Transmission of the Lamp
Old Rex, reluctant godfather of the Beats,
cantankerous presiding luminary
of San Francisco’s Poetry Renaissance,
loved to tell how at 17 he had been
inspired by his 40-year-old mentor
Hal Witter Bynner, pioneer translator
of the great poets of China’s golden T’ang,
to shift the focus of his own interest
from the romantic stanzas of Li Tai Po,
to the elegiac broodings of Tu Fu,
Li’s younger friend, staid Confucian family man,
career diplomat, & dissident outlaw.
Conversing on a bright, sun-baked patio
at Bynner’s rambling old adobe abode
on the edge of then still remote Santa Fe,
young Rex gained from his generous urbane host
a poetic hero to admire for life.
Rex at 60, cranky boho poet king,
never tired of singing his old mentor’s praise,
for that pivotal half-hour chat leading
to a lifelong study of the great Tu Fu.
Attending Rexroth’s weekly at-home soirées
at 250 Scott Street during my teen years,
hearing my favorite curmudgeon poet
tell & retell his own youthful turning point,
catalyzed my desire to call on Bynner,
then well past eighty, at his Santa Fe home,
the same adobe on Buena Vista Street
where Rex first found his life’s poetic lode stone.
Though Old Hal’s famous health was by then long gone,
he still wrote each day at his antique oak desk
surrounded by books & unfurled scroll paintings,
plunder from a life of study and travel.
“Ransack Li Po AND Tu Fu—all the old greats,”
he advised me. “But most important of all,
find a place to settle where the air itself
glistens year round as if it’s always autumn,
just as it does here and in San Francisco.”