The Bad Old Days

By Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982 Kenneth Rexroth
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   
Hospitals. Predatory
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.

Kenneth Rexroth, “The Bad Old Days” from The Collected Shorter Poems. Copyright © 1966 by Kenneth Rexroth. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, www.wwnorton.com/nd/welcome.htm.

Source: The Collected Shorter Poems (1966)

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Poet Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

SCHOOL / PERIOD Beat

Subjects Death, Reading & Books, Relationships, Winter, Arts & Sciences, Nature, Youth, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Living, Family & Ancestors

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Kenneth  Rexroth

Biography

Kenneth Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana and frequently moved around the Midwest during his childhood. He led a tumultuous life that included being orphaned at 14, constant traveling both in the US and abroad, intense political activism, and four marriages. Largely self-educated, he is one of the most well-read poets of the twentieth century. His poems, which influenced Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Death, Reading & Books, Relationships, Winter, Arts & Sciences, Nature, Youth, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Living, Family & Ancestors

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

SCHOOL / PERIOD Beat

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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