Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Day Fifteen

Kenneth Rexroth, American poet once referred to as the father of the Beat Generation (he rejected the label): I read a couple of his essays that clearly demonstrate how wide-ranging and encyclopedic were his knowledge and understanding of the modern world. (The story goes that he read the Encyclopaedia Britannica every year, "like a novel".) One of them, "The Making of the Counterculture" (1969), is interesting in how adamantly it rejects the conservative notion which Rexroth thought was common in the 50's, that the age of experimentation in literature and culture was over. Instead he suggested that the political and aesthetic revolutions that were happening and would happen made Modernism look modest by comparison. He said that the culture - particularly the writing - that really mattered was happening not in the academy or in bookstores but in small copied magazines and readings, and was produced by and dominated by youth culture. He could have been discussing spoken word when he said that the vital poetry of counter-cultural readings "has no life beyond the immmediate occasion." The Beats, he said (he classified only four writers as Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso) were significant not so much as literature but as social history.

"The most significant, if not the best by older critical standards, literature in America today is to be found, not in books, or even in the established literary magazines, but in poetry readings, in mimeographed broadsides, in lyrics for rock groups, in protest songs — in direct audience relationships of the sort that prevailed at the very beginnings of literature. The art of reading and writing could vanish from memory in a night and it would not make a great difference to the poetry, or even much of the prose, of the youngest generation of poets and hearers of poetry. This is the new world of youth which so disturbs the oldies. Rightly so, it is a world they never made. In it they are strangers and afraid — totally unable, most of them, to comprehend what is happening." —from "The Making of the Counterculture"


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