San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



December 1960

The Cost of Taking a Grant from the Ford Foundation
Robert Duncan
An Appeal for Kenneth Patchen




The Cost of Taking a Grant from the Ford Foundation

Like, I’m just a local fellow. I live in San Francisco because I think it is less provincial than other cities in the United States.

During and since the last war thousands of technical and professional people, and hundreds in all the arts, have settled here and accepted a considerable degree of under-employment just because they like the town for its cosmopolitan and permissive atmosphere and its physical beauty.

Here in San Francisco in these years have originated currents in literature and painting which have changed the cultural history of the world, however slightly. Here are the sources of Abstract Expressionism and the new poetry of personal communication which have become the characteristic style of the mid-century in Tokyo and Stockholm.

Last year the Ford Foundation gave Herbert Blau money to travel around Europe and the Civilized Eastern USA to see how his betters were doing it.

Of course, what he found is that the Actor’s Workshop is considerably more competent than its only two possible New York competitors, the Circle in the Square and the Living Theater. This he might have guessed, but, to judge by his letter in the autumn Tulane Drama Review, he was pretty shocked to discover that the activities of George Devine in London and Roger Blin in Paris have yet to attain the level of the better American Little Theaters of the twenties. The discovery embarrassed him, and he tries not to let on, but it comes through his lines of polite, broad-minded, “objective” reporting.

Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation offered the Actor’s Workshop a, considering the source, very modest sum of money which had to be matched locally. But, as is well known, the Ford Foundation never gives you money to do what you want — only what they want. And for every conceivable field of human endeavor, there’s somebody in the Foundation with a Theory.

They had a Theory about Herbert Blau and Jules Irving. They were just a pair of weed monkeys running a small-time operation on the kerosene circuit — out on the Pan, as we used to say in vaudeville.

What they needed was broadening. What they needed was the priceless benefits of having unemployed New York TV bit players in their casts. What they needed was the vital experience of great models of dramatic art, like The Connection. What they needed was the kindly advice and gentle help of Great Dramatists whom the Ford billions would hire for a year from the stable of America’s leading literary magazine, Playboy. Especially what they needed, now that CBS and NBC were giving them all up (what indeed is the purpose of the noncommercial theater but to do the things the commercial theater finds unprofitable?) was a good, hot sudsy soap opera about a controversial Issue. Last, since there are, of course, no Negro actors whatever in San Francisco, the Fords were delighted to import some.

Now I look on Herb and Jules as very good friends — but what are friends for if you can’t admonish them when, against their own better judgment, they persist in folly? I’ve had quite enough. The first dose was sufficient. Give back the money before it destroys the Actor’s Workshop.

There is simply no excuse for exhibiting The Rocks Cried Out another night. It is an insult to the intelligence and taste of the audience. It is an insult to the professional integrity of the actors, especially the Negro actors, who should have refused to act in it. I haven’t much sympathy for John McCurry, who seems under the impression, which I for one am quite willing to grant him, that he is the star, and who acts like Ralph Bunch playing the lead in Amos and Andy.

I do feel sorry for Gail Fisher, who shows a lot of talent, but who is forced to utter some of the silliest words ever projected across the footlights. If I were she, on the first rehearsal, I’d have called for the ice cubes and bloodhounds, and made my escape — for good. Like Suzie Wong, this is a part that does a young actress far more harm than good.

Please, my friends, I beseech you, write a letter, “Dear Henry the Second, we respectfully return your check. San Francisco theatergoers feel they will be better off without it.”

As far as I can make out from the program, the Ford money contributed very little to The Alchemist. What a difference! What a marvelous play! There just isn’t anything wrong with it at all. This is the Actor’s Workshop doing what comes naturally. Every second of it is enjoyable, everything about it is completely competent, from the beautifully ironic stage sets by Bob Lavigne to the acting of the most minor members of the “Neighbors.”

Of course, Ben Jonson’s text makes the job more or less shooting fish in a barrel. It is one of the greatest comedies ever written, superior to all but three or four of Shakespeare’s or Molière’s. (If you want to know the difference between the empty stereotypes and the great archetypes in literature, visit these two plays in succession.)

