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By 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,

Source: The Collected Shorter Poems (1966)

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Poet Bio

Kenneth Rexroth
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 20th century. His poems, which influenced Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, reflect this tremendous reading, and emphasize ecology, sexuality, and mysticism. In his poem “Discrimination,” Rexroth shows a more political side as he cleverly mocks racial stereotypes. See More By This Poet

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