Kenneth Rexroth

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Janet Overmyer (review date 9 January 1969)

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SOURCE: "Seeing the Classics as New," in Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 1969, p. 5.

[In the following review, Overmyer offers a favorable assessment of Classics Revisited.]

John Crow, a witty and wise Shakespearian authority, has said that the difficulty with writing on Shakespeare today is that by now all the intelligent things have been said, so that anyone hoping to come up with a new observation is reduced to saying something unintelligent.

Before reading this book, one might have said the same of the sixty classics on which Kenneth Rexroth, best known as a poet, has written sixty brief, revealing essays which first appeared in the Saturday Review. After all, hasn't all the intelligence about such works as The Iliad, The Republic, Don Quixote, and War and Peace already been disseminated? Can readers unfamiliar with them be lured to read the poems of Tu Fu, The Epic of Gilgamesh, or Njal's Saga? The answers to these questions are no and yes, respectively.

While Rexroth has obviously read much of the scholarship surrounding each of the works, his special talent lies in being uncorrupted by it, so that he approaches each classic as though it were a brand new book, just arrived for review. He goes immediately to the heart of each, indicating its theme(s), style, and pertinence in a few pithy paragraphs. Although he is sometimes adversely critical, he is plainly excited by each book and, what is more to the point, he can excite others into wanting to read it also. (After reading the original Saturday Review articles, I rushed out and bought The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Tale of Genji; after rereading these reviews, I see I will have to buy several more.)

By making the contents of these classics interesting to and relevant for man today, Rexroth demonstrates plainly why "classic" rightfully means a literary work alive with transcendent insight, not a tiresome tome one must struggle through for a book report in English 10-A. For instance, he comments that The Odyssey resembles the ever-recurring dream of the traveling man who wonders what his wife is doing at home. Livy's history, Early Rome, is a myth of how the aristocrats of the day supposed themselves to be; it provided models for generations of heroes to come, in many different countries and cultures. Marco Polo had "what we have lost—an ecumenical mind, an international sensibility;" he did not find distant persons and customs strange, no matter how outlandish. Casanova's History of My Life possesses a "peculiar naked profundity" by revealing that Casanova, "a man without interiority except for a profound awareness of the vanity of human wishes," knew that the passage of time has no meaning.

Rexroth is at times highly controversial, as when he says that The Brothers Karamazov contains "general ideas reduced to foolishness and hysteria," and that tragedy is neither impressive, nor even believable, when it is so garrulously articulate. Still, the opposition probably stirred up by such comments will force the reader back to the book to formulate his rebuttal, which is precisely what Rexroth intends.

Not the least of the virtues of this book is that the reader is told, for the works that must be read in translation, which are the best and most inexpensive editions. If this book were handed to students in Comparative Literature courses, it would do more to arouse interest than any number of dull, learned lectures by dull, learned pedagogues who equate solemnity with profundity.


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Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982

American poet, translator, critic, essayist, editor, dramatist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Rexroth's career...

(This entire section contains 1583 words.)

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through 1995. For further information on his life and works, seeCLC, Volumes 1, 2, 6, 11, 22, and 49.

Associated with various avant-garde movements throughout his career, notably Cubism and the Beat Generation, Rexroth's highly regarded meditative poetry incorporates eclectic elements of Judeo-Christian, classical, modernist, and Eastern influences. A skilled translator in several languages, noted literary critic, and outspoken political dissenter, Rexroth's radical libertarianism and mystical orientation produced a controversial confluence of ideas in his work. Though marginalized by East Coast literary critics and academics during much of his life, Rexroth's evocative depiction of the natural world and erotic love is now widely praised for its visionary spiritual awareness and universality. Much of his best known verse appears in The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949), The Signature of All Things (1950), In Defense of the Earth (1956), The Homestead Called Damascus (1963), and The Collected Shorter Poems (1966). A poet of remarkable range and ability, Rexroth's distinct prophetic voice, iconoclastic appropriation of disparate literary traditions, and devotion to the craft of poetry and translation attracted international critical attention and exerted an important influence on contemporary American literature.

Biographical Information

Born Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth in South Bend, Indiana, Rexroth was the only son of Charles, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Rexroth; their travels to New York City and Europe exposed the young Rexroth to modern art and fostered his lifelong interest in painting. After moving to Indiana and then Michigan, the family settled in Chicago where the Rexroths' marriage deteriorated due to Charles' alcoholism and philandering. Delia, a loving mother who encouraged Rexroth's creativity, died of gangrene in 1916, and Charles succumbed to liver disease two years later. Orphaned at age thirteen, Rexroth was taken in by an aunt in Chicago; he eventually dropped out of high school and attended the Chicago Art Institute, where he immersed himself in the bohemian art and intellectual scene of the Chicago Renaissance. During the early 1920s, Rexroth entered into a love affair with his social worker, Lesley Smith, whom he followed to Smith College in New York City. While in New York, Rexroth attended the New York Art Students League and worked for several radical leftist publications. When his relationship with Smith ended, Rexroth began a vagabond existence, hitchhiking to the West Coast, back again to Chicago in 1924, and then traveled to Europe, the American Southwest, and Mexico. In 1927 Rexroth married Andrée Deutcher, an artist, and moved to San Francisco where he became increasingly active in leftist politics during the Depression. Rexroth's first published poems appeared in Blues, a small literary magazine, in 1929, but he remained unrecognized until his poem "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy" appeared in Louis Zukofsky's Objectivist Anthology in 1932. He was awarded the California Literature Silver Medal for his first two books of poetry, In What Hour (1940) and The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944). After his first wife died in 1940, Rexroth married Marie Kass, a nurse, whom he divorced in 1948. That same year, Rexroth returned to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship and, the next year, published a third volume of poetry, The Art of Worldly Wisdom. In the 1950s Rexroth emerged as a leading figure of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and mentor for Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg. He produced additional volumes of poetry, notably The Signature of All Things and In Defense of the Earth, as well as verse drama in Beyond the Mountains (1951), and collections of translated French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese poetry. Rexroth received the Chapelbrook Award and Eunice Teitjens Award from Poetry magazine in 1957, a Shelley Memorial Award and Amy Lowell Fellowship in 1958, and a Longview Award in 1963. During the 1960s and 1970s, Rexroth maintained a prolific output of poetry, including The Homestead Called Damascus and The Morning Star (1979), more translations of Asian poetry, and essays on society and literature. Rexroth's third marriage to Marthe Larsen produced two daughters and ended in divorce in 1961. He was awarded a grant from the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964 and subsequently taught at San Francisco State College, the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. In 1967 he received a Rockefeller grant on which he travelled to Europe and Japan. Rexroth relocated to Santa Barbara in 1968, and married his fourth wife, poet Carol Tinker, in 1974. He resided in Santa Barbara until suffering a fatal stroke in 1982. He was presented with the Academy of American Poets' Copernicus Award in 1978 in recognition of his lifetime achievement.

