Uri Hertz

The King is Dead. Long Live the King!

A Critical Study of the Literary & Cultural Impact of Kenneth Rexroth’s
Poetry & Jazz on the 1950's San Francisco Literary Bohemia



During the postwar era, key sectors of government and industry dominated a
field of production of cultural symbols consisting of radio, film, television, print
media and billboards. Collective energies previously harnessed by the victorious
war effort were directed into building infrastructures for suburbanized
conformism. Social engineering was put into place which generated uniform
identities for mass consumerism through freeway systems remapping zones of
urban design and construction as through images projected by mass media. A
parallel, antimatter dimension of literary bohemianism had broken away from
this dominant cultural habitus yet mirrored it under conspiratorial guise and in
distorted forms. As bohemian literary culture in San Francisco actually reached
its postwar peak of the 1950’s before it was co-opted and sold to the masses,
Kenneth Rexroth was the lightning rod charging a dynamo of poetic, critical and
political energies which swirled around him. Knowledge channeled by Rexroth
into younger generations enabled authentic literary-historical experience to
survive under threat of oblivion. The encounter between Rexroth and the beats
caused shifts in the center of gravity of literary counterculture. It was an alarm
set to go off ten years later (with San Francisco at its leading edge) and awaken
farther-reaching cultural change by releasing explosive social forces built up
along generational fault lines. Ironically, consumerism eventually cannibalized
and absorbed many of the most marketable of the changes during and after the
60’s, blurring the distinction between authenticity and stereotype.

Whether from memory or imagination, picture Rexroth at any stage of his
literary life reciting poetry in front of a jazz band, pacing the stage like a lion,
wiser than a sphinx, his proud head held high like an ancient sculpture, his face a
classical yet expressionistic mask of tragedy reflecting untold literary, political
and personal struggles. The unrelenting bite of Rexroth’s world-weary yet angrily
impassioned voice cut the air with the sting of his ironic humor and highly-
sharpened intellect. His voice was a dramatic instrument for expressing the
meaning and impact of each line of a poem as well as what lay behind it. He had
been honing it to expressive precision since he first acted on stage as a young
man in Chicago.

His dramatic range and encyclopedic knowledge had been gained on the boards,
as it were, through performing, reading, observation of and direct experience in
nature, political activism and behind-the-scenes participation in literature, art
and theater. Due to the authenticity of his experiential connection to the
traditions which flowed through these sources, he had a broad concept of
literature and the arts rooted in people’s political and cultural institutions from
revolutionary movements such as anarchism and socialism to popular forms of
entertainment including the music hall and vaudeville. Tragic inflections of
classical theater with the dignified bearing of high art and literature met the low
spiel of a vaudeville emcee or a carnival barker in the intoxicating matrix of
authentic cultural-historical reality where his conception of jazz-poetry had
originated. Midwestern, cosmopolitan and polyglot, the international strands
which constituted different aspects of Rexroth's poetic vision were woven into
recordings he made fronting jazz bands in the late fifties.

Kenneth Rexroth entered the 50’s doing poetry and jazz two decades after he had
first begun reciting his poems to live jazz accompaniment. Rexroth’s history with
this hybrid medium extends from 1920's Chicago to 50's San Francisco and
beyond. In liner notes for his Fantasy Spoken Word Series album, he tracked
jazz-poetry’s proto-origin to 19th century French poet, Charles Cros (Rexroth had
translated his “Hareng saur”). He wrote that Cros recited poetry fronting
Parisian café bands which played popular dance music behind his verse. In these
liner notes, and in subsequent newspaper and magazine articles, Rexroth stated
that Langston Hughes, Maxwell Bodenheim and he were reciting poetry with
“the jazz of the time” at the Green Mask in Chicago back in the 20’s. The
mistaken claim that poetry and jazz began in the 1950’s is based on Kenneth
Patchen’s assertion that he pioneered it in 1950 as well as on readings and
recordings by Patchen, Rexroth and Ferlinghetti done in years which followed.

Poetry and jazz was an art form with which Rexroth had long been developing
his connection, but it made up only one aspect of his wide-ranging poetic,
literary, political and theatrical activism. Rexroth referred to the 50’s as the time
when he, Patchen, Ferlinghetti and Lawrence Lipton had revived it (on the west
coast) in a modern-jazz context. He sardonically characterized beat poetry and
jazz as a fad which died away. He wrote in a 1975 article in the San Francisco
Examiner that he had grown tired of the shadiness of underworld nightclub
owners and had gotten out of performing poetry and jazz in clubs when it
became a craze despite working thousand-dollar-a-night gigs at key venues
around the country and enjoying the musical backing of the house band at The
Cellar in North Beach.  

