CONJUNCTIONS:01, Fall 1981

An Interview with Kenneth Rexroth
Bradford Morrow

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW was conducted in two sessions at Kenneth Rexroth’s home in Montecito, California. The first session took place on the very rainy morning of January 29 and the second was conducted a week later on Friday, February 7. Rexroth is by no means difficult to interview: In fact, he would be something of a dictaphonographer’s dream if there were such a monster. Having composed An Autobiographical Novel completely by taped dictation, he is very adroit with a microphone and comfortable with a tape recorder running, and he measures his responses to questions with the kind of care that results in a prose that needs no editing.
     The first session was an utterly fortuitous event, though we had talked about doing an interview for some months. Kenneth and his wife, Carol Tinker, had arranged a meeting between me and some people regarding the possible publication of some recently discovered H. D. letters. It was my good fortune that the others telephoned to tell us they would be a couple of hours late. Unprepared to conduct the interview, I asked Carol if she had a cassette recorder around, and a blank tape. She did: The interview ensued.
     The second session was only slightly more carefully organized. That is, at least Kenneth and I knew we were getting together to finish up the interview. Since the first part of the interview was concerned primarily with personal reminiscences about his relationship with James Laughlin and the early days with New Directions, it seemed to be only natural that the second address his opinions about a number of New Directions authors: poets and novelists, American and foreign, men and women, living and deceased.

BRADFORD MORROW: How did you first meet James Laughlin?

KENNETH REXROTH: In the early thirties Ezra Pound wrote me a letter and said that Gorham Munson was starting what Westbrook Pegler called a “butcher paper magazine” with a Social Credit bias. The literary editor was a brilliant young prep school student at one of the most fashionable prep schools in the country. I was very skeptical about this, but I sent them some poems, which were published, and I got very nice letters from James Laughlin IV. About a year went by in which Laughlin went to Europe and started New Directions. I don’t remember why I’m not in the first of the New Directions anthologies. I was supposed to be but there was some accident and I wasn’t in it. Anyway, the next year, which would be 1933, we were living on Westmoreland Street, on Potrero Hill, and the doorbell rang and a man who looked like he was six foot twelve in height was standing in the doorway with a shy look on his face. I said, “Gee, you must be Jim Laughlin. Come on in.” So he came in, and I said, “Where are you staying?” And he said, “The Fairmont.” I told him he could stay with us. So he stayed at our house and many, many, many years later he told me very wistfully, while we were talking about Western ways, “Do you know you were the first person to spontaneously call me ‘Jim’?”
     Anyway, he stayed there with us and I showed him San Francisco. He was on his way to New Zealand as captain, I believe, of the Harvard ski team and although he was a freshman I think he gathered New Directions 2 and 3 while he was still at Harvard. He also had started the process which eventually produced my book of poems, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, which won a prize. As bookmaking, not as poetry. It was designed by Peter Beilenson who ran the Peter Pauper Press for many years. Besides doing trade books, Beilenson was also a wonderful photographer. The book is still one of the one or two handsomest books I’ve ever had done.

MORROW: Didn’t you also have a hand in designing the title page?

REXROTH: Yes, I had a hand in designing it. I picked a type which was practically unknown, Trajan, for the title page and the typographer, whose name I can never remember, lost the matrices in a fire. He lost all his matrices, I think. So there has never been any Trajan type again. I had expected to have all my books from then on set in Trajan. I had already published one book with MacMillan, called In What Hour, which again, strangely enough, for a large commercial publishing house like MacMillan, they allowed me to design completely. And I have designed almost all my books since, with the exception of those done in collaboration with Hans Mardersteig.

MORROW: After In What Hour, all of your books were published by New Directions?

REXROTH: All of my poetry. And two books of prose, The Bird in the Bush and Assays.

MORROW: Tell me more about your personal relationship with Laughlin.

REXROTH: I don’t remember whether Laughlin and I went up into the Sierras when he came back to see us on his way to New Zealand or on the way back, because you can ski practically all summer long in the California Sierras. One way or another, we went skiing. From then on he would drop in almost every year and we’d go up in the mountains together. Of course, I spent the summertime in the mountains anyway, so I knew good places to go, easy places to get to for base camps and good ski slopes.
     Then in the week or two he’d spend in San Francisco every year we’d try to have a very social life. Laughlin is a very chaste individual, though, in a way. I don’t think he smokes cigarettes, he drinks very little. You’d make a date with some beautiful ballet dancer and go out, and around nine o’clock he’d say, “Oh, I’m sleepy. I want to go home and go to bed.” So our social life when he was there was not very rip-roaring! But we met all the people and we had a lot of fun.