Major Works

Rexroth's large and remarkably varied body of work stems from a core of artistic, political, and literary preoccupations centered largely upon communion with the natural world, non-violent protest, and transcendental philosophy. In What Hour contains Rexroth's early attempts to unify personal and humanitarian concerns in verse about the execution of Sacco and Venzetti, the Spanish Civil War, and the death of his first wife. In the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Butler Yeats, Rexroth displays the characteristic nature imagery, contemplative lyricism, and pacifistic morality that permeates so much of his work. His despair over the outbreak of the Second World War, especially the split between East and West, foreshadows Rexroth's lifelong effort to reconcile the transcendental legacy of both cultures. Rexroth examines the interrelationship of self-identity and social conscience in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, an assemblage of political verse, satire, elegies, and passionate love poems modelled on those of D. H. Lawrence. The more abstract influence of Cubism is prominent in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, in which Rexroth evokes elementary forms and intuitive word associations reminiscent of the work of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and the Imagist poetry of Ezra Pound. The latter volume contains "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy," an extended meditative poem that incorporates allusions to Dantean Hell and visionary Christian imagery akin to John Milton's Paradise Regained. The Signature of All Things, named after the work of German mystic Jakob Boehme, reveals the strong influence of the eighth-century Chinese poet Tu Fu on Rexroth's verse, marked by an increasing tendency toward an oriental aesthetic in direct, spare lyrics. Rexroth's affinity for Asian culture is also evident in Beyond the Mountains, a tetralogy of verse drama that combines characters from classical Greek tragedy with elements of Noh drama, a stylized ancient Japanese form of theater involving dance, poetry, and mime. In Defense of the Earth is a diverse collection of personal statement, Japanese translations, epigrams, and highly charged love poetry. This volume also contains two of Rexroth's best known poems—"A Letter to William Carlos Williams," a touching tribute to one of his greatest influences, and "Thou Shalt Not Kill," an elegy commemorating the death of Dylan Thomas in which he offers a bitter indictment of conformist pressures and conventional morality in contemporary American society. The title poem of The Homestead Called Damascus is among Rexroth's most famous long works. Originally composed during the 1920s, this philosophical poem traces Rexroth's introspective quest for spiritual meaning through the dialogue and metaphysical speculation of two brothers and an omniscient narrator who ponder with skepticism the received wisdom of the ages. Written in the Symbolist style, the poem shows the influence of T. S. Eliot's Wasteland. In An Autobiographical Novel (1966), Rexroth offers additional insight into his intellectual and personal growth through the first six decades of his life. His well-informed interest in Asian literature and Buddhist philosophy is displayed in numerous volumes of Chinese and Japanese verse translations, as well as in The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart (1967), whose title poem describes a visionary journey into nature and the Tao. In this work, Rexroth sublimates the emotionalism of his earlier verse with serene landscape imagery and sensuous reflection that portray the quiet search for enlightenment and actuality. Along with several collections of essays, particularly Bird in the Bush (1959) and Assays (1961), literary criticism in Classics Revisited (1968) and With Eye and Ear (1970), and social commentary in The Alternative Society (1970) and Communalism (1974), Rexroth displays his wide-ranging interests, provocative insights, and erudition.

Critical Reception

Rexroth is widely recognized as a gifted poet and translator whose indefatigable commitment to the creative life attests to the conviction and seriousness of his work, yet he was excluded from scholarly criticism and anthologies for many years. His detractors typically object to his avid contentiousness and anarchistic contempt for the literary establishment and consumer culture. However, as a model for radical free thinkers and "grandfather of the Beats," Rexroth achieved a rare independent perspective as a genuine autodidact and leading figure of the West Coast literary scene. Though eschewing affiliation with any artistic or political ideology, especially the modernist presumptions of Lawrence, Eliot, and Pound, Rexroth formulated a heterogenous personal style that freely assimilated elements of their work along with that of Whitman, Yeats, Tu Fu, Williams, Wallace Stevens, and the French Surrealists. Rexroth is consistently praised for his unusual ability to distill deep philosophical musings and multicultural literary allusions in highly accessible verse that captures the immediacy of sensuous experience in lucid language and arresting metaphor. While "The Homestead Called Damascus," "A Prolegomenon to Theodicy," and "The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart" are considered among his finest long works, Rexroth's shorter poems, particularly his elegies and erotic love verse, are considered equally accomplished. In addition, Rexroth's renderings of Chinese and Japanese poetry are considered among the best in the English language. He is also credited for his efforts to introduce female Asian poets to Western readers in several volumes devoted to translations of their work.

Times Literary Supplement (review date 30 April 1971)

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SOURCE: "The Transcendental Redoubt," in Times Literary Supplement, April 30, 1971, p. 499.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of With Eye and Ear, drawing comparisons between Rexroth and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

The Azimuth Press has found a gnomon in Kenneth Rexroth. Even his style tends towards the gnomic, ranging the heavens of literature from China to Peru: "Don Quixote, The Tale of Genji, The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Satyricon, these are the world's major works of prose fiction." Or of D. H. Lawrence: "He is certainly one of the major poets of the twentieth century, along with Guillaume Apollinaire and William Carlos Williams." Or: "So the fifty odd stories in The Farmer's Daughters, the collected stories of William Carlos Williams, are amongst the most precious possessions of the twentieth century in any language."

The claims sound heady; but this is part of the intoxication of the Pacific West where The Pillow Book and Prayer Mat of Flesh loom far closer across the ocean. A spiritual renewal needs its champion and California—that heterogeneous land of nabis, Zen Buddhists, Gnostics Tantric or underground Catholics—has launched an erudite prophet to descend on the priesthood of the new Jerusalem. Woe unto that "minor American academic critic of the now-forgotten Reactionary Generation, Professor R. P. Blackmur"! Woe unto "that strange alliance of penitent Marxists and Southern Cavaliers whose organs of literary intimidation were the now forgotten quarterlies, the Kenyon and Partisan Reviews"! "Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering ye hindered."

The effect of these scattered reviews and articles, gathered from more than a decade, is like some old San Francisco dwelling with its wooden bay-windows, its millwork acanthus leaves and volutes holding up the cornices and plaster cupids on the ceilings, and marble or Italian-tile fireplaces. "Somehow I've always lived in such a place", Kenneth Rexroth explains, "and live in one now." But the Bay Area is not exactly the Mediterranean, nor is the house exactly an Italian villa. There is something too grandiose, too gimcrack, even oddly Anglophile about the whole carpentry. This may not be quite the site for seeing life steadily and seeing it whole (a favourite maxim): but as a Catholic redoubt against the Masada of Mornington Heights (or "Old Left Establishment, one of the numerous clones of Philip Rahv"), it supplies its own strange, fitful illumination.

The pressures of consensus thought, at least, are flouted. Individuals and individual achievements alone are celebrated: Defoe, Frank Norris, Ford Madox Ford, Sei Shonagon, D. H. Lawrence, Kafka, Sir Thomas More, Sir Thomas Browne, Tolstoy. Only one thread binds this encyclopedic journey through past and present: what has kept civilization going all these years? And the answer acknowledged is Maritam's: "The prayers of the contemplatives in the monasteries."

So the contemplative reader moves from a long discursive essay on "The Spiritual Alchemy of Thomas Vaughan" to "Smoky the Bear Bodhisattva" (celebrating Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen). In many ways Kenneth Rexroth resembles Emerson. Perhaps he is the Pacific reincarnation of that transcendentalist, who made his own passage to California exactly a century ago.