Lyrical, neo-classical, modernist and politically-committed, Rexroth brought his
highly-developed philosophical point of view to this vehicle of poetic and
musical expression rooted in popular culture. Rexroth’s poems performed to jazz
were generally around the length of a popular jazz standard, each chorus
consisting of thirty-two bars with a bridge. When he wrote and started
performing “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (his elegy on the death of Dylan Thomas) with
jazz backing, he extended the length to over twenty minutes and opened up the
composition into a sequence of movements, expanding from the format of the
jazz standard into theatrical dimensions of mid-20th century experience depicted
through modes of ancient ritual. The poem’s synthesis of sound and sense
should be received like a spoken jazz opera rather than as a poetic or musical
product measured against forms tied to conventions of genre. Totally up-to-date
yet already grounded in earlier decades of the jazz age and in a modernist
interpretation of ancient drama, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” charted a historically-
rooted, hyper-charged, moment-to-moment, satirical anarchist critique of the
postwar militaristic mega-state machine.

Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth draws upon a spectrum of moods
ranging from absurdist humor to lyrical meditation on love and death,
demonstrating a developed understanding of jazz phrasing and intonation
through his interplay with the music. He recites “Married Blues” to the backing
of his band which plays a slow-to-medium tempo bop take on Duke Ellington’s
“Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” with the head consisting of arranged
blues horn lines. After an opening horn salvo, Rexroth takes the stage intoning
staccato syllables in a voice which is warm and humorous, yet intimate and
confidential, making it effortlessly clear when to come in on the measure and
when to hold back behind the beat. The poem explores accepting erotic
contradictions which permeate relationships in the ways they are anchored to
day-to-day aspects of mundane urban existence, or at least resigning oneself to
this state of affairs.  “That’s the way life is / everybody’s in the same fix / it will
never be any different,”
2 he concludes, synchronized with the rhythm section as
it walks up to an ending played by the horns.

The dynamic interlocking of poet and instrumentalists is up front in the opening
line of “Nicholas, the Experimental Dog,” Rexroth’s translation of Raymond
Queneau’s grotesquely whimsical “
Nicolas chien d’experience.” The tune kicks off
with the band swinging “St. James Infirmary.” Rexroth does a tongue-in-cheek
rendering of Queneau’s pataphysical descriptions from the life of a misfit,
whether dog or man, afflicted with ill-fated misfortunes and weirdly-placed body
parts. “State and 32nd, Cold Morning Blues” is an uptempo bop number. Rexroth
explores an urban street aesthetic consisting of cubistically juxtaposed minute
particulars spliced into images and phrases depicting disintegrating situations.
Desperate city tableaux roll in clear, direct language riffing along with abstract
piano blues and bopping horn lines. With humoristic and amused immediacy,
Rexroth’s voice communicates that as grim as the reality of the streets may seem
too early on a desolate morning, the poet’s eye sees human comedy with a
sublime sense of pathos embedded in the unadorned starkness of the situations
upon which the poem is based.

“Do Not Talk Anymore” (extracted from Rexroth’s “When We with Sappho”) is
musically and poetically unlike the three playfully humorous numbers. A bowed
bass opens and ends the poem in ballad tempo, signaling a complete change of
atmosphere and mood to the listener. The horns play sad lyrical lines and
Rexroth recites in a melancholy yet inspired voice. This poem is a deeper and
more serious reflection on his resolve to savor languid moments of love on a
warm afternoon with time and the season passing, “as summer moves to
autumn,”  even in the face of the inevitability of death. The instrumental sections
of the number swing into double time. The saxophonist improvises a solo before
the band slows back down to ballad tempo. Rexroth evokes the moment. Once
again the band swings double-time behind a trumpet solo and then changes
again to ballad tempo, opening up a big space in the composition for Rexroth to
take his poem and the moment out to the ending in ecstatic yet regretful tones.


“Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Rexroth’s elegy for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, is his
contribution to
Poetry Readings in the Cellar2, a Fantasy LP cut with Lawrence
Ferlinghetti in live performance. Rexroth’s musically perceptive, jazz-hip
intoning of poetic lines aggressively interacts with the dynamics of the music by
exploring their tonal and emotional potentials. There is a striking difference
between the push and pull of Rexroth’s dialogue with the musicians and
Ferlinghetti’s straightforward reading of his poems. Ferlinghetti’s
“Autobiography” alternates between the poet reading lines and the band
playing, but there is none of the call and answer improvisation essential to jazz.
On “St. Francis,” the poem is read over the music while it is being played, yet
once again they are not mutually responsive. The musicians are swinging their
parts while Ferlinghetti reads in his laconic style, his voice sounding more
animated than when reciting the poem solo. Other than that, poetry and music
are performed at the same moment but on parallel tracks which fit together to
make a whole composition. The combination of voice and instruments produces
theatricality abstractly connected and synchronized, possibly an understated
reference to Samuel Becket meets Merce Cunningham and John Cage in a
straight-ahead bebop groove. Rexroth’s delivery, on the other hand, changes in
response to shifting dynamics as he leads the music played by the ensemble,
cueing the musicians with his voice and directing them as to when and how to
come in, intensify and, at key moments, explode. Reciting the way a jazz vocalist
does but without singing, he explores the intonation and range of his spoken
voice as an instrument in a kind of neo-classical American vocalese swinging in a
deeply dramatic international groove.

