Talking About Rexroth


July 31, 1999: That morning I first meet with Christian Parenti, Gloria Frym, and Sheila Tully, New College colleagues, at the entrance to UC Berkeley, to get our signs and banners to march with hundreds of others to KPFA — a radio station that Rexroth helped found fifty years ago — in protest against Pacifica’s restrictive sell-out management policies of one of the last progressive FM stations left in the U.S. After a few hours marching and rallying, I walk back to the Musical Offering Café on Bancroft where I had started. Jim is already there with his friend and comrade, Ken Knabb, along with Morgan Gibson, on a rare visit to the U.S. The café is split in half: its front section is a combination coffee shop, elegant fast-food eatery, and nighttime haute cuisine restaurant, while the back section is a choice classical music store. Hence, much early and Baroque background music accompanies our tape. —DM


Morgan Gibson (MG)
Ken Knabb (KK)
David Meltzer (DM)
James Brook (JB)

DM:  Ken, you knew Rexroth in the sixties?

KK:  Yes. Not very well, but I got to talk with him quite a few times. Morgan actually knew him a lot better.

DM:  You also met him quite a bit earlier, Morgan?

MG:  Yes, I was in touch with him in the fifties. I saw him extensively in the sixties and got to know him even better during his visits to Japan toward the end of his life.

DM:  Ken, what made you write The Relevance of Rexroth?

KK:  I think the answer is connected with the question Jim posed as a theme for this discussion: Why are the Beats still considered such a big deal while Rexroth has been so strangely neglected? In part, it’s a generation thing. There were the classic modernists, Pound and Williams and so on, and then the Beats — and, in between, there was a wasteland generation, and that was Rexroth’s generation. The sort of anthology that Rexroth would normally appear in doesn’t exist because nobody puts out a book called Poets of the Post-Classic-Modernist Pre-Beat Era. You couldn’t even come up with a good title. Rexroth and his few peers did not really form a movement. In retrospect, you go back and say, “Well, there was also Henry Miller, or Patchen, or this or that other poet.” But at the time these were just a few isolated voices crying in the wilderness, they were drowned out by all the New Critics and Stalinists and so on. It wasn’t until the fifties that you could look back and see that something had been building up. And then you see how much Rexroth had contributed to what was to come later. But until then he’s kind of out of it, there’s no pigeonhole for him.

DM:  Many of the authors we interviewed acknowledge him as a forebear.

KK:  It’s good that they acknowledge him, but it’s not enough. There’s something big missing there, and what I think is missing is . . . I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Situationists?

DM:  I consider your Situationist International Anthology an essential reference.

KK:  Well, as it happens, the Situationists were pretty much contemporary with the Beats and hippies (if you can consider the latter as two phases of a single movement). The Situationists looked back at different aesthetic movements from the Romantics on — Impressionists, Symbolists, Naturalists, Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and so on — and they saw these as successive stages of a kind of self-superseding of art. In each case, you could say it was a movement toward greater closeness to life, or relevance to life, or criticality of the medium, or criticality of the society they found themselves in. And in the fifties the Situationists contended that this development was at an end — that it had gone so far that no further possibility remained for art. To go further you had to go beyond art, you had to supersede art, bring creativity into everyday life — and into subverting everyday life, into revolution. The idea of just writing a different kind of poem had become meaningless.
      While they were saying this in Europe, the Beats and hippies in America were pretty much oblivious of these considerations. But they inherited the same situation. In a somewhat confused, half-conscious way they were expressions of this same historical development that was merging art into everyday life. You might still write poems or songs, but there was a sense that this was simply part of your adventure, part of your life.

DM:  It wasn’t a specialized calling.

KK:  Right. So the Situationists are basically making the diagnosis that this can’t go further without bursting out of the aesthetic boundaries. And if you think about it, there has been nothing since then that we can qualify seriously as an aesthetic movement. There have been movements like punk, but they’ve been more a matter of lifestyle than of art — there’s been no real aesthetic innovation comparable to Surrealism or Symbolism or Romanticism. The Beats are the last artistic movement of any apparent significance. And even in their case, if you look at what gives them their continued notoriety, it’s more a matter of their lives than of their art. People are intrigued by Gary Snyder not because he writes good poems, even though he does, but because this is the guy who was a fire lookout and then went to Japan and learned about Zen. Or Ginsberg is the guy who took his clothes off in the middle of a public reading.
      This is what I meant in saying that those poets’ acknowledgment of Rexroth is not enough. I don’t think Rexroth’s primary importance is as a poet, not even as a poet who had a political side. His vision implies going beyond poetry and politics, even if he himself wasn’t totally clear about all the ramifications of this. It’s ridiculous if he’s only thought of as a guy who wrote some very fine poems, and even more ridiculous if he’s only remembered as a guy who paved the way for a few later poets who are actually far less significant than he was. He’s a figure of historic stature, worthy of standing beside the greatest thinkers and visionaries of the past. He straddles East and West, nature and civilization, mysticism and skepticism, radicality and magnanimity. This is why I wrote that book. By going through Rexroth I was able to deal with all sorts of tricky issues — how can this thing be reconciled with that thing? I couldn’t have picked out any other writer, classic or modern, who would have enabled me to address so many of my own concerns simply by quoting him and then making a few criticisms in the rare cases where I thought he didn’t get it quite right. He covered everything. No one else did.