MORROW: In a recent interview with Laughlin in a magazine called Connecticut Artists, Laughlin was asked who was most helpful in making recommendations about whose work to publish in New Directions, and he cited Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth.

REXROTH: I got the reputation in the forties of being the eminence gris behind New Directions, which is not true at all. Several people had influence on his choices. Šdouard Roditi, for one. And of course, Ezra. Delmore Schwartz, too. I remember he quarrelled with Delmore, or Delmore quarreled with him. He didn’t quarrel with Delmore. No one was aware in those days that Delmore was insane. The trouble with Delmore as a writer was that he didn’t read French, which led to the disaster of Delmore Schwartz’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud. That’s a real funny book. But it is not true that I told Laughlin who to publish and who not to publish. Far from it. None of these people did: They’d give him a little advice but usually he chose people himself.

MORROW: What authors did you recommend he publish?

REXROTH: I remember that I found remaindered Christopher Isherwood’s book and said this is a permanent classic, you can have this on a back list forever.

MORROW: The Berlin Stories?

REXROTH: It was The Berlin Stories, yes. He did two books, The Berlin Stories and All the Conspirators. I also recommended he publish Faulkner’s Light in August and Sanctuary in the classics series. To show you Laughlin’s personality, he very often picked a book up and published it, promoted it, and got it established on the market and reviewed by mighty critical brains like Malcolm Cowley, and then turned the book over to another publisher because his attitude was that they were mass sellers and he was not prepared to handle such a thing. Originally, New Directions was planned to publish fine books by the very best printers in the United States, in very limited editions. The best example of that idea was the Poets of the Month series. In my opinion, he should have gone right on doing that. New Directions was not financed by Jones and Laughlin Steel, though. Laughlin and the rest of his family live on a trust which eventually derived from the grandfather, I guess. Although he had a lot of money by the average person’s eyes, he relied on that, and New Directions was financed by his aunt Leila. His aunt Leila was a very nice person. And his uncle, who was a banker, was also nice. They were the Carlisles. A curious thing about Laughlin was that he came from that small circle of socially responsible and very cultivated steel barons of the third generation, like Paul Mellon in Pittsburgh. Heinz and Scaife and Mellon, of his generation, all went to Harvard to my knowledge. All assumed different aspects of social responsibility and particularly towards Pittsburgh, which Henry Miller once said looked like the droppings of a prehistoric monster. Now they’re very proud of the Golden Triangle and spreading it slowly. Their attitude toward Laughlin was that he was what now would be called sort of a beatnik. He’d wandered off and betrayed his heritage by publishing incomprehensible authors like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. And he always has had an ironic attitude, it’s very funny, it is like a conventionally raised boy who is in revolt against his family but at the same time is closely bound to them and really accepts their values. He once said to me something that I’ve never forgotten. He was talking about his better, more eccentric authors, and he referred to one of them, half ironically, as one of the “crazies.” When he published Maldoror it had no publisher, no author, no nothing on it because he was terrified, I think, that Aunt Leila would read the dirty words and cut off the subsidy!
     Actually, the Carlisles were a great deal more sophisticated than he believed. One time I was up there in Norfolk and he said, “Now, Kenneth, friends of mine are coming over, and they’re the leading family in Connecticut, so don’t go using any dirty words or talking any radicalism.” And I said, “Do you think I’m a fool? I’m certainly socially far more negotiable than you! Peggy Guggenheim isn’t the only millionaire I know.” And so show up the Brighams. And this fellow, Brigham, at one time had run a magazine with Seldon Rodman called Common Sense and at one time the Communist Party had tried to get control of it. So the door opens and in comes this family, and Papa says, “Why, hello, Kenneth. God I haven’t seen you since that Agitprop meeting with that son of a bitch, damned if I can remember, the head of the Agitprop commission, what the hell’s his name?” So we sit around and talk about the Communist movement of the thirties, right? (Laughs.) It was very funny. Laughlin sat there open-mouthed. Things like that happened once in a while.

MORROW: When was the first time you visited Laughlin in Norfolk?

