Wednesday, 26 November 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

A Report From the Poetry Trenches: Rexroth, Bukowski and the Politics of Literature

Monday, 18 April 2011 08:45 By Ben Pleasants, This Can't Be Happening | Report

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. Photographer 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 among the editorial collective. 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 woman to review it. I sent Diana Saenz, who was a close friend, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (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 ran, 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 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.

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!

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 Kennth 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 spoonfed.

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.”

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. Bly 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!”

I asked the question Bukowski always asked: Why there was so much quarreling and bickering among poets. Bukowski had decribed 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 Book Store 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 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 Edmund 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!

Fante could talk for an hour about 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 Huenecker, 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 Huenecker once said, like fine wine, horses and women! You can’t be a critic unless you know what taste is. Now 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 an 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.” That 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 estates of wealthy land owners, among them the estate of Lukas’ father.

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 you 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 (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, the legendary editor of New Directions.

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.”

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. Elliot despised me. Elliot 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 Bukowsky, 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 Jeffers never played. He was content and at peace with his place in the world.

Ben Pleasants

Ben Pleasants is an anarchist poet, playwrite, essayist and novelist who lives with his wife Paula in California.


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A Report From the Poetry Trenches: Rexroth, Bukowski and the Politics of Literature

Monday, 18 April 2011 08:45 By Ben Pleasants, This Can't Be Happening | Report

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. Photographer 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 among the editorial collective. 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 woman to review it. I sent Diana Saenz, who was a close friend, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (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 ran, 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 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.

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!

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 Kennth 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 spoonfed.

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.”

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. Bly 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!”

I asked the question Bukowski always asked: Why there was so much quarreling and bickering among poets. Bukowski had decribed 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 Book Store 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 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 Edmund 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!

Fante could talk for an hour about 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 Huenecker, 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 Huenecker once said, like fine wine, horses and women! You can’t be a critic unless you know what taste is. Now 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 an 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.” That 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 estates of wealthy land owners, among them the estate of Lukas’ father.

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 you 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 (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, the legendary editor of New Directions.

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.”

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. Elliot despised me. Elliot 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 Bukowsky, 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 Jeffers never played. He was content and at peace with his place in the world.

Ben Pleasants

Ben Pleasants is an anarchist poet, playwrite, essayist and novelist who lives with his wife Paula in California.


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