Tuesday, September 3, 2019

1940 (the opening section of Visions & Affiliations)

To understand how Visions & Affiliations differs fundamentally from every other literary history it is necessary to experience it: to read straight through an entire section without interruption. 

So here is the opening section of the book, 1940. (Bear in mind that every year between 1940 and 2005 receives a similarly expansive treatment).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Kenneth Rexroth “invents the culture of the West Coast.” His first book of poetry, In What Hour appears from Macmillan. Many of the poems have been published in magazines such as New Masses, The New Republic, and Partisan Review.

Robert Hass writes that In What Hour “seems—with its open line, its almost Chinese plainness of syntax, its eye to the wilderness, anarchist politics, its cosmopolitanism, experimentalism, interest in Buddhism as a way of life and Christianity as a system of thought and calendar of the seasons, with its interest in pleasure, its urban and back-country meditations—to have invented the culture of the West Coast” [Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (HarperCollins, 1985)].

In The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century (Cambridge University Press, 1991), Michael Davidson adds, 

Although [Rexroth] had not been a member of the Communist Party (he claims to have become disaffected from official Soviet policy sometime around the end of the Bolshevik Revolution, when he was still a teenager), he was active in groups like the Randolph Bourne Council (an anarchist group), the John Reed Club, the Libertarian Circle, and the Waterfront Workers Association in San Francisco and participated in various WPA projects. For writers who gathered at his Friday evening “at homes” during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rexroth represented a continuation of a much older radical tradition that was part of San Francisco’s heritage. He served as an important model for poets like Gary Snyder, William Everson, and Robert Duncan, who were searching for a socially as well as intellectually committed poet.

The dominant politics of the Rexroth group took the form of anarchopacifism. A number of writers who met under this banner found themselves in conscientious-objector camps during World War II, most significantly that at Waldport, Oregon, where William Everson was interned. One of the first important small presses, the Untide Press, was established at Waldport under Everson’s supervision and produced numerous early books by conscientiou s objectors during the war.

In Literary San Francisco (City Lights Books and Harper and Row, 1980) Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters describe Rexroth’s home: “Certainly the most international literary soirée in San Francisco in the 1950s and early 1960s was that held almost weekly at Kenneth Rexroth’s large second-floor flat at 250 Scott Street above Jack’s Record Cellar on the edge of the mostly black Fillmore district”:

The halls of the flat were lined to the ceiling with apple boxes containing one of the finest collections of literature (Western and oriental, classical and modern, in several languages), much of it review copies in many fields (poetry, geology, astronomy, art, sociology, philosophy, political history, and radical thought in general)—the vintage harvest of many years of literary criticism for KPFA/FM, the Nation, Saturday Review, and the New York Times, among others.

Writers from many countries plus migrant East Coast and Northwest poets found their way to Rexroth’s where they encountered many of the resident San Francisco radical community, the heart of which was made up of World War II conscientious objectors and poets active in the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s…. 

Here are some quotations from Rexroth (born 1905) himself:

Every day all states do things which, if they were the acts of individuals, would lead to summary arrest and often execution...What is called ‘growing up,’ ‘getting a little common sense,’ is largely the learning of techniques for outwitting the more destructive forces at large in the social order. The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it.

An appreciable number of Americans really do believe the Great Fraud of the mass culture, what the French call the hallucination publicitaire. They only know what they read in the papers. They think it is really like the movies...The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies.


Most of the real difficulty of communication comes from social convention, from a vast conspiracy to agree to accept the world as something it really isn’t at all.


I starve under capitalism, and I would starve under a dictatorship of the proletariat for the same reasons. After all I am interested in  perpetual revolution in a sense other than Trotsky’s—the constant raising into relevance of ignored values. Poetry has for its mission in society the reduction of what the Society of Jesus named “invincible ignorance,” and the true poet is as much to be feared by the proletariat as by the bourgeoisie.


I came to California in 1927. The day I got into town, San Francisco’s leading poet, California’s leading poet, killed himself. George Sterling. He pretty much represented the California scene in those days ...The San Francisco literary world was dominated by people to whom the native son and daughter thing was all important, although most of them were not native sons and daughters...

