Kenneth Rexroth Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rexroth, Kenneth 1905–

Rexroth, generally acknowledged to be one of the major living American poets, is also a critic, essayist, translator, and playwright. Although associated with the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat poets, he is a craftsman 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, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Ruby Cohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The four verse plays in Beyond the Mountains] are based on extant Greek tragedies, but in form they are modeled on Japanese Noh plays. Like Noh plays, they contain few characters in rich costumes, as well as Chorus and Musicians, and each drama is climaxed by a dance. As in Noh plays, too, Rexroth's stage is almost bare, but his language is more profuse in imagery. Rather than the duologues of Noh, Rexroth uses the three speaking parts of Classical drama.

The first of Rexroth's plays is called Phaedra, and it presents the basic story of Euripides' Hippolytus. (p. 263)

In an Author's Note, Rexroth explains that "Phaedra and Hippolytus achieve transcendence but are destroyed by impurity of intention." Rexroth is probably drawing on the Zen teachings behind Noh, in which the dance leads to yugen, a kind of transcendence. In the American play, however, the deaths of the lovers seem dictated by Greek myth rather than a search for transcendence; Phaedra impales herself upon a sword, and Hippolytus is trampled to death by a bull. The final words of the Chorus are full of gnomic morality that the drama has not theatricalized: "Impure intention is damned / By the act it embodies. / Each sinned with the other's virtue. / They go out of the darkness, / Onto a road of darkness. / The wind turns to the north, and / The leaves rattle. An unknown / Bird cries out. And the insects / Of a day die in the...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Bryan Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Kenneth Rexroth in his Communalism: From Its Origins to the 20th Century] takes the Judeo-Christian tradition rather than the Marxist as his starting point [and] is under no illusions about these modern communes, which he sees as often little more than crash pads for an uncommitted, floating, and perhaps work-shy population, who are merely opting out of the everyday world….

Mr Rexroth writes fluently, but behind his easy style there is more scholarship than he chooses to reveal (there are no footnotes, and no bibliography). One may not concur with every judgment, and one may doubt the occasional statement of fact, but a wide knowledge of the sources is always apparent. He has not chosen to offer any analysis of the structural similarities between movements, nor does he draw at all on the now well developed sociology of communitarian movements, but the reader looking for a general account of communes will find this an extremely readable book. Communal groups are often alike in the nature of their organisation, in the problems of social control, relationships, and authority, and description without an analytical framework could be tediously repetitive; it is much to Mr Rexroth's credit that, in spite of this, he sustains our interest in a narrative that never flags.

Bryan Wilson, "The Communer Belt," in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 2, 1976, p. 18.

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An Autobiographical Novel by Kenneth Rexroth is a] detailed account of his first twenty-one years by a man who appears to have total recall of almost everything that has happened to him. It is easy to see why Kenneth Rexroth was regarded almost with reverence by a whole generation of West Coast poets, for he had exemplified in his youth their idea that all life is movement and that all movement should be free….

An Autobiographical Novel is a wonderfully entertaining book. It is also a specifically American odyssey, which has no counterpart in any English life of the period.

The figure who emerged from [a] stewpot of emotional and cultural self-education … [was] very Amerìcan: a tough-minded man strongly sceptical about accepted ideas and attitudes, an idealistic anarchist prepared to place personal freedom far above the idea of order, a believer in art as the noblest form in which such freedom could be expressed….

Some words of reservation are in order. The book has not been written but dictated, and it is not free of deplorable words like "totalized" and "situational", nor of clichés about "gracious and mellow people" or "one of the finest human beings I've met in my life". There is a maddening absence of dates, particularly irritating in passages which begin "that spring" or "that winter" without identifying the year.

There are occasions when one feels that a later Rexroth is speaking for the youthful one…. The title also is a little puzzling. Does it mean that passages in the book are deliberately invented? One would prefer not to think so.

When the words of reservation have been said, however, this remains a fine book, illuminating both about the author and the period in which he grew up. Kenneth Rexroth is a genial polymath (he has translated poetry in six languages) who is also a bohemian and a mystic, a scholar and at times a bit of a bum. It is not likely that he will ever be widely regarded in England as an important poet, but nobody could read this autobiography without feeling that he is an admirable man.

Julian Symons, "The Education of an American," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 25, 1977, p. 332.

Douglas Dunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

British readers may have heard of Kenneth Rexroth as a father-figure of the Beats. That role has been exaggerated, even by grateful Beats themselves. Insufficient credit has been granted to Rexroth's identity as an old-fashioned, honest-to-God man of letters of downright independence of mind….

Rexroth and his books are American in a way few people know enough about. He is of the America that can be caricatured or dismissed only through prejudice….

What Rexroth evokes in his rambling, lucid, magnanimous book [An Autobiographical Novel] is his own growing up through precocious perception and experience of American radicalism, middle-class life, American literature, and the excitements of European modernism. It is a story of American promise and its decline. His childhood was remarkable by any standards; the book, I suspect, is called 'a novel' for the reason that he rubbed against the well-known or the great so consistently for it to look, in retrospect, like a succession of embarrassing fictional coincidences. It could not have been better if he had invented it. (p. 789)

Of the entire radical or politically agitated view of literature, and the fates of their exponents, Rexroth has much wisdom to offer, worth attending to as the wisdom of a poet who has more first-hand experience than most who pronounce on the subject. His temper is too independent, too scholarly, for cut-and-dried allegiances. He turns his back on Eliot and Pound. He has the irritating habit—for the mediocre, that is, the literary side-takers—of liking some but not all of certain poets or movements. Like all good examples in modern poetry, he has been seen as a figure instead of as a creator; as a representative rather than a participant. That he is all four of these persons at once comes as a sweet discovery from a reading of his work instead of from side-glances at other people's estimates of his reputation. (p. 790)

Douglas Dunn, "A Forgotten America," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Douglas Dunn), June 16, 1977, pp. 789-90.

Emiko Sakurai

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kenneth Rexroth has been trying for decades to accomplish what has been regarded as an impossible task—rendering Japanese and Chinese poems into acceptable English verse without losing the effects of the original. And he comes nearer to achieving the impossible with each new volume. [One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese] is a sequel to One Hundred Poems from the Japanese…. The new volume differs from the old in several aspects. With the exception of the haiku and some classic nature poems, the theme is always love—earthy, frankly sensual love. A girl in contemporary poems sings with astonishing candor the joy of lovemaking. The sorrow of parting at dawn and yearning for the lover are conveyed with subtlety and delicate beauty in the ancient tanka and with directness and sensuality in the folk songs and the modern tanka of poetess Yosano.

Stylistically, the translations are generally less concentrated than previously, when Rexroth was striving for maximum compression. The retranslations of poems from the [earlier] collection show some dilution of the original intensity because of the addition of extra lines…. With the revised renderings, however, Rexroth achieves his other goal of creating poems that can stand as poetry in English. Utmost compression can lead to incomprehension in translations, since the original overtones cannot be adequately conveyed. In the accuracy of rendering and overall artistry, the present volume far surpasses the previous one. (pp. 180-81)

One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese contains some of the best renderings of Japanese poetry to date…. [Rexroth's] success with the present book enforces many critics' view that only poets can produce acceptable translations in verse. (p. 181)

Emiko Sakurai, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978.