Kenneth Rexroth and Radio Reading

By Houglum, Brook | English Studies in Canada, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Kenneth Rexroth and Radio Reading


Houglum, Brook, English Studies in Canada


In San Francisco also began the now fabulously successful oral presentation of poetry. For years, in fact from long before the war, there have been more poetry readings every week in San Francisco than I for one have ever been able to keep track of.... Poetry is an art of speech, and it can only be helped by its restoration to immediate contact with a living audience.

Kenneth Rexroth "The New Poetry," 1961

Now [clears throat] I'll read from my own uh recent poems. A book called In Defense of the Earth. Both of these books by the way are published by New Directions. [um] Also this is Kenneth Rexroth reading his own poetry [laughs] the uh midway in the program.

Kenneth Rexroth "Poetry," on KPFA 13 January 1957

ON 13 JANUARY 1957, RADIO STATION KPFA Berkeley broadcast Kenneth Rexroth reading from his two new books of translations and original poems: 100 Poems from the Chinese (1956) and In Defense of the Earth (1956). His reading was part of a weekly series that broadcast local poets reading their own work. The postwar San Francisco literary milieu that Rexroth indexes in the first epigraph, and the multiple literary circles that emerged in and traveled through the Bay area in the period, have often been discussed in terms of their interest in oral performance, speech, jazz, and breath-based composition modes, but radio broadcasts are not often discussed in relation to this orally-engaged scene. Mid-twentieth-century radio poetry archives in general are difficult to obtain, often buried in non-catalogued materials or simply lost, but radio readings were part of the aural environment that characterized literary networks and collectives such as those forming in postwar San Francisco. KPFA, the first station of the listener-sponsored Pacifica radio network, began broadcasting in 194 9; showcasing literary innovation was part of its mandate (Land 3), an aim that translated into the station hosting local and international writers, airing controversial poems and debates such as over Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in 1955, and supporting Rexroth's sustained literary and cultural discussions over the airwaves. In this essay, I posit Rexroth's 1957 radio broadcast as integral to his engagement of the poetics he describes above as oral and immediate and situate the recording of his broadcast in relation to the cultural contexts and media situation in which it participated.

My interest in investigating Rexroth's radio reading in relation to its broadcast context stems from my attempt to articulate a broad-based methodology for listening to recorded readings. In addition to engaging strategies of close reading for sound patterns, structures, and audio textual elements and strategies of "close listening" to vocal markers of performed poems such as "intonations, pitch, tempos, accents ... grain or timbre of voice" (Bernstein 13), my essay is interested in thinking through how Rexroth's broadcast poems circulated in the postwar culture of sound and contribute to an understanding of Rexroth's poetics of speech. I hear the recording of Rexroth's radio reading as part of the fabric of a KPFA day of broadcasting, part of the radio oeuvre of a popular broadcaster, part of a sustained critique of oppressive social forms, and part of the articulation of a poetic community. Radio, and KPFA in particular, participates in the dynamic presentation of oral poetry central to postwar Bay area literary scenes. Radio also provides a slightly different presentation and reception context and media situation than a reading by an embodied voice at a coffee shop or jazz bar. (1) Recordings of poetry readings can at times seem disconnected from the cultural contexts and media conditions in which they have and continue to circulate, especially when one is listening to an isolated recording of several poems on compact disc fifty years after they were performed or broadcast. In focusing on one particular radio recording, I hope to explore how the process of listening to poetry recordings is enhanced by thinking through the particular set of conditions in which the recording was produced and by examining some of the media, literary, political, and cultural resonances of the voiced poems.

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