Inserting 1936 Kenneth Rexroth into 2015

Kenneth Rexroth addressed a conference of Western Writers in 1936 with an essay titled The Function of Poetry and the Role of the Poet in Society. For those not familiar with Rexroth, he was known as an eclectic radical:

A prolific painter and poet by age seventeen, Rexroth traveled through a succession of avant-garde and modernist artistic movements, gaining a reputation as a radical by associating with labor groups and anarchist political communities. He experimented amid Chicago’s “second renaissance” in the early 1920s, explored modernist techniques derived from the European-born “revolution of the word,” played an integral part in the anarchist-pacifist politics and poetic mysticism that pervaded San Francisco’s Bay Area in the 1940s, and affiliated himself with the “Beat Generation” in the mid-1950s.

The essay I’m excerpting for this post comes from a collection edited by Bradford Morrow, called World Outside The Window (New Direction, 1947). Right from the start Rexroth has my attention:

I believe that to a certain extent always, but in modern times especially, the poet, by the very nature of his art, has been an enemy of society, that is, of the privileged and the powerful. He has sometimes been an ally and spokesman of the unprivileged and the weak, where such groups were articulate and organized, otherwise he has waged an individual and unaided war.

Modern times? 1936, to most Americans, is probably ancient history. It is, after all, nearly 80 years ago. But there’s resonance—a 2015, post-modern overlay of that time between the Great Depression and the lead up to world war—that’s unsettling.

Later in the essay Rexroth describes some of the economic pressures on what could be possible if not for the lack of support for the arts:

Vanguard or rear guard, it makes very little difference today. Our most significant poets, whatever limited prestige and reputations they may enjoy, are nonetheless outcasts from this society. We may not all of us be extraordinarily distinguished or considered tremendously significant in the world of letters, but insofar as we are poets, we are enemies of this present society. None of us is in the position of my friend in New York. We either have some non-literary source of income, or we are employed by the WPA, but it is only an accident that we are all not so many Villons. The forces which control much of the world, forces which in America and in California are striving to suppress the democracy and creative freedom we have, have little use for us. They are committed to the belief that the sword is mightier than the pen. We are outcasts in their eyes already. None of us makes a living by poetry, although we think it one of the most important activities man has ever had or could ever hope to have as long as society remains as it is.

We have met to preserve the minimum conditions under which creative work is possible. We have not met to form a literary school or to persuade each other of the advisability of our individual techniques. We have not met to discuss Proletarian art, Surrealism, or heroic couplets. As writers we can make a significant gesture of defiance in the faces of those who are trying to remove America from the civilized world. But alone we cannot do very much else. There is a potential audience of all the producing classes of the West, which obviously we have not reached. We are conscious of the dangers which threaten what civilization we have. It is our job to awaken this audience to these dangers and to ally ourselves with the common people who have already awakened. It is they, not we, who will be the deciding factors in the coming struggle. Any moderately efficient fascist police could in a month silence or exterminate every honest writer in America. But they could not so easily dispose of farmers and workers, the common people upon whom the life of the country depends. It is still possible to rally the American people to the defense of their democracy.

I don’t know, Kenny. I think democracy is gone.

  1. troutsky

    There is still formal democracy but the project of expanding and enriching it has been aborted. The problem with your “overlay” I believe, is that class relations and dynamics have changed so that terms like “Proletarian” or “producing classes” or “common people” no longer signify anything meaningful. A left that clings to this language is soon made irrelevant.

    • lizard19

      you are reading too much into it. I’m quoting an artist from 1936 to show that 80 years later we are witnessing similar conditions–ongoing economic malaise, vast disparity in earning, and the rumblings of another world war.

    • JC

      Troutsky, as language is so powerful, what do you see as a good starting point for more effective and relevant communication?

      I often find myself picking through terms from the past and attempt to resurrect them for a while (i.e. “neofeudalism”), try them on for size. I know certain groups try to reclaim words and phrases or redefine them to be more appropriate (i heard Nader talking the other day on npr about how the “private marketplace” should be called the “corporate marketplace”, and some other examples).

  2. Turner

    I’ve been reading about the founding fathers recently. All of them, even Jefferson, had misgivings about democracy. From the start of our national history, “the people” have been seen as rabble to be constrained by their betters.

    Jefferson, the most democratic of them, was uneasy about their lack of information. I can locate citations if needed.

    • I share all those concerns, having an open set of eyes and all of that, but in one of his letters (TJ only wrote one book) he said that while the people were not well informed, they were the best repository for any democratic hopes.

      Bertrand Russell pooh-poohed any notions of wisdom among the people as a whole, but liked the idea that in democracies, new leaders were constantly moving in and our. What would be true if we had more than one party.

  3. steve kelly

    Václav Havel certainly had quite a good run. Never say never.

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