MG:  He could have identified himself as a Beat, but he chose not to, out of integrity. I see him disagreeing with the Beats. I’m not saying all of this because I worship Rexroth. I think there are many flaws and contradictions in Rexroth’s work, but I think he’s quite distinct from the Beats in several ways. One is aesthetically, in that he is really a traditional, classical writer in many ways. He advocates anarchist action and revolution, but in his own personality, his attitude, his way of writing he is highly disciplined. His aesthetic is cubist, not surrealist. Conscious construction rather than the “free expression” that Ginsberg and Kerouac advocated. And he had a much better sense of the Western and Asian traditions, bringing that into the present work, the present writing, whatever he was doing. The Beats had a rather spotty sense of the background.
      While we were driving over here I was ticking off the answers to that question of why he’s not very popular. First, he is a countercultural figure, but he’s really apart from the counterculture, since he’s such an elitist, an arrogant elitist. And most people saw him that way. I mean, they might admire him or agree with his anarchism but they saw him as an elitist who’s got the final answer. If you didn’t agree with his anarchism, he made sure you were humiliated. And then, how could most young people identify with a guy who seemed so old-fashioned in some ways? They might say, okay, in another age or another part of America, he might support us, but they couldn’t identify with such a traditionalist. Their radicalism was impulsive. It didn’t require theoretical knowledge. You didn’t have to know history to be a sixties radical. Some did, but you could be out on the streets doing your thing and not know anything about Kropotkin or Marx, whereas Rexroth insisted you had to know all of that before you formed your own position, and act accordingly. Another reason he was far apart from the general culture, though he spoke a great deal about revolution, was that when I knew him he was not really an activist. He told me in the mid-sixties that he wasn’t invited to antiwar demonstrations. They felt that he was above it all, and he did tend to pooh-pooh the politics of the times.

DM:  Yes, he had that unfortunate attitude, which was off-putting. I remember as a young poet listening to his radio show on KPFA with other poets, and we used to listen to it at times just for laughs — this windbag just going on and on, all these proclamations, this is so, and that’s so. But again, that was our own youth and our own historical turpitude.

MG:  I’m glad you said turpitude, because I think there’s an ethical difference. There’s a kind of amoral, hedonistic quality in the counterculture — there is also a heavy moralistic political aspect to the counterculture — but Rexroth’s morality is more complex. It is not the Weatherman or Maoist kind of dogmatism. On the other hand, it’s not pure hedonism. His ethics are philosophical and religious. His longer poetry and plays dramatize philosophical dilemmas. And he seems to swing between Buddhism and Western anarchism — and Catholicism. Do you know Father Huerta, his confessor, a Jesuit? A wonderful man. Sort of a worker-priest in the streets. He and Rexroth were very close the last couple of years. My background was anything but Catholic, I always had trouble identifying with that. But I think it enriched his idea of love. And love permeates all of his thought — the revolutionary ideas as well as the mysticism, the social philosophy, everything is permeated by love, a kind of Christian love. I think it’s the body of Jesus, the body of Christ that we are all supposed to be part of. I think it’s very much part of his mysticism, though he didn’t talk about it much, but it entered some of the poems. In The Heart’s Garden, The Garden’s Heart, for example. It’s in the Buddhist poems, too. He found Buddhism compatible with Catholicism. He saw Buddhism as a thing you do, a meditation practice, a contemplative attitude. It’s not a set of beliefs or a dogma.

JB:  Rexroth talked a lot about San Francisco and the Bay Area of the time; that is, the late sixties, early seventies. And he would often refer back to the earlier era of Red San Francisco and the longshoremen and labor organizing. Haight-Ashbury was a working-class neighborhood, which is one reason things could happen as they did in the sixties. People did not move into the Richmond or the Sunset. They moved into the Haight. San Francisco is now a very different place, a kind of theme park of itself. Shouldn’t we talk about then and now, and why the scene is so different? The city started changing quickly in Rexroth’s last years, with the culture congealing into Reaganism at the end of his life.

