SNAKY BIOGRAPHER

Hamalian’s reference to Rexroth as an “
old goat” (quoted without source, 309), her
malicious and unsourced claims that “
some people said that ‘he’d screw anything that
moved—male or female, two-legged or four
.’” (415) and “Rexroth once told a friend that
he was afraid he had damaged his mouth and throat from too much oral sex.” (418,
my italics) are rabbit punches which speak to the low consciousness (and
subsequent lack of conscience) of the biographer, as well as inattention or worse by
the editor and publisher. Who are
some people and a friend?

She also quotes hearsay in a flagrantly derogatory fashion, “
Rexroth…would ‘fuck a
snake if it would hold still for him
’” (182, my italics). This last remark is sourced as
second-hand gossip, “According to David Koven, Jim Harmon described Rexroth’s
sexual behavior in these words.” (402-3). Hamalian even interviewed and gained the
confidence of Rexroth’s two daughters and fourth wife, Carol Tinker, before
publishing her “old goat,” “male or female, two-legged or four,” and “fuck a snake”
vulgarities.

Hamalian chose to include allegations without sources and hearsay, and one can
only wonder why she would do so except as a forced attempt to seem both politically
correct and “juicy” (Hagedorn, jacket back cover).

Hamalian grew up on slapstick cartoons, and she swipes with a wooden plank,
hitting a defenseless man in the back of the head. Rexroth is now headless and
beyond responding, and her damage continues unabated. Ironically, Rexroth spent
over half a century actively standing up for the weak and defenseless and could
amply take care of himself in any argument or physical confrontation. The main
thesis of Hamalian’s biography—tediously underlined in the preface, body and
epilogue—is that Rexroth was abusive. Because in her estimation he was an abuser,
she’ll abuse him back now that he is six-feet under. Her approach is conceptually
parallel to the eye-for-an-eye mimicked by Henry Miller in his World War II pacifist
pamphlet
Murder the Murderers (157), but Miller’s courageous public stance stands
in stark contrast to Hamalian’s personal hostility.


THE MIND BEHIND, DECEPTIVE SCHOLARSHIP

Hamalian is not only one-dimensional in a way that I don’t happen to like, but she is
at times guilty of deceptive scholarship. I wonder if she would approve of a student
of hers pulling off the following misuse of materials:

“Rexroth said his poems were about the ordinary things in his life—[1] ‘the stuff I
see, the girls I’m sleeping with, or something else like that.’ He liked to sound
casual: [2] ‘The girl I fuck in this poem must now be about forty-five. I look her up
sometimes.’”  (341).

“a variation on his standard [3] ‘this is a girl I used to screw’ introduction.”  (353).

In the above three quotes the first is from a journal interview Rexroth did in 1976
answering questions about his poetics. Speaking off the cuff, he mentioned that his
poems came from everyday life, including “the girls I’m sleeping with.” That seems
honest enough. When I read the second quote attributed to him, “The girl I fuck in
this poem must now be forty-five. I look her up sometimes.” I thought it sounded
quite crude and unlike my memory of how Rexroth used to speak in public, yet
Hamalian described him liking “to sound casual.” Checking her endnote (419) I was
surprised that Rexroth never spoke those words, in fact they were written by
Stephen Spender who “attributes the remark to a poet named ‘Waxwrath.’” Stephen
Spender’s playful mocking of Rexroth while he was alive has, in Hamalian’s rush to
belittle him, undergone a transformation into words uttered by Rexroth himself.
Waxwrath = Rexroth and you’d never know unless you happen to check the endnote.
This is not only sloppy scholarship but a willful and malicious merging of disparate
sources. If she had cited a source’s misquote, that would be a forgivable mistake
(called in Japanese “magobiki” 孫引き[“pulling a grandchild”]), but in this case she
is misquoting her own source. I shudder to imagine how she would analyze that
conduct were it by Rexroth. Here she is revealing more about herself than her
subject.