The musical backing for “Thou Shalt Not Kill” dwarfs the humorous and/or
lyrically rendered blues, bebop and ballads of Rexroth’s other recordings. This
jazz-poetry suite is structured in a series of four movements corresponding to
clusters of stanzas in the long poem. It has a range of musical and vocal
dynamics marking a most ambitious point of development of his jazz-poetry
concept, and it is in a class of its own in the field of recorded collaborations
between poets and musicians. The musical setting begins with the lone voice of a
trumpet playing a single anguished yet heraldic tone. A solemn, muffled drum
roll and a bowed bass playing long tones bring in Rexroth’s voice. He utters the
opening line in elegiac mode which sets up one of the poem’s dominant motifs,
“They are murdering all the young men.”
4 This movement of the poem is spoken
as if on a theatrical set of a scene of ancient and timeless tragedy. Gazing upon
the charred battlefield of the 20th century, he bears witness to the predatory
victimization of the young in war. Rexroth recites in a mournful voice charged
with immediacy, accompanied by the ceremonially ominous sound of muffled
drum and bowed bass which creates a sense of benumbed anticipation. He
narrates a ritual stoning of young men carried out before shocked witnesses.
This disturbing sequence ends with Rexroth singling out those who are culpable
in the killing with the exclamation, “You!”

The third stanza of this movement begins with brooding horns punctuated by
the accusatory second-person pronoun, “You.” “You are the murderer / You are
killing the young men.”
6  Speaking directly to those responsible for the
slaughter, yet unnamed, Rexroth catalogues a sequence of cannibalistic torments.
The horns and bowed bass play long tones as the fourth stanza invokes the
tortures and persecutions suffered by St. Sebastian, identified as the one who is
being ritualistically abused and killed. “You shot him with arrows, / then you
beat him with stones.”
7  In the fifth and closing stanza of the first movement,
Rexroth focuses on surrealistic images of savagery and greed with a grotesquely
modern character to characterize the depraved moral as well as social position of
the killers: “You, /  The hyena with polished face and bow tie/ in the office of a
billion dollar corporation … The vulture dripping with carrion / Carefully and
carelessly robed in imported tweeds … The jackal in double-breasted gabardines
… Barking by remote control / In the United Nations / The vampire bat seated at
the couch head … / The superego in a thousand uniforms / You, the finger man
of Behemoth …”
8  Rexroth introduces a dominant motif which develops as the
poem progresses through its four movements: the killer has countless horrific
faces and identities concealed among the corporate intelligentsia. The killer is a
member of the university-educated elite who turns away from the lessons of
history, economics and the social sciences in order to make a compromise with
commercial capitalist/imperialist militarized society which generates and feeds a
behemoth war machine devouring its young.

The second movement’s modulation is from the archetypal, primitive and
biblical images describing the murders – along with the poet’s accusations
hurled at those responsible – to specific references to people Rexroth had known
who met tragic ends before the time of the poem, many in violent acts of suicide.
Invoking poets and literary bohemians such as Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane,
Sarah Teasdale, George Sterling, Ezra Pound, Maxwell Bodenheim and Edna St.
Vincent Millay, he stridently asks “what happened to…” and “where are they?”
Rexroth progresses through a series of questions which constitute the stanza, his
voice modulating between the sacred liturgy of a high priest and the profane
intonations of a carnival barker. Intensity builds, phrase by phrase, and the lives
and deaths accumulate. Before the pause in each sequence of evocations, in a
voice heavy with the gravity of resignation to time’s disintegration toward death,
he answers. A saxophone moans and wails mournfully in the background.
Increasing in bitterness each time, Rexroth alternately repeats
timor mortis
conturbat me
10 (I am tormented by the fear of death), extracted from medieval
Scottish poet William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers.”

Dunbar’s poem, written five hundred years earlier, is a crisply-rhymed and
darkly somber meditation on death’s cruel finality. The poet reflects on deceased
writers he has known and the circumstances under which they met their ends.
Despite differences accounted for by the five hundred years which separate the
two poems, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is in direct historico-poetic alignment with
Dunbar’s “Lament.” Dunbar laments that he will never again see friends who
have been taken by death. The poem rings with the names of departed friends as
they are invoked stanza by stanza with a phrase which follows, telling something
essential about what became of each one. Rexroth recounts the fates of doomed
writers in the parallel section of his poem, every stanza punctuated with the
timor mortis conturbat me, as a closing rhyme laced with equal parts of
fatalism and finality.