MG:  He used to say that San Francisco was on the verge of being the Paris Commune of America. I mean, he really thought that this was the beginning of utopia. He said it was the most radical city in the world. He just idolized it. And then when he moved to Santa Barbara in 1968, he said it’s all going into the sea. He thought the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene was the utter collapse of civilization. I think he identified the whole fate of the world with San Francisco. He admitted defeat. As early as ’65 he said, well, we’ve had it. This is it. We’re not going to make a utopia. Even the early poems sometimes say that, you know, we had this dream. It’s gone. We were the happiest men of our time. But it’s over.

KK:  It’s not just San Francisco, it’s the whole society. A generation has grown up with the spectacle, as Debord says. Younger people have grown up in a world that’s almost totally dominated by the spectacle, they have no conception of what was around in the past, not even half a century ago.

DM:  Yes, there’s been this continuous pacification and almost stupefaction from the tyranny of abundance that really seems to be short-circuiting any kind of political movement. . . . In the last period of his life Rexroth wrote some very interesting books, like Communalism, the Classics Revisited essays he originally wrote for the Saturday Review, translations from the Japanese, French, Chinese — a wonderful range and acuity and also stylistic availability.

KK: Classics Revisited is not only the best book about the classics, but if I was confronted by someone from Mars and they asked, “What is humanity about?” I would say that if you take that one book, you’ve got everything all the potentials, all the tragedies, all the beauties, all the absurdities, all the different ways of looking at life, all the different stages where people have made a breakthrough in the sense of self, or community, or relation with nature, or what have you. It’s all there, in those little essays of three or four pages.

JB:  That still slips past the question about how Rexroth drops out of the picture. You present an image of a fellow who’s written all these essays and popular articles for newspapers and magazines, who’s written poetry, who’s a very public intellectual . . . it seems like everything’s going for him — and then something doesn’t happen. Why isn’t it now available or interesting to people?

KK:  I think he had some blind spots that prevented him from going a step farther and following up the implications of all these insights that he had. It would have pulled the rug out from under his aesthetic orientation. He had this notion that the poem was going to subvert people little by little. That it was more effective to be subtle, and not just use crude propaganda. He clung to the idea that artistic creativity was the thing that would hold things together even if society went insane all around it. I think the Situationists were right in questioning such an idea. This is not necessarily to say, as they did, that art is totally dead, but it’s not on the cutting edge anymore. The cutting edge is more like what the Situationists were doing. Rexroth didn’t make that leap. Had he done so, you would find people interested in him just like people continue to be interested in Guy Debord. Rexroth is in some ways wiser than Debord, but he falls short in this matter of not really seeing beyond art, not having a clear critique of the spectacle.

JB:  I think that’s probably pretty true about the limitations of Rexroth, the outer limits of his thought and practice, but then you have people who are much more limited like Gregory Corso or Jack Kerouac and they have maintained their popularity.

KK:  People like Corso and Kerouac are easier to assimilate, they’re very consumable. You know where they’re at. But Rexroth — nobody knew where he was coming from. You could not say this guy’s a beatnik, even though he’s very hip. You could not say he’s an academic, even though he’s incredibly learned. He’s sort of classicist, but he’s also a revolutionary . . . People don’t know what to think about somebody like that.

JB:  So you’re saying that if Rexroth had been more than he was, he would have gone beyond the available categories and become more interesting to the public at large. Or if he had been less than he was, he would’ve been more easily consumable.

KK:  Precisely.

DM:  Morgan, what was your motive for writing your book on Rexroth?

MG:  In Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom I tried to draw together the diverse directions of his work — anarchism, mysticism, and erotic love. I thought there would be a kind of unity to his worldview or at least a coherent set of ideas or values, and I tried to argue for that in the book. But recently in rereading his work, I think his ideas are much more diverse and cannot be explained in terms of a coherent theory or philosophy. Very well, he contradicted himself. As Ken said, Rexroth probably did not want to be labeled.

DM:  I’m thinking of his introduction to the alchemical works of Thomas Vaughan and that A.E. Waite book on the Kabbalah — a whole branch of the Western hermetic tradition he endorsed in a sense by writing those introductions. How does that relate to contemplative Buddhist practice?

MG:  That’s a big one. I don’t know as much about Western mysticism as I know about Buddhism, so I hardly know how to make that comparison. He was very much interested in Indian Vedanta as well as Buddhism, that is the non-Buddhist tradition of India. But I don’t know enough about St. John of the Cross or the other Western mystics to say anything very helpful. He had a number of holistic metaphysical experiences, he claimed, going back to childhood, where he sensed the harmony of the entire universe or all reality, universe and supernatural combined. He seemed to think that these intuitions were quite profound and they convinced him of a kind of spirit of love throughout the universe. Then the different mystical writers he read, whether Asian or Western, seemed to confirm that for him, or express it in different terms. But he didn’t need them to convince him. In other words, he didn’t read mysticism in order to have mystical experiences.