Principal Works

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In What Hour (poetry) 1940
The Phoenix and the Tortoise (poetry) 1944
The Art of Worldly Wisdom (poetry) 1949
The Signature of All Things: Poems, Songs, Elegies, Translations, and Epigrams (poetry) 1950
Beyond the Mountains (verse drama) 1951
The Dragon and the Unicorn (poetry) 1952
Fourteen Poems by O. V. de L. Milosz [translator] (poetry) 1952
A Bestiary for My Daughters Mary and Katherine (poetry) 1955
One Hundred Poems from the French [translator] (poetry) 1955
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese [translator] (poetry) 1955
Thou Shalt Not Kill (poetry) 1955
In Defense of the Earth (poetry) 1956
One Hundred Poems from the Chinese [translator] (poetry) 1956
Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile [translator] (poetry) 1956
Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (essays) 1959
Assays (essays) 1961
Poems from the Greek Anthology [translator] (poetry) 1962
The Homestead Called Damascus (poetry) 1963
Natural Numbers: New and Selected Poetry (poetry) 1963
An Autobiographical Novel (autobiography) 1966
The Collected Shorter Poems (poetry) 1966
The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart (poetry) 1967
Classics Revisited (essays) 1968
Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (poetry) 1968
The Spark in the Tinder of Knowing (poetry) 1968
Pierre Reverdy: Selected Poems [translator] (poetry) 1969
The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World (essays) 1970
Love in the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese [translator] (poetry) 1970
With Eye and Ear (essays) 1970
American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (essays) 1971
Sky Sea Birds Tree Earth House Beasts Flowers (poetry) 1971
The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China [translator with Ling Chung] (poetry) 1972
The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas (essays) 1973
Communalism: Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (essays) 1974
New Poems (poetry) 1974
One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese [translator] (poetry) 1974
On Flower Wreath Hill (poetry) 1976
The Silver Swan: Poems Written in Kyoto, 1974–75 (poetry) 1976
The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan [translator with Ikuko Atsumi] (poetry) 1977
The Love Poems of Marichiko (poetry) 1978
Li Ch'ing Chao: Complete Poems [translator with Ling Chung] (poetry) 1979
The Morning Star (poetry) 1979
New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1979
Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (poetry) 1980
Excerpts from a Life (poetry) 1981
Between Two Wars (poetry) 1982
Selected Poems (poetry) 1984
Thirty-Six Poems by Tu Fu [translator] (poetry) 1987
World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (essays) 1987
More Classics Revisited (essays) 1989

David Kirby (review date 30 May 1980)

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SOURCE: "Quiet Satisfaction," in Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1980, p. 620.

[In the following review, Kirby gives a favorable assessment of The Morning Star.]

The first section of The Morning Star consists of very short poems, glimpses of the natural world with or without the human presence:

     On the forest path
     The leaves fall. In the withered
     Grass the crickets sing
     Their last songs. Through dew and dusk
     I walk the paths you once walked,
     My sleeves wet with memory.

What is attempted here is the directness and clarity more commonly associated with Japanese than with Western art, a method which the haiku poet Noboru Fujiwara has described as "a weeding out of all that would clutter, muddy, confuse, leading to great incisiveness, clear purpose." Reviewing Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (in the June 1957 number of Poetry), William Carlos Williams commented on the absence of metaphor in Oriental verse. Metaphor is more at home in cultures where the dualistic nature of things is taken for granted, for metaphor consists of an object and its reference—flint and steel, says Williams, which spark when struck together. Nor does Rexroth put much of himself into these poems of the first section, and this too is understandable from an Oriental perspective. In A Mediator's Diary, Jane Hamilton-Merritt recalls her discussions of the creative process with a Thai monk who pointed out that the truly religious do not write at all, much less parade their own egos for the world's admiration.

The second section of The Morning Star is a meditation on mortality and eternity, and the third section, a translated sequence called "The Love Poems of Marichiko," forms what Rexroth calls "a sort of little novel". The strongest of the three sections, these poems dwell on the delights of passionate and illicit love. To the Eastern mind, writes Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By, only illicit love is passionate, and it is certainly passionate here:

       As I came from the
       Hot bath, you took me before
       The horizontal mirror
       Beside the low bed, while my
       Breasts quivered in your hands, my
       Buttocks shivered against you.

But as the Buddha says, "The combinations of the world are unstable by nature", and the affair ends badly:

     Chilled through, I wake up
     With the first light. Outside my window
     A red maple leaf floats silently down.
     What am I to believe?
     I hate the sight of coming day
     Since that morning when
     Your insensitive gaze turned me to ice
     Like the pale moon in the dawn.

The tone throughout The Morning Star is one of quietism; the passion in "The Love Poems of Marichiko" simply throws into relief the solitary, minimal, introspective nature of Rexroth's persona. How different this is from the Rexroth of The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944), who sounds like Lawrence and Pound and Whitman, or the one who wrote this, in In Defense of the Earth (1956), about Dylan Thomas:

     And all the birds of the deep sea rise up
     Over the luxury liners and scream,
     "You killed him! You killed him.
     In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
     You son of a bitch."

In those days Rexroth sounded like a nabi, a term he applies to Allen Ginsberg in With Eye and Ear (1970), one of those bearded, bad-smelling crazies who came down periodically from the hills to Jerusalem and denounced everyone, or simply like an "old-fashioned American sorehead", as Alfred Kazin once called Rexroth. Now he appears to belong, or to want to belong, at least as much as a publishing writer can, to the Buddhist bodhisattvas or the yamabushi of Japan or the zaddiks of Hasidism or the Shiite hidden imam. These are Rexroth's heroes, as one sees from his prose writings and from an interview with him in Volume Two (1979) of an American Buddhist magazine called Zero; their goal is to ignore the world, to "live unknown." One might characterize this change with Rexroth's own words (from his essay on Rimbaud in Bird in the Bush, 1959): "True illumination always results in a special sweetness of temper, a deep, lyric equanimity and magnanimity. The outstanding characteristic of the mystic's vision is that it is satisfying. He is never frustrated, at least not in our worldly sense."

In its directness and clarity, The Morning Star should appeal greatly to adolescents, because they have read nothing; not at all to university undergraduates, because they have read T. S. Eliot; and greatly again to older readers, because they have read much.

Further Reading

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Gutierrez, Donald. "The Holiness of the Ordinary: The Literary-Social Journalism of Kenneth Rexroth." Northwest Review 32, No. 2 (1994): 109-28.

Examines Rexroth's significant contributions as a literary critic and social commentator.

――――――. "Introduction: The Crystalline Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth." In his "The Holiness of the Real": The Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth, pp. 19-52. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

Provides an overview of Rexroth's poetic style, influences, and major artistic concerns.

――――――. "The West and Western Mountains in the Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth." North Dakota Quarterly 62, No. 3 (Summer 1994–1995): 121-39.

Examines Rexroth's evocation of the American West Coast and California in his poetry.

Hamalian, Linda. "Early Versions of 'The Homestead Called Damascus,'" in North Dakota Quarterly 56, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 131-47.

Explores the origin, development, and composition of "The Homestead Called Damascus."

Woodcock, George. "Realms beyond the Mountains: Notes on Kenneth Rexroth," in Ontario Review 6 (1977): 39-48.

Provides discussion of Rexroth's poetry, artistic achievement, and political concerns.


McKenzie, James J., and Robert W. Lewis. "'That Rexroth—He'll Argue You into Anything': An Interview with Kenneth Rexroth." North Dakota Quarterly 44, No. 3 (1976): 7-33.

Rexroth comments on contemporary American poetry, art, education, culture, and politics.