And, now that Hamalian’s head is full of recycling Rexroth equals Waxwrath and has
naturalized the concept of him introducing his poetry at readings with crude boasts
about sexual conquests, we find her flippantly writing a few pages later, “…a
variation on his standard ‘this is a girl I used to screw’ introduction.” (353). Circular
logic implants Spender’s mocking comment and now she delivers it as factual. I
kept wondering if it is or isn’t odd that someone who pulls such a stunt—evidence
of a palpable (unconscious?) bias running throughout her work—can sit accredited
by an English department in an American university.


NEGATIVE AGENDA SEGUES INTO GOOFY CONCLUSIONS

Hamalian’s pitch unfortunately gets ever more strident as the book progresses.
Despite Rexroth’s sympathetic translations of women poets of China and Japan, she
reads his attitude in a negative light, “His identification with these poets suggests
that, despite outward appearances, he too felt trapped.” (341).

Why did he necessarily feel “trapped”? Hamalian, the English professor, seems
unable to grasp the point that Rexroth sought and found and translated excellent
poetry. She seems to need reminding that he was first and foremost a poet, and
poetry and emotion can be intertwined (although not necessarily), and the act of
translating poetry isn’t always to cover up marital shortcomings. Much more
significant than if he “felt trapped” is that many literati consider Rexroth’s
translations of Japanese classical poetry to be among the best so far produced in the
English language (including Howard Hibbett, a highly-respected Japanese literature
specialist and professor emeritus at Harvard University). Hamalian, however, in her
myopic crusade and acting like a “hysterical bride in the penny arcade,” (Bob Dylan)
declares unequivocally that Rexroth is “doomed…to a life where he would feel
betrayed by love, and disappointed by his family and friends. Unlike these [Asian]
women poets, Rexroth had built his own prison.” (341). Does she mean Rexroth’s
“prison” was the home where she had been invited for a fun dinner and wished he
had written a poem for her? (x). Does she mean that his mind was a prison, if so why
was he so jolly most of the time and how could she extrapolate her existential
condemnation from a cursory reading of his empathetic translations? Given the
choice between her derailed judgments and Rexroth’s considerable
accomplishments, it’s a no-brainer (versus a “genius.” [x]).

In the Epilogue, highly-strung Hamalian gets in her final licks with, “[his] nasty
level of sexism” and “[despite his spiritual aspirations] he was too much in the
world.” (375). Like a matador going for the final thrust of the sword, she ends her
biography reiterating her main point, “he was genuine in his poems the way he
could not always be in his life.” (375). Does that back-handed compliment mean that
he was “genuine” or “not genuine,” assuming it was not in his life but only in the
poems? Is she suggesting that he was genuine only in the realm of the poem as
autonomous object? If so, what does “genuine” mean (crafted, crafty)?

Rexroth the poet certainly got sideswiped by what Hamalian had to offer in her
analysis of his extraordinary talents. Ken Knabb is the sole reviewer who comes to a
similar conclusion (“A Clueless Life of Kenneth Rexroth,” www.bopsecrets.org). No
one would suggest that Rexroth was perfect. Some of the faults Hamalian chooses to
focus on were also noted in his own correspondence, so he dealt with those issues.
Sure he was a bundle of contradictions like anyone else. Who expects poets in our
society to be saints? But Hamalian’s overarching bias and relentless bashing cloud
any reasonable assessment of Rexroth’s legacy, because she turns her years of
research into a hatchet job.

She often quotes Rexroth’s disdain for east coast, academic, reactionary,
establishment critics, and ironically Rexroth got one of them as his biographer. How
could he have known what havoc the twenty-one year old Hamalian would wreak on
his reputation a decade after his death? I’m sure she would never have dared write
that kind of book while he was alive. He would have pulverized it in a review with
far more eloquence than I could ever muster. Hamalian notes that she visited
Rexroth with her husband a few weeks before his death, after a stroke rendered him
unable to speak, “His steely brilliant blue eyes lit up in recognition, but only a series
of grunts issued from his mouth.” (422). Behind the grunting was Kenneth
desperately trying to say that he didn’t think her broccoli was perfect after all and
that he wished she’d leave his life alone?

