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rexroth, bukowski & the politics of literature

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I asked the question Bukowski always asked: why there was so much quarreling and bickering among poets. Bukowski had described American poets as worms in a bottle. That was why he never wanted to read in a group. Rexroth agreed almost exactly with what Bukowski said.

“Wherever there is no real power, people always fight like rats,” he said. “That’s why I left the east and came to San Francisco, to get as far as I could get away from the poetry market. I left it again up there. Two years after I left San Francisco I was told there were two hundred and fifty poets in the town of Bolinas alone. People tell me the most fantastic stories that they’ve been told by people they’ve met in City Lights Bookstore about me. Total lies. Completely malevolent. So I came to Santa Barbara. I’ve been here eight years. Christ, there are poetry readings all over the place and printing presses and publishers and every goddam thing. POETS, POETS, POETS, like spreading VD. I can’t get away from them unless I go deep into the Snake River. Know what I mean?”

I did, indeed. When I reviewed poetry for the L.A. Times, poets showed up on my porch.

I’d never met Edmund Wilson, but I’d walked the streets of Castine, Maine following Mary McCarthy, a writer of great taste I deeply loved, Partisan Review or not. She had lived that life of exile and away-ness. And she had been married to Wilson. Had borne him a son. Was this the moment I began to think about living in the country? Was this the moment I began to wonder about being a chronicler, writing about the writers of my age? I wonder. Listening to this tape again and reading through my notes thirty years later, I see how much I owe to Rexroth, even though my own contributions are tiny when compared to these giants. And yes, Rexroth does deserve to stand firmly in the company of the other three he mentioned.

John Fante could talk for an hour about H.L. Mencken. Mencken was his favorite subject. Now here I was with Rexroth. I had loved his book Assays, his look at literature as though it were really lumps of rare minerals to be weighed and sorted and valued on a scale. Gold is assayed. Assays, a perfect title for a critic like Rexroth, I thought. In his presence, I had said all the right things and now he was ready to respond, to reveal the inner aesthetics he had hidden from the world. I felt that he would open up to me because I was not an academic, not an elitist, only a journalist who wrote about literature and read widely.

I wanted him to speak of combat, literary warfare, his years in France as an American Radical who was respected by the French Left, his nights with women under a Chinese moon, and most of all, the explosions he had with other writers like Jeffers and Ezra Pound. If he’d said on tape that Bukowski had murdered Kenneth Patchen with a satire, what might he say about old Ezra?

Rexroth cursed the academics as pseudo poets, pseudo critics and false promoters who publish “the stuff in the quarterlies that keeps you on the escalator in an English department.There are four people in the US who wrote (real criticism) and we all call it journalism. They were James Gibbons Huneker, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson and myself. The critics of the day have no use for any of us. Elitism. Literature should be judged, as Huneker once said, like fine wine, horses and women! You can’t be a critic unless you know what taste is. How the one person who loved to debunk the American critical establishment, which in those days was the Partisan Review crowd, was Randall Jarrell. He saw through the whole sham of criticism. The kind of appreciative, sensuous life that produces the type of critic you mention (especially Wilson) is not easy to live any more, unless you live in considerable isolation. Look at Edmund Wilson’s last book [Upstate] when he was getting very old and living up there in upstate New York. How they finally put a runoff from a freeway right across his front yard. Motorcycle boys ripped off stuff from his property. You can’t get away with it, that kind of lifestyle. I live that way because I’ve always insisted on it. People who come to visit me, like my poet friends from Japan, will say, ‘It’s just like the house in Kyoto. Buried in the woods on the edge of the city.’”

It was just like the poem he had written for the Greek Anthology. Wilson and Mencken and Rexroth. But Mencken was editor of the Baltimore Sun for decades and lived in the middle of the city. My grandfather had worked with Mencken on the Sun papers and knew him as Henry. Still, he was right about Edmund Wilson.

I began with a question my editors wanted me to ask: “I want to get into this problem of Marxist aesthetics,” I said. Rexroth smiled. “Writers like Plekhanov and Lukas and Radek and Bukharin. Can literature flourish in a Socialist society?” This is the kind of question I discussed ad nauseam with my Marxist friends. It was a game played by college kids who tried to blend novels, poems and plays into a political formula.

Rexroth batted the ball right back. “I don’t know,” he said. “There’s never been a Socialist society.” There was the safe answer. I refused to let go.

“Okay. Agreed. Can it flourish in a Marxist society like the Soviet Union?”

That was specific. That was a question Rexroth could wrap his mouth around like a fine cigar.