Morgan Gibson (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "'Poetry Is Vision'—'Vision Is Love': Rexroth's Philosophy of Literature," in Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom, Archon Books, 1986, pp. 32-48.

[In the following essay, Gibson examines the evolution of Rexroth's poetic style, literary influences, and conception of personal vision and communal sacrament. According to Gibson, "Rexroth shows that vision is organic consciousness, sympathetic, clear, and steady, communing, communicating, realizing the many in the one, the one in the many, the universality of each being."]

According to Rexroth's theory and practice, poetry is vision. Poets and critics have often used this term carelessly, but in Rexroth's work "vision" has several definite meanings that cohere in his organic philosophy of literature-in-community.

"Vision," referring to phases of a creative process of consciousness, sometimes means contemplation, in which the poet communed with nature and those he loved, and in which he periodically had oceanic, ecstatic experiences of realization, illumination, or enlightenment. At these times, sensation, perception, thinking, and feeling, especially love, were clarified, purified, and radically expanded; so he claimed that "vision is love." As experience became intellectualized, vision came to mean the act of philosophizing and also the worldview projected by philosophizing; so vision is both sensuous and abstract, nonverbal and literary, personal and transpersonal. Rexroth's world vision is both conservative in reviving and uniquely synthesizing Hebraic-Christian, classical, Buddhist, and modern traditions of spiritual realization, and revolutionary in its vigorous opposition to the prevailing impersonality and alienation of modern society, technology, and culture. As Rexroth's personal experiences were expressed in poetry, vision became the act of poetic communication, evolving from interpersonal communion and recreating community. His vision is uniquely his, yet is also universal in scope and validity because it realizes the person in world community. Rexroth's world vision reveals his, and our, "Being in the World," as Heidegger put it.

"Poetry is vision," Rexroth asserts in "Poetry, Regeneration, and D.H. Lawrence," "the pure act of sensual communion and contemplation." Does he mean all poetry, or the best of it? Obviously his idea is normative rather than descriptive, characterizing the poetry of Lawrence, Yeats, Blake, Whitman, poetry that he translated by Tu Fu, Li Ch'ing Chao, Sappho, Dante, and his own. He means by "vision" the essence of poetry, the quality that makes it true poetry, the quality often ignored by critics who emphasize form, structure, construction, or technique at the expense of imagination, or identify artifice as poetry itself. Craftsmanship is important in Rexroth's own poetry and all poetry that he values, but as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. What, in his opinion, does poetry at its best communicate? Visionary experience: vision itself. And what is that?

He defines poetic vision as an act, a dynamic transformation of experience rather than as passive reflection; and it is a pure act, unlike impure acts of ordinary experience that lack unifying aesthetic concentration. There may be a suggestion that poetry is a purifying act, as in Aristotle's idea of catharsis; but in Rexroth's view poetry does more than purge impure emotions, for communion implies that poetry is an intimate experience of mutuality, a sacramental act of commemoration in which we may be mystically united with others and perhaps with reality as a whole. Such communion is sensual, for delightful sounds of language indicated by the artistry of calligraphy or typography evoke the imagined world of the poem. So poetry is a contemplative act, arising in deep, clear, open-minded, loving awareness. The text and form of the poem reveal the visionary act which is the essential poetry.

Rexroth shows that vision is organic consciousness, sympathetic, clear, and steady, communing, communicating, realizing the many in the one, the one in the many, the universality of each being. In vision, the observer is united with the observed, the poet communes directly with other beings, and all interact in community which extends through galaxies and transpersonal dimensions of mind that he called Buddha-worlds. Such thinking must be experienced in poetry itself, not abstracted from it as doctrine, just as in understanding music we must experience music musically.

Visionary experience—essentially formless—sometimes takes form; but a vision is not vision, as Rexroth carefully points out in The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart: "visions are / The measure of the defect / Of vision." Because true vision is clarified interpersonal consciousness, not hallucination, dream, or fantasy, Rexroth's poetics is opposed to surrealism and dada, as shown in his cubist poem, "Fundamental Disagreement with Two Contemporaries," which alludes to Tristan Tzara and André Breton. Similarly, Rexroth refused to identify true vision with the drug highs of the Beat generation, for he doubted that Allen Ginsberg's and Jack Kerouac's frantic searches for vision in Howl and On the Road got them beyond confusion. According to Rexroth, vision is habitual clear-mindedness:

     The illuminated live
     Always in light and so do
     Not know it is there as fishes
     Do not know they live in water.


     St. John of the Cross said it,
     The desire for vision is
     The sin of gluttony.
"The True Person"

Rexroth insisted that vision is personal, the experience of a "true person" in community. "The universalization of the human soul, the creation of the true person," was evident in the life of Albert Schweitzer, for example. Such a person is neither merely a self-made man, nor someone who simply loses himself in work or meditation. He or she loses ego, but not the whole person, which is realized in creative interaction with others. Rexroth takes himself for granted as an integral person instead of condemning himself as a sinner or striving to change himself into someone else.

Rexroth's personalism is aesthetic as well as ethical and psychological. Because vision is personal, he typically stands undisguised in his poetry and prose instead of concealing himself behind an impersonal literary construction, a mask, like Yeats, or an "objective correlative," like Eliot and the New Critics. Rexroth's poetic theory and most of his practice challenge the impersonality of much modernist literature and criticism, particularly as Eliot dogmatized in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" about the necessity of the poet's losing his personality as he learns to express not himself but his medium. Rexroth's "progress" as poet was radically subversive of Eliot's principles, for Rexroth's work was a continual revelation of personality, his own and the personalities of the many poets from many cultures whose work he translated after imaginatively conversing with them. He might have argued against James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus that the true poet remains in his handiwork like a pantheistic god, instead of invisibly behind it like the god of Roman Catholicism. Rexroth openly participates in much of his poetry, excepting his plays, and even in them the characters' tragic lives dramatize the poet's philosophical personalism, which links each one with the fate of the human race, as the chorus proclaims near the end of Beyond the Mountains:

    There are countless
    Iphigenias marching to
    Their deaths at this moment in all
    The dust motes of the rising sun.

    There are no things in the real
    World. Only persons have being.
    Things are perspectives on persons—
    A mote of dust is a distant
    Person seen with dusty interest.

Communion: "Communication Raised to the Highest Power"

Rexroth's poetry typically arises out of preverbal, preconceptual, visionary experiences similar to those described in the sutras and tantras, D. T. Suzuki's Zen writings, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, Martin Buber's I and Thou, Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things, George Fox's Journals, Vedanta, and other sources referred to throughout his work; but he remained skeptical of dogmatic and theoretical explanations, especially those depending upon an Absolute or a supernatural god. His sense that "The Holy is in the heap of dust—it is the heap of dust" was no different from the Quaker Inner Light, Blake's "Heaven in a wild flower," the emptiness of the Buddha-nature, but such an intuition cannot be forced into a dogmatic system, for such experience can only be intimated artistically, not defined scientifically.

Rexroth's "perfect communion with others" was often erotic, but at the same time it transcended physical attraction. In his many love poems, the women are spiritual beings, sometimes human, sometimes divine, as in the seventeenth poem of The Silver Swan, when, before dawn in Japan, he imagines a nude girl taking form from the light of the Morning Star: "her / Body flows into mine, each / Corpuscle of light merges / With a corpuscle of blood or flesh." But the erotic mysticism that permeates his poetry is but one kind of communion and, as we learn from his introduction to The Phoenix and the Tortoise, it is but a phase in the development of the person out of despair, through sacramental marriage, to a realization of universal responsibility. With this responsibility, a person acts with compassionate consciousness of world community. So communion of two persons in the "mutual being" of love entails, by implication, responsibility for all beings in universal community; for each is inseparable from all.

