San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



September 1963

Music in the Vineyards
The Campaign for Mayor
Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary
Coal Miners as Harbingers of the Future
Diebenkorn at the De Young
A Master Plan for the City
Opening Nights at the Opera
T.S. Eliot




Music in the Vineyards

Last Saturday we went down to the Paul Masson Vineyards for “Music in the Vineyards.” The program was a noble selection — music for voice and brass, most of it Renaissance and Baroque, but including a Hindemith and a group of Shakespeare songs set by Herbert Fromm. Unfortunately, the rendition was something to seek.

The performers seemed inadequately rehearsed and indifferent, with no understanding of the characteristic rhythmic idiom of the period. Monteverdi was one of the great tear jerkers, a master bell ringer of the heart strings. If he is unimaginatively phrased, his plangent sonorities are dulled and the pathos evaporates.

On the other hand, Purcell is all ordonnance and simplicity of attack, he has his own special swing — like St. Michael marching to the wars of heaven. If you miss it, you miss everything. He just sounds like an exercise book in white chords and euphonious counterpoint. People who don’t understand this had better stick to nineteenth-century cathedral music.

Curiously, the Fromm songs were by far the best, charming, simple to the ear, but difficult to sing. The choir did an excellent job of presenting a musician strange to themselves and most of us. Why, I don’t know, it wasn’t just that they were contemporary. The Hindemith was absolutely nowhere.

In spite of moderately flaccid handling of a great program, the concert was a delight. I think I could listen to Freddy Grofe with the greatest pleasure in such a setting, especially if it was enveloped in the Fromm family’s matchless hospitality. “Music in the Vineyards” not only endears Paul Masson wines to my heart, it always calls to mind something its proprietors didn’t expect — the slogan of one of their principal competitors.

Every time I go there and look out over the Bay and the Santa Clara Valley with the lights of cities coming up like a grounded Milky Way in the twilight, I think, “You know, you are lucky to live in California.”

* * *

Now the last, final, final farewell week of the Foo Hsing Chinese Theater Troupe has gone, and they are off to Hawaii and then Taiwan. In the course of their several extra weeks we managed to see most of their repertory. It was one of the major theatrical experiences of a lifetime. As we came away from the last show, my daughter and I were talking about how the Chinese theatrical tradition compared with other great theater, and I realized that at its best it is probably unequaled in history.

Its only competitor is Japanese Noh drama, and here the comparison with all aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture holds. The Japanese at their best achieve an almost unendurably exquisite sensibility — but they refine away the bowels of art — their people live on ether and have no digestive apparatus. The Chinese are coarse and bawdy and noble, greatly human in a way that satisfies all the demands we make of art, not just the nicest ones.

Professor Wang, founder and director of the troupe, and the father of two of its best actresses, was a student and friend of Mei Lan Fang. He had not been on the stage in ten years but here in San Francisco he played once again one of his, and Mei’s, favorite roles, the daughter of a prime minister who feigns madness to avoid marrying an emperor, and so remains true to her young warrior lover.

I’ve seen a lot of farewells, beginning with Madame Schumann-Heink, Sarah Bernhardt and Nellie Melba. For those of us who knew and loved Mei Lan Fang, the first ten minutes of Professor Wang’s opening song were not unlike seeing Duse rising from the dead. Not only does he have Mei’s style, but he has the pure and perfect distillation of that tragic presence that makes all the great tragediennes great. The house stood and cheered as he entered, his voice rang out in a kind of bronze-bell-toned falsetto, within a minute everybody in the box around me had tears in his eyes. Nobody who was there is ever likely to forget.

Maybe it’s just as well they are going back to Taiwan for the winter. If they had stayed here I would have been tempted to do nothing else with my energy and I would have bored my readers. As things are shaping up, it looks like they’ll be back in 1964.

My daughter Mary is all for studying with them if they make San Francisco their base. She knows the plays by heart and can imitate most of the alphabet of gestures of Katharine Wang and her father. When she discovered that she could do that overhand and underhand twist with a tea tray she was as proud as if she had [illegible word] an arabesque of Ulanova’s.

[September 1, 1963]



The Campaign for Mayor

Long before anybody got underway in his campaign for mayor I pointed out that there were, as American cities go, relatively few areas of conflict in San Francisco. It is difficult to find issues that will divide the population sharply into opposing camps. I said, if you will recall, that the basic problem facing the city, and one in which the new mayor could give stimulating leadership, was conservation and planning. [See Rexroth’s column of July 28, 1963.]

