III

Half a century of revisionism can obscure sources and tributaries as well as confuse
effects for causes. To grasp the breadth and scope of Rexroth’s innovations in poetry
and jazz, it is essential to trace their resonance on surrounding subcultures and
examine his impact. The scene was set in mid-1950’s San Francisco where a new
literary bohemia had emerged with Rexroth’s influential participation and leadership.
Enter a generation of hungry poets converging on the San Francisco Bay Area from
the East Coast, the Midwest, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, born and
raised during The Great Depression, who, by 1950, were rising from a lumpen
proletariat of drug and sexual outlaws as well as descending from the college campus.
By the time the beats were connecting with San Francisco, their jazz-hip ears could
feast on poetry performances backed by rhythm section and horns. At a crossroads of
fate converging in galleries and cafes, Allen Ginsberg encountered Rexroth’s “Thou
Shalt Not Kill,” and the impact of this collision between politically-committed elder
statesman Rexroth and ex-ad executive turned bohemian Ginsberg, driven by
ambition to make it as a poet and determined to take the next step at any cost,
changed the San Francisco poetry scene into beat counterculture later popularized in
Kerouac’s novels and caricatured in corporate mass media..

At the close of the third section of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Rexroth invokes the name of
Moloch, Babylonian devourer of children: “The-first born of a century / slaughtered by
Herod / stuffed down the jaw of Moloch.”
19 Allen Ginsberg was among young writers
around Rexroth who were championed by him on the scene as well as in the press.
Ginsberg repeats the name “Molloch” in a major section of “Howl”
20 invoking a
monstrous vision of the modern industrial state’s culpability in the destruction of the
best minds of his generation. In long bopping poetic lines supercharged with strident
prophecy, the poet denounces a system which feeds the young into a vicious war
machine yet he affirms resignation to the beast’s thrall: “Molloch who entered my
soul early.”
21 Unlike Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” “Howl” neither incorporated
song forms nor was accompanied by music, and in this sense was a different type of
performance-poem, yet Ginsberg appropriated significant elements like Rexroth’s
fusion of ancient imagery with modern poetics of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” adapting and
embedding them into “Howl” at an atomically-charged pace approximating the
accelerated tempos of situations and hopped-up lives of the people depicted in his
poem.

For Rexroth, as for the beats, poetry went far beyond the bookish art relegated to
hushed libraries, buttoned-up bookstores and hallowed halls of academia.
Nevertheless, Rexroth was skeptical of what he considered to be the beats’ co-opting
of the San Francisco Renaissance and their vulgarization of poetry and jazz into a
tattered pop stereotype: “every petty imitation beatnik was ‘blowing words’ to pawn
shop saxophones mended with scotch tape…”
22  Jack Kerouac cruelly caricatured
Rexroth in a satirical account of the Six Gallery reading in an early chapter of
The
Dharma Bums
. In a letter written to Philip Whalen in June of 58, Kerouac expressed an
almost paranoiac fear of what he perceived as Rexroth’s political attacks and
revolutionary ambitions: “Lucien [Carr] says that Rexroth would destroy me if he had
the chance. I can just see him ordering my head cut off in a revolution.”
23 Beats who
were close to Rexroth around the time of the Six Gallery reading later distance
themselves from his influence. “We younger, hipper poets cringed to hear his jazz-
backed recital of his death-ode to Dylan Thomas,”
24  wrote David Meltzer for a Rexroth
festschrift in Third Rail No. 8, 1987. In relation to the new streamlined, stripped-down
and souped-up riff of postwar beat poetics, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” must have appeared
anomalous in its expanded structure, uncompromising political commitment,
relentless moral outrage and over-the-top vocal delivery compared to beat recordings
in the genre.

The older mentor was writing dismissively about the beats not long after he had first
championed them in the press. In a piece he wrote ten years after the fact, Rexroth
described Kerouac and Ginsberg as a couple of out-of-town rubes who glommed on to
the San Francisco underground and ran it into the ground: “…two prize students…
showed up in San Francisco….Their names were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Both were extremely conventional writers with an inflexible Madison Avenue
orientation. The liberating San Francisco atmosphere, free of market pressures,
exploded them or maybe just gave them an incurable case of the bends. They took up
and vulgarized any number of San Francisco customs—poetry-and-jazz, for one—
which they almost immediately succeeded in destroying.”
25 Rexroth’s jazz poetry
carried seeds of revolutionary change which underwent mutation under the hands of
poets of a younger generation, and he reacted to it in the press. Rexroth, in reviews of
Kerouac’s writing in San Francisco papers and in the New York Times, characterized
the younger beat’s prose about a jam session at a black jazz club south of Market
Street as “missionary fricassee,” an overheated indulgence in primitivizing the
sophisticated avant-gardism of the musicians.

Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is an angry lament for the disturbing fate of writers of
his generation as well as an indictment of the system which victimized them.
Ginsberg’s “Howl” recounts self-destructive lives of peers who were part of a cultural
underground soon to become known as the beat generation. In the first half of the
20th Century, the pressure on psyches and nervous systems of poets made them too
aware to ignore contradictions ripping apart the fragile human fabric. Both poets took
a stand against the false front of normalcy in conformist American society. Both
poems pulsate with the reckless abandon of radically bohemian fates burning against
the superstructure brought upon them by the monolith of state as it dictates terms of
surrender to its relentless system. Both battle against the ethical hypocrisy of the
American nightmare. Both invoke biblical and mythological gods and monsters
symbolizing primordial drives and libidinous forces seething beneath the veneer of
postwar mass civilization. Rexroth, in “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” makes a single reference
to Moloch as the devourer in whose jaws poets are stuffed. Ginsberg works the motif
until it dominates a major section of “Howl,” identifying Molloch as the insidious
state behemoth responsible for the reckless destruction of his generation.

Contrasts between the two poems reflect generational and individual differences
between Rexroth and Ginsberg in terms of background, point of view and agenda. The
dominant verb tense in Rexroth’s poem is the past. There is grief over the loss of
literary-political-cultural personages of high value to the development of a society
which neglected their contributions and compelled or left them to abusive fates.
Although the early sections of “Howl” are in the past tense, Ginsberg’s poem unfolds
in an apocalyptic present taking place after the fall, when what has been lost has
already been consigned to oblivion. It is a lament for and celebration of generational
peers he knows at the time of writing the poem. There is little residue of nostalgia for
what has gone before but hyper-enthusiasm for the now.

The world of “Howl” was years in development, but the historical and human scope,
political yet prophetic energy and subversively bohemian stance of “Thou Shalt Not
Kill” revealed strategies to Ginsberg for synthesizing disparate elements of his poem
into a generational context. Ginsberg discovered “Thou Shalt Not Kill” at a key point
in the conceptualizing and writing of “Howl.” He adapted poetic and oratorical
devices embedded in the structure of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” focusing them on the
experience of his depression-born beat generation in place of Rexroth’s lost
generation born around the turn of the century and come of age between the two
world wars.

The Rexrothian spin Ginsberg put on “Howl” helped set in motion socio-symbolic
forces which, as they played out, radically restructured literary social space.
Howl's
obscenity trial’s synergy with the national impact of Kerouac’s
On the Road impelled a
generational shift in the direction of the literary underground. Rexroth’s jazz
rendition of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” burned with nihilistic rage against the death trip of
the system while beat jazz-poetry was cool in the 50’s sense of the word, meaning
uninvolved or detached, grooving or goofing. Despite the fact that “Thou Shalt Not
Kill” was clearly a major influence on “Howl,” this influence has not been widely
acknowledged. However, during a cab ride taken by Allen Ginsberg across Tokyo with
John Solt and Japanese poet Torii Shozo in the early 80’s, when Shozo asked Ginsberg
point-blank if it was true that Rexroth’s poem had exerted a strong influence on
“Howl,” Ginsberg readily admitted that indeed it had.

 IV

The music in “Thou Shalt Not Kill” settles back into a brooding torment to set the
scene for the fourth and final section which, focusing specifically on the death of
Dylan Thomas, gradually builds to a montage of images cascading to the poem’s
climax. Abruptly as the heraldic announcements of the names of doomed poets had
altered the entire mood of the performance in the previous stanza, now the bowing of
the bass and a sparse, staccato three-note figure played on the trumpet bring in the
key phrase of the stanza: “He is dead!”
26  We know he is speaking of Dylan Thomas
because he makes reference to the recently-deceased poet’s Welsh origins, crying out
in strident tones of immediacy, “He is dead / the sparrow of Cardiff. / He is dead. /
The canary of Swansea.”
27 Rexroth’s exclamation, synchronized with drum/bass triplet
figures punctuating the three syllables, repeats again and again. Intensity keeps
building as Rexroth answers each repetition in the form of accusatory phrases hurled
with force, speaking directly to and identifying the murderer. “Who killed the bright-
headed bird? You did, you son of a bitch. / You drowned him in your cocktail brain. /
He fell down and died in your synthetic heart.”
28