In regarding poetry as vision, Rexroth meant that it arises out of contemplation and communion to become communication and so was not complete as merely private experience. So he can also, without contradiction, say that poetry is "interpersonal communication raised to the highest power." "It communicates the most intense experiences of very highly developed sensibilities," he wrote in one of his most important essays on aesthetics, "Unacknowledged Legislators and Art pour Art," in which he emphasized the personal origin of poetry and its communication not predominantly of feeling or thought, but of whole experiences: "A love poem is an act of communication of love, like a kiss." Such communication has a strong ethical value, strangely reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's "criticism of life"; or in Rexroth's words "symbolic criticism of values." So love poems and nature poems become criticisms of a dehumanized culture based on the alienation of people from one another, from their own nature, and from the universe as a whole. But such moral and intellectual functions of poetry are never separated from its emotional, psychological, sensuous, and spiritual aspects, for it "widens and deepens and sharpens the sensibility."

Rexroth felt that Chinese and Japanese poetry often communicates experiences of such "highly developed sensibilities" more directly and purely than most European poetry because "Most poetry in the Western world is more or less corrupted with rhetoric and manipulation … with program and exposition, and the actual poetry, the living speech of person to person, has been a by product." This extraordinary statement, which might well be debated, may suggest one reason for Rexroth's turn from cubism, prevalent in his theory and practice of poetry as well as painting between the World Wars, to the poetry of natural speech, which became his predominant mode from The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) on. Also, terms from European and American philosophy and historical struggles, so prominent in his poetry before The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart (1967), were used less often as oriental and especially Buddhist themes and imagery filled his poetry, both original work and translations.

In Rexroth's view, communication rests upon some preunderstanding from communion and community. A message is not transmitted mechanically by means of a text, from sender to receiver; rather, meaning evolves from preestablished community, some kind of mutual existence and mutual interest. Out of I-Thou, meaning comes. Unless we share consciousness, we can understand nothing. True communication, through poetry and other arts, helps us realize mutual being.

"The Craft Is the Vision and the Vision Is the Craft"

In emphasizing vision, Rexroth may seem to underplay skill; but in fact he was a meticulous craftsman in both poetry and prose, and his criticism of literature places a high premium on artistic technique, not as an end in itself as in aestheticism, but as a means of communicating experience. He appreciated subtle forms and techniques of many kinds of art such as action painting, progressive jazz, and the Revolution of the Word that were often condemned as obscure; but they moved him because of his sensitivity to craftsmanship and his curiosity about its meaning. "Purposive construction of any kind is a species of communication," he wrote, "just as any kind of communication must be structured." And in successful visionary poetry such as Lawrence's Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, "the craft is the vision and the vision is the craft."

Rexroth's own craftsmanship is impressive, and his prosody deserves a long study. He wrote some rhymed quatrains and limericks as well as a few unpublished sonnets, but most of his poetry is in free verse and in syllabic patterns that are intricately melodious; for example, the nine-syllable lines of most of The Homestead Called Damascus, the 7 to 8 syllable lines of most of The Dragon and the Unicorn, The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, and of parts of Beyond the Mountains, and the seven syllable lines of many shorter poems such as "The Reflecting Trees of Being and Not Being":

      In my childhood when I first
      Saw myself unfolded in
      The triple mirrors, in my
      Youth, when I pursued myself
      Wandering on wandering
      Nightbound roads like a roving
      Masterless dog, when I met
      myself on sharp peaks of ice.
      And tasted myself dissolved
      In the lulling heavy sea,
      In the talking night, in the
      Spiraling stars, what did I

If this passage is read aloud so that the seven syllables of each line are given equal duration, sound and meaning are fused with great clarity and dignity. Syllabic verse seems eminently suited for Rexroth's poetics of visionary communication in that it focuses attention directly on sound's meaning, the sense of sense, with more control than free verse because of regular line-lengths, whereas rhymed and accentually metered verse divides attention between the abstract sound system and the actual sound and meaning of language. In transmitting experience with maximum directness, Rexroth did not want the playful tension between abstract and actual patterns of sound, which are appropriately enriching in other kinds of poetry. He seems to have been influenced by syllabic verse in Japanese, Chinese, and French, which he translated profusely, more than by contemporary practitioners of syllabics in English such as W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Dylan Thomas. Why he chose to write lines of certain length is not certain, but they feel normal in English, in which we are accustomed to alternating lines in ballad stanzas of eight syllables (not counting truncations and other frequent variations) and in most poems before free verse, pentameter lines of ten syllables: Rexroth seems to have discovered natural line-lengths from seven to nine syllables without regular accentual patterns. The seven-syllable lines (mixed with five-syllable lines) of Japanese haiku and tanka also influenced his practice. The framework of seven syllables, in this poem, allows for full freedom of speech, while at the same time providing emphases at the ends and beginnings of lines—"first," "Saw," "Youth," "myself," "Wandering" (repeated), "Nightbound," "roving," "Masterless," "Myself," "ice," "dissolved," "sea," "Spiraling," "I," and "Know."

There are also profuse echoes from line to line, supporting the unrolling theme, in parallelism indicated in the following diagram:

     In my childhood
        when I first /Saw myself
             unfolded in/ The triple mirrors
     in my/Youth
         when I pursued myself /
                Wandering on wandering /
                 Nightbound roads
                  like a roving / Masterless dog,
          When I met / Myself
                 on sharp peaks of ice, /
          And tasted myself
                    dissolved /
                     In the lulling heavy sea, /
                     In the talking night,
                     In the / Spiraling stars,
     what did I / Know?

This subtly constructed poem of cosmic vision continues with his questioning what he knows now, as he imagines his blood flowing out to the nebulas and back. Losing himself in the vastness of the universe, he knows only faces of other persons, mostly of his beloved, beyond space and time.

Rexroth explained how he deliberately patterned vowels and consonants to enhance the melody of much of his verse, a method that he seems to have learned in part from Japanese poetry:

Most of these poems are in syllabic lines. (Sometimes after the poem is cast in syllabic lines it is broken up into cadences.) Against this is counterpointed a rhythm primarily of quantity, secondarily of accent. In addition, close attention is paid to the melodic line of the vowels and to the evolution of consonants (p-b-k, m-r-l-y, etc.). In most cases a melody was written at the time of the poem.

What is important here is that the melody is inherent in the poem's language, in the rise and fall of pitch in the spoken poem, rather than being determined by an abstract form imposed upon natural speech.

Indeed, Rexroth's poetry is most often in the direct statement and address of "natural numbers," in the normal grammar of actual speech. Symbolism characterizes The Homestead Catted Damascus, his first long poem written between 1920 and 1925, but this mode was then abandoned. A third mode, described by Rexroth as cubism or objectivism, was practiced mostly between the World Wars, with such work collected chiefly in the latter half of In What Hour (1940) and The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1940), though some also appears later.

