Kenneth Rexroth Correspondence with Morgan Gibson, part 2

Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

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Chapter 8 (Part Two)

In Search of Songs

As the 1960's came to an end, rather than protesting the War in Southeast Asia in the tragic mode of "Noretorp-Noretsyh," Rexroth favored performances of poetry with ecstatic song and rock music for their appeal to the young of the counter culture. In a letter of 15 April 1969, he ridiculed typical readings by "literary poets." He also made a wise-crack about James Laughlin, his best literary friend and publisher, which is not meant to be taken seriously. I had been negotiating with Laughlin about rights for quoting poems in Kenneth Rexroth.

Called Laughlin who is tighter than a constipated pup & persuaded him that the publicity was worth the fees - a task worthy of C[larence] Darrow in his prime. A letter from Jennie Orvino [a Milwaukee anti-war organizer] saying there's no money for my transportation for the Viet Nam read-in. Too bad. I can send you tapes of me doing Daniel, & Shadrach Mesach & Abednego to music, and of my workshop singing songs of their own. I strongly urge you to get singers, light shows, rock groups, etc. and break free of the literary poets - We got from that lady writress at Goucher - Wm Stafford, Allan Brilliant, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly. Good God! Students want to hear Joni Mitchell, Leonore Kandell, Charles Bukowski, and Country Joe... Uhuru, Kenneth
Lt. Commander Uhuru in Star Trek--"Michelle"--now that's who you need at a Viet Nam read & sing in.

On 9 October 1969 Rexroth asked me to help him locate some revolutionary literature:

      Are you back at UWM? I am writing to ask all sorts of favors.       One - the IWW seems to have vanished at last. I would like to get copies of the Songbook and the record of the songs but I don't know where to write. The paper no longer comes.       Two - I am still trying to get that Indignant Heart--3 copies.

I wrote Raya Dunayevskaya in Detroit to send her copies of Indignant Heart, the autobiography of Matthew Ward, the black Marxist auto-worker, which he had praised in his first letter to me and which was eventually reissued under the pen-name of Charles Denby in 1978 (Boston: South End Press). The copies must have been slow in reaching him, for he asked for them again in an undated letter in which he also appreciated my poems.

Thanks for the booklets c with the beautiful poems. It's always lovely to get reports that B & M Gibson are still fucking along. Have a good time in the woods.
      I am still hunting for that novel by that Negro disciple of that... Detroit woman with the forgettable name. If you correspond c any of them, could you try to get it for me? I think I can get a bourgeois publisher to take it. Anyway it deserves reissue. Love to all Gibsons from Kenneth     Mary     Carol.

On 4 November 1969 he called my Stones Glow Like Lovers' Eyes, published the next year by Morgan Press, "a very beautiful book of poems," adding: "The problem c publishing poetry is that there's so many pretty good poets running around everybody is booked for years in advance... My serious advice to you is to set up a fine hand press publishing thing in Milwaukee. Funny thing is, these ventures now make money." I did not take his advice. Morgan Press has always been owned and fully controlled by Ed and Vicki Burton in Milwaukee. The name of the press is derived from his family, not from me. Rexroth also inquired about sending books to prisoners and again about the IWW:

      I do wish I could locate the Eye Doublblew Doubleblew. What I really want is not just the Song Book but the record album now pretty old. Did you ever hear Fred Akerstrom, one of Sweden's most popular café chantant singers singing the IWW songs in Swedish? A real gas. They become quite respectable poetry in translation, not unlike E. A. Poe.
      DONT - use that page [50] of the long poem [The Best-Browne Cottage]... The last two lines on 49 are "progressive" corn too. Ellen Key is a half a century or more dead.
      I'm sending you a bit on People Poetry etc. for Arts in Society - it is sort of a sequel to the Alienation thing. Greatly abridged and altered the same subject will be a short Look magazine article. Love to you both     Kenneth
Carol will write you & Dianne [Jarreau] about readings. Lightshows, rock, plus pomes are fine c me. That's what I do at UCSB

