Kenneth Rexroth Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 1) - Essay

Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rexroth, Kenneth 1905–

American poet and essayist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Kenneth] Rexroth's In Defense of the Earth (1956) showed him the strongest of [the] West Coast anarchist poets because he is a good deal more than a West Coast anarchist poet. He is a man of wide cultivation and, when not too busy shocking the bourgeois reader (who would like nothing better), a genuine poet.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 265.

When the young beatniks or literary hipsters became news in San Francisco a few years ago, an older poet and critic, Kenneth Rexroth, seemed to appear everywhere at their side like the shade of Virgil guiding Dante through the underworld. Rexroth—who had lived in San Francisco since the 1920s and had from early youth been connected with almost every "advanced" literary-radical-Bohemian movement, from the Wobblies and the John Reed Clubs to the objectivist movement in poetry and abstractionism in painting—suddenly became a public figure. He was an originator of the jazz-poetry readings and an extremely effective reader and teacher of poetry on the San Francisco radio. The enthusiasm of the hipsters for orphic art and poetry unfortunately went hand in hand with a professionally exploited ignorance. Rexroth, who had grown up in bitterest poverty and had never completed his high-school course, had the fanatical learning of the self-educated. He published translations from Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French; he spoke as an authority on jazz and painting as well as on poetry. There was no subject within the range of interest of the new writers on which he disclaimed being an authority, yet by temperament he was a firebrand, a come-outer, a hundred per cent radical-anarchist—no compromiser with what he always called "the social lie."…

A dilettante is someone who thinks that he can pick and choose from the world's arts and religions as if they were a department store. Again and again Rexroth betrays his fatherly place in the beat movement by his glibness of cultural allusion, by his admiration for sensation and violence, by his belief, so typical of all the culturally frivolous, that the Orient has transcended the intellectual torment of the West. A dilettante is a man who uses his anger to entertain society, not to change it. "I began to realize I was back in America, a place I try to keep away from." A dilettante is a man who writes that all the scientists in the universities are "genocidists," that "the practice of literature today is the practice of acquiescence," and that religion, any religion, may serve to stimulate the writer's imagination but should not involve tiresome considerations about God.

Mr. Rexroth is a dilettante. Mr. Rexroth, when all is said and done, is a beatnik himself. Let who will write the nation's laws, he says, so long as he continues to scorn them.

Alfred Kazin, "Father Rexroth and the Beats" (1960), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 480-84.

Poetically as well as intellectually, Rexroth is eclectic. His close observation of detail—although he at one time or another involves all the senses in his poetry he is a … visual poet …—his building of emotion and thought by juxtaposition as well as direct statement, can be traced to the Imagists, to Chinese and Japanese verse, perhaps to the Greek Anthology; like Yeats, he seeks a poem "cold and passionate as the dawn."…

In one area … there is important change [from his early to his recent work]; Rexroth has never stopped experimenting with rhythms, which not surprisingly are crucial to the success of his poems. Here his work is most vulnerable; here his successes, when they come, are most striking. When in the fifties Rexroth hit upon the seven syllable line as a temporary resolution, he was accused to writing prose broken up into lines. But this is probably no truer than it was to say that the first poets to use run-on lines had destroyed meter; actually, on rereading, Rexroth's ear proves reasonably reliable. Later poems have abandoned the set line; length is adjusted to the experience being communicated, repetition of words and phrases become important sources of unity and coherence.

Rexroth's achievement may be minor; it is certainly limited in range. Very often his philosophical poems are indeed prosaic; his encounters with the Milky Way grow monotonous. But occasional reconciliations of the abstract and the concrete are remarkable. And Rexroth is a minor poet in the best sense of the word: his energies are devoted to the preservation, or rather the continuous renewal, of a language directly in touch with experience.

Karl Malkoff, "Poetry of Vision, Poetry of Action," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 572-88.

