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47: THE LIBRARIAN OF DISAFFILIATION

#47: THE LIBRARIAN OF DISAFFILIATION. Shortly after reading the piece on Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry in Sam Hamill’s book A Poet's Work, a copy of Rexroth’s books of essays TheAlternative Society: Essays from the Other World (Herder, 1970) fell into my hands. The first thing I noticed in rereading it was the dated, distinctive tone of the counterculture of the American sixties: its politics, references and vocabulary. The second surprise was in recognizing what the tone consisted of: a direct, prescriptive, almost visionary sense of engagement. The gadarene progress of the last thirty years—the sense of the machinery of the dominant society settling heavily, immovably, permanently into place—has been such as to make the efflorescence of the counterculture, with its dream that it could derail and reroute the main track of society, seem as brief and distant as, say, the Etruscans. If Rexroth is discovered at all now it’s usually as a translator of Oriental poetry or in some vague way via his connection with the Beats. He said once he didn’t want to be known as the Father of the Beats but didn’t mind being thought of as their librarian, and in his prose works he showed himself master of a simply incredible intellectual range. I always joke that the sixties didn’t reach Connecticut until the seventies, and reading Rexroth gave me my footing during the last days of the Vietnam protests and, in college, acquainted me with the receding noises of the counterculture. He also blew open my intellectual horizons and sent me haring after everyone from Lammenais to Philip Whalen to Sei Shonagon. The now-disprivileged young—with impoverished job prospects, ever-worsening education and off in what I call the Permanent Elsewhere of compulsory cell phones, text-messaging, commercial fantasy and science fiction, and the invasive ubiquity of the media and internet—have a much thicker layer of crap to fight through than those of us in our fifties ever did. Just as E.B. White felt that a copy of Walden should be given to every graduate with his or her sheepskin, copies of Rexroth’s essays—Bird in the Bush, Assays, The Elastic Retort,Classics Revisited,American PoetryIn the Twentieth Century, Communalism, The Alternative Society, or the selected volume Window On the World—might be an equally appropriate handout, a supplement to the education they didn’t get. Fortuantely, all can be found secondhand, mostly inexpensively. Get cracking.

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