I think that not to bracket what she highlights of Rexroth’s alleged behavior towards
some of his wives is also to turn a blind eye to what he was up against in the larger
picture of his struggle to fight the Social Lie at all costs in the US during the middle
fifty years of the 20th century. Selden Rodman summed up the situation already in
1951:

“The whole dull, grey, standardizing, conformist, amorphous weight of
contemporary American civilization is pitted against the few remaining
individualists in the Emerson-Thoreau tradition, of whom Rexroth is a splendid
example. If his isolation makes him occasionally outrageous and shrill, that is
understandable, and more power to him.” (176).

That is not to excuse any inexcusable behavior—which I’m sure as a sensitive
human being Rexroth would have amply regretted—but in general is it too much to
expect empathy rather than disdain for the subject of a biography? Is it her duty to
take the side of all the women she feels were wronged by him and then re-fight their
battles as a proxy without his participation?

Everyone who knew Rexroth seemed to enjoy his hipness while he was alive. No one
was as sharp and direct and funny. He could elucidate subtleties of world history
and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics, and the next moment transition to
an off-color joke, all smoothly and effortlessly. Once in my presence, late in the
evening, Kenneth was lying on the couch listening to Thomas Parkinson, a professor
from the University of California at Berkeley and an old friend of his who was trying
to engage him in conversation. Kenneth had spent the day driving back with Carol
and Tom to Santa Barbara, and I had been house-sitting in their absence. Kenneth
was admittedly tired and seemed to have exhausted his patience with Tom’s
nagging. To show displeasure while Tom bellowed away, Kenneth slowly turned his
back to him, loudly farted and then fell fast asleep. It was a hilarious performance.
No one was earthier in action and loftier in thought than Kenneth Rexroth, and that
dichotomy was difficult for some people to handle.




HAS DEFAMATION BECOME THE NORM?

I don’t usually read biographies that are unsympathetic to their subjects. To give
examples from rock ‘n roll, books that raid the skeletons in the closet (such as
Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon [1988], Elvis [1981] and Elvis: The Last
24 Hours [1990]) don’t interest me, whereas I prefer portraits such as those by Jerry
Schilling (Me and a Guy Named Elvis [2006]) and Jerry Hopkins (No One Here Gets
Out Alive: Biography of Jim Morrison [1980]). The genre of ransacking dead people’s
lives for their purported weaknesses has always seemed inherently unfair, lame and
sleazy. I know that it is part and parcel of trashy tabloid culture, and since Christina
Crawford’s scathing book
Mommie Dearest (1978), the genre has gained in
popularity. Readers naturally eschew hagiography, but wanting a generally amiable
biographer should not be out of the question. I am disturbed that the goalposts of
“fair” and “honest” have been moved in the last few decades, if Hamalian’s book is
normative. Authors should beware if fame necessarily implies being skewered after
death.

I am amused that some writers have praised the Rexroth biography, even if they
happen to be blurbs on its back cover.

--Diane Wakoski, “How refreshing! A biography which seeks out truth
without
distorting or vilifying the subject
.” (jacket blurb; my italics).

I wonder how much more Hamalian could vilify Rexroth. I know we are in the age of
intensified double-speak, and I expect it from the political news—based on the
Social Lie—but not necessarily from an intelligent poet.

Jessica Hagedorn also writes a blurb for the book. A poet whom Rexroth had
nurtured from age fifteen, Hagedorn is described in Hamalian’s book as follows:
“[Rexroth] was very sympathetic to her artistic aspirations, her Filipino childhood,
and her education. He set her on a course of reading—which included anthologies of
black writers and French writers like Apollinaire, Artaud, and Clevel—and invited
her to use his library whenever she liked…. Rexroth decided that Jessica needed to
develop her ear, and invited her to read with him at a small coffeehouse….” (320).