How are we going to keep the values that have made the city the best place in America to live? How are we going to achieve the richest possible community life amongst the great opportunities of the future? The man with the clearest, most workable program for reasoned development is the man who should be mayor.

We have a city government with a remarkable diffusion of powers. No mayor can put across a program by the power of his office, he can only give leadership. To give strong leadership he must have a well-defined program. “A, B, C, first do this, then do that, then the other will follow.” What we need is not declarations of policy and good intentions, but strategy and tactics.

Mayor Christopher grew tremendously with his office — a little like Harry Truman — and has given strong leadership in many situations — as they arose. This is no longer enough. The situations of San Francisco in the last third of the twentieth century must be anticipated and planned to the best of human ability.

I am certainly glad that our two major candidates agree with me as to the nature of the issue. So far they are in substantial agreement with each other as well. But, unfortunately, this is an agreement on generalities. Everybody is in favor of Motherhood and opposed to Sin. At the moment the contest is between personalities, political commitments and party affiliations — just like in the old days, because the competing programs so perfectly balance.

I know it is a fundamental rule of politics to never promise the voters anything but lofty aspirations and pie in the sky. But I believe the time has passed when this works in California. I am convinced that if Dick Nixon had come before the voters with clear, workable proposals for solving the state’s problems he would have received a far larger vote than he did fighting the election in Moscow, Havana, Washington and Heaven.

I know that’s bad public relations theory, but I am a PR heretic. So with the mayoralty campaign, a contest of promises will be just politics as usual. It’s the man with the best, most workable plan who should get the vote. Workable, workable, workable, now the word occurs six times in one column.

[September 4, 1963]



Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary

I’ve just been reading an advance copy of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. It’s a bone chilling story. Serge came out of a French jail where he had been imprisoned as a boy anarchist, was traded off to the Bolsheviks in an exchange of hostages, and became one of the founders of the Comintern. He began to drift into opposition some years before Trotsky and ended up in Siberia. By some fluke he was allowed out of Russia just ahead of the total purge of the generation of the Revolution.

He lived through the similar purge of the Spanish Loyalists by the Bolsheviks, escaped to Marseille at the fall of France — where I had a brief correspondence with him — and finally to Mexico, where he died a few years ago.

What a tale! In the first place, Serge is by far the best writer to occupy so high a position in the Bolshevik apparatus. Lunacharsky, onetime Commissar of Culture, of whom they were once so proud, was an amateur and dilettante by comparison. Serge was the author of several moving novels, and a man of great humanity and sensitivity. So his book is simply better written than any that might be compared with it.

Trotsky was rigid, spiteful and vain, and stayed an unreconstructed Bolshevik to his terrible end. Alexander Berkman’s The Bolshevik Myth and Anton Ciliga’s The Russian Enigma are the only other books that lay bare the moral catastrophe of Bolshevism without in turn compromising their authors to a greater or less degree. But neither of these men were very good writers; they were professional libertarian revolutionaries. Serge was both.

It is a relentless blizzard of death, this book.

It could be called an orgy of name dropping — Stalin drops the names into the cork-lined cellars, and Serge records them, on and on, the roster of the Revolution. Generals, poets, professional assassins, agents and double and triple agents, scientists, scholars, artists, beautiful girls and bewhiskered cranks — we all know the story, but Serge knew the people. They come alive, seen not with Trotsky’s epigrammatic malice, but with pity and understanding, and then they die, and Serge feels each death himself. Something in him dies each time. There is no “Shoot them like pigeons!” (Trotsky) in this book.

Something died in a whole generation in the long drawn out moral collapse of the Russian Revolution. It’s not just that the age of revolutionary hope came to a pitiful end. After the Moscow Trials the conscience of humanity was maimed and has never quite recovered.

When I was a boy I believed, and my father believed, and his father had believed before him, that life was going to be different and better everywhere, for all men, and very soon, and that this better world would be relatively easy to achieve. It was not just radicals that believed this — J.P. Morgan believed it and the Pope and the Emperor Franz Josef.