The Vicarity of Symbolism

In his youth, Rexroth wrote symbolist poetry which evolved into The Homestead Called Damascus, his first long philosophical poem. This musical narrative of the traumatic quests of two brothers is full of symbols and myths of decadence, sacrifice, and fertility—a rambling home full of the bric-a-brac of imperialism; dreams of Tammuz and Adonis, castrated; Persephone and a black stripper promising sexual-spiritual revitalization. The brothers have vague, inconclusive, meandering metaphysical and theological conversations and helpless fantasies about a beautiful Renaissance maiden who occasionally rides past on a white horse. The poem echoes Stevens, Yeats, Aiken, Proust, James, French symbolist poets, anthropological scholars such as Frazer, Weston, Harrison, Cornford, Murray; and the strongest influence of all, Eliot, whose The Waste Land had enthused Rexroth until he realized that Eliot stood against everything that he was working for. The style of Homestead was not compatible with Rexroth's emerging aesthetic theory and practice of cubism and later of direct utterance, so he wrote nothing else like it and did not publish it for thirty years. Moreover, symbolism, suggesting a transcendent reality remote from immediate experience, grew from a metaphysic opposite to his idea of immanence, that the "Holy is the heap of dust" and is not symbolized by it. Nevertheless, the poem is a remarkable achievement that deserves to be honored for its own sake, for the sensuousness of its sound, the complexity of its characters and their interactions, the suggestiveness of its imagery, and its philosophical implications:

     I know this is an ambivalent
     Vicarity—who stands for who?
     And this is the reality then—
     This flesh, the flesh of this arm and I
     Know how this flesh lies on this bone
     Of this arm, this is reality—
     I know. I ask nothing more of it.
     These things are beautiful, these are
     My sacraments and I ask no more.

The Revolution of the Word: Cubism and Objectivism

Rexroth's cubist poetry and painting launched him into the international avant-garde between the two World Wars, when the Revolution of the Word was in full swing. It was a comprehensive revolution, not only of language, but also of the mind and of life itself. Whereas symbolist poetry seemed to be a language of aristocratic decadence, cubism appealed to his ambition to reconstruct language along with everything else. His youthful, elitist commitment to change the world was lifelong, though his modes of writing changed.

Rexroth's earliest cubist poems were written as early as 1920, but were not published in little magazines after 1929 and were not collected until 1949, when they appeared in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, including, along with short poems, A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy. Such writing was called "objectivist," but he preferred to describe his work as cubist, involving "the analysis of reality into simple units and the synthesis of the work of art as a real parallel to experience," as in Eisenstein's films, some of the poetry of Apollinaire, Cocteau, Cendrars, MacOrlan, Deltier, Soupault, Aragon, Tzara, Eluard, and especially Reverdy in France, Williams, Pound, Stein, Winters, Arensberg, Lowenfels, and Zukofsky in America, songs of preliterate people such as American Indians, and of course cubist painting.

Rexroth vigorously and originally promoted the cubist aesthetic, theoretically and practically, in his own paintings, poems, essays, and translations from the French. His analytical mind was attracted to the direct, definite reconstruction of experience as an art object, which he distinguished from the dreamy suggestiveness of symbolism and surrealism. "In the Memory of Andrée Rexroth," the agonizing elegy opening The Art of Worldly Wisdom, is Rexroth's cubism at its best, at once personal and objective:

     is a question of mutual being
     a question of congruence or
     proximity a question of
     a sudden passage in air beyond
     a window a long controlled fall
     of music …

Rexroth's introduction to Reverdy contains his strongest defense of cubism, which as a young man he was sure would be the future of American poetry: "Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself." Such poetry, he claims, induces in the reader

Vertigo, rapture, transport, crystalline and plangent sounds, shattered and refracted light, indefinite depth, weightlessness, piercing odors and tastes, and synthesizing the sensations and affects, an all-consuming clarity.

This claim cannot be argued, but only tested in the actual experience of reading cubist poetry—such as, for example, the last section of "Andromeda Chained to Her Rock the Great Nebula in Her Heart":

     Eyes in moss
     Salt in mouth
     Stone in heart
     An owl rings the changes of silence
     Torn head
     Crow's wings
     Black eyeballs
     Poison seeps through the parabolic sand
     The rock on fire
     Ice falls towards the sun.

Reading such a passage, I experience vertigo and some of the extreme sense impressions described by Rexroth, but not, I regret to say, an "all-consuming clarity," which more aptly characterizes the poems in "natural numbers" rather than cubist poems. The phenomena that he describes are comparable to those of mystical experiences; but he is careful to make a fundamental distinction between religious experiences, which are "necessitated and ultimate," and visionary poems, which are not. Poetry may communicate vision in the sense of communion, I-Thou, without being itself a vision of transcendent being.

Why did Rexroth turn away from cubism after it had made him internationally famous? In the 1953 preface to The Art of Worldly Wisdom, he explains that because even some of his friends in the avant-garde did not comprehend his cubist poems, he decided to reach a wider community of readers by writing very much as he spoke, in normal syntax. Nevertheless, some cubist poems continued to appear even in his late books, in the section called "Gödel's Proof" at the outset of The Collected Shorter Poems, for example. He never gave up on cubism, helping to revive it in essays and translations of French poetry.

Though not much in favor today, Rexroth's cubist poetry nevertheless shows his early artistic originality, his immense intellectual power, and his contribution to a worldwide cultural transformation that continues today in "language poetry" and other manifestations. In practicing cubism, he analyzed and controlled the elements of language in innovative ways that carried over to "natural numbers," especially in startling juxtapositions of particulars of experience and the phrasings of direct address. Whenever in later years he returned to cubism in his poetry, translations, and essays, it was a reminder that the Revolution of the Word and of Life had not been extinguished, even during the repressiveness of the cold war.

"Natural Numbers"—"Striving to Write the Way I Talk"

Rexroth's most characteristic, successful, and popular mode of poetic communication might be called "natural numbers," a term used in the title of one of his books, referring to poetry that stylistically approximates, in syntax and diction, actual speech of person to person. From about 1920 on he wrote translations from Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Latin in this mode, starting with translations of Sappho:

     … about the cool water
     the wind sounds through sprays
     of apple, and from the quivering leaves
     slumber pours down …

The classical directness and clarity of ancient poetry, especially of Japanese tanka, mastered through the art of translations, infused his original poems as well. Among the earliest of these is the sequence for Leslie Smith entitled "The Thin Edge of Your Pride," dated 1922–1926, containing such perfect imagist passages as:

     After an hour the mild
     Confusion of snow
     Amongst the lamplights
     Has softened and subdued
     The nervous lines of bare
     Branches etched against
     The chill twilight:

Rexroth had become famous as a cubist before the poems in "natural numbers" began appearing in periodicals in the mid-1930s. He speaks through the "natural" poems as if a listener is present, so the poems are intense, dramatic speech-acts, typically expressing love or friendship, often grief, sometimes outrage and social protest. Even if a listener does not seem to be present, in poems of meditation and lone reminiscence, for instance, the voice remains so intimate that the reader becomes Rexroth's confidant. In autobiographical poems such as "A Living Pearl" and contemplative poems in the mountains such as "Lyell's Hypothesis Again" and "Toward an Organic Philosophy," the words draw us toward him as if we are sitting beside a campfire under the stars, listening to him talk.