This sounds to me like a generous mentor in the Bohemian tradition and,
significantly, there is no hint of sexual impropriety involved. Hagedorn “repays” his
unusual gift (in the book she is quoted as saying, “Rexroth was
magical.” [320]) by
writing a blurb for the book’s jacket:

“Hamalian is both
fair and honest biographer—revealing his dark side without
stripping Rexroth of his dignity.” (my italics).

I imagine he would have thought that his dignity had been stripped by the examples
I’ve already cited, even the single sentence: “
[he] would fuck a snake if it would hold
still for him.
” Maybe Jessica didn’t have time to read the book closely or was
flattered with the opportunity to write a blurb. Nevertheless, I think the book is
neither “fair” nor “honest” unless vicious hearsay, unsubstantiated libel, and poor
literary criticism are the order of the day.

--[Donald Gutierrez….] “Hamalian has turned out a…generally
judicious account….”
(1993; zinkle.com; my italics).

---Herbert Gold, “Gradually Linda Hamalian allows developing understanding of the
rogue poet’s flaws—
a fabulizing of his own life, plus vanity, capriciousness, erratic
judgment , abusiveness toward both enemies and ex-friends—to stain the portrai
t….”
(jacket blurb; my italics).

Gold at least seems to be discussing the same book that I read. The publisher
significantly puts Gold’s list of qualities on the jacket cover as a way to titillate
readers about a “rogue” poet’s life. Gold notices that there is mudslinging (or
exposing) going on, and yet he is circumspect in eluding the main thrust of her
book, namely Rexroth’s alleged mistreatment of women.


THE NEEDLING AND THE DAMAGE DONE

In my opinion, Hamalian’s book has done irreparable harm to Rexroth’s reputation.
During the almost two decades since it was published, his literary stock has fallen
precipitously. Because of her fastidious research into many of the facts of his life—
despite her bias—few writers are likely to redo the project anytime soon. His work
will not be consistently under-appreciated, it rises like cream in a myriad of fields,
yet her book, as the most comprehensive “biography” of his life, is where many
readers will continue to go for an appraisal of the man as a whole. While reading her
unflattering portrait, I started to imagine how readers who never met him would
evaluate him. A crucial tenet of Rexroth’s belief system was that a poet must be an
intelligently
functional human being, but ironically Hamalian has reduced him page
after page to the dysfunctional freak stereotype demanded by straight society.
[Note: Two years after writing this paragraph I was delighted to hear that a new
biography by Rachelle Katz Lerner,
A Rage to Order: Kenneth Rexroth, is forthcoming
from the University of Michigan.]

In sharp contrast to Hamalian’s rude and crude approach, most of Rexroth’s prose
essays, several on topical issues, are resilient and often more poignant today than
when they were first published. And some of his poetry still defies assimilation by
bourgeois society, because the Social Lie he unmasks so articulately has become
ever more transparent as the hypocrisy of USA foreign policy unravels (cf. Harold
Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize speech). Incidentally, Rexroth was using the term “post-
post-modernism” already in the 1970s, before theoretical works by Fredric Jameson
and others on postmodernism became popular.

It is high time to move past Rexroth’s controversial personality and delve into his
provocative ideas. He and like-minded friends started the Randolph Bourne Council
in the early 1940s and the Libertarian Circle right after the war in San Francisco, the
latter to “refound the radical movement after its destruction by the Bolsheviks and
to rethink all the basic principals and subject to searching criticism all the
ideologists from Marx to Malatesta.” (149). At the very least we can enjoy Rexroth’s
insights and humor in his poetry and prose, but it would be even more important if
people could come together to “refound the radical movement” and “rethink all the
basic principals,” perhaps on a blog site (while keeping in mind Robert Fisk’s
caveat: “‘Activists’ spend hours and hours emailing each other to no purpose it
seems to me, other than to say, ‘we’re losing.’”).