He laughed. “Well…don’t forget that Gyorgy Lukas lived on the very narrow edge of Bolshevik respectability. He jolly well kept his tail out of the Soviet Union [he lived in Moscow from 1930-1945]. And he was an academic. Lukas was really a very sterile critic.” He went into detail over the battle Lukas had in Hungary with his mortal enemy Bela Kun. How Kun organized a Soviet-style revolution in Hungary, leading his local Red Army to victory over moderate political opposition, recapturing Hungarian lands lost to Romania and Czechoslovakia, and later seizing the estate of wealthy land owners, among them the estate of Lukas’ father.

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I knew at least half of what he said was not correct. Still, I was enjoying the ride. He was the elder expert on Marxist thought and I was the young fool at his feet. I always liked playing the fool. I let him go on:

“You have to realize that what they have done in Russia is to standardize what is called literature at the level of popular writing in what is now a bygone America. Russian literature is like in the 1930s Saturday Evening Post It’s all very interesting.” He was rambling. He mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay, he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post.

“You see,” he went on, “they trapped Bukharin and Radek. They [the USSR] had a thaw and they published all their works. The two of them talked at the great Kharkov Writers Conference (1934). One talked on James Joyce and one talked on John Dos Passos. It’s very strange to see how the tastes of these two very cultured men were really bourgeois.” [Radek had denounced both Joyce and Proust as corrupt and reactionary, while defending John Dos Passos as a well-intentioned Leftist who had not yet joined the CP and jumped in with both feet. Bukharin attacked a few Russian poets.] Again, I was surprised at Rexroth’s careless disregard for facts. He went on:

“Now Lunacharsky believed, and I still believe, that the revolution and art would revolutionize society. He encouraged the futurists and structuralists and every other damned thing, and when he died that was the end of it. Then you became a Stalinist or Trotskyite wrecker.”

I agreed with Rexroth. I still do. A real revolution would clean out the sewage.

I asked if he had read Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, a long-banned masterpiece I’d recently reviewed for the L.A. Times.

“Never read it,” he said. I said I’d lend him my copy. “It’s a masterpiece on the terror of Stalin.” He waved his head no. He didn’t want to read it.

I asked what he thought of Jack Hirschman‘s translation of Mayakovsky. “I’d rather not say,” he whispered. “Don’t want to get myself in trouble.”

I asked if he read any anarchist writers. He smirked. “You mean Arturo Giovannetti?”

“More recent,” I said. “Pa Chin, the Chinese anarchist novelist. He’s still alive.” That interested Rexroth. He was surprised I knew Pa Chin’s name and had read his novel, The Family. “Okay, he’s still alive.” His eyes brightened suddenly and Rexroth opened up.

“Pa Chin has been silenced, you know! Don’t get where you trust the Chinese Communists, the old fur hats,” he told me. “They once invited a large delegation of Japanese party members to a conference in Peking from which they never returned. They’re all murderers.”

“I KNOW THAT. All governments murder.” A worthy anarchist opening move. A gambit. He liked it. Smiled. Took a sip of tea. “All right,” he said.

Now it was time to ask him what I wanted to know. I started with Ezra Pound. Pound, my favorite poet, even though I hated Pound’s politics. Bukowski and I used to laugh at the way we would each read the Cantos with so little understanding. Confucius and ancient Greece and all those Chinese characters. I could read a few.

I wanted Rexroth’s views on Pound. I wanted the inner Rexroth, anarchist or hedonist or both. The critic in his robe and slippers. Rexroth might have a wider view of Pound. They were published by the same publisher and both were on close personal terms with James Laughlin. I knew where to begin:

“Somewhere along the way you crossed swords with Pound. I remember Pound had written an essay about the most important poets in France and you called him on it. One of the poets he said that was most important was Max…”

Rexroth was ready. He’d waited a long time on this one. “Max Elskamp. Belgian symbolist who wrote in French.” He chuckled at the thought. “The Belgian poetry revival.”

So, he said with his eyes, this guy [me] has a small brain in his head after all.

“Laughlin has never republished that essay [by Pound]. It’s the most absurd essay you’ve ever read in your life. No one could know less about modern French poets than Pound. He wrote about the people he met at the Café Dome. Pound never dug the post-Apollinaire French poets. People like Paul Eluard, Philippe Soupault, and Andre Breton.”

“Pound wrote about Paul Fort.”

Rexroth roared with laughter. “Yes, Paul Fort. Prince of poets. The James Wittcomb Riley of the French. From the Closerie de Lelas days. I used to go there with a poet friend of mine, Pierre Seghers, and the owner would talk about the old days of Paul Fort and how he wished they would return.”

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