It didn’t turn out that way. We are still in the midst of turmoil and insecurity. The majority of the people in the world are worse off than they were in 1863. Only in the privileged nations have living standards risen; in Africa and Asia and much of South America they have fallen. Tyranny has replaced inefficiency over much of the earth, and turned out to be more inefficient still. The Czar, the Kaiser, the Empress Dowager of China look positively benevolent and efficient in comparison with half the rulers represented in the United Nations.

Have we learned anything? Experience is the poorest of all teachers, but after the 443rd time some burnt babies fear the fire. Have we learned that man cannot enter Utopia by taking thought, by writing manifestoes, or by killing people?

Here at home we fought the bloodiest war in history to that date to free the Negroes. The slogan the NAACP adopted a couple years back was, “Free in ’63.” Now they are tapering off on its use. At the same time, it’s fashionable to be truculent and accuse the white race of universal discrimination, persecution and prejudice. Nobody remembers the boys lying dead in windrows at Shiloh or Antietam.

“Marxist” professors mumble about an economic conflict between northern industrialism and southern agrarianism, nobody remembers Marx’s writings — he thought it was a great moral, revolutionary struggle. We killed almost as many people as Stalin, and what little all that death accomplished did not even earn the dead thanks from the living.

[September 8, 1963]



The Real Coal Mine Disaster

Coal fires in an open grate are universal in Britain, and millions of people have sat before their glow, and read of the slow strangling death of men in the bowels of the earth. There are several poems on the subject, best of all perhaps Wilfred Owen’s that speaks of the whispering and the sigh of the coals — “I listened for a tale of leaves and smothered ferns, frond-forests, and the low sly lives before the fawns. . . . But the coals were murmuring of their mine, and moans down there, of boys that slept wry sleep, and men writhing for air.”

Coal is remote to us now, here in oil-burning San Francisco. In England it gives a subtle flavor to the bread and the special smell of British coal, “of leaves and smothered ferns,” meets you about midnight, out in the Irish Sea as you steam toward Liverpool.

In California we never think about it until headlines in the paper bring disaster to our breakfast tables. Then for a few days we follow the rescue efforts, as gripping with suspense as an old-time movie serial. The trapped miners are finally brought to the surface, dead or alive, and we say, “What a way to make a living!” and turn to the new disasters that come from around the globe with our coffee and toast.

Cave-ins and explosions involve only a few men at a time, but they get the headlines. How many of us are aware that there is an incomparably worse disaster going on all the time, and has been for years?

On the other side of the country in an area about a third the size of California, and almost a mirror image in shape, whole populations are obsolete. Hundreds and hundreds of mines in the Appalachians are exhausted or unprofitable. The ones that are operating are profitable because they are mechanized and give a high yield of good quality coal at low labor cost. The coal doesn’t need them anymore, but the people stay. Miners are an obstinate lot; if they weren’t so many would not survive to be pulled out of the ground by rescue crews. So they cling to the vestiges of the life they’ve known. The United Mine Workers, once the country’s most powerful union. closes its locals in village after village and lifetimes of accumulated benefits vanish. Men who were once the hardest workers in America now sit on their porches and stare out at the mountains, scarred with erosion and denuded of what was once the most beautiful hardwood forest in the world.

Here that Madison Avenue word “obsolescence” fits exactly — these people are going out of use, decaying as human beings, kept alive on the scrap heap by relief checks. Possibly they are the first and largest casualty of the onrushing technological revolution, but they are only the first swallows — harbingers of a terrible spring.

Three billion people in a world where people are going out of date.

(The College of the San Francisco Art Institute announces that Kenneth Rexroth will deliver a series of lectures on early-through-Renaissance art history. The class will meet Tuesdays at 7 p.m. from Sept. 18 through Jan. 21.)

[September 11, 1963] 



Diebenkorn at the De Young

Richard Diebenkorn is probably the most generally satisfying painter working hereabouts nowadays. He is certainly outstanding, for he has received the credit for the current revival of “figurative” painting. So it is good to see a substantial show of his more recent work at the De Young.

Reading over that paragraph I notice “satisfying,” “outstanding,” “substantial.” These adjectives and others of the same ilk and kidney come naturally when you start to talk about Diebenkorn. His paintings are not only big in physical dimension — everybody’s are that since the War! — they are not only roomy in their treatment of space, they have a kind of outsized quality of intelligence and spirit about them that is uncommon today.