REXROTH: Oh, I don’t remember now. He lived in what is usually called a dower house. The big house, Robin Hill, which they have since sold, was quite a country manor. It was a very beautiful place, and was where his uncle and aunt lived. And he lived down below. I remember he went skiing up back of Alta, up back of Salt Lake City, and he decided this was a wonderful place to have a ski lodge, and he had a ski lodge. And he met a Salt Lake girl, Margaret, whom I’ve always liked very much, whom he married. And Laughlin and his mother and Margaret did all the work for New Directions in the barn of Meadow House. In my opinion, New Directions would be a far better publishing house if it was still operating on that basis.
     But I think that what is in the back of Laughlin’s mind is that he felt he must prove himself in the eyes of Joe Scaife and Andy Mellon as a commercial success. New Directions lost many thousands of dollars each year before the war. Now it makes a great deal of money.

MORROW: Of course, he has developed a remarkable backlist.

REXROTH: Oh, sure, that and the fact that they manage to continue getting the books out. He’s always worked at New Directions, and I mean worked hard, compulsively. Freud has a term for it! But he keeps track of the stamp money. I’ve seen him fall asleep at his typewriter when he stayed with us. It’s very easy for Otto Kahn to give Hart Crane a thousand dollars, what’s a thousand dollars to Otto Kahn? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s two cents. But Laughlin worked. Laughlin chose the authors, read the copy … except Delmore Schwartz (laughing) and his Arthur Rimbaud. And he traveled about, met people. It would seem very social but it was what you had to do, what publishers had to do. He traveled all around the world meeting various people.

MORROW: Do you think that Ezra Pound gave him good advice, when Laughlin went to Italy and Pound told him he ought to forget the idea of becoming a poet, suggesting that he become a publisher instead? What do you think of Laughlin’s poetry?

REXROTH: Oh, I think that he is an excellent poet and I think the advice was bad. I think he would have been a poet a little like Cummings, but better. Actually I don’t like Cummings. I think he’s a sentimental Harvard schoolboy, an anti-Semite, and everything else imaginable that’s disgraceful.

MORROW: Laughlin’s poetry is much more influenced by Williams, isn’t it?

REXROTH: Laughlin was influenced by Williams, yes. But I say that he would have been about the rank of Estlin Cummings. But he’s never been taken seriously by the establishment. The establishment has always been symbolized to me by the image of Mary McCarthy holding a flaming copy of The Partisan Review in the middle of New York Harbor. And to them Laughlin’s just a fool in the money tree. But of course they are wrong.
     We used to go up to Alta in the fall, and go through all the accumulated correspondence. It’s a very interesting thing. He almost never got unsolicited manuscripts that were not by really crazy people, or very, very bad, or completely incongruous and had no place in New Directions. Trunkfuls of manuscripts and letters. And one time we filed the personal correspondence and the begging and groveling and sniveling of leading authors to get money out of him was the most disgraceful thing I ever read in my life. I used to feel like going out and puking in the Wasatch Mountains.
     But the whole attitude was that, and nobody took his work seriously. Just as nobody took Caresse Crosby seriously. There’s no such thing as Black Sun Press books published by Harry Crosby. Harry Crosby couldn’t count to twenty without taking off his shoes. He was an extremely vicious man, in my opinion, and a fool. If you look into the correspondence of the Black Sun Press you discover that all the innovative and adventurous stuff—whether it was choosing authors, or choosing type, or doing the makeup, or anything else—was done by Caresse. And Caresse was just looked on as a giddy, aging debutante by the establishment. The same was true of Peggy Guggenheim. I have found that the patrons of the arts as people are greatly superior to the people they patronize. I would much rather spend an evening in conversation with Laughlin and Peggy Guggenheim, now dead, and Caresse Crosby, now dead, all of whom are and were very intimate friends of mine, than with almost any author I can think of. They know more, for one thing. They’re more cultivated people. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said to Malcolm Cowley, “The rich are different from you and me.” Cowley said, “Yes, they have more money.” They also have the opportunity to travel and read, and so forth. Maybe that has something to do with it. And they’re well bred.

MORROW: What do you foresee happening to New Directions when Laughlin retires?

REXROTH: Oh, God, it must keep him awake nights. The brains of the office is a woman, Griselda Ohannessian. Before that, he had a personal secretary, Linda Simmons, and without these two women the thing would never have run. That’s what keeps it running, in my opinion. But his various heirs are uninterested in the business. I feel of his daughter’s husband that he doesn’t like the people with whom he would have to deal, and I must say that I thoroughly sympathize with him. I don’t know anyone who would take it over. I have a terrible, terrible suspicion that it will be bought by RCA. You see, RCA is buying all the important backlist publishers. The day is not far distant when a book will be a thing about the size of a quarter that you put in a machine. The problem which they have solved is turning the thing back and forth, you see, so that the text can be referred to with ease. Well, they’ve solved this problem. And that’s why RCA, and the other audio-video conglomerates, want these publishing houses.