Direct address is also evident in the revolutionary rhetoric of the poems in the first half of In What Hour, the antiwar memorial for Dylan Thomas called "Thou Shalt Not Kill," the ethical speculations of The Dragon and the Unicorn, and the dramatic tetralogy Beyond the Mountains, stylistically influenced by Japanese No drama. "I have spent my life striving to write the way I talk," Rexroth wrote, and his public readings convincingly demonstrated the relationship between his writing and speaking. Even when technical terms from the sciences, philosophy, politics, and theology enter his prose and poetry, along with literary and historical allusions from the major civilizations, there is a natural flow of living speech, an acceptance of the Tao, the way things naturally are, except in the symbolist and cubist poems, in which language has been willfully, sometimes forcefully, reconstructed. "Natural numbers" became the appropriate mode for the Buddhist worldview that grew in importance in Rexroth's work from World War II on, for in Buddhism, the will and ego turn out to be illusions floating in calm, compassionate contemplation.

"Actual Poetry Is the Living Speech of Person to Person"

The evolution of Rexroth's chief poetic mode, "natural numbers," from lyrical, elegiac, and satirical to dramatic forms, supported and was supported by his idea that "actual poetry is the living speech of person to person." His friend William Carlos Williams, with whom he had many affinities, believed that "you have no other speech than poetry," and Whitman had heard America singing in its common speech. Rexroth thought that poems are derived from the poetic flow of living speech, that poems are realized orally, that texts like scores of music are indications of oral performance, an art which he practiced and promoted extensively long before readings became commonplace. Through this process, poetry unites poet and audience in community. This approach counteracts the pedantic idea that poetry is fundamentally on the page or in the mind as an object of impersonal analytical study, or that poetry is some kind of artificially constructed arrangement of words that no one would ever conceivably say to one another. For Rexroth, true poetry realizes the spiritual union of Martin Buber's I-Thou.

Not all actual speech can be poetry, of course, for much talk is thoroughly debased; but poetry cannot be poetry unless it is vital communication from sensibility to sensibility, actualized in speech from one to another. The idea would have been readily accepted by the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Japanese, among others who thought of poetry as song that unites performers and audience.

When Rexroth implies that poetic communication depends on sensibility, he seems dependent on Wordsworth, who defined a poet as "a man speaking to men—a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind." Despite this fundamental agreement about the poet's nature and function, however, there are differences of emphasis; for whereas sensibility for Wordsworth is innately endowed, for Rexroth it can be developed to the qualitative magnitude necessary for true poetry: so poets may be made as well as born.

Poetry as Communal Sacrament

According to Rexroth, poetry originates in personal vision (communion with others), takes form in the direct communication of living speech, person-to-person, and functions sacramentally in community. In "American Indian Songs" he shows how song, and art generally, unite the individual to society and nature. People alienated from nature, from each other, and from themselves, as most people are in modern secular, industrial or postindustrial society, cannot imagine living organically; so poetry has a revolutionary function in reminding us that we do live in nature, in some kind of community, invaded and broken though it may be by technological forces that divide us from each other. In An Autobiographical Novel Rexroth wrote eloquently about the sacramental activities of organic societies:

In the rites of passage—the fundamental activities and relationships of life—birth, death, sexual intercourse, eating, drinking, choosing a vocation, adolescence, mortal illness—life at its important moments is ennobled by the ceremonious introduction of transcendence: the universe is focused on the event in a Mass or ceremony that is itself a kind of dance and a work of art.

He centered on his own rites of passage and those of his family: his birth, sexual and intellectual awakenings of adolescence, his parents' illnesses and deaths, hopes for a religious vocation that climaxed during a retreat in an Anglo-Catholic monastery, and his lifelong commitment to the vocations of poet, artist and revolutionary. He wrote to and about his children and their growing awareness of the universe in "The Lights in the Sky Are Stars," "Mary and the Seasons," "Xmas Coming," and many other poems. He heartrendingly commemorated his mother in two elegies and his first wife Andrée in three elegies. Some of his most intensely erotic poems are the Marichiko poems. Eating and drinking are celebrated in several appetizing passages in The Dragon and the Unicorn and elsewhere. Countless nature poems center on ritualistic observations of seasonal cycles and the motions of heavenly bodies.

Of all rites of passage, Rexroth seems to have been most preoccupied with marriage, for his spiritual aim was to move

from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility …

In sacramental marriage as distinct from a merely legal bond, the I-Thou of interpersonal communion (the original vision of poetry) is realized and celebrated as the center of community, uniting each person with humanity as a whole, in universal responsibility. The union of the loving couple is the nexus of the mystical union of all. The theme is prominent in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, the Marichiko poems, and many others.

Rexroth's poetry is typically sacramental whether it celebrates erotic and marital union or processes of nature, humanistic revolts for freedom, or visionary creations. His poetry as a whole transmits a boundless reverence for life and love of humanity.

Most comprehensively of all the shorter poems "A Letter to William Carlos Williams" reveals Rexroth's visionary poetics, his commitment to poetry as interpersonal communion, communication of vision, and communal sacrament. In intimate direct address, Rexroth compares Williams to St. Francis, Brother Juniper, and Yeats's Fool of wisdom and beauty. He praises Williams's quiet affection for red wheel-barrows, cold plums, Queen Anne's lace; his stillness like that of George Fox and Christ, from which the authentic speech of poetry emerged. Then Rexroth prophesies that a young woman, walking one day in a Utopian landscape by "the lucid Williams Rivers," will tell her children that it used to be the polluted Passaic in the Dark Ages; and just as the river flows through nature, Williams's veins, Rexroth's speech, history, the imagined woman and her children, as well as those of us who read the poem—flowing like the Tao, the Way of Lao-tzu—so all participate in the universal community of all beings, revealed in poetry:

    And that is what a poet
    Is, children, one who creates
    Sacramental relationships
    That last always.

Leo Hamalian (essay date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: "Scanning the Self: The Influence of Emerson on Kenneth Rexroth," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 3-14.

[In the following essay. Hamalian compares Rexroth's tireless self-reflection, scholarship, poetic sensibility, and role as cultural spokesperson with that of Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

One of the crucial links between the Beat poets and the other avant-garde movements of the 1950s was Kenneth Rexroth. He served more or less as liaison between the younger generation and modernists like William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. A political activist for most of his life, he championed curiosity in scholarship and experimentalism in the arts and acted as a kind of pater familias for many poets of the '50s. One of his early disciples, Robert Duncan, found in Rexroth a learned poet able to converse as easily about Oriental philosophy or anarchism as about modernist art or jazz, and he admired him for supporting the idea of poetry unconfined to national borders of poetic schools.

Though clearly a citizen of the world, keenly attentive to international trends, Rexroth was primarily a spokesman for a special kind of American sensibility that unites relentless self-scrutiny with observation of forces at work in the immediate reality of the external world. In retrospect his poetry may be viewed along with that of Charles Olsen and Williams as one of the inescapable forces in American poetry written since World War II. From his moment to ours, American poets are either following the trail he blazed or operating as a counter-movement to his practice or implicit poetics. Speaking recently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Gary Snyder said as much in an overdue acknowledgement of Rexroth's significant and enduring presence on the American literary scene.