My long poem, "The Best-Browne Cottage," was revised and published in Cronopius 3 (August 1967): 3-11. I asked my friend Carlos Cortez, an editor of the IWW's Industrial Worker in Chicago, to send him The Little Red Songbook. After I had informed Rexroth how to send books to some of the Milwaukee 14 Catholic War Resisters in prison for burning draft files, he wrote me on 29 November 1969:

Thanks for the information about sending books to Wisconsin prisoners. I'll have JL [James Laughlin] send him some things. And thanks for the IWW address. But I'm not sure that is still correct. Halsted Street like W Madison is being Urban Renewed. I think they moved the tiny remnant to Deluth. Anyway, thanks and I will write soon.
      Don't get all wrought up about me coming to UWM. It would have to be a very good offer [for a professorship]. After all, Milwaukee is Milwaukee and Santa Barbara is Santa Barbara.
      Now that the Holy Father says the original saint never existed, you should come here and install Mrs. Gibson [Barbara]. She might save the community.
      Nothing has happened c the Unicorn [Press, concerning my poetry]. I think like everybody else, they are overloaded and so insensibly drift into publishing their own clique. Don't forget it took me 15 years to get Denise [Levertov] published by Laughlin! (He said, it was just "lady poetry.") Maybe he was right. She has sure turned square. He also said Dylan Thomas was just gush like Hart Crane, but he'd be a craze for a generation.
      Dianne should become 1) a poetry reading agent 2) a professional horoscoper. She needs money - and work she likes.

Academia as Refuge

After I had proposed to the University of Wisconsin-- Milwaukee English Department that Rexroth be invited as a regular professor, and after he had been invited for a poetry reading and interview, he wrote me on 12 February 1970:

      A friend who was there recently says there is powerful opposition to any appointment for me from the junior faculty especially, and that I may find even the visit coming up unpleasant.
      Meanwhile I have a similar offer from San Diego State College and UCSB wants to settle for a poet's fellowship for which I would have to do nothing except just be around - if that is what I wanted. Actually - I do an awful lot of work. 200 in my Poetry & Song - I'm hired for a seminar of 12 - and many tutorials & individual projects. Love to all     Kenneth

Much to my surprise, Rexroth was offered a professorship in Milwaukee, but declined in the following letter of 17 April 1970. Ironically, the English chairman who had approved the offer tried to get me fired a month later because of my role in the anti-war strike on campus against the U. S. invasion of Cambodia and Laos, and the killing of students at Kent State University. The administration and regents did not fire me, but canceled my promotion to Full Professor and stripped me of tenure which I had held as Associate Professor. Later, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I learned from FBI files that COINTELPRO had planned a campaign to get me fired. Rexroth's letter (a copy of which he sent me) shows his polite side towards an academic system that he did not trust or approve of, though he could be friends with civilized people in it, and a conscientious mentor to serious students.

Dear Dean Pincus:
      Monday, April 13, at the absolute deadline, I called Robert Turner and told him that I would be unable to accept the appointment at Milwaukee for the Fall term, 1970, and asked him to pass the word on to you, as I imagine he has done. Perhaps he also told you my reasons.
      As you know from the newspapers, this is a very troubled campus. I have become something of a student cause. I have no relish whatever for the role of a Scottsboro Boy. I do feel a moral responsibility to the students who have gone to an immense amount of trouble very quietly and non-violently to make sure that I was reappointed. While I was away at the Lonergan Conference [on Roman Catholic Theology] during Easter Week, small committees of students visited all the responsible people in the administration and most of the tenured English faculty, without my knowledge, and the vote for my reappointment was practically unanimous. There was nothing intimidating about this, just quiet persuasion. I think the students were surprised that there was no real opposition, although the California system as you know is deep in grave budgetary difficulties. For my first class of the new quarter over four hundred fifty people showed up, and I am now conducting two sessions -- really, an additional unpaid class, which the students want to pay for themselves -- an illegal proceeding in California and something I don't want anyway.
      I am telling you all this in some detail because it represents a kind of crisis of conscience. The position in Milwaukee is more attractive in almost every way. Not least is the enormous difference in salary - - here I teach what was supposed to be one three hour seminar of fifteen people once a week, at slightly more than 1/2 a beginning salary for full professor. When you are past sixty years old, money beyond a competence doesn't mean much anymore. I do think that both faculty and students at Milwaukee would be more stimulating than this Shangri-la. However, like it or not, I feel it is here that I am involved in responsibilities to a vast number of students. So here I had better stay, at least for now. I hate to close all options at Milwaukee. If you were only on the quarter system, as we are, I would have liked to come for the spring Quarter, as Eliade and Gilkey come to UCSB from Chicago.
      I want to thank you very much for the courtesy and consideration you have shown me. I want to apologize for all the trouble I've put you to. Believe me I feel very honored by your offer.
      Faithfully, Kenneth Rexroth

