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Kenneth Rexroth

On December 22, 1905, Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana. Orphaned at fourteen, Rexroth moved to live with his aunt in Chicago, where he was expelled from high school. He began publishing in magazines at the age of fifteen. As a youth, he supported himself with odd jobs—as a soda jerk, clerk, wrestler, and reporter. He hitchhiked around the country, visited Europe, and backpacked in the wilderness, reading and frequenting literary salons and lecture halls, and teaching himself several languages.

Rexroth and his first wife, the painter Andrée Shafer, moved to San Francisco in 1927. There he published his first poems in a variety of small magazines, while also pursuing an interest in eastern mysticism and leftist politics. He kept company with like-minded left-wing poets such as George Oppen and Louis Zukovsky, and with them aimed to rescue poetry from its supposed downslide into formalist sentimentality. They organized clubs to support struggling writers and artists.

By the early 1930s, through a correspondence with Ezra Pound, Rexroth was introduced to James Laughlin of New Directions press, who included Rexroth’s poems of in the second volume of Laughlin’s pivotal annual, New Directions in Poetry and Prose in 1937. Rexroth’s first collection, In What Hour, which articulated the poet’s ecological sensitivities along with his political convictions, was published by Macmillan in 1940. In 1944 another collection, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, continued his exploration of the natural and the erotic, presented his pacifist stance on World War II, incorporated references to the work of classical poets from the East and the West, and expanded his tonal range with poems touching on world religions and the history of philosophy. A consummate activist, during the war Rexroth aided Japanese-Americans in escaping West Coast internment camps.

By the late 1940s, Rexroth was laying the groundwork for what would become the San Francisco Renaissance. He promoted the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Denise Levertov, William Everson, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and many others on the radio station KPFA. He organized a weekly salon and invited friends and other poets to come and share their philosophical and poetic theories. Among those in attendance were Robert Duncan, Richard Eberhart, and, eventually, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and other Beat poets.

Rexroth organized and emceed the legendary Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955, at which Ginsberg introduced the world to “Howl.” Rexroth’s work was composed with attention to musical traditions and he performed his poems with jazz musicians. Nonetheless, Rexroth was not wholly supportive of the dramatic rise in popularity of the so-called “Beat Generation,” and he was distinctly displeased when he became known as the father of the Beats. (continue reading at Poets.org)

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Have you read the book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? I have, just a few years ago. It made me sick. Not just me, but everyone who read it. And it led to a revamping of the meat packing industry in the US. Shortly after I read it I had occasion to talk with my friend’s mom Jackie about growing up in Chicago around that time. She had a few stories to tell. It was like reliving history. If you haven’t read it, it’s quite the essay on how badly the immigrants were treated in this country.

Sinclair wrote the novel to portray the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. His primary purpose in describing the meat industry and its working conditions was to advance socialism in the United States. However, most readers were more concerned with his exposure of health violations and unsanitary practices in the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century, greatly contributing to a public outcry which led to reforms including the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair famously said of the public reaction, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” (continue reading on Wikipedia)

At any rate, the poem felt at once familiar to me. Especially since the emotional tone of it carries over to today…

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The Bad Old Days

The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon,
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

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Picture Source: Wikipedia