Sure, the Jones Junior High of Toledo couldn’t miss with The Alchemist. I can’t imagine circumstances in which it would fail to be entertaining. But it is another thing to extract every drop of wine from those grapes. When this happens, you’ve reached the summit of dramatic satisfaction. As they say, the Actor’s Workshop plays it for all it’s worth. You can’t ask for more.

I don’t want to be unjust to the people who worked so hard on The Rocks Cried Out. Although the stage set looks like a practical joke, in all other departments, again, they play it for all it’s worth. They’d jolly well better. Anything less, and the audience would start giggling in the first five minutes.

It is really remarkable how good actors can make even the worst lines momentarily convincing. Tom Rosqui at moments merges with my mental image of Truman Capote. Priscilla Pointer, if you don’t listen too carefully to the words, turns out a psychotic she-devil worthy of the best days of Bette Davis. Gail Fisher is convincing as a person — but oh, those lines. How she keeps from busting out laughing is beyond me.

I hope The Alchemist runs all winter. Be sure to go, and if you don’t mind a bit of wholesome Elizabethan bawdry, take the kids. As for that awful mess of chittlins and maws, topped off with soap suds and mint juleps, let’s send it back to Henry the Second. They can serve it in Detroit for Christmas Dinner, along with hush puppies and black-eyed peas, to a table of Enlightened Liberals.

[December 4, 1960]



Robert Duncan

The poet Ebbe Borregaard and his wife Joy have opened a gallery above the old pool hall at Post and Buchanan streets. The other night they gave a coming out party for Robert Duncan’s new book of poems, The Opening of the Field. The gallery and its location raise several very interesting questions, but first I want to talk about Duncan.

Robert Duncan was born on January 17, 1919, in Oakland. He attended the public schools and the University of California. In his late adolescence he spent a year or two in and around New York, where, with poet Sanders Russell, he founded and edited The Experimental Review, and, again with Russell, helped edit James Cooney’s magazine, Phoenix. (These two magazines were the first seeds of the flourishing contemporary school of personal, libertarian, romantic writing.) A few years ago he lived for a year in Mallorca and in France. Otherwise his life has been spent in the Bay Area.

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, although he could hardly be said to be a California writer. With that sole exception, Robert Duncan is certainly the most important poet ever born in the state. In the strict sense of the word, he is California’s leading poet.

I don’t know that “California-born poet” is a very large or significant category, but certainly no one qualified to give an opinion could dispute Duncan’s preeminence in it. But he is more important than that. Out of San Francisco, beginning here at least 20 years ago, has come, not just another “Poetry Renaissance” but a whole new literary temper, a new way of writing and looking at life. In the last five years it has become the dominant style of young writers, not just in America, but all over the world.

This idiom, this life attitude may owe its inspiration to older writers — Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen — who live hereabouts, but essentially it is the creation of those young people who were of draft age during World War II. Of this group, Duncan was, and still is, the undisputed leader.

(I might say that all this has nothing to do with the Beatnik craze, which was a hoax cooked up by a leading picture magazine and based on the capers of two delinquents from the classes of the most conservative English professor at Columbia University, who happened to be casual and distressing visitors to San Francisco.)

Duncan has been more than the leader and inspirer of a new literature of personal communication. The generation before him was permanently scarred and warped by the fiasco of literary Bolshevism.

For 15 years an alliance of ex-Bolsheviks and so-called “Southern Agrarians” (which just means “reactionaries”) ruled American writing. They controlled jobs, publications, awards and fellowships. That would not have been so bad, but they also, in an excess of penitence for their own rather stupid political sins, broke all international connections with the general tendencies of world literature in our day, and drove American letters back into a narrow pen of academic provincialism.

There was a time when Robert Duncan was one of a tiny handful of writers of his age who stood against this conspiracy of mediocrity. Today his side has won, and his opponents are in the process of being forgotten outside of their own classrooms. But for 15 years it was pretty grim going. All the major and minor Powers That Be simply pretended that people like Duncan had never, did not now and never could exist.

In the clique-ridden world of professional log rollers, wire pullers and back stabbers known as “literary circles,” integrity like Duncan’s does not come cheap. The members of the Establishment are taken care of with fellowships, scholarships, prizes and academic jobs from the cradle to the grave. To the best of my knowledge, Duncan has never received an important literary award. Although he has published ten books, this is the first one to be issued by a national publisher. True, this is partly his own fault. He has preferred to have his books done hereabouts, where he could oversee their production.