The ideas of Rexroth’s generation of anarchist poets run the risk of being
marginalized as those of quaint dinosaurs. I hope that people like him who dedicate
their lives for more than personal fortune will not be demonized.


WACK-A-MOLE

Kenneth Rexroth’s multi-faceted activities make him difficult to classify. He reminds
me of the Japanese game “mogura-tataki” 「土竜叩き」(wack-a-mole) in which you
hammer down moles with a mallet but they reappear elsewhere. The object of the
game is to be faster at striking them down than they are at reemerging. Rexroth’s
various talents are akin to the moles in the game that refuse to stay put.

Right-wing critics might shoot down Rexroth’s radical politics, but they’d probably
be moved by his exquisite love poetry. Critics who consider his love poetry
compromised by not being in synch with his life story as they understand it (like
Hamalian) can still have high regard for his nature poetry. Refer to the nature verse
as merely California regional “bear-shit-on-the-trail” school of poetry (as he self-
mockingly did), yet you might acknowledge that Rexroth was a great translator and a
philosopher who encompassed wisdom of the west and east (cf. Morgan Gibson’s
fine study,
Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom [Hamdon, CT: Archon
Books, 1986]). For those who knock the profundity of philosophical and theological
meanderings, he was a thoroughly down-to-earth poet (like this unpublished ditty in
his old age: “Love Poem: All over the world/ At this moment, beautiful/ Women are
wiping / Their assholes.”). (355). You may find his ribald side inappropriate to your
bourgeois taste (Hamalian refers to his “bad jokes and sophomoric remarks” [401],
forgetting that Rexroth was a repository of American humor from cowboys,
vaudeville, the Ozarks and elsewhere, and in this respect he resembled Gershon
Legman [1917-1999], who faithfully copied graffiti limericks from toilets and other
locales around the USA). Disregard Rexroth’s bawdy side and his paintings might
impress you as exploratory and sophisticated, way beyond the dilettantism
associated with most writers who pick up a brush. His paintings were as much his
essence and as meaningful to him as his poems. (He told me, “If the house starts
burning, just save the paintings.”) And if you happen not to be moved by his
painting (like Hamalian), you might still respect Rexroth’s detailed guidebook to
flora and fauna of the High Sierras. If poetry with jazz or original poetry or
translations don’t suit your fastidious tastes, you probably would still consider his
erudite essays on the world’s classical literature to be an education in itself. And so
on and so forth.

Rexroth’s house of culture has so many windows and doors open that he will not be
relegated to obscurity because of bad press in any one section. Wack-a-mole here
and there, but Rexroth will still astonish you with another fascinating angle. One
day if “The Complete Works of Kenneth Rexroth” is published, then readers will be
astonished at the breadth of his diverse achievements.

Hamalian wrote that the first time she visited Rexroth he “talked…politics (of the
conspiracy theory kind) into the early morning hours.” What if the F.B.I. or C.I.A. or
N.S.A. or a nameless intelligence organization was troubled by what a nation of
people who agreed with Rexroth’s revolutionary (not “re-volvo-lutionary”) politics
and cultural attitudes could do? After all, he was a key figure in the break-apart
1960s and had mentored Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other Beats
before they were radicals, and the Beats then merged into the Hippies before
spreading worldwide. There would be no better way to neutralize such a figure than
to have a biography like Hamalian’s downplay his or her overall importance by
harping on a perceived personality shortcoming. Highly significant is that she never
once addresses the potential of Rexroth’s ideas in the contemporary world but
continually bashes him until he is trivialized as a cantankerous buffoon. The history
of the anarchist movement in the USA also deserves better treatment of one of its
leaders. Along the way, Hamalian impoverishes us and herself. The neo-cons
currently in Washington, D.C. should be proud to have her book on their shelves
and I’m sure they wish they had such a biography for each and every radical thinker
with potentially threatening ideas. Hamalian, whether inadvertently or not, in the
cloak of feminist righteousness has been doing the Man’s job.   