MORROW: That sort of kills the idea of designing one’s own title pages, doesn’t it?

REXROTH: Yes, it certainly does! They have tried and tried to get New Directions, which certainly has the most impressive backlist. Well, Knopf has an impressive backlist, too. Stone and Kimball, there are a whole lot of people. You know, publishers used to be people who read. I did a survey of the commercial aspects of publishing poetry and I got answers from several publishers—“Nobody in this office reads poetry for pleasure.” Books are not read by publishers. It is exactly like the movies: The books and scripts are turned over to a chain of readers and rewriters.

MORROW: Another aspect of publishers having the ability to read and appraise texts themselves is the fact that New Directions and Knopf have published so many first books by authors, which later turned out to be important books.

REXROTH: Absolutely. I’ve always thought it was less Alfred than Blanche. And they were very European oriented, as you know; they published Thomas Mann first, and all kinds of people first. Who published Proust in this country?

MORROW: Proust was Random House.

REXROTH: Bennett Cerf planned to be that kind of publisher, and he was for quite a while, and then he became just a commercial publisher and a man about town. But many publishers of the first quarter of the century were people who read books, loved books, wrote books, so that you had publishers like Laughlin, Knopf, Covici, Stone and Kimball, and so forth. People scattered all over the country. Readers. And you had that strange little man in Maine who reprinted half the literature of the world, Mosher, who was a well-read, scholarly man. And his books were rather pretty. But that’s all gone. There’s no difference between the people who produce rock records, movies, and books. They’re all the same people. And they’re usually run by the same conglomerates, one of which is the Mafia. Imagine anyone today in the publishing business, publishing Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Djuna Barnes. The standard of literature today is if it ain’t got a blow job it ain’t literature, and it won’t sell. There are quiet books, though. I think these are the books that will last. They somehow get through it all. Yvor Winters’s wife, Janet Lewis, is an example of that kind of author. And I think these quiet books will last, and I think certain kinds of commercial books will last because they really do give a picture of this society. If you want to know what America was like in the twenties and thirties, read The Saturday Evening Post, that’s what it was like. It wasn’t like transition.

MORROW: Don’t you think that there are any small presses picking up where New Directions has gone?

REXROTH: Oh yeah, there are dozens of them. And that’s what will happen, sort of a democratization of publishing. The big houses will just publish junk. You sell one book to the movies and you pay for the year, and the amount of money is incredible. People get a million dollars advance for an unwritten book on an outline. You publish. Are you prepared to give someone a million dollars on an outline?

MORROW: (Silence).

REXROTH: And some woman I never heard of that’s in Newsweek this week, I never heard of her, I haven’t the faintest idea who she is, she got a million dollars on an outline.

MORROW: Laughlin’s success as a publisher, then, is a combination of being a poet, being able to read poetry and understand poetry, and being able to afford to publish the materials which that understanding dictated he publish?

REXROTH: Yes. Laughlin. Knopf. The same is true of the Woolfs. The same is true of W. W. Norton. In Helen Norton you have an extremely cultivated woman, so cultivated it hurts. These people are responsible for the strongest lists in publishing.

MORROW: He also seems to be very close to some of his authors, personally.

REXROTH: I consider him to be one of my best friends, perhaps my best friend. There are so many stories, and some pretty funny ones. I remember once we went skiing. It was late in the afternoon and I was frying up fish in the base camp and he went up. The sun on the snow was so strong that as he neared the summit he suddenly just fell over sideways, and I never saw him fall before. So later I asked him, why did you fall? Well, if you’ve got any sense and you ski on the summer snow in the Sierras, you don’t wear ski goggles, you wear welder’s goggles. And he said he took off his goggles for just a minute to brush something off his eye, and the sun hit him like a hammer and knocked him over. I suppose you could hold a pan of eggs out there, in the focus of the parabola, and cook them. Anyway he went to the top, waved, he was a long way up, several thousand feet, and as he was saying it was getting dark. The sun was setting. So I was frying fish and it soon was pitch-dark and no moon. Suddenly there was a terrible clatter and he had come down the mountain for some distance on the edges, in other words sideways on the skis, braking continuously with the edges. Well, you can do that for a few feet, but I’ve never heard of anybody doing it for a thousand, particularly anybody who is six foot five, or whatever he is. He was quite imperturbable. And he ate the fish for dinner. Then he said, “That tent”—it was a tent that I had made, it was a Himalayan tent, shaped like a coffin and it was made for three people, it was bright red—“that tent drives me crazy in the morning and the sides of the tent are so small that I can’t fit into it.” So in the night he went down to the nearest inn and knocked them up, and spent the night and climbed back on his skis in the morning.

