channels of “exploitation” and promotion, and so are seldom reviewed anywhere, and they are sometimes trouble to find. San Francisco retailers, with few exceptions, enthusiastically discourage such orders.

I thought I’d do a full dress piece on the subject for you, since people are always wondering if it might just be possible, just for once, to find an unusual Christmas gift which was specifically suited to an individual taste. Well, if your giftee likes poetry, you’ve got everything from Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon to Allen Ginsberg to choose from, and even Allen Ginsberg likes Shakespeare — anyway I guess he does. I’ll ask him. Somebody ask Bob Dylan.

[12 December 1965]


Voices Outside the Inn

“The time draws near the birth of Christ. The moon is hid, the night is still. The Christmas bells from hill to hill answer each other in the mist.” So Tennyson.

Here strange cries arise from Marin City, Hunters Point, the Fillmore, the slums of Vallejo and the Mission District. “We’ve had enough,” they say. “Is there anybody out there? Is anybody listening? We don’t care anymore if there is or not.”

Have you ever seen Hunters Point? It lies off the lines of traffic to anywhere, its road ends with it, it’s the social jumping off place.

News that 14-year-old girls were peddling their bodies attracted droves and droves of sightseers to Fulton and Webster Streets. Get in your Mercedes and go sightsee Hunters Point. Get around and walk around. Mix with the common people. And try the core city proper, the Tenderloin and the dead area from the Civic Center to the Fillmore. Spend an evening pub crawling in the neighborhood bars. This is the land of broken hearts and lost souls. Loveless City.

Christians believe that the creative principle of the universe became incarnate as a helpless baby in a culturally deprived family quartered in the cruel midwinter in a stable.

Theologians call it “kenosis,” emptying. They say Christ emptied himself of all power, out of love for the powerless, and became poor as the poorest.

For a long time the churches have been comfortably quartered in the inn.

In the last few years, here and there around the world, and most especially in France, the clergy — the pastors — the shepherds who have inherited the power of the church have begun to sleep restlessly in the inn. Some of them have said, “What are those voices outside?” and when the landlord has said, “They are people sleeping in the stable. There is no room for them in the inn,” a very few of the pastors have said, “That’s where we belong. That’s where we started out almost 2000 years ago — and where are we now?”

All great revivals in the churches are traceable to evangelical inspiration, to an attempt to get back to the human life of Christ and his disciples.

This is the meaning of the worker priests in France, of the urban life committees and core city missions and the neighborhood coffee shops, of the concern with homosexuals and Negroes, the aged and unemployable, the alcoholics and narcotic addicts, the delinquents and dropouts.

A few, not really very many, of the clergy, and still fewer, proportionately, of the laity, have awakened to the fact that if the church is to survive, it must take upon itself the kenosis of its Founder. It must strip itself of power — of miracle, mystery and authority, as Dostoevsky put it — and become one with the vast crowds for whom there is no room in the inn.

People need love, they need friendship, they need community, these they’ve always needed. Today they don’t get so much as acquainted. There’s no place to go but to the corner bar. (It’s against the law to call it an inn in California.)

In various cities, most especially Chicago, there have grown up church-sponsored, nonsectarian coffee shops, where people can meet and engage in vital dialogue, one to the other. Usually there is nothing specially religious in evidence in these places, nobody tries to convert anybody to anything except the beginnings of community.

In some cities the core city churches, abandoned by their old parishioners, have been turned into little theaters, social centers with coffee and conversation, jazz and art exhibits.

For a while we had such activities in San Francisco, but most of them have died out, or died down. All I know of now is Intersection, the coffee house and art center on Ellis Street, Freedom House on Fillmore St., The Place, a largely teenage hangout which is doing something to really integrate the Lakeview and Ingleside districts, the Glide Foundation, which attempts to inspire and guide local initiative in this field, and some activity at Hunters Point.

San Francisco seems to be marking time. Tensions have arisen between the middle-class congregations and their ministers, or within the church establishments, or between competing clergy.

Maybe it is a lull. Maybe we are gathering strength for a new effort. Let’s hope so.

Who speaks for those outside the inn? They are beginning to speak, loud and clear, for themselves. Who listens? Anybody there?

[19 December 1965]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.