Last Updated on October 21, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2130
Rexroth, Kenneth 1905–
American Bohemian poet and essayist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
How good, in fact, is Kenneth Rexroth? Well, he is obviously a vigorous, gifted poet who has written a number of attractive poems that come authentically out of lived experience; they reflect the tensions, illusions, disappointments, loves and sorrows of a man who has not only a private but also an active public life, who sees his personal joys and pains in a context of public good and evil. He lacks the brilliance of such 20th-century earth-shakers as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams; he lacks their masterful fusion of ideas and subject matter, of incident and feeling, and the sort of technique that makes lines and whole poems reverberate through the consciousness of a generation. But he is very good and a pleasure to read….
It is [the] sense of the linkage between the present and the future, this sudden opening out onto vistas, that constitutes an enduring aspect of Rexroth's vision. Like Whitman, he is a poet of cosmic consciousness….
The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth is truly an important book. It is an authentic record of the tensions and "saving illusions" of our time. It is the work of a man of great humanity and integrity. The poems really move and, in the marvelous way of true utterance, those that are most deeply rooted in particular places and times speak most surely across the decades.
Stephen Stepanchev, "Triumph of the Particular," in New Leader, April 24, 1967, pp. 20-1.
[At times Kenneth] Rexroth's tone becomes … generous and admiringly inventive. But too often the case is that the "I" of the poems—Rexroth himself—is alone, walking over some Western mountain, looking up at the sky, calling on memories; and at these points we often get something like this: "The years have gone. It is the spring/ Again. Mars and Saturn will/ Soon come on, low in the West,/ In the dusk …" where the line breaks feel arbitary, the mood too flatly unvaried. His powerful sensitivity to the natural word, particularly to flowers, and his admiration for imagist principles are real enough. But I don't hear a compelling musical spirit in the poems, or feel a personal presence that grows more interesting as we become more acquainted with it.
William H. Pritchard, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1967, p. 313.
In his "Collected Shorter Poems" Rexroth is represented in all his voices: his earliest imagistic poems; his impressive technical "exercises" in the manner of Mallarmé; his less impressive manifesto-poems, filled with rhetoric and denunciations; and his handsomely detailed, classically wrought poems of nature….
Rexroth's thoughts on nature are most beautifully expressed in his poems written from 1949 on. It is true that these poems frequently lack the affect and broader relevance of Frost, or the vigor of Gary Snyder, or the aura of humble discovery found in Galway Kinnell's poetry. But they combine a naturalist's specificity with a fine repose, and they are quietly but unmistakably disciplined. Perhaps they would be even more impressive if Rexroth was less impressed with himself. He never seems to be lost in nature: he seems to know what is under every stone even before he looks.
Harold Jaffe, in The Christian Science Science Monitor; © 1967 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), July 11, 1967, p. 9.
Reading through all of Kenneth Rexroth's shorter poems is a little like immersing oneself in the literary history of the last 40 years; for Rexroth experimented with almost all of the poetic techniques of the time, dealt, at least in passing, with all of its favorite themes.
One moves through imagist lyrics, Chinese and Japanese forms, surreal constructions, poems intended to be read against the improvisations of jazz combos, other poems intended to be sung to the tune of folk ballads, poems influenced by Apollinaire and poems that influenced, one assumes, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Corso. In a great many of the poems, Rexroth makes clear just how he stands on social issues….
And yet to read Rexroth in this way is to miss the heart of the man. For in spite of all of his restless literary experimentation and his obvious concern with the way of the world, he finds very early a technique that he returns to again and again—a rather flat statement, usually in short lines and very often in short poems; and a subject matter that can belong to no one else: himself and the women he has loved—his mother, his wives and, in recent poems, his daughters.
John Unterecker, "Calling the Heart to Order," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 23, 1967, p. 8.
It wasn't easy for Kenneth Rexroth to write poems. Rexroth has been excluded from the front ranks of fame, not by the Establishment—an Establishment is a thing that wants to include everybody—but by his own temperament. In California's affluent society Rexroth is a memento mori, remembering the Depression…. Too often he brags about his integrity; too often his thoughts are flat, end-stopped, void of rhythm. But there remain a number of lively, irascible poems and a few poems with real feeling about nature and a handful of people.
Louis Simpson, "New Books of Poems," in Harper's (copyright © 1967 by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the August, 1967 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), August, 1967, pp. 73-7.
[All] his life Rexroth has apparently carried a burden that would seem quixotic to many writers with less swagger and less voiced recklessness—he has worked a tradition that puts forward poems that try to tell the truth. Even the determined imagism of many of the poems conveys an air of not wanting to claim more than what is. And the dominant tone is one of facing what others evade, clinging to values while refusing to adopt the holy stance of the upright and pure….
William Stafford, in Poetry (© 1967 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of The Editor of Poetry), December, 1967, p. 188.
Rexroth sees the eternal in the instant eternal symbols in existential realizations. It is the poetry of the calm of flowing waters. His is a deeply satisfying, profoundly philosophic poetry of world realization. No need to shout. No need to praise. His is the art to accept the vastness of life and give us his pure sense of it, serene, open.
