Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 22)
Kenneth Rexroth 1905–
American poet, critic, essayist, translator, and playwright.
Although associated with the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat poets, Rexroth is an artist who defies rigid categorization. An intimate voice is characteristic of his poetry, and it is a credit to his craftsmanship that this intimacy seems natural, not merely poetic artifice or sentimentality. Rexroth is also a skilled translator of non-Western verse into English.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The poetic theory and practice of Kenneth Rexroth … run counter to the impersonality of much modern literature and criticism…. Rexroth's "progress" as a poet has been a continual revelation of personality, the realization of a selfhood. But he is neither exhibitionistic, like Rimbaud or Lord Byron, nor confessional, like Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton. When he writes about himself, he does so objectively, taking himself for granted. Usually, his attention is fixed on other people, or on his relationships with other people…. (p. 18)
Even when technical terms from the sciences, philosophy, or theology enter his work, as they frequently do, along with historical and literary allusions, his phrasing is that of living American speech; and his own unmistakable voice comes through. His thinking, no matter how abstract and lofty, emerges from down-to-earth, sensuous experience; and his conversational idiom, tone, and rhythms unite subtle ideas with vivid, evocative imagery. (pp. 18-19)
Rexroth's poetic theory and practice are … religious as well as esthetic, anthropological as well as psychological—a philosophical totality which cannot be systematized definitively apart from the poetry, the vision which is its essence…. The experience of transcendence in the key events of life is what Rexroth calls an "anthropological religion" the basis of his poetry. He has written that the anthropologist Edward Sapir was "the...
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Luis Ellicott Yglesias
The keynote of The Phoenix and the Tortoise is not autistic guilt, but articulate responsibility.
The title poem is a long meditation on "what an essential person must do" in order to deserve the gift of consciousness…. First, one must try to get free of the illusions generated by fear and desire which the state manipulates in order to atomize community into an enslaved collectivity. This can be done by striving to identify and adjust to the abiding patterns, the interlocking rhythms that sustain and transform life without the authorization of the state…. Liberty or autonomy is not the end of responsibility, but rather its beginning.
The first responsibility, perhaps, is to love and to the celebration of love because, "We shall know no further enigma." (pp. 3-4)
The second responsibility is to remembrance and lament, not because of a morbid preoccupation with the past, but because what endures in the memory gives consciousness substance and sustenance and the strength to go on….
The third responsibility is to exercise one's critical wits….
The final responsibility is communication…. [Rexroth] was almost the only American poet coming into his own in the forties who cared to write poems the way an intelligent, considerate person with urgent things to say might speak….
Indeed, this irreducible man, this integral person has learned...
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Kenneth Rexroth is in his 70's, and his books and translations are too numerous to number. He has been living in Japan lately, and, Japaneselike, has become a creature of the floating world. He writes [in The Morning Star]:
Time has had a stop.
Space is gone.
Grasping and consequence
The aeons have fallen away.
This, of course, from another Japan. Not the one busily exporting Hondas and Toyotas.
In Rexroth's Orient there are plovers that "cry in the/Dark over the high moorland" and a remarkable "mist-drenched, moonlit" spiderweb, the work of an orb-weaver, that reminds the poet of the "net of Indra, /The compound of infinities of infinities."
[Rexroth is looking] for a sort of day-to-day mysticism. A poetry of direct statement and simple clear ideas. A poetry free of superfluous rhetoric. One might call it a poetry of moments.
Victor Howes, "Poetry of Moments," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 6, 1980, p. 17.∗...
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In Rexroth's poems the natural world, unchanged and changing, remains background to history and love, to enormity and bliss….
His politics of the individual separates him from the mass of Americans—and obviously from Stalinists of the left—and yet joins him to all human beings; it is a politics of love—and Rexroth is the poet of devoted eroticism….
His work for 40 years has moved among his passions for the flesh, for human justice and for the natural world. He integrates these loves in the long poems, and sometimes in briefer ones. "The Signature of All Things" may be the best of all. It is the strength of Rexroth's language that it proscribes nothing…. [His] is a poetry of experience and observation, of knowledge—and finally a poetry of wisdom. Nothing is alien to him.
Rexroth's characteristic rhythm moves from the swift and urgent to the slow and meditative, remaining continually powerful….
When we try to describe a poet's style, it can be useful to name starting points, but it is not easy with Kenneth Rexroth…. To an unusual extent Rexroth has made Rexroth up. (p. 9)
Donald Hall, "Kenneth Rexroth and His Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1980, pp. 9, 43-4.
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