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rexroth, bukowski & the politics of literature


I asked if Pound resented Rexroth’s essay. If they ever came to blows over literature.

“Not Ezra. He used to refer to me as that Jew Bolshevik, Rex Rosenheim. Then every time he would meet me he could see that I wasn’t Jewish and that would come as a shock.” They had met only a few times.

I laughed an uncomfortable laugh, seated in his library surrounded by thousands of books. “Was there ever a problem with Laughlin publishing the two of you?”

“No, Ben. Ezra didn’t care. [T.S.] Eliot despised me. Eliot didn’t like me around, but Ezra never gave me any problems. I think in some ways he liked me.”

I kept his gaze. He could have kicked off at this point, but all I had to do was say two words: “The Cantos…”

“Oh, the Cantos! Everybody thinks it’s modern art. But the Cantos are a very specific thing. They are a long survey of history and the point to them is that what is wrong with the human race is usury. And who practices usury? The Jews! the Cantos are the longest anti-Semitic diatribe in literature.”

I made a face. Certainly, usury was in there all the way through, and certainly Pound was obsessed with the Rothschild banking house, but to say that the Cantos was only about usury…. He could see what I was thinking but I let him continue. It was the right time to be silent.

“You see what happened in the war…” He stopped to reorganize his analysis.

“Ezra was against the war. And then he came out of the war and he was in St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital where all of his friends had him placed. Otherwise, they would have hung him. The communist writers around the world signed a petition demanding that he be hung.” Rexroth held onto the last word, savoring it.

“Then everyone, Frost and Hemingway, began to bellyache that Ezra was a prisoner. He wasn’t a prisoner at all. The reason he never left St. Elizabeth’s was that his wife, Dorothy Pound, wouldn’t sign the parole papers because, if she did, she knew he would go right back to his mistress, Olga Rudge, in Italy. Ezra belonged in St. Elizabeth’s. Ezra was crazy. He was a very insane man. I know a couple of the psychiatrists there at the hospital.” He fumbled for the names but could not come up with them.

“Their diagnosis…. He had a psychopathic personality which really doesn’t mean much, but due to the fact that he was the great Ezra Pound….”

He slowed down and gave me a murderous look. “He was so indulged and so self-indulged that he eventually built up a paranoia which overwhelmed him. And the sad thing about it was his wife. Because, when he married her she was one of the two most beautiful women in the Bloomsbury Group.” (I noted down but failed to ask him who the other woman was.)


I asked instead if Rexroth had ever met Dorothy Pound. Again he fumbled. Gave me a no. “I was never a member of their set.” I let him go on. Hoped he’d go on. He did.

“Dorothy was to be the crown princess of Emmeline Pankhurst. She was to take over the suffragist movement. And instead she spent the rest of her life sitting in the corner saying, ‘Yassah Massah,’ while her husband raved.”

Hmmmm. I sat there looking at my machine. I got it. It was all in there. I couldn’t wait to get back to the Vanguard Board. Not only did I have Bukowski murdering Patchen with a satire, now I had Ezra Pound on the end of a left-wing rope. I wondered what Bukowski would say to all this?

Rexroth added a little more on Pound. He was not quite done.

“There’s a whole Pound legend, like Rapallo. A very large percentage of Americans believed that Pound lived in a small village by the sea. Simply. Well, Rapallo is a resort…is a very chic resort. Like Cannes. That was his retreat.” And then he returned to his opening theme, like a four-page paragraph from Faulkner: “Because he was opposed to the war,” he said, “the whole literary New Left embraced him.”

I added a few remarks of my own. I mentioned Ferlinghetti‘s obsessive admiration for Pound.

“What does Gary Snyder say? That’s his karma.” He smiled as though he were closing the lid of a coffin. I wondered why he hated Pound so much. Was it politics or envy? I was surprised. Pound had died in 1972, but four years later Rexroth still raged against his memory.

We went on to gentler things, but I’d gotten what I wanted, combat chronicles from old literary wars. The rage of writer against writer. The subject would obsess me for the rest of my life.

I went back home and wrote up the article. I called Rexroth for a few spellings, but his wife said he was in Japan doing readings. The piece appeared in two giant installments with photos by Mark Jones.

It was rather a shocking piece. I sent a copy to Bukowski and he told me he hoped Rexroth would try to pick up a telephone pole. That alone would kill him. Bukowski hated what Rexroth wrote about Pound. He laughed at how old Ezra gave the fascist salute when he got off the boat on his return to Italy.

He said he was glad he wasn’t writing for the L.A. Vanguard.

Later, in his version of the Taylor Hackford incident, which is “Sharks and Vegetables” in Visceral Bukowski, he changed all the names but Rexroth. The piece came out in Wormwood 80, published in 1980, after Rexroth had had a massive stroke. The story is titled ‘Friends.’ It’s a funny story about a drunken friend (me) who comes to ruin his night with a would-be film director (Hackford). I’ve dealt with the three versions, including the actual tape, in a chapter called “Fiction as Fact in Fante & Bukowski,” but what he said of Rexroth belongs here. Bukowski wrote (quoting me): “I saw Kenneth Rexroth and he said if he ever saw you, he was going to get you from behind with a telephone pole.”

That was it. Boys in the school yard. It was a game that Robinson Jeffers never played. He was content and at peace with his place in the world.

This essay was originally published as a Beat Scene Press chapbook, and appears courtesy of the author.

Ben Pleasants is a writer and the author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers. You can find more of his work here.

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