Kenneth Rexroth wrote in the tradition of contemplative, mystical, visionary, philosophical, and prophetic poets such as William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Dante, Du Fu, Zeami Motokiyo, and Sappho, all of whom influenced him. Rextroth was an eclectic student of many traditions from many cultures: Judeo-Christian, classical Greek and Roman, Chinese, and Japanese. He was a modernist poet with a passionate commitment to tradition—to that which has lasted for centuries and is worth saving. His work as a whole, expository and autobiographical prose as well as passionate love lyrics, heartrending elegies, ferocious satires, and richly intellectual epic-reveries and dramas, must be read in the context of these diverse traditions. His style ranged from cubist innovations that ally him with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and other revolutionists of the word, to the limpid simplicity he learned from Chinese and Japanese masters. This stylistic variety, however, is informed by an unwavering central vision of mystical love, universal responsibility, and spiritual realization.
The Collected Shorter Poems
The Collected Shorter Poems offers a brilliant diversity of styles and forms drawn from Rexroth’s work over four decades. “Andromeda Chained to the Rock the Great Nebula in Her Heart” and other cubist poems share affinities with Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky, as well as with African and Native American song. In a more direct style are exquisite lyrics of love and nature, such as “We Come Back”; fierce intellectual satires such as “Last Visit to the Swimming Pool Soviets” (with aspersions on the so-called chic Hollywood leftists); prophetic poems of revolutionary heroism and defeat, such as “From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion”; and Chinese translations.
“Yin and Yang,” Rexroth’s most liturgical poem of natural cycles, is an Easter vision of resurrecting birds, flowers, and constellations in which imagery and rhythms are perfectly balanced. In it, the moon, moving through constellations from Leo to Virgo, fertilizes the Virgin, and the ear of wheat symbolizes the creative process of nature as it did in the Eleusinian mysteries. As moonlight proclaims the climactic coming of spring, under the world the sun swims in Pisces, the double fish and the Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang, the harmonious interactions of darkness and light, coldness and heat, female and male. The regular prosody, supporting the orderly revelation of mythology, is a combination of accentual and syllabic patterns. All but three lines have nine syllables each, and most lines have three accents each, with a fundamentally dactyllic movement supporting the prophetic tone of this memorable poem.
“When We with Sappho,” perhaps Rexroth’s greatest love poem, begins with his first translation, done as a teenager and convincing him that he was a creative artist; there follows his sacramental lyric of erotic bliss, in which he and the woman he loves—also his muse—merge in a summer meadow into the immortal world of Sappho. As he speaks intimately, hypnotically repeating “summer,” each body becomes a “nimbus” over the world, as they unite in thunder, before separating toward death.
“A Letter to William Carlos Williams” centers on the sacramental value of poetry as living speech, person to person (rather than as a text analyzed as an object). The style echoes the intimate ebb and flow of conversation with an old friend, whom he compares with Saint Francis (whose flesh united with all lovers, including birds and animals) and Brother Juniper (a wise fool who laughed at indignities). Citing the quiet imagery of daily life in Williams’s poetry, Rexroth praises Williams’s stillness (like that of the Quaker George Fox and the peace of Jesus), and the poem concludes with a utopian vision of a beautiful Williams River, as a young woman of the future tells her children how it used to be the filthy Passaic, and how the poet Williams had embodied in his poetry a creative community of sacramental relationships.
Rexroth’s most famous protest poem, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” has been recorded with jazz accompaniment. An elegy for Dylan Thomas, it mourns the destruction of many poets in this depersonalizing, violent century. Young men,...
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