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rexroth, bukowski & the politics of literature

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As we finished our lunch, I asked if Laughlin shared his view about Pound. “I’ll let you ask him yourself,” said Rexroth. He took me into the house and then into another building filled with books, paintings and a large piano. That was his study. He wrote out James Laughlin’s telephone number in Canaan, Connecticut. “This is his private number. You can call him at home. Now what do you want to talk about, Li Po and Tu Fu?”

I told him that that was actually a subject I greatly enjoyed discussing. I mentioned my friend Charles Tidler. How Tidler was doing work on Basho and Buson. Rexroth smiled. “But you haven’t come a hundred miles to talk about poets dead for centuries, have you?”

He knew I was an anarchist, a member of the IWW and an editor of a paper that had recently published a policy paper from the outlawed Weatherman Faction of SDS. Rexroth claimed he was an anarchist, too. “If I got you right from your phone call, you want to talk about radical writing, revolutionary writing, isn’t that so?”

I told him that was part of it. I mentioned Charles Bukowski. His face hardened. He turned red. “You know what Bukowski wrote about Patchen? He was so incredibly cruel and insensitive. How Kenneth and Miriam are always begging for money. How Patchen was a cry baby. Do you know what it means to have arthritis of the spine? How much pain he was in! To laugh at that. Bukowski wrote the most vicious lying satire on Patchen and it arrived in Patchen’s home the week Patchen died of a heart attack. That disgusting man. And all the fems go and listen to Bukowski. They have a wonderful time creaming and moaning. I wish there was some way when a person does something like that that he could, really be brought to task. I’m seventy years old and I’ve watched a long line of vicious in-fighting amongst writers. I have never seen anything like that and I think it killed Patchen. So did Miriam.”

All this I got on tape. “So,” I asked, “Patchen evidently read it.” “Yeah,” said Rexroth. “It was in the Free Press. It was on his syndicate. I got it from the New Orleans underground paper. Patchen was one of the few American writers who is part of international poetry and is also read by young people in Europe. Mary McCarthy once asked me, ‘Rexroth, who are the young people in the colleges reading? You go around and read all the time.’ I said Kenneth Patchen above all others. She had no respect for Patchen and said, ‘Well, I only teach at progressive schools.’”

I vaguely recalled the battles between the Kenyon Review and the Partisan Review. Later, when I wrote my play, Contentious Minds: The Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman Affair, I gained a fuller knowledge of literary warfare. But this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone charge Bukowski with homicide. Or manslaughter.

“Do you ever see Bukowski?” Rexroth asked.

I told him I saw him all the time.

“Well, tell him this: If I ever meet him around anywhere, I’ll come after him with a telephone pole and beat him till he can’t walk. Will you tell him that personally for me? Promise?”

I told him I would. Rexroth even recalled recommending Bukowski to Laughlin as a prospective New Directions author. He wrote his editor on July 25, 1967, “Why don’t you publish Charles Bukowski? He is by far the best to come up in recent year, though he’s near as old as you. I think he’s great and would love to do an introduction.”

That was before Bukowski published his satire on Patchen as a corpse being spoon fed.

We moved on to grander subjects. I asked Rexroth what he thought about New Directions as a publishing house. Solid question. He gave me a solid smile.

“James Laughlin lost in the neighborhood of ninety-thousand a year for more than a decade. He makes money NOW, but for years and years and years he was publishing all the best stuff he could lay his hands on in every language. And very open to American writers that no one else would publish.”

He laughed and cleared his throat. “American literature would be a much poorer thing, if it wasn’t for New Directions.”

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He scanned the vast topography of the New Directions landscape: Henry Miller and Tennessee Williams and William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound and Patchen and Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas and Ferlinghetti and Merton and myself, all the translations including Rimbaud, Mishima. “Why right now, this month, he’s publishing Kazuko Siraishi.” I let him slow down and wax eloquent about his latest sexy Japanese muse who Rexroth had sold to Laughlin in 1974. In a letter to Laughlin on March 1, 1976 he described her as into black music and a woman who “hadn’t had a white or yellow cock in her for fifteen years.”

The book was titled Seasons of Sacred Lust and Rexroth wrote the introduction. On tape he compared her to Lenore Kandel, whose work I didn’t know.

But I hadn’t come to talk about a Japanese fashion plate and pop star who wrote poetry. Instead, I mentioned his Loeb Classical Library books that gave literal translations from Greek and Latin masterpieces. Rexroth was waiting for me to say the obvious, that he was probably not very good in the originals, but instead I pulled out Peter Jay’s superb Greek Anthology and showed him how many Rexroth translations were in the book. Instead, I was respectful; I pointed out that some of the finest classical scholars in the world were represented in that volume: Dudley Fitts, Peter Levi, Richard Lattimore, Peter Jay himself and Ezra Pound. I told him I especially liked the translations he had done of Leonidas of Tarentum, singling out one in particular: number 178 from the official Greek text. I read the poem aloud.

Here is Klito’s little shack
Here is his cornpatch.
Here is his tiny vineyard.
Here is his little woodlot.
Here Klito spent eighty years.

I pointed out how close it was to a Chinese poem, one by Wang Wei, for instance. He was very pleased. He said he loved translating sensual Greek poems, poems about love and sex. I asked if he had ready Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho. He said he had the book, but so much of Sappho was missing, the sense of it must be guessed at.

Then he mentioned my own long poem, ‘Tao in the Winter Mountains’. He said he thought it was excellent. I should do more. Send them to Robert Bly. I told him I never had any luck with Bly. He sent me back scolding letters. He asked if I had read Chuang Tzu. “The Legge in translation, but I’m not sure how much of it is really accurate.”

“Good answer,” he said. He mentioned Edward Herbert’s A Taoist Notebook. I told him it was one of my favorite books. He asked if I’d read Fenollosa’s books on Chinese and Japanese art. I told him I’d seen them in the UCLA Library, but now my card was expired and my apartment was so full of books my wife was suggesting I move to France like Henry Miller.

After that exchange, I turned on the tape recorder again and Rexroth opened up like a waterfall. He started in on Robert Bly. “Bly. Bly will publish all kinds of poetry by Europeans and Latin Americans. Real far out, but to try to send him something like that from an American poet and you get back a schoolmaster’s essay on what’s wrong with everything you say and write and he hates women!”

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