MORROW: Was this a common experience, I mean did he go camping and skiing with any of his other authors?

REXROTH: I don’t know. There was another person with us, an artist. Nobody but crazy people go skiing in doubles. You see, if you’re with three people climbing and skiing, one can go for help and one can stay with the injured. Just like in Saigon, soldiers went by threes. They were arrested if they went by twos because if one was shot by the natives, one could go for help, assuming a native only had one bullet in his gun.

MORROW: You once told me about the award ceremony that Buffalo held for Laughlin.

REXROTH: Buffalo has an annual arts festival which is very elaborate and they have a poetry festival in connection with it: They have crafts, paintings, and everything. And they gave him an award, a medal and a foolscap, and a considerable amount of money which was donated to the James Laughlin Award to be given every year, and when he got up to receive the award he had to turn his back to the audience because he was all choked up and weeping. I was sitting next to Anne, his wife, they were both crying—Laughlin and his wife—because the award was introduced by several people and the mayor, who seemed to be completely familiar with his career. He must be the only mayor in the world who is. But it is an extraordinary thing that a city like Buffalo, which looks as you wander around it about as civilized as someplace in the heart of Africa (I don’t refer in any way to its having a large black population, of course), would have the culture and real intelligence to do such a thing.

MORROW: Perhaps you would be willing to comment about the work of various New Directions authors? Your literary opinions of a number of authors are already very well known, and so we will try to discuss, fairly at random, some people published by New Directions whom you haven’t written about. Exceptions allowed, too, I hope. For example, what do you think about the writings of Octavio Paz?

REXROTH: Octavio Paz is certainly beyond any question the greatest poet in the Western Hemisphere, and the greatest poet in the Spanish language. As George Woodcock said of my autobiography, giants walked in those days, they walk no more. Which is sure as hell true. And to have published him that early, when he was a young Mexican lad in Paris identified with the surrealists, is quite an accomplishment, and of course Laughlin has published him ever since.

MORROW: Djuna Barnes. New Directions published an edition of Nightwood, with an introduction by T. S. Eliot, in 1946.

REXROTH: Well, if it had Tom Eliot’s introduction, the sheets were probably imported from Faber, weren’t they? But Laughlin would have published her anyway. I have always tried to get him to publish A Book, and restore the title, A Book. It also has the title A Night Amongst the Horses. And Ryder. But he never published Ryder. Djuna Barnes is an extremely difficult person to deal with. And I guess Eliot had the copyright nailed down. And she couldn’t interfere. It’s only recently that Ryder has come out again. Her big novel. I guess Liveright published it originally. Those were the days when she was Liveright’s lover, and her heart was broken and she changed her sex.

MORROW: You have a high opinion of her work, don’t you?

REXROTH: Yes. She’s one of us.

MORROW: What about John Berryman? New Directions published his first separate book, Poems, in the Poet of the Month series.

REXROTH: I don’t care for Berryman. I’ve never been able to read him.

MORROW: Parra?

REXROTH: I can’t read him either. He just reads like a South American college professor who smokes grass.

MORROW: Thomas Merton?

REXROTH: I’m very fond of Tom Merton. But as a poet, his poetry is very soft.

MORROW: Do you mean his subject matter, or technically soft?

REXROTH: Technically soft. As an introducer of mysticism to the broad public he is partially responsible for the present intellectual climate.

MORROW: Do you know David Antin’s work?

REXROTH: I recommended David Antin to Laughlin early on. Well (sighs). Some way we got to get back to the first ten New Directions anthologies. Because the present New Directions are unbelievably mediocre. But some of the writers are mediocre. The stuff doesn’t come in.

MORROW: There is a lot of good work being written, but perhaps the communications, the networks of communication between authors, and between the writer and the readers, has broken down some, partly due to things as obvious as a declining economy.

REXROTH: Perhaps, but the economy was devastated in the thirties, too.

MORROW: What do you think about Lawrence Durrell’s work?

REXROTH: I believe Laughlin was one of the first to publish Lawrence Durrell in this country. He published Durrell because he was part of the Henry Miller set. Of course, Durrell was a very promising writer. His early work I liked.