The question “Who killed him?” is the key phrase repeated again and again. Rexroth
answers in darkly satirical phrases, relentlessly driving his point to the poem’s
extended climax. He asserted from the outset of the poem that mid-20th century
civilization has become a predatory war machine feeding on its young. Now he
pinpoints the sector of its intelligentsia connected to the establishment and its
institutions, whose members live at the cutting edge of modern culture and enjoy the
extraordinary benefits of its highly civilized yet crassly commercialized culture. The
prosperity and refined cultural habitus of this class depend on a global economy
backed by the destructive force of armies and high-tech weaponry. This dominant
ideology has marginalized a subculture of outsiders and their bohemian, politically-
progressive literary and artistic output and products. The focus of Rexroth’s
accusation is a predatory and vampiristic class which commodifies ideas and symbols
generated from below and puts them into play within the context of a global market
made possible by militaristic imperialism. It is the brain trust of the ruling class,
charged with the task of generating the symbols of its hegemony, held by Rexroth to
be responsible for justifying the image of and fabricating a front for the ever-
expanding growth of a monster-state with primordial destructive power made
possible by high technology.

Rexroth quotes Lorca's “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter." The great Andalusian
poet was dragged out of a friend’s home where he had sought refuge and then
brutally dragged through the streets and killed by the fascist Civil Guard in Granada
before the Spanish Civil War: “He is dead / Like Ignacio the bullfighter / At four o’
clock in the afternoon… / I too do not want to hear it.”
30 Rexroth then exclaims “I want
to run into the streets shouting, Remember Vanzetti!”
31 Sacco and Vanzetti were two
anarchists sentenced to death in 1927 and executed, ostensibly for a robbery and
murder, but at the core, because they were foreign-born left-wing radicals during the
time of the red scare. It is of interest to note that Vanzetti wrote, in halting immigrant
English, the following to one of his supporters in a letter from prison before his
execution: “Authority, Power, and Privilege would not last a day upon the face of the
earth, were it not because those who possess them, and those who prostitute their
arms to their defence to suppress, repress, mercilessly and inescapable every efforts
of liberations of each and all the rebels.”
32 This statement could be interpreted as
forming the cornerstone of Rexroth’s premise for “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Rexroth makes it clear that decisive and radical steps are required to resist the
repression of primitive drives redirected into the destruction of the young in war’s
violence by order of state. His poem becomes an incendiary device anarchistically and
satirically striking at the heart of bourgeois society’s superstructure: “I want to pour
gasoline down your chimneys. / I want to blow up your galleries. / I want to burn
down your editorial offices. / I want to slit the bellies of your frigid women. / I want to
sink your sailboats and launches. / I want to strangle your children at their finger
paintings. / I want to poison your afghans and poodles.”
33 This extended tirade against
the state and its lackeys, with its dark humor pushed to extremes, further accentuates
the contrast between the insurrectional thrust of his rage against the system
expressed in “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and Allen Ginsberg’s resolution of the
contradictions put into play by “Howl” in ecstatic transports of erotic spirituality.
Both poems take ironic, nihilistic positions in relation to society and state repression,
but, rather than take a Rexrothian stand in militantly defiant opposition to the system
and its agents, Ginsberg’s reply in the final sections of “Howl” to the problematics of
the situation posed by the all-powerful Moloch in his poem is a turning inward to
celebrate liberated pleasures of the body and the devotion of friendship. “Howl” gets
mileage from the earlier poem’s apocalyptic/biblical tone and aggressively
revolutionary outrage but without defining clear terms of a political position or
formulating a response to the cultural and psychological effects of state oppression
beyond sexual liberation in the moment.