What kind of poet is Duncan? If I may be permitted to quote myself:

Of all the San Francisco group, Robert Duncan is the most easily recognizable as a member of the international avant-garde — the world style of our time. In Mallarmé or Gertrude Stein, Joyce or Reverdy, there is a certain underlying homogeneity of idiom, and this idiom is, by and large, Duncan’s. But there is a difference. Modernist verse tends to treat the work of art as purely self-sufficient, a construction rather than a communication. Duncan’s poetry is about as personal as can be imagined. So it resembles the work of poets like David Gascoyne and Pierre Emmanuel, who, raised in the tradition, have seceded from it to begin the exploration of a new, dedicated personalism. What is the self? What is the other? These are the questions of those who have transcended the “existentialist dilemma” — Buber or Mounier. Duncan may have changed or developed their language, but his theme too is consistently, the mind and body of love.

Finally — with this book, Duncan takes his place, indisputably, as the most mature, accomplished and profound poet of his generation. He is a much broader and deeper poet than Denise Levertov, and incomparably more mature than Robert Creeley, his only competitors. It is a little awesome reading these poems. They have a gravity about them we don’t expect from our contemporaries, a deep sonority and steady pace like a Lenten processional chant. It is not that they have solemn [indecipherable word], though some do. It’s a clear reflection of an inner life of seriousness and devotion. It’s not just dignity — maybe it’s wisdom. We are so out of the habit of expecting wisdom from literary people nowadays that maybe it’s hard to recognize it when it appears.

It is more than wisdom — this is poetry of personal responsibility and personal communion. That means that it is singularly reverent. It does, as the act of a work of art, what the philosophers of communion and responsibility discuss. Of course, these poems could be all these things and still not be poems at all, just wordy tracts for the life of wisdom. They have what is most important of all, a solemn, unforgettable beauty.

[December 11, 1960]



An Appeal for Kenneth Patchen

First off, a little publicity which has nothing to do with the rest of the column. Kenneth Patchen, who lives in Palo Alto, and who is certainly one of the finest poets of my generation, has been ill for many years with an undiagnosable spinal ailment which has resulted in arthritis, not one but a series of slipped discs, and constant pain. He has had, down the years, several operations, which have given only temporary relief. Now he is about to undergo another, a very serious one, in the hope that once and for all the condition can be cleared up so he can walk and not be in pain. He needs money badly.

The Patchens have no other income than the wage his wife makes as a clerk in a department store — a job she should not be holding. She herself is ill with a chronic and crippling disease. Patchen himself is unable to walk and is under constant sedation.

Here, if anywhere, is a chance for one of our Foundations to show its usefulness. Alas, they just aren’t set up that way — they have fortunes to spend on a survey staffed by twenty Phi Beta Kappas investigating the incidence of arthritis deformans amongst poets, resulting in a stack of reports nobody will ever read — but none for actual human beings. You see, Patchen is “in need,” which automatically disqualifies him for all such assistance.

Believe it or not, I once sent the Culture Beagle from the largest of all the Foundations to see him. This man came back to me profoundly shocked and went back to New York resolved to “do something.” After several weeks, Patchen got a modest check. My friend had taken up a collection from the employees of the Foundation that thinks nothing of attempting to reorganize the economy of India. That’s all they could do.

Well we, his friends and neighbors as they say on the draft notice, can at least try to put on a successful benefit. I don’t know yet when, where and what it will be. Probably a reading by local literary lights, and probably the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 8. Benefits cost time and money. Anybody who wants to store up goodies for himself in heaven and help the Patchens right now, come Christmas, can send a check to Kenneth Patchen, 2340 Sierra Court, Palo Alto, Calif.

* * *

Now, to change the subject completely — I was pleased that only one person wrote in accusing me of “prejudice” because I was against a play that was pro-Negro. This is certainly a ticklish and sticky subject to fool with. It’s a pity, too, because what we need badly right now is widespread and wholesale discussion of every aspect of the problem of race relations, here in America as well as throughout the world.

It is obvious that this, not the Cold War, not the, after all, European or Western family struggle of Bolshevism versus Capitalism, is going to be the dominant factor in historical change for the next ten years. The Cold War, like Parthia and Rome, is a stalemate. The only thing it can do is drag along — or suddenly turn hot and kill us all off, and about that we’ll neither know nor care.