MORROW: Laughlin published the letters of Wyndham Lewis, and Hugh Kenner’s book on Lewis. What do you think of Lewis?

REXROTH: Well, that’s very puzzling. He did the first book on Wyndham Lewis, or one of the first books, Kenner did, didn’t he? In the little Directions series. What do I think of Wyndham Lewis? Well, I suppose he was the greatest uncivilized man in England since they gave up Wotan. Lewis was a personal friend of mine. I was very fond of Wyndham Lewis. Fascism and all. Don’t forget these people were almost all fascists. And just crazy as hell. You got talking politics to Tom Eliot and you thought you were just talking to a madman. And, of course, Wyndham Lewis just killed himself by writing Hitler.

MORROW: A combination of Hitler and The Apes of God.

REXROTH: Oh, The Apes of God didn’t really do him in, the people who were satirized in it were probably flattered.

MORROW: You’re probably right! What do you think of Josephine Miles’s work?

REXROTH: I once called it small holes cut in the paper.

MORROW: Is that a positive or a negative comment?

REXROTH: Take it as you wish.

MORROW: George Oppen?

REXROTH: I think George Oppen is quite a remarkable poet. There is another example where he was just looked on as a money tree like Laughlin, and Caresse and the rest. He’s very rich. He had stopped writing for about twenty-five years and Laughlin was a friend of his sister, June, and I think she had something to do with bringing Buddy to his attention. I think he’s very good.

MORROW: Laughlin has published virtually all of Italo Svevo’s work in English. I suppose that’s the Joyce connection.

REXROTH: Yes, Joyce. I can’t read Italo Svevo. I start the books and I can’t finish them.

MORROW: William Carlos Williams.

REXROTH: Well, Williams was probably the greatest American poet of his day. He ranks with Eliot and Pound. I think, actually, Wallace Stevens is a better writer, because he’s a more mature man. But Bill was a very saintly soul and he also had the wonderful characteristic of traveling the poetry circuit and pulling the legs of the professors and students. His last theory was the prehensile foot. That you could write poetry with as many syllables in it as you wished, which of course reduces parody to nonsense. And now people are writing doctor’s theses on Bill’s prehensile foot. He didn’t call it prehensile, he called it something else, he called it the variable foot.

MORROW: Denise Levertov. Didn’t you introduce her work to Laughlin?

REXROTH: Yes, I did. Denise is probably the best American poet at the moment. I feel that all these atoms and cosmic rays and all these vibrations of the modern world are doing something to the male of the human species, and most good poetry today is written by women.

MORROW: Well, that’s an interesting notion. Who is writing good poetry these days, in your opinion? Who would populate a New Directions anthology number one?

REXROTH: Denise, if she hadn’t got, as the term is, “stretched out.” Not that English-Egyptian surrealist lady, what’s her name, Joyce Mansour. My daughter translated all her poetry and when she got through she said, My God, I write better poetry than this. She threw the book away. Shiraishi is a poet like no other that ever lived. They’re scattered around in different countries.

MORROW: A number of intelligent young poets are translating Vallejo, and seem to be influenced by his work. What do you think of Vallejo?

REXROTH: Not much. You see, many of these things are too obvious. Now there’s a writer named Herbert Cahoon, who’s in New Directions 9, with three short plays, which resemble as much as anything Paul Goodman’s so-called Noh plays, which are certainly like nothing else. Absolutely unique. And he never appeared again.

MORROW: Cahoon compiled a bibliography of Joyce, with John Slocum.

REXROTH: Yes, he lives in the East. He’s a scholar.

MORROW: What about Alberti?

REXROTH: Well, Alberti is a very beautiful poet, certainly second only to Lorca. But nobody else.

MORROW: How about Homero Aridjis?

REXROTH: Aridjis is not a very pleasant individual but I thought enough of his work to do a book for Seabury. Octavio thinks he is very great.

MORROW: What do you think of Paul Blackburn’s writing, particularly the translations?

REXROTH: Reading Provençal, I think he’s a mediocre Provençal translator. You know, Pound expurgated much of his own Provençal, I remember one poem which begins, “Keep it in, dear” which Ezra changed to something else.

MORROW: Paul Bowles?