Richard Eberhart, "Poems of a Japanese Sojourn," in Nation, April 22, 1968.
Kenneth Rexroth is [a] poet who has brought his characteristic style to perfection in his new book, which he calls The Heart's Garden The Garden's Heart. In one sense, of course, Rexroth perfected his technique long ago, his verbal technique; but the new poem, which consists of his reflections on his sixtieth birthday during a visit to Kyoto and a nearby temple garden, brings into closer fusion than before the elements of his persisting themes. It amounts now to translucency. Rexroth has always been at his best in the reflective poem of intertwining philosophical questions, personal desires, and observations from nature. His language is unexceptional, unprovocative. Yet at the end of reading his new poem one realizes that one has been led through a complex course of thought, feeling, and experience, reduced in the poet's mind to something crystalline and almost simple. We cannot even remember the language; it has dissolved into its substance, vanished. This is one kind of poetry, a very satisfying kind, though not the be-all and end-all some of my friends would make it. And Rexroth, because he has a genuinely competent mind (unlike some of his followers), and because he understands nature, controls his poem beautifully. His is, as I have said elsewhere, our best modern nature poetry without a doubt. He proves it again in his new poem, he surpasses himself, in the way he brings birds and trees, stars and water, winds and clouds—the world—into not only his poem but its essence.
Hayden Carruth, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, p. 404.
[Kenneth Rexroth] is, par excellence, an American poet—almost the American poet of our day. It is not simply that he belongs to the same tradition of angry and generous rebellion as Walt Whitman, the same tradition of native utterance as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Even more significant, his best work is indelibly stamped with the experience of life in and beyond the Western deserts and mountains he crossed in youth to find the California that has been his home for the greater part of his years.
Yet among American poets Rexroth is remarkable for his absorption—perhaps more than any other, with the rather special exception of T. S. Eliot—of a variety of European influences, from Guillaume Apollinaire to the English poets of the 1930s. He has overlaid these early plunderings with the gleanings of a middle age largely spent in studying the poetry and philosophy of the Far East. Rexroth nevertheless obstinately remains an American phenomenon, tied to his land not merely by the unconsciously accepted influences that give all our minds and sensibilities shapes bound by space and time, but also by some quite deliberate choices. For him, one part of the United States provokes a poetic response; and one American tradition, the libertarian—his lifelong faith—inspires the view of man in society that recurs constantly in his writing….
Rexroth emerges as one of the major poets of our time. I often wonder whether among the present younger poets there are any likely to handle the craft with such clarity, such naturalness, and such splendid art.
George Woodcock, "A Rexroth Retrospective," in New Leader, February 17, 1969, pp. 21-3.
For me, Kenneth Rexroth has long appeared the American most capable of epic achievement. He possesses the necessary general knowledge, range of poetic comprehension, the varied skills requisite to the heroic poem. In his introduction to The Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth … [Rexroth] compares the work to Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson, seeing the individual pieces as "one long poem." The comparison, while fair, suggests again that the modern age settles for something less than the epic conception, and that the fragmentation—social, political, and cultural—in contemporary life reflects itself in a less ambitious approach to poetry than the epic demands. Despite their philosophical cohesiveness and no matter how pleasing, Rexroth's narrative poems, even in their totality, do not result in the grand design characteristic of the epic.
Robert D. Spector, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, March 15, 1969; used with permission), March 15, 1969, p. 33.
Kenneth Rexroth has always written poetry in a crystalline, ingratiating style. His poems have an inviting ease and grace, a naturalness that was bound to be welcomed by readers who had grown impatient with the insupportable prolixity of so much modern poetry. But Rexroth's poems have become sadly predictable in recent years. All the saying is in the same key; there is little range or breadth of vision. A genial, meandering voice delicately, if wearily, coasts over the surfaces of things, of thoughts, mildly murmuring in rooms of his dream where he has come to feel too much at home for his own comfort, or for ours…. One wonders, in vain, why Rexroth seems to have trapped himself early on in a poetics which narrowly restricts itself to a mere corner of his experience.
Laurence Lieberman, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of The Editor of Poetry), April, 1969.
Kenneth Rexroth … is one of America's best living poets. He is also, and has been for the past 50 years, a principled defender of successive countercultures. Although not a critic in the orthodox sense—poets of his type rarely are—Rexroth is a chronicler of a vivid and idiosyncratic kind who knows an astonishing amount (much of it from his own experience) about the North American cultural underground. Accordingly, The Alternative Society is subtitled "Essays from the Other World."…
If one regards the purely social essays as subsidiary to the literary ones—sociological glosses, as it were—the book does acquire a kind of discursive unity. For what Rexroth is really describing is a tradition of dissent that is not new (Bohemia as a counterculture has existed, as he points out, from the time of Villon) but rather has taken on new aspects in our day after passing out of traditional radical, artistic and marginal groups into the wider circles of American society. The uniting thread is Rexroth's own still-active interest in bohemian half-worlds and their values….
Of course, one often disagrees with Rexroth, questions his interpretations, and occasionally questions the facts he presents, usually without documentation.
George Woodcock, "Bohemian Half-Worlds," in New Leader, September 21, 1970, pp. 19-20.
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