The Best Book on American Poetry Ever

Kenneth Rexroth's American Poetry in the Twentieth Century

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The best book ever written about American poetry is American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, published in 1971 by the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982). Rexroth is remembered today chiefly as a member of the post-World War II San Francisco counterculture, a mentor to the Beats and the author of numerous translations or recreations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Born in South Bend, Indiana, he was a genuine bohemian, who in the course of a long life and global travels met and befriended many of the leading figures of European and American literary circles. This makes his book a sort of Secret History of American poetry, told by an insider who knew many of his subjects.

The title notwithstanding, the book covers the entire history of American poetry, even though the focus is on the 20th century. In later life Rexroth discussed poetry on the radio in San Francisco, and the style of his book is conversational, complete with bombshell asides like this:

It simply is not true that there was a continuity in the Southern colonies of a cavalier tradition. The cavalier South, as Mark Twain pointed out, is a dream of chronic adolescents who read themselves to sleep with the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The real Southern tradition was largely French, Girondin, rationalistic. Its great representative is Jefferson…

According to Rexroth, his native Midwest bore the mark of the melting-pot society of New France, “a very peculiar kind of France, [which] bore more resemblance to Kievan Russia with its Varangian, Kazar, and Bulgar river-borne fur traders than anything to be found in the homeland…” He denounced “that voluntary Wasp, Leslie Fiedler, who finds the greatest spokesman of the riverain culture, Mark Twain, totally incomprehensible; and like all uptight people when so confronted, he can only dismiss him as a homosexual, like a policeman confronted by a student with bare feet and long hair.”

A bohemian with romantic anarchist and pacifist politics, Rexroth identified with the poetic avant-garde. But as a historian of American poetry, he is remarkably generous to all of the schools. He has kind words to say for Whittier, a popular poet whom he prefers to the more erudite Longfellow. He writes: “What distinguished America’s major nineteenth-century writers was that, like the English, they were not alienated. They gave expression to the attitudes and opinions of most Americans. Even Whitman — even more than any of the others — for he was above all the apostle of the American Dream…”

Rexroth traces the Whitman tradition through Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandberg and then, after a period of submergence, to its volcanic resurfacing with the Beats. Rexroth’s account has to be quoted in full:

In 1956 and ’57 Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac showed up in San Francisco. Up until that time Ginsberg had been a rather conventional, witty poet influenced by his New Jersey Landsman William Carlos Williams, and taught his letters at Columbia by Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. He was very much a catechumen of the highly select Trotskyite-Southern Agrarian Establishment, and destined by his elders to step into the thinning ranks of their youth brigade alongside Norman Podhoretz and Susan Sontag and others of like ilk and kidney. He inhaled the libertarian atmosphere of San Francisco and exploded. He took part in the now historic reading at the Six Gallery, along with Michael McClure, Lamantia, Ferlinghetti, and myself, and two young men just down from Reed College in Oregon, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. He read Howl and started an epoch.

Rexroth’s explanation of why San Francisco became a center of the counterculture is fascinating. “By no means of least importance, after the great organizing drives and strikes of 1934-36, the San Francisco Bay area became the highest wage region in the country — for blue collar workers — but for white-collar workers, wages remained lower than in Chicago, New York, and Washington.” The high wages of the Bay area allowed both young and older writers to “work at a trade-union organized job and make enough money in a few months to live comfortably for the rest of the year.” Not the least of the discoveries to be found in American Poetry in the Twentieth Century is the fact that San Francisco, today one of the most expensive cities in the world, was once an inexpensive, high-wage, blue-collar bohemian paradise.

Beat poetry and the counterculture are only part of Rexroth’s story. On the East Coast, after World War II, according to Rexroth, the movement of poetry from bohemia into the universities was well underway. Here again, Rexroth is remarkably fair: “Sung and T’ang China would indicate that a Mandarin literature can perhaps become one of the highest of which mankind is capable, but certainly from the end of the Second War on, American literature, but especially American poetry, divides increasingly into Mandarin and non-Mandarin.” He writes respectfully of the new mandarins, like Theodore Roethke, John Berryman and Richard Wilbur: “Of these Robert Lowell is probably the best.”

Rexroth viewed the rise of campus-based poetry and creative-writing professors with mixed feelings: “There is nothing objectionable about a bureaucratic literature, given a bureaucratic society … Some of the best poets of Chinia in the great ages of its literature were generals and statesmen, and almost all were what we would call civil-service employees. America would be a better place if every army officer, postmaster, sanitary engineer, or industrialist, could turn out a nice poem when he took his wife and kiddies for a picnic along the reservoir.” At the same time, Rexroth writes, “But America is a more unruly country than most any other, a kind of rich, sanitary, educated Afghanistan. Somebody is always breaking the crust of custom and there are always leakages around the edges.”

Rexroth devotes an entire chapter to black poets, while apologizing for doing so: “Ideally, Black poets should be discussed as they occur chronologically, or in ‘literary schools,’ on equal terms with everybody else, and their color should not even need mentioning. Many of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties resented being categorized as Negro poets. This was especially true of Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen.”

He is scathing toward the kind of white liberals who would embrace black culture as an exotic fad and then grow bored with it. In the 1920s, he writes, anticipating Tom Wolfe’s later account of Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers, “No literary cocktail party on Park Avenue was complete without the presence of the blond Nordic Negrophile Carl Van Vechten. All the highly civilized great rich competed furiously for the chance to patronize a Negro poet.” Following the 1929 stock market crash, “The Harlem Renaissance turned out to have been a fad of white New York, and the bottom fell out of it.” Writing in 1971, Rexroth, with his lifelong admiration for black American poets, complained: “The present-day fad for Black is Beautiful amongst students and intellectuals of the white upper middle class is only slightly less superficial than the craze of the jazz age, when the Negro is in vogue, and may vanish as quickly.”

Rexroth is at his best in the apercu:

Stevens is far less provincial than Eliot or Pound. They, like Ibsen, were provincial because they felt it necessary to lead a revolt against provincialism, and to educate the provincials…

By and large, writers are not very nice people. Most of them are quarrelsome, vindictive, malicious. There are too many piglets, and too little swill in the trough, so there is a good deal of squealing and backbiting…

Much has been made of Eliot’s statement that he was a royalist, Anglo-Catholic, and classicist. Only Americans and profound eccentrics are royalists. Above the literary level of the illustrated weeklies The Family is only a boring joke in Great Britain…

Those were the days of the famous Lost Generation, the “expatriates…” For Lost read alcoholic. For expatriates read tourists…

Laura Riding is the greatest lost poet in American literature…

And then there is my favorite startling aside from Rexroth:

In the whole period, from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, the greatest American poet is Stuart Merrill, and second to him, Viele-Griffin. Both lived abroad and wrote in French.

American Poetry in the Twentieth Century should be better known. It deserves to be back in print. Better yet, and more in consonance with Rexroth’s anarchist values, somebody should put it online where it can be read for free. •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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