LIBERATING KENNETH REXROTH WORDS

In my opinion, Rexroth’s foremost talent was his “ability” (the literal meaning of the
Japanese “Noh” theater that he was so fond of) to construe almost any situation—
grave or ludicrous—into a phrase that is eminently quotable. His times and what he
said were quite different from those of Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde,
but Rexroth had a similar knack for witty and memorable utterances.

I see Rexroth’s legacy as radiating out from his quotes to people who subsequently
search out his paintings, poetry, prose and recorded performances. Using Linda
Hamalian’s book exclusively, I fished out some of the gems she quotes from various
sources (including
An Autobiographical Novel) under topics that I titled. I did so to
recuperate his voice, because reading her book made me think that his quotes were
lotuses blossoming from her unfriendly mud. In his own words he is freed from the
scandal and gossip, the agenda-raising and rancor, as if to present the reader a
plateful of vegetables without pouring an unnecessary spicing on top to make their
edibility questionable.

If you enjoy the mind behind any or some or all of the following Kenneth Rexroth
quotes, then I suggest that you skip reading Linda Hamalian’s
A Life of Kenneth
Rexroth
(unless you are researching “unfaithful poets and their [un]faithful wives”
or taking Professor Kevin Blackburn’s “Tutorial 1: Biographers Who Hate Their
Subjects” which focuses on “the pitfalls of bias in the writing of biography.”).* You
may prefer to go directly to the dozens of books Rexroth wrote and translated and
the website that has much prose material by him and some about him: www.
bopsecrets.org.
*[http://www.hsse.nie.edu.sg/staff/blackburn/biography&history.htm]

Now that almost a quarter century has passed since Rexroth’s death, we should be
able to evaluate which of his utterances turned out to be correct and which were off
the mark. He managed to be ahead of the curve, if not prescient on many matters,
and his work pushes us to consider seriously the importance of ecology,
individuality in art praxis, the dehumanization and alienation under hyper-
capitalism, and strategies to recover sacramental human relationships in a vapid
political climate. He might even have some insights about what to do about people
like Hamalian who have “discovered the use of the rhetoric of radical politics for
reactionary purposes.” (360).

Hamalian really shouldn’t have the last word on Rexroth (and neither should I).
Until a more sympathetic biography is written, I prefer to let him speak for himself.
His quotes follow my untitled poem.

                                                                   
Kenneth
when you were alive
you were larger than life

you never said
when dead
you'd be larger
than death

you pirouetted integrity
your best friend, Laughlin
called you omniscient
in your late thirties
you wrote him a letter
admitting you couldn't
feed yourself and
were a beggar

from sheepherder
cowboy cook
horse wrangler
painter and poet
driver for Al Capone's lieutenant
you almost had to take a job
as a rat catcher not
even a dog catcher

a poetry book of yours
won a California prize
you had to borrow a suit
to attend the dinner party

you were rough on some
no patience for evil
you pushed yourself
to starburst heights

pioneer of jazz poetry
points massager
front guard aiding Japanese and
Japanese-Americans in San Francisco
to escape from horse stable fate
you hid them in your four rooms

you sent many mid-west
on a scam you devised
enrolling them in
correspondence schools

yet you couldn't afford a $10 pair of shoes
when you were almost forty years old
you saw the capitalist system as doomed
but wouldn't be fooled by Stalin's tactics
you led a hard life for a long time
because you always kept it real

as everything unravels
people will catch your worth
bodhisattva among reeds
shaken by the mindless
and soulless

humans never again
free as you were
future prohibits it

like the softly waving hand
of an Indian dancer
your poetry will last
as long as the language



*                *                *
                                                                       
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