:: Article

rexroth, bukowski & the politics of literature

By Ben Pleasants.

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Charles Bukowski loved the idea of poetry wars. Even at the lowest level of mimeo magazines, when he was co-editing Laugh Literary & Man the Humping Guns with Neeli Cherry, he jumped in guns blazing ready to take on the world. “Poetry,” he always said, “is a poor country without any boundaries. It’s open to all kinds of fools. All the poet has is his shitty little poem and his point of view. It’s like being on a bar stool, but with a piece of paper in your hand instead of a drink. You shout and scream and you hope someone will notice you.”

He thought poets were the spoiled children of literature: they had to do very little work to get published. They could write whatever they felt. Poetry was about feeling. It was not the complex work of a novelist or a journalist or a historian.

“Poets dazzle,” he said, “but often their best stuff is written in bitchy essays about what art is! When people call me a poet, it makes me want to vomit. I’m a writer!”

That was in 1976, when I was Arts editor of the L.A. Vanguard. I was doing a piece about Bukowski for the newspaper. Lory Robbin and I had showed up at Bukowski’s place on Carlton Way when he was first entertaining the woman who would later become Linda Bukowski. Lory got a great series of shots of the three of us drinking, while Bukowski was his usual outrageous self on tape.

The Vanguard had a policy about major pieces; they had to be approved by consensus. When I handed in my piece on Bukowski, it was turned down by a three to two positive vote. Dorothy Thompson and Ron Ridenour turned it down because they viewed Bukowski as reactionary and anti-feminist. I’d had this problem before. When we tried to send our male rock critic to a Holly Near concert, Near’s PR people threatened to withdraw their ad if we didn’t send a female to review it. I sent Diana Saenz, who was a close friend, a member of the RCP, and secretary to Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13 fame. She wrote a great review, added a few lines of a song from an RCP group called Prairie Fire, and managed to piss off everyone but me, but it appeared because we had a paid advertisement. Diana was a delightfully talented poet, propagandist, and radical organizer and she could never be thought of as politically correct.

As editor, I’d had enough of the PC bullshit. “If not Charles Bukowski,” I asked, “who would you have in mind?”

The name Kenneth Rexroth came up. I called Lawrence Lipton, author of The Holy Barbarians, and a friend of Rexroth’s from childhood. He gave me an address and telephone number: 1401 Pepper Lane, Montecito, California. 805 969 2722. I called Rexroth and he immediately agreed. “Come at noon next Tuesday. We live in the country just off the freeway. Carol [Tinker], my wife, will make you lunch.”

When I told Bukowski the Vanguard wasn’t running my piece on him and he’d been replaced by Kenneth Rexroth, he was amazed.

“But you’re the Arts editor.”

“People’s Arts Editor.” I told him about consensus. “Yeah, right,” he said. “I could see Mencken doing that. And Rexroth is a faker. Ask him what he thinks about [Robinson] Jeffers.”

I could see Bukowski’s feelings were hurt. Lory Robbin had done all those great shots of Bukowski, Linda and myself drinking in front of the TV. They never saw the light of day till the publication of Visceral Bukowski in 2005.

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In all honesty, it was a pleasure to get away from Bukowski in 1976. I had always liked Rexroth. Lipton told me what to expect. “There are times he calls up everybody he knows and he’ll be on the phone with them for hours. Then you won’t hear from him for a year.”

When I met Rexroth at his lovely house in the hilly vineyard country of Montecito, one of the wealthiest communities in the US, and thanked Larry Lipton for giving me a chance to interview him, Rexroth said, “You know Larry is one of my oldest friends, but he has this habit of calling up everyone he knows when he’s depressed and keeping them on the phone forever.”

We had a lovely lunch in the garden and Rexroth began talking about his latest project, women poets of Japan. I’d read all his poetry books to date. I enjoyed most his splendid books of translations: 100 Poems from the Chinese and 100 Poems from the Japanese. I’d also read and enjoyed his Collected Shorter Poems, his Collected Longer Poems, and The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a first edition of which I brought with me.

Carol Tinker served us a wonderful noodle dish with plums and Chinese vegetables and a cool beer out in the front garden in the warm sun as the fields of vines spread out up onto the hillside She told me about her own poetry wars with Robert Bly, who turned down every poem she ever sent him for publication in The Seventies.

“Bly hates women,” Rexroth said.

I told Rexroth I loved Bly’s first book of poetry, Silence in the Snowy Fields. “Very Chinese.” Rexroth disdained it.

I’d sent Rexroth a copy of long Chinese poems published in Wormwood titled ‘Tao in the Winter Mountains’. He spoke warmly about what I’d written. He asked if I’d ever studied Chinese. I told him a semester at UCLA. “To get the sound of it,” I said.

I asked him how well he knew Chinese. “Well enough from the book,” he said. Lipton had told me his first translations of Chinese in San Francisco were done with the help of a Chinese waiter. Bukowski was right; it was all very bitchy.

“I know Chinese better than Ezra, if that’s what you’re asking.” Ezra Pound. Rexroth and Pound were both published by New Directions. They had the same editor, James Laughlin. “Poor Ezra always thought I was Jewish because of the -roth at the end of my name.” Rexroth mentioned he had visited Pound after the war when Pound was at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental institution in the DC area. He thought that was the right place for Pound. “Ezra was seriously nuts,” said Rexroth. I made a note on his Pound quote. I wanted it on tape, especially for Bukowski.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 7th, 2008.