“The most massive mind to ever lend itself to the art of painting,” said Vasari of Tintoretto, and those words have stood for 300 years. Painting attracts few massive minds, and it is notoriously a welcome refuge for small ones. Diebenkorn is not Tintoretto, but he has scope, inside himself as well as on canvas. Maybe it is his own intellectual roominess which has led him to think of the problems of painting in a new way, to work towards a novel conception of spatial relations.

As Diebenkorn went up, a show of the current fad for reviving the figure was in its last week at the San Francisco Museum. Pete Machiarini came up to me as I was looking at Elaine de Kooning’s larger than life-size painting of two wistful effeminates in stove pipe britches. He said, “You know, this stuff looks like the commercial illustration style that was fashionable in the Saturday Evening Post back in the ’30s. The only difference is, it’s big.”

“That’s right,” I said, “I think the guy’s name was Henry Raleigh.” “That’s who I mean,” Pete said. “What good did all the years of abstract painting do these people if they come full circle and end up no better than bygone commercial artists? Most of these paintings are nothing but devices, old-fashioned ones that are familiar to any sign writer.” How true.

But it is far from true of Diebenkorn. He likes to paint a chair, sitting akimbo by itself, in a big empty room. He likes to paint the desolate streets of bedroom suburbs in the abandoned afternoon under a high fog. He likes to paint lonely people doing nothing off in a corner of a lot of space. All these subjects show a set of temperament which is characteristic of Diebenkorn, but they are also vehicles of his interest in the relationships of a few simply stated but delicately related empty volumes, crossed by chords of solemn color.

These effects are achieved by purely plastic means, many of them novel; they are not representational “pictures of” their subjects, like the superficially similar paintings of Edward Hopper. Diebenkorn has his own judgment of life, and he makes it known as a painter can do best, in form and color. Still, it is a judgment which cannot be wholly abstract. He has something to say about people, in general and as individuals. So he is a master of the silhouette of characteristic gesture.

If you knew his family and friends, you could say, looking at any portrait from a distance, “That is so-and-so.” Whistler, Sargent, Johns and Yeats all had this talent; so had the sculptor Epstein. He has something to say about the human situation in his empty landscapes and barren rooms and ominous still lives of a single flower wilting on a rickety table, a glass of water, the kitchen sink — this last painted with all the quiet drama of Chardin, one of my favorite painters.

The point is that Diebenkorn’s paintings need to be “figurative.” They are not a dutiful response to an art dealer-engineered fad. As judgments, they have a solemnity about them that approaches the ominous, but they are far from being professionally sick or alienated. On the other hand, how chic and domesticated those pictures were in the San Francisco Museum show: Dadaism for the bridge party, revolt for the penthouse.

The “crazy” art of total rejection cost Europe devastating wars and betrayed revolutions and orgies of genocide. All it costs the junk sculptors and Pop painters and stagers of “happenings” is cab fare from Tenth St. to a bash on Central Park West.

Diebenkorn’s paintings cost him a lot — the old, old fees an artist must pay for meditation, insight, and at last, wisdom.

[September 15, 1963]

[NOTE (September 2013): As it happens, the De Young Museum in San Francisco is currently running a show of Diebenkorn’s work during the period Rexroth is discussing. See Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966. The show ends September 29.]



A Master Plan for the City

The current controversy over height limitation of buildings in downtown San Francisco seems to me to be misconceived. It is true that by establishing a fixed relationship between ground space and number of floors you are making some sort of attack on congestion — but you are approaching the problem hindendwards.

I have before me a black spotted map in a book on city planning and architecture. The caption says, “Two-thirds of the central part of Los Angeles is taken over by cars either moving or parked.” My friend Paul Goodman advocates the closing of all of the island of Manhattan to surface automobile traffic. Freeways and throughways gnaw at Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle, and on Sundays in good weather the whole place is taken over by automobiles out for some fresh air . . . the trees, the squirrels, the ducks, the humans, make do with carbon dioxide.

Malthus said that the resources of the environment increase arithmetically, the population increases geometrically. There comes a time when the relation of man to his environment passes a critical point. Quantitative change turns into qualitative change, as when water turns to ice. We are at that point now.

There are hundreds of issues of far more importance to the world than the structure of the community of San Francisco that are now deadlocks of immovable objects and irresistible forces and that can only be resolved by moving onto a new plane of discussion and action altogether.