How different my life at UWM would have been if he had been installed as a professor there, how different for everyone there! Probably it would have been even stormier than it turned out to be. When the University Administration, Regents, and Wisconsin Attorney General threatened to fire me, I considered just leaving instead of putting up the expensive, exhausting, and demoralizing defense which I mounted, largely because of his encouragement to "hang on." So I was put on academic probation, without tenure or salary increase; my first wife was not rehired; and we were divorced, partly because of the stresses involved in the struggle. Kenneth's letter of 3 June 1970 is an evocative, penetrating, and prophetic analysis of the conflicts sweeping the country at that time:

Dear Morgan -
      Better hang on. I think it unlikely that either of you will be fired. I can't imagine a worse place to try to find a job than Santa Barbara, town or college. As the world economic crisis II shuts down radical melodrama, massive confrontation, calls for "general strikes" observed only by tiny minorities, all this will have to change to infiltration, organization, long term planning. The past decade of adventurism was purely a function of the affluent society. Jerry Rubin is Hugh Hefner in dirty whiskers. Eventually of course we will have new armies of unemployed, dispossessed and starving. But now is the time for the cadres to consolidate and hang on to any strategic positions they've gained. Nobody knows now how to plan, organize, train -- or what for. So don't quit!
      I think the "crisis program" here was a fine idea. A "hard strike" would not have been pulled off. There'd have been a mass picket line for a couple of days, arrests, clubbings, gas, shootings, and then it would have been over. As it is students are getting credit for "crisis classes" in the theory and practice of social conflict, the economics of the war economy, the history of revolutions, etc etc and more credit for canvassing door to door in Santa Barbara, and union to union, and lunch hour factory to factory, and store to store.
      [Jerry] Rubin was just here -- He screamed "Kill your parents! Kill your parents! Kill your parents!" and the whole stadium booed. By the time he was through over half of his audience had walked out, leaving elderly teenyboppers screaming as they used to for Benny Goodman. I am, and always have been, convinced he is an agent provocateur. Hayden follows next week. What a contrast!
Love to all     faithfully     Kenneth


As disillusionment with activism spread in the early 1970's, the wisdom that Rexroth had attained through earlier tragedies, international and personal, as well as his vast comprehension of classics from east and west, sustained those of us who cherished him and his books. I am especially grateful for his creative interpretation of Buddhism, and for his help that changed my life. Despairing of activism, marriage, life itself, I sank into Buddhist meditation. After asking him about an experience that I thought might be satori, he explained to me on 23 September 1970 the difference between Buddhist and Christian realization:

My. My. First time? I've always thought that's what part of the mind is always doing anyway - you just get a sharp focusing of attention on that level and a kind of hypertrophy of importance. It's the opposite of the mystical experience where there is a gradual dying out of any "importance" into IMPORTANCE and a sense of peace and contentless where you occupy CONTENT--the "meaning of meaning." What a disappointment that title [of I. A. Richard's book on language] was in the 20's when we expected something quite different. Of course in completion all polarities and antitheses merge. Love to all Kenneth

As my first marriage was breaking up, Rexroth wrote on 7 November 1970: "Sad about Barbara... It seems late in life to start over - but I managed twice... Let's hope you keep your job - you've become a part of Milwaukee. But again, I left SF when past 60... You know, I've forgotten that girl's name who got the mad crush on me last time. What was it?" In non-feminist terms he then praised Ling Chung, at that time a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, as "a lovely little girl who is writing her PhD on me... She's a dream come true."


