Kenneth Rexroth Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 6) - Essay

Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rexroth, Kenneth 1905–

Rexroth is an American poet, critic, and translator. One of the leading figures of the San Francisco Renaissance and long considered a literary rebel, Rexroth is nevertheless a conscientious craftsman, as critical of the excesses of the Beats as he is of the conservativism of the "professor-poets." He is considered by most critics to be one of the major poets of our time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Rexroth was established as "godfather of the Beats", a title that came to be used, largely by hostile academic critics, as a derogatory label. Though the identification is, for a number of reasons, valid, it is at the same time a vast oversimplification of Rexroth's significance.

There were certainly similarities between Rexroth's lifestyle and that of the Beat generation. There was also a sense in which he contributed stylistically to the poetry of that movement through his work of the 1940s and 1950s—The Dragon and the Unicorn, The Signature of All Things, In Defense of the Earth. But in fact he served less as a poetic example for poets such as Ginsberg than as an introduction to San Francisco….

There is [in Rexroth's work] a long history of stylistic experiment in which his association with the Beat movement plays only a small part. Though in interviews he has denied the influence, his early poetry (The Art of Wordly Wisdom 1920–30) shows an awareness of the European Surrealist and Dadaist movements. His latest poetry (The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart 1967) is, in contrast, centrally mystical, strongly Buddhist. His poetry of the 1940s and 1950s shows a concern with the relationship between personal experience, mystical awareness and radical politics. He can be seen experimenting with conversational tone and the breath-controlled line in a manner not unlike the later Beat poets.

"From Backwards to Buddhism," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 16, 1972, p. 678.

Rexroth's … two hundred-page poem, The Dragon and the Unicorn, is a model (even though no one reads it) of the plain-spoken, discursive, enjambed style that has become so popular…. Composed in the random, episodic manner of a journal, the poem records Rexroth's travels through Europe and eventual return to America, and provides the most memorable account of literary Paris I've read since Allen Tate's Miss Toklas' American Cake (in Prose No. 3). Mingled in with anecdotes and reminiscences is a sustained Marxist tirade against capitalism, commodity fetishism, and the whole American political economy. He notes in his introduction to The Collected Longer Poems that 'Most poets resemble Whitman in one regard—they write only one book and that an interior biography.' This has become even more true since Rexroth's poem, since [Williams'] Paterson, since [Pound's] Pisan Cantos, where the speaker stands immersed in some larger history. But the elements of American poetry in the last decade are to be found in these earlier poems, which prefigured the local, democratic mode that was to follow. (pp. 18-19)

James Atlas, in London Magazine London Magazine 1974), April/May, 1974.

Kenneth Rexroth's "New Poems," almost exclusively lyrics like "spindles of light," are concerned with "the ecology of infinity." "The endless dark, however, is not a terrifying interstellar hole dwarfing man. Things though in motion are in place. Rexroth's poems are composed of a flash or revelatory image and silent metamorphoses…. Syntax is cleared of the clutter of subordinate clauses, that contingent grammar of a mind hesitating, debating with itself, raging against death and old age. The dynamics of his poems are marked piano—even storms are luminous rather than noisy. There is no harried quest for consolation: one need only step outdoors and look up at the stars and peace descends, "Orion striding/into the warm waves." This slow music exquisitely suits the feelings of the people in Rexroth's poems, who are resigned to evanescence. Heartbreak is laconically stated. The same poem can be written over and over—and is. Rexroth's own poems, his imitations of Chinese poetry, and his translations from the Chinese all share the same stylized calm, like the delicate brush strokes of a Chinese scroll. Through the formal manners of his lyrical calligraphy one moves in a serene Void and pleasant monotony that does not suppress emotion so much as it suggests the magical glidings of our dreams…. (p. 2)

Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.

What is meaning? No matter, answers this collection of ninety-one poems ["New Poems"] for our experience is too impoverished of this mysterious quantity to evaluate it. There is in excess impressionability—voluptuous luxury of phrase to fill our senses. Thus does Rexroth whisper without conversing, in beautiful lament of passing sensations, of "fallen cherry blossoms." Each line of poetry a long-considered stroke, it is poetry of climax and of momentary sensations. A constant love of life glows pale and fades warm with an acceptance of fatigue and sorrow, loss and loneliness. (p. lviii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).