Elegy for an Anarchist

George Woodcock

In the Thirties and Forties English readers – and even English poets – knew surprisingly little about American poets, except for the few, like Pound and Cummings, who set out to make themselves international figures. Thus it was not really surprising that, early in 1943, when I received a letter from a poet named Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco, I knew nothing about his work or about the extraordinary life he had already lived. My ignorance was partly understandable since, though he had been writing poetry for twenty years, Rexroth did not publish his first book of verse – In What Hour – until 1941: but it was also an aspect of the general British ignorance of things American. I was then publishing the literary magazine NOW and was also one of the editors of War Commentary, the anarchist paper of the period, and Rexroth wrote to me because he had established in San Francisco an anarchist circle, consisting of young Californian poets and artists and older Italian and Jewish militants who were veterans of the struggles of Emma Goldman’s and Carlo Tresca’s days.

Our correspondence flourished, Rexroth sent me his early books, and occasionally he would write rather bizarre ‘Letters’ about American affairs for NOW which East Coast radicals, like Dwight Macdonald and Paul Goodman, were always assuring me should be disregarded as entirely mythomaniacal; they were nevertheless extremely entertaining. Reading his poems at the same time as his personal letters and his scurrilous public letters, I soon developed the image of a complex, magnificently inconsistent personality, in many ways more like a traditional English eccentric than an American original.

I did not meet Rexroth until 1951, when I went to live for a while on the Russian River north of San Francisco and would visit him in his North Bay apartment. He was as eccentric as my expectations of him. I remember vividly from those first meetings his air of a decrepit Metro Goldwyn Meyer lion; the extraordinary way his eyes would turn upwards while he was talking until the pupils were lost under the upper lids; his excellent cooking and the elaborate ceremony with which, coughing and puffing, he would prepare the nargileh he liked to smoke when he meant the conversation to be serious. He drank only the best Scotch, which he claimed was good for the ulcers he then suffered from; I later found from experience that he was right. He was courteous in a rather stately Edwardian way, and given to odd primnesses of expression. Describing a homosexual poet to my wife, he remarked, ‘You see, my dear, he doesn’t do it with ladies’ – his talk was spattered with circumlocutions of this absurd kind. He tended to be cantankerous towards the absent, and when he recited his grievances against them, his voice would take on the harsh Mid-Western twang of his Chicago youth, as it did when he decided to embark on some scandalous fragment of autobiography, delivered out of the left-hand corner of his mouth. ‘When I was a boy in Chicago, George, selling small dogs for sexual purposes …’

Relations with Rexroth alternated between times of enthusiastic acceptance and times of harsh rejection, at least with men; towards women he was much more consistently benevolent. Perhaps the reason I never experienced a really embittered encounter with him was that, apart from that one time in California, I was never near him for long periods. We would occasionally meet when he came north or I went south from Vancouver along the Pacific coast, and we corresponded irregularly for nearly forty years. The last I heard from him was a telephone call from Seattle in 1980, not long before the onset of the series of heart attacks and strokes which reduced him to uncharacteristic silence and immobility in his last months and finally killed him. His voice sounded surprisingly thin and gentle, as if his long and intricate life had burnt out all the harshness and the pride, and brought him as an old man to the philosophic serenity that appeared so often in his poems.

Knowing Rexroth first as a fellow anarchist organising his little group of poets and artists on the West Coast gave me an insight into the sense he had of his time as a historic period in literature and of his own role within it. He had the instincts of a great impresario, a kind of Diaghilev of letters, and, more than any other individual, he was responsible for the San Francisco literary renaissance of the Forties and Fifties, though lesser men like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso reaped most of the credit for his endeavours. Indeed, one of Rexroth’s more admirable inconsistencies was that though he could at times seem inordinately paranoiac about what he perceived as conspiracies against him, he was never jealous of another writer, and nobody could have been more assiduous in promoting the younger poets he thought had real promise.

Rexroth became known in the Fifties as the ‘godfather of the Beats’, a title he disdained, though he chaired the occasion on which Allen Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ (which Kenneth incidentally called ‘the confession of faith of a generation’), and recognised the relevance of such poets to their time in a way few other observers did in the beginning. That the works of Ginsberg and his deplorable followers became famous while his own far better poetry was recognised only by the Happy Few was an irony that did not escape Rexroth, though he accepted it with Stendhalian calm, and it did not prevent him from promoting other poets, like Denise Levertov.

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