KK:  I think he’s seeing all these things not so much in contradiction, like whether they’re orthodox or not, but as different perspectives on a fundamental reality. There’s a reality which is just part of being a human. It’s embedded in the brain or the psyche. It’s the foundation of all these visions and powers and conflicts and possible transcendences. He’s experienced it. Other people have. And they have communicated it in different ways. In that communication, somebody like Boehme or other hermeticists might be particularly vivid cartographers of these things. Other more orthodox mystics might be less imaginative cartographers, but then some of the orthodox people might express it well, too. Rexroth would try to point out how you have some Christian mystic doing this and some Japanese Buddhist doing that and then you have some atheist experiencing a similar thing over here — so you get a sense of the whole world or worlds in there or out there, or both at once, and that you can draw on any of it. It was as if you’re visiting Europe. He’d say, “Here’s a map of Paris. Check these things out.”

DM:  I think that’s a good way of looking at it. So in a sense, then, it isn’t contradictory in the larger picture.

MG:  I wanted to add, I don’t think he ever was seeking enlightened experience, like satori. He was quite unlike Kerouac and Ginsberg in that sense, who were running around trying to find satori, the secret, the wisdom. In his view it had already come. It had come to him. He had a number of these experiences that he thought were genuine and he was perfectly content with them. He didn’t need to induce an experience by drugs or by reading certain texts. In a sense, he felt he already had it, whether rightly or wrongly. And he didn’t need external stimuli. I think that’s a very basic difference with other poets who might be mystical or visionary.

KK:  He did go out into nature periodically. I think it was partly to reconnect with that. I don’t think he went out there and came back from the Sierras and said, “I’ve seen a new vision.” It’s more like going back — he’s been through a bunch of turmoil in the city, so it’s time to go back to this place that’s always there. It’s in here, within you, but it’s a little easier to connect with it when you’re in the mountains.

DM:  Also, of course, he’s a very underrated poet of that wilderness, that nature.

KK:  An awful lot of his poems are about nothing but that. They look like they’re about nature, but really they’re about the transcendent experience — the unspoken thing — like Japanese and Chinese classic poems often are. The poem talks about the moon, the trees, there’s no mention of “me,” but there’s an implicit hint.

MG:  There’s considerable interest in Rexroth in Japan because of his presence there. A lot of instructors teach Rexroth, proportionately more than in America. And through personal contacts, a lot of people met him and passed on the word to their friends. I can go to a university in Japan and someone will know his work or at least have heard of him.

KK:  There does seem to be a revival of interest developing. Several volumes of his writings have recently been published in French, other people are translating him into Spanish, and the Rexroth material at my website has been generating enthusiastic responses from all over the world.

MG:  I think we’re mixing two questions about poetry. One is why certain poets remain fashionable, popular, and commercial, which the Beats are, regardless of literary quality. Why are they published and popular and making money and so forth — as opposed to what keeps a poet’s work alive for centuries? I don’t know what makes fashions. Perhaps the Beats in five years will mean nothing to people. I just reread all of Ginsberg, whom I admired for years and years. Now I can’t imagine wanting to read him again. Whereas I also just reread all of Snyder and I want to reread him next year.
      Where is the serious interest in the great literary traditions of the world — Chinese, Western, whatever? That has died, and with that collapse, Rexroth speaks wisely to us. I think people appreciate Rexroth seriously because he connects the plight of our world with the traditions. If you’re not conscious of the traditions and you’re not thinking that they might still be alive, you don’t grasp what Rexroth is talking about. When I read Rexroth’s poetry, for that matter when I read Pound’s or Eliot’s poetry, I started reading the poetry of the world. What readers do that today? How many people are aware of the world before their own lifetime?


This discussion took place 31 July 1999 at a café in Berkeley, California. The transcript is from David Meltzer’s San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets (City Lights, 2001). In addition to a superb interview with Rexroth, that book includes interviews with Diane di Prima, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and several others.

David Meltzer, who died in 2016, was himself a highly regarded San Francisco poet. Jim Brook (an old friend of mine, present here in his capacity as City Lights house editor) is the translator of Debord’s Panegyric and editor of Reclaiming San Francisco. Morgan Gibson is the author of Kenneth Rexroth (1972), Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom (1986), and several volumes of poetry, essays, and translations. A revised and expanded version of Revolutionary Rexroth is online at www.thing.net/~grist/ld/rexroth/gibson.htm.

This interview is copyrighted by David Meltzer, but he told me that any nonprofit reproduction was fine with him.