The third movement of the poem begins with a solo walking bass joined by the
piano playing blues chords as Rexroth asks, “Was their end noble and tragic /
like the mask of a tyrant / like Agamemnon’s secret golden face?” He answers,
“Indeed it was not.”
12 While the parallel with Dunbar’s “Lament” is strongest in
this section, Rexroth’s twentieth-century scope goes into complex and intricately
developed literary, historical and cultural detail. He focuses on the problematic
relations between radical bohemian poets, the protagonists of this section of the
poem, and the social order which they refuse to join due to reasons ranging from
political convictions to madness. One after another, beginning with a weary,
injured soldier in a foxhole followed by a man mired in lice-ridden poverty,
Rexroth describes the different ways these people’s lives were ended, each a fatal
episode in dead-end situations characterized by urban misery. Each made a
desperate, grimly-decisive move to violently put an end to life by self-abusive
means. Two drowned themselves; another threw herself down a flight of stairs
while yet another jumped from a balcony. One set herself on fire, another threw
himself under traffic and still another turned on the gas. The trumpet comes in
as the key question of the stanza turns into, “How many…” asking about the
ones who “stopped writing at thirty”
13 and sold out to mass commercial culture,
taking jobs in the academy or in the corporate structure, and the ones who
succumbed to alcoholism or were institutionalized.

The brief sequence which follows suddenly, but only briefly, changes the
saturnine mood of lament which has dominated the poem up to this point. Drum
and trumpet break into a short, staccato fanfare then stop. Rexroth announces in
circus phrases, punctuated by another trumpet and drum fanfare, the name of
French Dadaist or Surrealist poets or Russian Futurists whose deaths were
tragically premature: “Rene Crevel! Jacques Rigaut! Antonin Artaud!
Mayakovsky! Esenin! Robert Desnos! Saint-Pol Roux! Max Jacob!”
14 Each of these
revolutionary twentieth-century poets was destroyed, directly or indirectly, by
the state or its apparatus in their uncompromising and relentless pursuit of a
radical poetic and political vision. Rexroth places himself among
poetes maudits
whose tragic lives and deaths are recounted in the poem by using the first-
person plural for the first time in the poem, indicating a shift in the progression.
“All over the world / the same disembodied hand / strikes us down,”
15 the poet
exclaims as he relates these deaths to archaic sacrificial rites from mythology.
Rexroth relates that he is no less subject to the situation which hounded his
peers to death, nor to the collective and individual fate of radical bohemian
writers of his generation.

Victor Serge’s elegiac poems, “Constellation of Dead Brothers,” “Max” and
16 all three written during imprisonment or exile, reveal deep
connections between his poetry and Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Serge, a life-
long revolutionary, born in Belgium to Russian parents in 1890, who went to
Russia in 1919 to participate in the Russian Revolution, was imprisoned and
deported after his intellectual independence compelled him to stray from the
party line. Suicided Russian poets Mayakovsky and Esenin were his peers. His
book of poems, titled
Resistance (City Lights), bears witness to lives of
revolutionaries lost in ideological struggle with a revolution that had hardened
into dictatorship, closing off possibilities dreamed by visionary poets, artists and
theorists. He also criticized leading poet/activists of West European
intelligentsias who remained silent about these imprisonments and executions
out of unquestioning faith in Stalinism long after Soviet repressive measures,
state crimes and mass murders had become known.

“Constellation” invokes ten dead friends, fellow conspirators during years of
revolutionary struggle. Referring to each by first name, Serge gives the site and
circumstances of their deaths one by one: Latvia, Spain, France, Shanghai and
Hong Kong. “David… / in a quiet orchard in France…  / six bullets for a 20-year-
old heart / Vassili… / the wind effaces your tomb /  in the cornfields of Armavir. /
… the square resembles the cemetery… / and you are dying, / Nguyen, in your
prison bed.” In “Constellation,”
17 dated 1935, Victor Serge, after years of
imprisonment and exile, concludes this desolate sequence of deaths with an
unexpectedly affirmative statement:
The course is set on hope.18 He concludes the
poem repeating this phrase. Rexroth offers readers of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” no
hopeful prospects. Written in the fifties, twenty years later, Rexroth’s poem
reflects his take on the  revolutionary struggle against the massive state machine
in its postwar American manifestation.

page two
photo courtesy of Ruth Witt-Diamant & family
Rexroth reciting poems from In Defense of the Earth at a salon in his Scott St. apartment, February 5, 1957: (l to r)
Ruth Witt-Diamant, Ida Hodes, Eva Triem, unidentified person, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Philip Lamantia, Ariel
Parkinson, William Everson and Kenneth Rexroth.