What appears to have excluded Rexroth from serious attention and criticism between the 1940s and 1960s was not only his intransigent independence, his making a career outside groups and universities, but the unfashionableness of his style. His mature personal style, achieved in In What Hour (1940) and The Phoenix and the Tortoise is not, in his own phrase, "corn belt metaphysical." It is not much indebted to Rimbaud or Laforgue, Whitman or Eliot, Auden or Stevens. It is not even much indebted to Williams, a poet for whom Rexroth has great admiration. In an age of paradox, complexity, allusiveness, obliquity, his is a clear and natural voice….

Clarity and depth, communication and construction, simplicity and intensity—these are, in their difficult fusion, Rexroth's overriding concerns. They are expressed in a slightly different way in the title of the selected poems, Natural Numbers, with its emphasis on both naturalness and form. He has long been interested in the relations between mathematics and the natural universe…. He has found, for his own art, the best expression of these organic relations, the best wedding of naturalness and form, in an unrhymed but measured verse, frequently though not always syllabic. Believing that poetry is both a construction and a communication, something "made" and something "spoken," Rexroth achieves a style that is direct, sometimes quite prosaic and plain, almost always immediate in impact, and, at the same time, formally controlled. The emphasis on construction distinguishes him from (in Pound's phrases) the "rhetorical din" and "luxurious riot" of most of what is considered avant garde; the emphasis on communication distinguishes him from the academic modernists who write poems for each other in the Quarterlies. The result is an unfashionable style all around, neither obscure and over-intellectual, nor wild and bombastic. The nearest comparisons among modern poets are, I suppose, Williams at his clearest, Jeffers at his least rhetorical (especially in the short poems), and Lawrence, whose Selected Poems Rexroth edited and introduced in 1947….

It seems to me true to say that Rexroth is the first considerable poet in English to have really absorbed and made his own the dominant qualities of Chinese poetry, its tone and spirit….

[His] is a poetry of reality, a poetry of the world that exists beyond metaphor and opinion, beyond—ultimately—all poetry and all language. It is one measure of Rexroth's style that, within the limits of language, it brings us frequently into the presence of the real….

Rexroth is not a poet of the academic scene but neither is he a poet of tormented confession, family agony, drugged visions, insanity, or existential angst. He is not a poet of hallucination, real or synthetic, private or public. This does not mean, however, that he is simply impervious to modern confusion, suffering and despair. As a political radical he is acutely aware of these realities, but as a scholar and artist he knows they are not peculiarly modern. That knowledge, that long view of nature and history, combined with an acceptance of the simplest and most profound emotions, gives him not hope, not faith, but a rare kind of intellectual courage….

[Rexroth] sees clearly the disorder and contradictions of Western civilization in the twentieth century which found expression in The Waste Land, "The Second Coming," the "tragedy and evil farce" of Kafka, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet. But he is also aware that, barring total holocaust, men have survived such collapses, or endured them with dignity and a clear-eyed confrontation of death. He is aware that in the midst of desperation and abandon, it is a characteristic of wisdom, as Thoreau said, not to do desperate things….

Rexroth achieves a poetry which is especially fresh and valuable. He also achieves, as compared with the "writhing city," a particular kind of serenity. Its source, I think, is his awareness that acceptance of the flux as reality is not surrender to mere chaos….

For Rexroth, man is no more an alien and outcast in the universe ("abandoned" in existentialist terminology) than he is its lord and master. These supposed opposites are actually two faces of the same thing, the loss of a fantasy lordship producing an equally fantastic self-debasement. Human values are only human but they are not created ex nihil. They have natural sources in the will to live and can unite man in a spiritual way with the vast creative process of the universe.

These are the themes of the love poems, the political poems, the poems of historical awareness and the imagination of disaster….

With the kind of art that conceals art, Rexroth's best poems yield a complex pleasure. In their directness, they give the pleasure of communication, recognition, of a man speaking to be understood…. For their clarity, beauty and humanity, they make, together, one of the significant poetic achievements of our time.

Gordon K. Grigsby, "The Presence of Reality: The Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth" (© 1971 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Volume 31, No. 3; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, No. 3, 1971, pp. 405-22.