The “revolution of expectations” in the colored two-thirds of the world is another matter. This is the beginning of a historical process that will end in profound changes in the life of the human race, changes whose nature we can hardly imagine. Comrade Khrushchev and Senator Kennedy can, if they want to, get together and trade advantages and disadvantages and their world will settle down into geopolitics as usual. It could be like a good wholesome session with a marriage counselor. This other thing is a vast historical upsurge like the discovery of agriculture or the invention of metal smelting.

It is confusing that a somewhat similar process is going on in our own country. Of course, the two movements are related, but they aren’t related very closely.

Richard Wright’s best piece of journalism was his book on the Bandung Conference. What he discovered there was a new thing — something that he, as an American Negro, found it just as hard to identify himself with as any other American would. His hosts were puzzled that he, colored too, and a member of a group whose tribulations were notorious throughout the world, was struggling with problems basically different from theirs.

Wright was amazed to discover that he was, in a sense, a white man — he was interested in gaining full participation in Western Civilization, on every level. They were interested in reclaiming their own civilizations, and starting off anew into uncharted regions from that basis.

Like everybody else who writes about current life, I have been reading stacks of books about the former colonial world. The publishers must be putting out more books on Africa than detective stories this season.

You can’t say we aren’t worried about our responsibilities. There is no end to the complexity and difficulty of the problems. The lack of trained personnel, the lack of sources of capital accumulation, the lack of markets, the conflicts of tribal and national interests, the pressures of modern civilization and barbaric customs — it’s all dizzying.

Finishing an economic survey of any of these new nations, you can only, as they say, hope and pray. Anything you take up unravels in your hands like a run in a stocking. Whether it’s lumbering Okoume wood in Gabon, or developing rubber plantations in the French Congo, or improving the cattle herds of Chad — every problem runs out into an unending ramification of dilemmas — all of them seemingly unsolvable. And yet, of course, somehow, someday, they will be solved, at greater or less cost in human life and energy.

Here at home we can take comfort in the newspapers. Things aren’t as bad as they are in the Congo, they aren’t even as bad as they are in New Orleans. We finally have one Negro in the Symphony, and Judge Bussey’s colleagues have just elected him head of the municipal bench. But we have no right to this comfort.

The American Negro is not a native of a former colony. He is a birthright American, in literal fact a member of one of the First Families of Virginia. His problem will be solved only when his color has ceased to make any difference at all socially.

Safe in San Francisco, we can turn on the television and shudder in self-righteous horror over the capers of a bunch of rednecks in New Orleans. How many of us are aware that San Francisco is permeated with a subtle and insidious Jim Crow that penetrates every department of life? If we are aware, how many of us assume any responsibility?

In this season of goodwill towards men and bursting bombs in Georgia and parading nightriders and screaming women and solemn-eyed little Negro girls — it behooves us to examine just how much goodwill we are exercising right here in our own personal surroundings.

[December 18, 1960]

NOTE: See also Rexroth’s essay on Kenneth Patchen.




For a month my girls have been in a slowly mounting fever of excitement. Cards have piled up on the mantel, presents have piled up under the tree. The tree is 12 feet high — we live in a Victorian flat — under it is a Bavarian crèche that’s been in the family for years. On another mantelpiece is a Provençal crèche of santons, little figures of every human occupation and condition, on their way to the manger.

We’ve had a party. We’ve been to see the Ballet do the Nutcracker and Beauty and the Beast. We’ve seen all the store windows and all the Santa Clauses. We’ve walked entranced through one of America’s most amazing sights — Christmas at Podesta and Baldocchi’s. Finally, there was midnight Mass at the Church of the Advent and then me in red coat and whiskers distributing the presents.

We get all we can out of Christmas. Some of my intellectual friends think it is too commercial. Some think it is hypocritical. Some think it is a relic of Sun worship.

We don’t care. We like it. Even if for some people the motives are one-upmanship and status, it’s good for them to even pretend to be generous at least once a year. I don’t care if merchants make a lot of money selling toys that disintegrate in an hour and negligees that come off red all over you. If those were the worst evils of Free Enterprise we wouldn’t have much to worry about.

As a matter of fact, our house is full of Christmas presents that date back far through the years. In front of me as I write is my easel, given me by my first wife, now long dead, over 25 years ago. I can still see it draped with tinsel and hung with ornaments standing in the dark outside the door, a surprise.