Exploring the origins and history of revolutionary thought as the Movement disintegrated, he saw little hope in communes, unlike his close friend Gary Snyder and many other radicals at that time. In the following undated letter of 15 August 1971 he discussed on-going work for Communalism: from Its Origin to the Twentieth Century (1974, recently posted on Ken Knabb's homepage). My prose poems, mentioned, were published as The Great Brook Book (Boston: Four Zoas, 1980).But first he dealt with another garbled interview:
You must be referring to that spurious interview in San Francisco Book Review. The editor claims it is a direct transcription from tape. Carol & Barbara [?] who sat in on it say although the subjects are roughly mine the hip talk, the constant use of "shit" & words like "chick" & "spade" are put in to give color by the interviewer and the latter part, about [Paul] Goodman & homosexuality is completely garbled. I wrote a letter repudiating it - and he [the editor] printed one repudiating my repudiation. I haven't used "spade" since local blacks stopped using it - it was common in bop days. "Chick" I detest and often call my students on it.
      Your domestic life sounds back on a more stable basis. Me - what I want is peace and quiet to write. I'm glad you've still got your job. Jobs are getting scarcer and scarcer. I'm sure you couldn't connect c one of the California group grope emporia [encounter groups] - they are very much in-group and in-grope set ups.
      I'm doing a book - quite big -on the history of Anarchism - Communalism - Free Communism etc from the neolithic village to present day. I'm still back in the Reformation - just did Munster, first days of Hutterites, and Winstanley - each a chapter. But I do need to find out about US communes from 1945 to 1960, and to discover, if there are any contemporary ones that are not parasitic an disorderly but yet not religious-authoritarian. Are there any? The best seem to be in fact urban cooperative flats & houses of professional people not unlike 201 W 13th St Rye [New York] in my early youth. We just weren't self-conscious about it. Most of the country ones sound like Wheeler's ranch, shit on the ground, crash pads of an unrelieved nightmare of drugs & disorder - essentially a phenomenon of breakdown not revolution--and totally upper middle-class. Faithfully Kenneth
I think the prose poems are fine. "Outasight" as the interviewers [of] KR would say.

"Reagan's Bloodbath"

In a undated letter written in 1971, Rexroth condemns Governor Reagan's political repression:

Forgive the long delay. I've been kinda inert all Spring. I inquired around about connexions for your program. As you know there's no job at all in the University of State College systems. California is in the midst of a war of extermination against the mind. I am sending you some brochures of group grope outfits [encounter groups], including the famous Esalen. The free universities financed by Associated Students etc. funds have dried up. This has been a year of retreat. Everybody is scared after the 69-70 pogroms against students & blacks. Reagan's bloodbath policy has worked so far. My advice to you is to hang on at UWM at least 'til (if) the firestorm is over, and c it the depression. The unemployment rate in LA's actually as high as 1930 and in Seattle it is higher...
      All goes along c my family. Carol is well & busy/ Mary is in SF going to the Art Institute and making a movie of Wedekind's Spring's Awakening. She has a booklet of poems due out.
      I've done 2 books recently, With Eye & Ear essays on arts & letters, and American Poetry in the 20th Century, actually the introduction to my anthology but published first separately. When it goes in the book it will have another chapter and headnotes for each poet. Now I am doing a similar book on the Libertarian Tradition. I think I will write not just about anarchism but also about communalism and left communism, to sort of culminate in Sasha Berkman and descendants. Ling Chung and I are going to do an anthology of Chinese women poets and another of Sung dynasty poets.

Herder and Herder published With Eye and Ear in 1970, American Poetry in the 20th Century in 1971, and The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (with Ling Chung) in 1972.

Rexroth on Gibson on Rexroth

In the same letter Rexroth commented on a typescript of my first book about him:

      I hesitate to write you any criticism of your book on Rexroth. It does seem to me to portray me primarily as an anarchist and give less emphasis to the religious and nature mysticism and to the erotic mysticism. Mostly I am just plain flattered. If Twayne doesn't publish it I think Herder & Herder might. You should really meet Justus George Lawler - he's not far away - Geneva is a few hours drive.
      Maybe you can come to California during the summer? Normally we have lots of room. Love Kenneth

On 15 September 1971, he sent a postcard:

I'm doing a history of communalism and anarchism - down to Winstanley, Bellers & Plockhoy--done 200 pages. Also doing - "Literature, Art of," 11,000 words for Enc. Brit. Will write letter very soon. Faithfully Kenneth
I [will] also send few corrections for the Twayne book.