REXROTH: He belongs in a world which is not mine. The nicest thing about Paul Bowles is that he was a very radical young guy and I remember this Midwest magazine, perhaps it was New Left, sent out a questionnaire asking various writers what they will do if war breaks out, and asking political questions mostly, and Bowles sent them a cablegram saying, “I will have no further communication with you until I spit upon you from the cockpit of a Fokker.” They printed it, and he had to disappear as a writer for a while! That’s when he started composing a lot. They thought it was another Paul Bowles probably. It was years before he could reemerge as a writer.

MORROW: Bowles’s reputation has grown steadily as a writer, and recently there seems to be a real increase of interest in his work.

REXROTH: Yes, he is a very polished writer. And some of his plots are really extraordinary. Shows you shouldn’t monkey around with the A-rabs.

MORROW: Tennessee Williams?

REXROTH: He is a personal friend.

MORROW: Here is an abrupt shift: Alex Comfort.

REXROTH: It is very tragic that he should have turned to writing vaguely dirty books for married couples which are translated into several hundred languages. Alex Comfort is a very beautiful poet, though his newest book of poetry which I have here wasn’t very strong. We were closely associated after the war, when he was an anarchist, at least in those days.

MORROW: We haven’t discussed any French writers. What about Paul Šluard? Laughlin has translated a number of his poems.

REXROTH: He is a popular poet. He’s the only Trotskyite who ever returned to the Stalinists, except for Rakovsky in Russia, and they simply took him out of a concentration camp. But Šluard appeals to a popular audience.

MORROW: I believe you like the work of Robert Desnos.

REXROTH: I think that Desnos is by far the best of the surrealist poets. He’s a better poet than Paul Šluard. And he was a wonderful man. He was a jazz aficionado. He would go into fake trances, you know, and dictate unconscious poetry to André Breton. Sometimes he would smoke a little grass, sometimes not, and these spiritual communications would emanate from him!

MORROW: Here’s another shift. What about Ian Hamilton Finlay?

REXROTH: Concrete poetry. He started out doing what they called concrete poetry, in print on the page, and now he does poetry cast in concrete. That’s all.

MORROW: Charles Henri Ford.

REXROTH: Well, Charles has become a very comic sort of surrealist poet. He and Parker Tyler started the only American rival to transition, Blues. And of course it was very hard for a young writer to get his work into transition unless your wife or mistress was very rich and contributed money.

MORROW: Blues published a lot of your early work.

REXROTH: They first published dozens of new people. I’m face en face with that hillbilly writer, what’s his name? Erskine Caldwell. I think that it was the first time he was published. But, yes, they published a number of my poems.

MORROW: Laughlin published Lorca fairly early on.

REXROTH: Well, Lorca would be kind of hard to miss. I mean after all, a poet as remarkable as Lorca you would have to publish. Some of the plays are extremely powerful. Blood Wedding, of course, is a remarkable piece. And, you know, people forget that Lorca was a café entertainer, and that a great deal of his poetry was meant to be sung with guitar.

MORROW: I’ve never heard your opinion of Ivan Goll, whose work was published pretty extensively by Laughlin.

REXROTH: Well, Ivan Goll owes much of his reputation to his wife, who worked tirelessly to promote him, get him published, everything else. He was dying for a very long time and he wrote both in German and French. I’ve always read Ivan Goll with interest but he’s not one of the major figures of the time. One thing about Ivan Goll and his wife, Claire, is that they wrote a book with a lovely title, One Thousand and One Nights, a book of love poems. I think there is only one other title to compare with it, and that’s Harry Crosby’s book, Sleeping Together.

MORROW: Kenneth Patchen.

REXROTH: Well, the curious thing is that his reputation seems to have died. Who reads Kenneth Patchen? It is a great pity, too. But you see the major trouble with Kenneth Patchen was that he was utterly unself-critical. He thought that every poem he wrote was the greatest ever written, and his wife backed him up. His wife, like Claire Goll, travels around and reads his poetry, boosts him. But who reads him?

MORROW: Patchen’s paintings, his watercolors are very wonderful: colorful and purposely naive. It’s surprising he doesn’t have a great following as a painter as well as a poet. What about Henry Miller?

REXROTH: The word about Henry Miller was said by Nelson Algren: “Henry Miller has one fault, he thinks he thinks.”

MORROW: What do you think about Miller’s friend, Anaïs Nin?

REXROTH: One of the most extraordinary things is that these silly neofeminists that have been created by television personalities and editors of magazines, is that they have made a heroine of this woman, who suffered to the hundredth degree from the feminine form of what they call macho. What I would call cunto. How anybody could be a feminist and stand her is beyond me. Anaïs Nin used to call me up when she lived in San Francisco, and invite me over to dinner. And I’d say, No baby, you’re not gonna get me in that diary! (Laughs.)