Maybe my girls are orderly and conservative, but they still have most of the dolls and toys and all the books they were ever given. It is beginning to be a problem housing them. All around me are presents Marthe has given me — and so for her — the Skira histories of art, the cast of the Minoan Serpent Priestess on her dresser — it all depends on what you do with your money and how really much you want to please the other person.

I could do with more for Christmas. I think it shocking that the shepherds and sheep are gone from Golden Gate Park. I wish there were more theater for children. The ballet is wonderful, quite the best thing of its kind in America. But I wish we had Christmas pantomimes like the English and especially the pastourelles they give in Spain, Provence and Italy, with all the santons on their pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the scissor grinder, the cowboy, the miner, the baker, the three aged people, the hilarious clowns, and the gaudy wicked gypsy who is converted at the last moment — all done to lilting folk tunes.

Still, however nostalgic I get for Christmas in Aix-en-Provence with the frosty haze under the giant plane trees on the Cours Mirabeau, the banks of oysters and ursines in front of the cafés, the Pastoural Maurel and Gounod’s Provençal opera Mireille at the theater, and Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire pale as an iceberg in the cold windy air — I think we manage better at home. In America we can combine all the Christmases of all the different peoples from which we have come. I have often debated having Hanukkah lights and spinning tops — alas, there are no longer gold coins to give the children.

What difference does it make if it is all just a Sun Myth? I don’t believe that, and that kind of criticism of the Bible has gone out of date in scholarly circles. But suppose it is true? What we need, what our lives are so impoverished of, are precisely great festivals to mark the turning of the year, the sleep and awakening and fruitfulness of the earth. Those of us who still belong to religions that mark the similar moments of our own lives, birth, puberty, vocation, marriage, death, are lucky. I don’t care if it takes Daddy a year to pay off the bills for the First Communion Party or the Bar Mitzvah or the wedding. For a moment there has been at least a token acknowledgment that even the poorest and most humdrum life is of transcendent importance, that no individual human being is insignificant.

We say that the secular religion of our time, the worship of the State, or Historical Determinism, or Race, or the Working Class, do not give the individual this sense of being the ultimate source of all the importance there is in human life. They do not provide Rites of Passage and Sacraments that ennoble each man in his career from birth to death. Neither do they link man to the cosmos through the drama of the changing seasons and the fecundity of the earth. We, say we, heirs of the Western European Tradition, the Jewish Law, the Greek poets and philosophers, the Christian Gospels, we have given human destiny its meaning and dignity.

I wonder. There’s a story, an old pulpit anecdote which, like many other things said in the pulpit, may or may not be true. It seems that shortly after Perry opened up Japan, the Emperor instructed all Japanese who went abroad for any purpose to prepare reports on the role of the teachings of Christ in Western Civilization. For 50 years ambassadors, houseboys, fishermen, students, scientists, gardeners, businessmen — everybody who went abroad, turned in his report.

Finally, the Emperor’s Commission decided they had enough material. So for another ten years a committee of experts collated the documents and tabulated the statistics. At last the great report was ready. On its recommendations hung the future of Japanese civilization. The committee was called into a solemn audience with the Emperor. The chairman stepped forward. The Emperor commanded: “After 50 years of exhaustive study, tell us, what is the effect of the teachings of Jesus Christ on Western Civilization?” And the chairman of the committee bowed low and said, “None.”

Today over two-thirds of the world, our professions are no longer believed. On Christmas Eve many of our minds turn to Albert Schweitzer. Some of us even send him money. He represents our conscience in Africa. But I have just read a health report from the newly independent country where he has worked for so many years, and his name is not even mentioned. How many people now shooting each other in Laos have been influenced one iota in their conduct by the activities of Tom Dooley? On the other hand, to this day there is a stained-glass window in Liverpool Cathedral, one of a series of “modern saints,” portraying “Chinese” Gordon, the hero of a war fought to force the Chinese to smoke opium, and a martyr to the conquest of Africa.

A curious thing has happened to Western Man. He is suddenly being called on to put into practice the noble principles he has been talking about in one form or another for 3000 years. Turning to them at last in humility and penitence is the only thing left for him to do. Even they may not save him, but surely nothing else will.

[December 25, 1960]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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