Rexroth does not propose an idyll in reply to the destructive and dehumanizing effect
of global imperialism on American and planetary culture. Although erotic sensuality
is a strong motif woven through the body of Rexroth’s poetry, it is nowhere to be
found in this poem. He is playing for keeps in “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” He invokes the
death of Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet whose collapse and death during his
second tour of America in November, 1953, from alcoholism at the age of thirty-nine,
shocked poets across the U.S. and worldwide who had embraced him as a leading
young voice among them. In 1957, Rexroth wrote, on the fatal trajectory of Dylan
Thomas’ alcoholism, “The last time I saw Dylan, his self-destruction had not just
passed the limits of rationality. It had assumed the terrifying inertia of inanimate
matter. Being with him was like being swept away by a torrent of falling stones.”
34  In
the same essay, Rexroth articulated his take on the poet’s existential dilemma: “Dylan
Thomas’s verse had to find endurance in a world of burning cities and burning Jews.
He was able to find meaning in his art as long as it was the answer to air raids and gas
ovens. As the world began to take on the guise of an immense air raid or gas oven, I
believe his art became meaningless to him.”
35  

Rexroth does not name the poet at any point in this poem. The trumpet plays the
three-note phrase to punctuate each line with the saxophone playing long tones and
low trills in the background. Rexroth returns to the he is dead motif with an ominous,
slowly-building drum roll and bowed bass, he refers to the dead poet in terms from
Welsh folklore: “They have stuck him down,  / The son of David ap Gwilym. /  They
have murdered him,  / The baby of Taliessin.”
36  David ap Gwilym lived and wrote in
the middle-ages and is still considered to be the greatest Welsh poet. Taliesin was a
hero-bard fabled to have had the power to overcome both past and future time with
his tales which contained authentic historical content. Rexroth characterizes Dylan
Thomas as a direct descendant in this lineage, a bearer of poetic-historical tradition.

The horns and rhythm sections drive relentlessly on as the poem hurtles toward its
climactic end. Rexroth suddenly transitions in and out of the bardic thrall which has
been gathering in intensity, and, still building to climax without dropping a beat, he
invokes symbols of American global hegemony: “There he lies dead, / By the iceberg
of the United Nations. / There he lies sandbagged, / at the foot of the Statue of
Liberty.”
37  Rexroth harnesses archetypal and revolutionary power with his fusion of
primordial mythic images with present-day conditions and symbolic objects
representing the modern state. Times and places collide as sea birds are wheeling
over the Gulf Stream, which “smells of blood,”
38  breaking on the legendary Welsh
shoreline. The musicians play long tones building to a climax then suddenly stop.
This poem, written during the postwar rise of what Eisenhower referred to when he
warned the nation to beware of the military-industrial complex, ends in an accusation.
In strident tones of biblical wrath directed at ruling classes of the imperialist war
machine as well as intelligentsias which manipulate its symbols for mass
consumption to depoliticize public consciousness, Rexroth fiercely declaims his
accusation: “And all the birds of the deep sea rise up/ Over the luxury liners and
scream, / "You killed him! You killed him. / In your god damned Brooks Brothers suit,
/ You son of a bitch.”
39

After “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was published and became widely known, Brooks
Brothers gave Kenneth Rexroth a suit of their manufacture.


EPILOGUE

Beyond a shadow of doubt, Rexroth’s position concerning where a poet is compelled
to take a stand in relation to the human cost of late capitalism is defined in “Thou
Shalt Not Kill.” He sought no niche in an intelligentsia hiring out as a dominated
sector of the dominant class to create intellectual and artistic products for
consumption in a mass market. Rexroth knew that the fetish character of the
commodity had mutated into commodification of the human without humanization
of the commodity. The commitment to political philosophy in action which informed
his highly-charged performance of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” with its ironic fusion of
prophetic biblical anger and 20th century satire pushed to its darkest extreme,
immunized him from morphing into an image replicated through electronic
broadcast or mass production. He never let himself get caught up in the game of
producing simulations into which fantasies could be projected by masses of
spectators rendered passive recipients of ideological programming. This is in contrast
to what happened to key beats able to parley cultural notoriety into careers as cultural
figures after
On the Road placed them in Kerouac’s beat narrative. Authentic and
important as the impact of the beat movement was to the counterculture revolution of
the 60’s as well as on every generation since, the commodity fetishization of its image
is one of the unforeseen consequences of their legendary status in both collective
psyche and mass market. The beats first sought to counter and then to mold their
public perception in response to how it changed through the decades which followed
their rebellious entry into mass mind.

Rexroth refused to provide new generations of the bourgeoisie with spectacle in which
to celebrate rites of false consciousness. In “Thou Shalt Not Kill, he exposed the
military-industrial underside of the dialectic subjecting culture to exchange value of
the commodity under conditions of a market economy. The poem reveals a
phantasmagoria of apocalyptic destruction of individual and collective bodies and
souls in a world brought to its knees by militarized high technology. While Rexroth’s
vision encompassed a historical sweep of poetic traditions ranging from epic
literature and classical drama of the ancients to discontinuous and subversive anti-
traditions of the modern, his anarchistic revolutionary program was uncompromising
in its opposition to the system. There is no way back into society from his radical
critique of contradictions soon to rupture globally-militarized postwar America.