Chicago was a fairly efficient mechanism for a generation or more because it had a master plan which coordinated all factors of the city’s growth, throughways, boulevards, parks, the ring of forest preserves, the height and zoning of buildings . . . the Wacker Plan, about which all Chicago children learned in school.

Due to the eccentric grids of streets north and south of Market, and the many hills that limit throughways to a few channels, San Francisco is a city with a built-in congestion problem. It was there before the great fire! Willis Polk and Burnham offered the city a master plan, but every petty interest demanded the restoration of the exact status quo. We can no longer get on without an updated plan.

Sudden inspirations of liberal Supervisors are not a plan. Fulsome campaign promises are not a plan. We need a general and flexible and financially realizable overall vision of San Francisco 1963 to which Golden Gateways, and Western Additions, and Embarcadero Freeways, and cultural centers, and heights of buildings downtown or along the waterfront, all can be referred — a plan which takes account of the kind, quality, movement, size of population — and the kind of living that population can enjoy.

It does no good to limit the height of buildings in an area where you have problems getting to and from a building two stories high.

[September 18, 1963]



Opening Nights at the Opera

The season has as usual started off with a bang, or rather several substantial bangs.

The Opera opening was quite adequately splendid, which is what it’s supposed to be. In fact, San Francisco’s show is one of the best in the world. First Night at the Met is too chaotic, Chicago’s great days are long since gone, Paris is splendid with pomp and circumstance and lines of cuirassiers on the great stair, but it is marred by swarms of models in freakish fashions and purple wigs, sent there to publicize the big fashion houses.

The best undoubtedly is the Teatro Fenice in Venice, where the women look at least as aristocratic as the ladies of the Byzantine court of Justinian and Theodora.

Aida has been slightly redesigned and the ballets have been worked over thoroughly. Unfortunately, none of the people concerned seem quite satisfied, so why should we? Aida is the ideal opener, an all-out spectacle. I would like to see the production concentrated on this aspect, at least until it was brought up to date. One thing a spectacle should be is convincing. Why isn’t Aida ever authentically Egyptian? It would be a knockout.

I don’t share the common objection to opera openings. They are shows — and very little else. If the worst thing the ruling classes had ever done down the ages of the tormented history of man was to sit in gilded boxes and stare at each other through opera glasses, things would undoubtedly be better than they are. Bring on the diamond dog collars and the $7000 gowns in the audience and on the stage in Aida real live elephants and camels!

La Somnambula was marginally enjoyable. The golden age of bel canto is frightfully chic right now. Here above all other opera the question is one of convincingness. All you have to do is keep the setting of Verdi from being tawdry or silly; the music will convince you before the show is out. So much of the opera of the first half of the last century is simply not believable and some of it is tawdry and silly in itself. Furthermore, the performers must be absolutely perfect. A couple of serious fluffs and the illusion is destroyed for good.

As for La Sonnambula. The sets and costumes were atrocious. In the last few years Sutherland has become, not just implausible in the roles that were once her specialty, but absurd. Musically things picked up after the first act, but of one duet my daughter said, “Sounds like Lou Harrison. They are both singing quarter tones and in different scales.” The best part musically in the show is the bass, Rodolpho, and Richard Cross, making his debut with the company, made the most of it.

* * *

The first piece from the Actor’s Workshop is The House of Bernarda Alba. This was a terrible performance. It’s a total hen party, no men at all, and handling all those women in such excessively dramatic roles would have been a job for Earl Carroll or Ziegfield. It is the most conventionally theatrical of Lorca’s plays, just this side of commercial theater. Like Tennessee Williams, it is a play about women by a man who loathes women. So of course women love it, just as they love the fashion designers and hairdressers who loathe women.

The setting and costumes were breathtaking — simply obvious and obviously simple, but with maximum punch. First night it was all just a mite too loud and strident in the tiny Encore Theater, and so the girls who were soft-voiced and restrained stood out. This is Ruth Breuer’s second speaking part with the Workshop. The first was the penitent in the first charade in The Balcony, hardly an ingratiating role. In Bernarda Alba she stands out as an actress of marvelous control, perfect modulation and rhythm, and relaxed, confident projection. I thought Sue Darby’s youngest daughter anachronistic — this character is an innocent, at least by our standards, village girl, defiant, but not truculent. She has not just been caught by the truant officer with a fake ID in the old Bagel Shop.