His article on literature appeared in the 15th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1974. Two pages of his minor corrections of my typescript of Kenneth Rexroth are not reproduced here. On 1 March 1972 he wrote:

How's your extended family going? Have you thought of a possible book for Herder & Herder? Now that McGraw Hill has taken over their promotion & distribution they should sell some books. Did you get my American Poetry in the 20th Century from them? ...As I told you I really know nothing about these group grope camps [encounter groups]. Did you get the packet of fliers from assorted ones in California? Frankly I think they are absurd and strictly for the mobile suburbanites. Whatever happened to the Twayne book, Morgan on Kenneth? [The actual title was Kenneth Rexroth.] What was the name of the pretty groupie who took after me last time in Milwaukee? ... I suspect something is wrong with our mail which is why all the questions. Love to all   Kenneth

After I had moved to Goddard College in Vermont, to join the graduate faculty in the summer of 1972, Rexroth wrote me the following undated letter:

Thanks so much for your card, and thanks for writing Saito [Professor George Saito of International Christian University in Tokyo]. He also once planned to do my autobiography [translate it into Japanese]. I just saw him - quite unchanged. More even than most Orientals he never seems to age. I had a wonderful time in Japan. Met a wonderful girl. I'll tell you about her. YES of course. It will be great if you can visit us. No I am not married... My daughter Katherine is at Middlebury and doesn't like it much. She would like to visit you at Goddard if you'd ask her. See you soon. Love   Kenneth

After Kenneth Rexroth was published by Twayne in 1972, Rexroth wrote on an undated postcard from Santa Barbara:

Gibson on Rexroth just came & is great - very conscientious & very complimentary. I am deeply grateful. Just a card - I am off to Japanologists International Conference, Kyoto, paid for by PEN Japan, & UCSB. Very Proud here. Will write when I return, lots to say. Do come to see us & stay here Feb. No bread for read, I think. For an anarchist you seem remarkably disturbed by which fraud got perpetrated Nov. 7. Also - cheer up! In 1000 years it will all be the same. Love, Kenneth

UCSB=University of California at Santa Barbara. "No bread for read" = no money for a reading at the university. Nov. 7 = presidential elections. I had learned basic critiques of authoritarian government and coercive society from such anarchists as Rexroth and Paul Goodman; but being strictly non-violent, I shied from the anarchist label. Since leaving Wisconsin in 1972 I had become politically inactive and increasingly involved in the study and practice of Buddhism.

After visiting Rexroth and Carol Tinker in Santa Barbara, 7-14 February 1973, I explored possibilities of his teaching in one of Goddard's off-campus programs. On 12 May 1973 he wrote:

      I presume your trip is long over & you are back at Goddard. Do ask Katherine Rexroth over from Middlebury. She feels very isolated there. What has happened to the Goddard non-resident tutorial program? There is a good possibility you could get a mansion in Montecito. I have an offer from something calling itself the "International Community College" in Westwood (L. A.) offering $1520 per student to the tutor! What is this? If I don't hear from Goddard or Antioch I think I will accept. Let me know...
      It doesn't look as though I will be reappointed at UCSB. Otherwise all is well. Very busy. 4 books lined up this year. Pity they none of them pay real money. I should be Kurt Vonnegut or Rod McKuen. Love to all Kenneth

On 27 April 1974, after his reading at Middlebury, I talked with him, his daughter Katherine, and Ling Chung. That was the last time I saw him before I moved to Osaka University at the beginning of September, 1975--thanks to his efforts to find me a professorship in Japan. Meanwhile, he and Carol Tinker had been married in Santa Barbara on 7 September 1974 before going on a year's honeymoon in Japan, where I met them just before they returned home.

Since 1957, our correspondence had pointed up a shared outlook of humanistic revolutionary change reflected in some aspects of the counterculture of the 1960's, with emphasis on opposition to the war, contemplation, and a devotion to poetry as interpersonal realization. With the collapse of a constructive movement for social and cultural change in the early 1970's, we looked to Japan for the enduring values of Buddhism.

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