It’s hard to believe now, with all the tremendous activity that has been in San Francisco, that San Francisco, when we came there to live, was very much of a backwater town...We met people who would say to you, “Who do you think is California’s leading writer?” And you would say, “Gertrude Stein.” They would say, “Who is that?” And then they would say, “Oh, yes!” They knew her, you see, her brother was in society on the Peninsula, but they didn’t know she wrote...We just didn’t have any competition. It was like Picasso dropping back into the world of Trollope.

Michael McClure: “[Rexroth] told us that we were part of the West Coast and we had more in common with Japan, China, Korea, than we did with Paris and London. New Yorkers related to the capitals of Europe; we could relate otherwise and be natural with Asian religious and philosophical ideas and ways of seeing and making  art. As a person of the Pacific Rim, I could experience history in a different way....”

The young Robert Duncan (born 1919) agrees with most of “Daddy Rexroth’s” (Duncan’s phrase) formulations. In the introduction to The Years as Catches: First Poems (1939-1946) (Oyez, 1966), Duncan writes,

I saw my own personal life belonging to a larger human life that was foreign to the society into which I had been born, to the American way, to the capitalist ethic with its identification of work with earning a wage and of the work with a saleable commodity, and with its ruthless exploitation of human energies for profit. The years of the Roosevelt administration had seen the great increase of state power—an America that would overthrow Hitler’s State, taking its place and standing with the Soviet Union as an  overwhelming contestant for world domination—and now, in these years as I began to write, from 1937 on, the Roosevelt panacea for the ills of the profit system, the Permanent War Economy, began to emerge as a reality that would take over. My deepest social feelings then were irregular…for I saw the State and the War as diseases, eternal enemies of man’s universal humanity and of the individual volition.

The young William Everson (born 1912) felt equally “foreign to the society” into which he had been born. In his autobiography, Prodigious Thrust (Black Sparrow, 1966), he writes about his early relationship with poet/artist Mary Fabilli (born 1914),

We lived in a middle-class parish, the parishioners of which were conventional Americans, and there is nothing remarkable in that; but to such a one as I, estranged from contemporary life by a profound cleavage of values, and nursing a deep-rooted contempt for all the effects of modern civilization—to such a one, everything about a middle-class American church can move to nothing but repugnance.

Later, after Baptism, I was to live in the poorest parish of Oakland, where the parishioners were largely of direct foreign extraction. In these people, for whom convention had not yet become a stultifying thing because it had been unable to crystallize in material possessions, I could truly delight. It would have been easier for me had I been able to make my orientation there…[M]y problem was not that of identifying with the dirty and disheveled, as it is said to be for the Protestant when confronted by that unmistakable Old World odor of the Church, but rather with the fashionable, the  modish woman or the bustling business man; not to see Christ in the poor, for which I would have no trouble, but to see Him in the bourgeois, whom I despised.

Yvor Winters (born 1900) self-publishes his Poems on his own handpress, Gyroscope Press, Los Altos, California.

Poet/linguist/anthropologist Jaime de Angulo (born 1887) appears as a legendary bohemian hermit figure in Big Sur, California. Other artists in the area are composer Harry Partch and poet Robinson Jeffers; novelist Henry Miller will move to Big Sur in 1943. Jeffers, Partch and de Angulo are referred to as “The Three American Primitives.”

Angered at receiving rejection slips from established magazines, William Everson adopts the pseudonym “William Herber”—Herber is his mother’s family name—and submits work containing a fashionable message about class struggle to Poetry Magazine. Poetry publishes two poems in that vein, after which Everson admits the hoax in a letter which Poetry also publishes.

Robert Duncan (then Robert Symmes) admires some of Everson’s published poems and begins to correspond with him. The two men will meet in 1941.

Ward Ritchie Press in Los Angeles publishes a letter press edition of Alfred Young Fisher’s “quirky” epic poem, The Ghost in the Underblows. The book is designed by Alvin Lustig; the poem is described as a “fragment.” The book’s prospectus features a cover design by Lustig not reproduced in the book as well as laudatory comments about Fisher and his poem from Una and Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Jake Zeitlin, Jens Nyholm, Helen Eustis, Grace Hazard Conkling, Nikolaus Pennemann, Dow Parkes, Thurman Wilkins, and Gordon Newell. The subscription price for each of the two hundred and seventy-five copies alotted for sale is $6.00 (plus 18 cents sales tax).