* * *

Tomorrow night is the first concert of the Chamber Music Society in the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park . . . the KRB Trio with Robert Below at piano, playing Beethoven, Hindemith, and Fauré. Jean Louis Le Roux, the oboist who was to do one number, had to cancel. Local chamber music audiences are very familiar with Krachmalnick, Rumpler, and Blinder. Nobody has ever been disappointed by them.

I love the friendly, genuinely community atmosphere of the Chamber Music Society’s concerts as much as the music. It’s the way people should act at church suppers, but alas, too often do not. I always feel completely at home.

[September 22, 1963]



T.S. Eliot

In the first sentence in the lead article in last week’s Book Week, Alan Pryce-Jones refers to T.S. Eliot as the greatest living writer in English. He is probably correct, but it is a startling thought. It is a measure of the scant importance of literature today that so narrow and specialized a writer should nevertheless merit such a description.

“Greatest living writer” calls up those figures from the past who have embodied and expressed the significance of entire historical epochs, both to their contemporaries and to all future generations. Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Virgil, Cicero, Montaigne, all are characterized by a depth and scope that encompasses everything that was richest and noblest in the human mind of their day. They are, as Anatole France said of Zola, moments in the conscience of mankind.

We think of the “greatest living writer” as having greatness of soul and breadth of vision beyond most other men, and as having the prudence and judiciousness and magnanimity of the very greatest uncompromised men of affairs. When we look over contemporary literature in any language, we do not see anyone like this, at least not in belles lettres. Great-hearted men exist, but they too are specialists like T.S. Eliot. Theologians like Paul Tillich or Martin Buber spring most readily to mind, and of course, being magnanimous is their specialty . . . they’re in that line of work.

Even those of us who speak glibly of “the myth of progress” nevertheless think of “greatest living writer” as applying properly only to those who have advanced man’s knowledge of himself and so forwarded our long climb up from our fellow anthropoids.

There is little indeed of all this in T.S. Eliot. It is not just that he is, in his interminably requoted phrase, “royalist, classicist and Anglo-Catholic.” Those labels might apply to all sorts of people. I am myself more or less of a classicist and Anglo-Catholic. It is that, in Eliot’s meaning of those terms, they define an adherent of a narrow cult, now practically forgotten, the anti-modern, reactionary literary and political movement centering around L’Action Française, which had as its English organ Eliot’s own magazine, The Criterion.

Many people who are anti-modern and even reactionary have a certain breadth of outlook, beyond the ordinary, up-to-the-minute man, for that very reason. They are withdrawn from contemporary conflicts over fugitive nostrums and panaceas. They have “perspective.”

Hillaire Belloc was such a man. He was capable of cutting, savage remarks, and of barbarous attitudes. Anti-Semitism was one of his least ideological faults. Nevertheless, he was capable of startling insights and trenchant criticisms that pulled us up short in our smug satisfaction with our progressive orthodoxy.

Another characteristic we expect of “greatest living writer” is critical judiciousness and imperturbability, both in their utterances on literature and on society, either current or historically. It so happens that when I read Alan Pryce-Jones’s piece I had just been rereading Walter Bagehot, J.S. Mill, Lord Acton and James Bryce. These were all great men, in society, in politics, in business, as well as in literature. They were all distinguished by what Bagehot himself called “animated moderation.” They possessed both stability of judgment and incisiveness of sensibility, and in addition, courage, the courage to act freely on their convictions.

Mr. Eliot has taken the Anglican Bishops assembled in holy conclave to task for not adequately appreciating James Joyce. He has defined “Culture” as the state of affairs where the Royal Family and the lower orders can be found at the same race meeting. He has called the hysterical Crashaw a greater poet than the conventionally accepted John Donne and Henry Vaughan. He has lavished praise on writers as dull as Bramhall and Lancelot Andrewes and as silly as Djuna Barnes. He has apologized for nostrums like Social Credit and insanities like anti-Semitism. He has revealed himself over many years as a singularly narrow, rash man, unaware of the consequences of literature beyond the confines of the world of littérateurs.

His critical writing is almost unrelieved one-upmanship, singularly unimpressive if you happen to know what he is talking about. His poetry, however, is the almost flawless expression of an even narrower, intense sensibility. It should be remarkable indeed to the philosophy of history that this alone should be enough to earn him the title, “greatest living writer in English.”

[September 29, 1963]


“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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