Rexroth’s involvement with poetry and jazz during and beyond the jazz age – from
early swing-era Chicago through modern jazz San Francisco then 60’s changes and
later Santa Barbara – spans colossus-like over those eras of bohemian literary and
musical history. Rexroth’s brilliant synthesis of poetic strategies, devices and
traditions would be enough to put “Thou Shalt Not Kill” at the cutting edge of
recorded performances of poetry and jazz as well as among the greatest products of
mid-20th century American poetry. The dynamic sustained intensity of his
performance anticipated extended free jazz solos and was more articulate than angrily
ecstatic beat rants and Vietnam-era antiwar protest-poetry. The impact of “Thou Shalt
Not Kill” on Allen Ginsberg when he was writing “Howl” further indicates Rexroth’s
position at the headwaters of bohemian poetic traditions flowing into tributaries
which include, but are not limited to, the beat generation and the 60’s youth
movement.

The true extent of Rexroth’s pivotal role in turning on poets of the beat generation
when they hit San Francisco has not been given its true estimation. If the denial of
Rexroth‘s influence has become more pronounced in recent years, it would not be due
to beat rancor from when Rexroth was attacking them in the press back in the 1960’s.
Kerouac died over thirty-five years ago, yet there was more positive play given to the
role of the older poet then than now. I recall a poetry reading at UCSB in the early 70’s
when Rexroth hosted Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and other leading beats in an
atmosphere of literary, ecological and political congeniality. Could Rexroth denial
more than twenty years after his passing partly originate in the beats staking claim to
literary-cultural history as time imposes its limit? Kenneth Rexroth was an authentic
bearer of 20th century avant-garde traditions who constructed a bridge of
international poetry, pacifistic anarchism and bohemian subculture between at least
three generations, yet his contribution appears to have been given short shrift in
proportion to its magnitude.
                                                                                   
page one                 
                                                                     
_________________________________________________________________________________________

Notes

1 Rexroth. “Poetry and Jazz at The Blackhawk.” Fantasy L.P.  7008. 1960.
2  Rexroth/Ferlinghetti. “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959.
3 The Complete 3 Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
4  Ibid.
5  Ibid.
6  Ibid.
7  Ibid.
8  Ibid.
9  Ibid.
10  Ibid.
11  Ibid.
12  Dunbar, William. “Lament for the Makers.” The Oxford Book of English Verse (Quiller-
Couch, ed). Oxford: Clarendon. 1919.
13  Rexroth. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959. The 14
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
15  Ibid.
16  Ibid.
17  Ibid.
18  Serge, Victor. Resistance. SF: City Lights Books. 1989.
19  Ibid. p. 34.
20  Ibid. p. 35.
21  Rexroth. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959. The 22
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
23  Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. SF: City Lights Books.
24  Ibid.
25  Rexroth. The Beat Era. S.F. Examiner 4/75.
26  Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters 1959-69 (Charters, ed.). NY: Viking. 1999. p. 127.
27  Meltzer, David. “Rexroth in San Francisco.” Rexroth Festshrift (Hertz, ed.) Third Rail (no. 8).
LA: Third Rail. 1987.
28  Rexroth. “A Hope for Poetry” SF: Holiday Magazine. 1966.
29  Rexroth. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959. The 30
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
31  Ibid.
32  Ibid.
33  Lorca, Federico Garcia. “Selected Poems.” NY: New Directions. 1964.
34  Rexroth. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959. The 35
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
36  Ibid.
37  Vanzetti, Bartolomeo. Selected Letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti from the Charlestown State
Prison, 1921-24.
38  Rexroth. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959. The 39
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
40 Rexroth. “Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation.” The Alternative Society. NY:
Herder. 1970. p. 3.
41 Ibid.
42 Rexroth. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” “Poetry Readings at The Cellar.” Fantasy L.P. 1959. The 43
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press. 2004.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.
                                                                                       
page one
continued from page 1 of "The King is Dead. Long Live the King: The Impact of Kenneth Rexroth's Jazz Poetry
on the Mid-Twentieth Century San Francisco Literary Bohemia" by Uri Hertz