MORROW: What are your feelings about Christopher Isherwood’s work?

REXROTH: I think Christopher Isherwood is a very, very fine writer. Very polished and at the same time very witty and ironic. And he never made an international cause of his disabilities. I told Laughlin once, if you want to know the intellectual climate of Weimar Germany there are two books you can pick up by Christopher Isherwood: They are it.

MORROW: What do you think of Nabokov? New Directions published The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which was, I think, one of his earliest books to appear in America.

REXROTH: I think that is one of his best books. But I never could stand his politics. He’d start raving anti-Semitism and you’d have to fly a butterfly to distract him.

MORROW: Gertrude Stein?

REXROTH: Gertrude Stein’s principal contribution was syntactical. She really managed to do what André Breton was talking about: destroy the Aristotelean syntax of Western logic. In the early days, people thought that because she was incomprehensible she must be profound. In old age she started to write normal English and revealed a commonplace mind. Today we realize that much of her dialogue writing was simply the chitchat of fashionable women in Riviera villas. Nevertheless she gave American writing a brand-new cast-iron backbone. As a cubist writer she is surpassed by Walter Conrad Arensberg.

MORROW: I suppose then that you have similar reservations about Joyce.

REXROTH: James Joyce’s books, which are all autobiographical, reveal a man of insufferable conceit.

MORROW: What about his work, though, technically? His various techniques.

REXROTH: They’re useless, finally, aren’t they? Nobody’s been able to sue them. Unlike Gertrude Stein, his syntactical and technical devices are unusable. Anyway, I, for one, simply cannot take seriously a man who insisted that only Italian be spoken at his dinner table in the very week that a new glory was born in a Dublin post office.

MORROW: Perhaps I should let you name a few authors whose work you admire, unhesitatingly. Who comes to mind?

REXROTH: B. Traven. The authentic, not the stolen, B. Traven is the only great proletarian writer to appear after the Russian Revolution who effectively put both proletarians and writers in their proper places. Unfortunately Laughlin never published him.

MORROW: What women writers?

REXROTH: Mina Loy and Laura Riding are the two long-lost major writers of the heroic age of American modernism. Both are utterly original and both are capable of the most profound thought. Who else? Muriel Rukeyser. Muriel Rukeyser was everything her enemies said she was not. The major poet of the Left and again a woman of profound thought.

MORROW: What about Dylan Thomas?

REXROTH: Dylan Thomas was a skyrocket that went up and came down faster than any other in the history of literature. Who reads him?

MORROW: You’d find paperback copies of Under Milk Wood at the bedside of ten thousand undergraduate students in this country, but then I guess that doesn’t mean they read them.

REXROTH: No one reads him.

MORROW: Philip Whalen?

REXROTH: I think that of all the American poets in Japan during that period, Philip Whalen is the best.

MORROW: What about Charles Olson?

REXROTH: Olson was deaf.

MORROW: We haven’t discussed Paul Goodman.

REXROTH: I said long, long ago, when Paul was in his twenties, that if he had written in French he would be internationally famous. He once wrote a great pseudo haiku—it isn’t really a haiku, it doesn’t syllable out—that goes:
     Am I illuminated? Shit, no.
     Jesus! Maybe I am.

MORROW: Well, on that note, I ought to ask you, last but not least, what is your opinion of the poetic career of Kenneth Rexroth?

REXROTH: I accomplished it. Largely with the help of James Laughlin. I think I would have been in a hell of a fix without him. I could have been famous if I’d gone to some big bourgeois publisher. And I would have made a lot of money, particularly if I had done what they told me to do: Write novels. Novels that would sell to the movies. Which is essentially what Latham, that great patron of the arts, told me. Told me I would make millions. He literally said that, he said, “What do you write poetry for? Why don’t you write a novel that gets in the movies, that can make us some money?”

MORROW: You once told me that you saw a beginning, a middle, and an end to your poetry, that your poetic career was an organized whole.

REXROTH: It is an exposition, long poem by long poem, of a mystical philosophy. And it finally ends with a definitive mystical vision. But I wouldn’t have had a career without Laughlin, and I look on Laughlin as, I suppose, my best friend, and always a good comrade. I have always thought of him not as a person to whom I was related literally, but to whom I was related personally. I just write him abusive letters about literature, saying why does he publish such shit in New Directions. (Grins, then begins to laugh.)