Kenneth Rexroth – “The Beat Era” (1975)

July 7, 2009 at 11:02 am (Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

Rexroth article on the Beats from April 1975. This is either taken from San Francisco magazine – a regular column he wrote called Rexroth’s San Francisco


Last time I ended my vest-pocket history of San Francisco’s Renaissance with the arrival of Ginsberg and Kerouac. The next five years or so were known as “The Beat Generation,” which was alleged to be a San Francisco product. It was almost entirely the construction of Time and Life magazines. All the cultural activities of the San Francisco Renaissance were already well under way, and none of the writers or artists, many of whom had already gained considerable fame, could be considered “beat.”

The poet Walter Lowenfels, an old friend of mine from the great days of American Paris between the Wars, showed up in San Francisco (he is Jabberwohl Cronstadt in Henry Miller’s Black Spring). Walter was indicted under the Smith Act as a Communist and was touring the country speaking in his own defense (he was subsequently acquitted). I asked him if he would like to give a poetry reading. He was a leader of the older generation of Modernists, then unknown to young writers and readers, and has since undergone a literary rebirth. He agreed, and I tried to find a place. No one, including the San Francisco Poetry Center, would touch him. I called the Six Gallery, a cooperative of six painters who are now leading artists and members of the New Establishment themselves. Far from Communists, indeed, they nevertheless agreed enthusiastically. Lowenfels packed the place — to the amazement of the local Red bureaucrats. One of whom, an aged anachronism of pseudo-proletarian literature, said to me in awe, “My God, he has the youth!” “You bet,” I said.

A couple of weeks later the Six Gallery asked me to arrange another reading. Most of the poets of the already well established San Francisco Renaissance read. Ginsberg read Howl, and left a stunned audience, who realized they had witnessed a drastic breakthrough of the crust of custom and the launching of a literary epoch.

Ginsberg had been a conventional, witty poet; Kerouac, the author of a very conventional first novel. Gregory Corso had published a book financed by the smart alecks of the Harvard Advocate, who were under the impression that they were committing a hoax. Bob Kaufman had just arrived in San Francisco. William Burroughs was decaying somewhere south of the border. This is all the Beat Generation of writers there ever was, and none of them were San Franciscans or had ever lived in the City for more than a few months. Nevertheless, because they fitted exactly the Luce publications’ stereotyped image of révoltés and Bohemians, they were turned into celebrities overnight, and within the year had become national and eventually international cult figures. Soon, all the high school ice-cream parlors in Keokuk, Ocanomowoc and Cle Ellum were emptied of their problem children, who had thumbed their way to North Beach and started crops of sparse pubescent whiskers or clad their recently virginal thighs in black stockings. They swarmed like bees or herring for perhaps two years, and then they were gone. Herb Caen named them “beatniks” and soon flourishing crops of them were appearing in London, Berlin (where they were called Gammler), Tokyo and Moscow (where they were called stilyagi) where, to this day, youngsters can be found reading translations of Kerouac’s On the Road under the impression that it is still a New Testament.

Now the curious thing about all this furor is that, after the first five writers, it produced nothing. Nothing at all in literature or the arts or anything else. The far-out cultural developments of the period were quite independent, for the obvious reason that any of the arts requires work, and being a beatnik takes up all your time. The hippies and their leaders and spokesmen in poetry, song and music did produce, but that’s a later story.

Meanwhile San Francisco’s own culture continued to mature and consolidate itself. This growth extended from establishment to avant-garde activities: the San Francisco Ballet, the Opera and the Actors’ Workshop (but not, alas, the Symphony), a series of extremely creative little theaters (the best of which was the Playhouse under the direction of Kermit Sheets), dozens of little magazines, the Tape Music Center, considerable activity in films (although the leading abstract filmmakers remained the Whitney brothers and the leading representational fantasy artist the poet James Broughton), the revival of poetry and jazz, and even a new kind of show business in the hungry i — what Variety called “The Freak Gig, Frisco Style,” which they applied to me and even to Peter, Paul and Mary when they first appeared.

There are all sorts of legends about the poetry and jazz revival. The facts are these: Langston Hughes, Maxwell Bodenheim and I had recited poetry to jazz at the Green Mask in Chicago in the ’20s, and the band had included people like Teschemaker, Dave Tough, Bix Beiderbecke and others later to become world famous. I had suggested reciting to Dave Brubeck, but the trouble with a successful group is that they never stay still. They’re traveling all the time, and poetry and jazz, to be any good (contrary to popular opinion), requires a great deal of rehearsal. You have to have a house band. The Cellar in North Beach was owned by two jazz musicians, so it was possible to work with a permanent, resident group, and Ferlinghetti and I inaugurated a series of jazz-poetry concerts. Soon, everybody was doing it. We were celebrities, with our pictures in Life, and agents, and were “on the road” separately making a great deal of money, playing to packed audiences, and were in great danger of becoming cult figures. At the same time Kenneth Patchen, then living in Palo Alto, was working with a group of his own who played a rather Brubeck-y type of jazz full of classical reminiscences. It was very polished and competent and except for Modesto, a great baritone sax player, very far from funky.

Being an entertainer is terribly hard work, and with the exception of about five jazz rooms around the country in those days, night club owners were a very low breed indeed — the off-scourings of the Mafia. I got out of it and so did Ferlinghetti at about the time jazz-poetry became a craze. By that time, every petty imitation beatnik was “blowing words” to pawn shop saxophones mended with scotch tape — blowing weird, mistaken cross-fingerings through blubbered embouchures in every Greenwich Village joint for nothing or at best a glass of wine. And of course, the enthusiastic availability of the still swarming black-stockinged high-school dropouts. The days of a grand a gig were gone. It was time to quit. The curious thing is that abroad, poetry and jazz is still popular and I could make a very good living at it.

 Kenneth Rexroth

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