Kenneth Rexroth: The Bad Old Days
The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.
Sam Hamill writes a wonderful piece on Kenneth Rexroth here
I didn’t get a lot of Rexroth and needed a dictionary and sometimes an encyclopedia or a library, but he drew me in like no one had before. I knew there was a world in those poems, a vitally expansive world that invited me into it. I loved his anger and his tenderness and weary longing. Some poems reflected on what seemed to me to be an almost eternal life. Who was the “Marthe” for whom he sorrowed so deeply? Lost love? I’d had no love to lose, but I felt, however naively, that I felt his sorrow, his longing. I had never felt loved by anyone and I would live and die in my orphan’s loneliness, I was certain. Rexroth’s poetry often expressed for me what I could not say myself.
It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.