Alfred Young Fisher was the first husband of M.F.K. Fisher; they divorced in the late 1930s. He taught at both Occidental College in California and Smith College in Massachusetts. At Smith, one of his poetry students was Sylvia Plath, who inscribed a copy of the first American edition of her first full volume of poetry, Colossus, to him; the inscription affirms the importance of her former teacher to her understanding of poetry. These are some passages from "The Ghost in the Underblows." Parts of this strange poem—note the British spelling of words like “realization”—seem almost comic, and it seems to be haunted by the imagery of war, though the bombing of Pearl Harbor did not occur until December, 1941. Fisher and his wife had lived in Dijon, where her love of cooking began to blossom.

The men going along straight in the winter air, 
The soldiers in their blue, 
All the color of the sky, 
Weaken everywhere 
Like what is anywhere true 
In heaven or close by. 
The wagons here in Dijon pass me by, 
Their drivers blowing on their mittentips; 
War widows (whose husbands lived to die) 
With chattering lips 
On pious way 
To pray 
Are rotting in the sun of this wintry day— 
Or do you say 
Me nay?

But these are nothing, nothing at all: 
It is the wintry brain 
With lions torn by strong hands 
In its forests, that will fall 
With riddles and with wiles 
With anything that time beguiles, 
With mouth and white breasts pointing up 
For one who though he must not 
Still will sup, 
Drink at the fountain of his mother’s heart. 
But this too is nothing: not a line 
Of these my words, not one word of them all 
But shall like the others endure fall 
With the crumbling helical. 
And that is nothing: nothingness itself 
Will one day reckon as a coin of human pelf 
And tetter all around the lip and eye 
Going into what only nothing must surely be.

Stifle to death your dreams with a white pillow 
Laundered in poison 
Or a coverlet soaked in the waters 
Where lepers were once healed; stifle your vision 
With anything you like, to fit the mode; with dusty sorrow 
And it will come like dynamited stones down over your head 
And kill you where you stand. 
It will come up under the sidewalks of sleep 
Like roots pushing gradually and sure 
From the underground, for it feeds on air. 
It will come like automobiles from the sides 
At intersections; even in death dreams cease gradually. 
Stifle these things under the brain if so you can, 
And see them in the mirror of logic 
When things are postulated for subject and predicate 
And the conclusion, of no matter how abstract, 
Leaves something over that cannot be forced down. 
Or stifle by compression; put under your pneumatic hammers 
The junk of the world for new metal; 
Yet over its pounded being will still hover 
Like vision, the memory of something which dies hardlier than substance. 
Compress as one would an egg your vision 
And it will rest ovoid and white, unbroken. 
Or smash it, plant it all around a rosebush 
To keep off ants and fertilise beauty. 
Murder your dream; steal on it with garroting hands 
Crushing its white swan throat 
Until its eyes start out like bulges in an inner tube; 
Or slit its wrists to watch a rosary of blood 
Turn from one color to another with a dying prayer. 
(But in a tube the blood, of no matter what age or species 
Is evident; and murder cries on murder, 
Blood will have blood. And never Adonis died 
But he left flowers under his wounds).

Leaving me in the square of street lights, 
Touch me to the quick of realisation; 
The opening and closing of a door no less 
Stir in my mind the time of adieu 
And beginning; the parting guest 
Who might have been a god in other apparel. 
And when my brain opens and closes 
Like a door admitting a guest gladly 
And we share conversation over the board 
I would not ask that he be more than a god. 
The sheep may bleat outside 
And in time if one have strength he may go 
Into the wind to find the lost one; or he may 
Sit by the last leaf of flame in the book 
Wondering what might have been had there been more. 
But now my hand is numb 
As the place where an amputated leg was, 
And I only know what I know for myself.

The immigration center at Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, the point of entry for most of the approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to America between 1910 and 1940, is closed. From Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 by Genny Lim, Mimmark Lai and Judy Yung (The Hoc-doi Project, 1980, reprinted by the University of Washington Press 1985, 1996):

The ordeal of immigration and detention left an indelible mark in the minds of many Chinese, a number of whom wrote poetry on the barrack walls…When the center’s doors shut in 1940, one of the most bitter chapters in the history of Chinese immigration to America came to a close. The poems expressing the thoughts of the Chinese immigrants were locked behind those doors and soon forgotten.

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