His career is marked by seemingly contradictory currents to which he himself contributed. He wrote nature poetry about the American West, commented on popular culture for the media, and devoted himself to translations from a variety of languages, at the same time eking out a marginal existence by working at odd jobs which afforded him a chance at a literary career (at times he was unemployed: then his second wife, Marie, supported them while he performed domestic duties). The psychic conflicts that must have been aroused by these contradictions might have silenced a lesser spirit or led him to the brink. Rexroth drew on some deep unifying force within himself, gathered these diverse energies together into a coherent entity, and never ceased to praise the primacy of the single self in the act of achieving almost total integration and autonomy, of becoming its own cosmos. He resisted the demands of the rival selves (unlike Eliot and Pound, who submitted their daemon to the claims of other cultures). Though he never lost his faith, he remained too sceptical toward the rigidities of religious profession and fought the pull of nature to become a pantheist as Robinson Jeffers had. Once his own psyche was forged to his own satisfaction, he always sought to give his readers back to themselves, rather than them to him. In willing them to be free, he most recalls the urgings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed, more than any other poet of our age, it was Rexroth who enhanced the Emersonian tradition at a time when allegiance to external authority seemed to be dangerously ascendant. His poetry and criticism embody one of Emerson's central ideals: "In all my lectures," he wrote in his Journals, "I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man." One might say the same of Rexroth. He never shunted responsibility for the world's failure away from individuals. Instead he stood resolutely by his dialectic of love, death, and growth, the strenuous cycle through which a mortal might transcend his own and the world's limitations. That dialectic, unspoken as doctrine but inescapable in the poems, is crucial to understanding Rexroth. Implicit in its operation are the forces that unify his apparently antipodal selves.

Thus, if there is a single overriding truth that emerges from Rexroth's work, it is his conviction that all genuine subjectivity is a high but difficult achievement while supposed objectivity is merely the failure of having become an amalgam of other selves and opinions. Yet he does not deny the stiffening power of the distanced view. There is something peculiarly Emersonian in the way Rexroth, in both his poetry and his prose, continually records the influx of insights that give his work their individualistic flavor, then retreats into an almost studied scepticism. Like Emerson, he is a man armed with a vision of another, perhaps clearer reality which he feels compelled to verify in the pragmatic world.

This feeling for the ideal is in the native tradition. American writers have always claimed knowledge of a "republic of the spirit," a revivified Eden, which permitted them to realize the limitations but also the immanent holiness of the natural world, and to celebrate both simultaneously. Rexroth's poetry would grow out of the tensions and similarities between the world of his visions and the world of reality, and the myth which as a poet he would create out of this conflict. A Homestead Called Damascus, which he began writing at the age of fifteen, reveals to the alert reader how these forces were working their way into his poetry. Furthermore, early in his career, he shows a range of interests Emersonian in scope. The 19th century Unitarians, led by Emerson, broke away from puritanism with romantic and revolutionary gusto and explored the world as their predecessors never had. That freedom—which Emerson called "heroic"—was made available to Rexroth and others who embraced Emerson's openness of spirit. It would soon become evident that Rexroth's true subject was a free human response to whatever swam into his ken. Much of his best poetry can be taken as meditations on the broad range of human engagements—reactions observed in himself or others, stories heard or read, and the responses of his imagination, in dream, in fantasy, in vision. Ultimately he learned to embrace them as one, to fuse them and to write about this collective experience—which is to say, the myths of his time and place. Thus Rexroth often will appear to fluctuate between a possible transfiguration, an Edenic assumption, and a watchful worldliness—but will always be sensitive to the danger of believing that either passion or sophistication alone can bring one to the state of wisdom. In a letter to Louis Zukovsky in 1931, Rexroth comments that "Emerson was one of our greatest poets and one of our best philosophers, but he kept the two activities separate." What Rexroth acquired in the following years was the gift of unifying the two, so that his finest poems unfold as lyric meditative journeys of a man confronting the world imaginatively and immediately, unbound by hoops of sterile tradition.

Rexroth's first thirty years suggest an unrelenting struggle to extract the precious ore from the flux of his hard mid-Western experience. He was bent on overcoming its limitations without wholly repudiating it. Like D. H. Lawrence, whom he would later use and discard, Rexroth was forever forging himself in a kind of inner Faustian drama of which he was, naturally, the hero (the wit who remarked that Rexroth's supreme fiction was Rexroth himself, was not far off the mark). Early in childhood he learned a vital lesson from his mother, Delia Rexroth. She made the world of books available to him, with the most American of admonitions: that which you get from another is never truly instructional, but always stimulation. You taught yourself. Having learned this lesson young from a mother who had Amerindian blood and abolitionist views, Rexroth would later on proclaim as a principle the conviction that great poets call us forth to ourselves, rather than to the causes that we may yearn to serve. Rexroth's mother taught him how to interpret the world according to the principle that there is no method for doing so except through oneself, even though her own temperament would eventually restore her (as his would him) to the lap of the authoritarian Catholic Church. Despite her religious bent, Delia Rexroth apparently never encouraged her precocious son to flee from his individuality. On the contrary, she seems to have urged him to value it above all else, even in its eccentric manifestations.

During these early years, his formal education took place in the bleak classrooms of Elkhart, Toledo, and Battle Creek public schools, while his real education was conducted in the special study his mother had built for him as a counterweight to the platitudes that children were forced to endure in the elementary schools of the day. Against the unimaginative conservatism of the American school system, she pitted her own definition of a proper education, which called upon the mind and spirit to judge conventional wisdom with Emerson's "iron string" of the liberated mind (which W. H. Auden calls "the free man's worship") as a guiding principle.

So it would appear that already there were implanted in young Rexroth the seeds of the dialectic quality which perhaps flourishes best on American soil: that gift, the willingness to quarrel with one self rather than to assert dogmatically, would on one hand challenge the young radical poets who mobilized in San Francisco during the 1950s and on the other would be misappropriated by reactionaries who idealized individualism for its own ends. Indeed, it is ironic that Rexroth's vision of humanity, though couched in the call for a small community of the spirit, should have taken shape as an elitist vision, if elite in the best sense of the word. That too was real and came from his mother's constant reminder that the Rexroth clan was special, different from the lumpen proletariat of the small Midwestern cities where Rexroth grew up.

Confronted with the fluctuating fortunes of an alcoholic father forced to become a travelling salesman of drugs, living the life of what George Bernard Shaw called "downstarts," the youthful Rexroth clung to the image of individualism as his most precious heritage, and more importantly, as his only hope for an imaginative life amid impoverished circumstances. Based on what appears to have been his mother's faith in the Emersonian ideal, there developed in him the belief that the only literary and critical method worth embracing was the investigation of the self. Though he continued to work at a variety of odd jobs and enlisted in the ranks of radical organizations that required total fealty, he remained wary of any occupation or cause which might stamp him inwardly with its insignia. He ingested huge chunks of the past in history, philosophy, and the classics, ransacking the public libraries of Elkhart, Toledo, and later Chicago, where the museums also provided him with a self-education in art and painting which the public schools could not equal. He seems to have steeped himself in the scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, who preached among other things the doctrine of individual conscience, and the mystical idealist Jakob Boehme, who sent him into ecstasies. He delighted in consuming without discretion almost anything that fed his appetite for intellectual stimulation, that exercised the inner Self he had learned to prize as his most precious possession. He was already developing the ability to absorb diverse materials from many cultures, yet not leave his own center. For the youthful Rexroth, already rooted in his immediate reality, the past was neither a prescription nor a burden; it was rather an aesthetic experience. He used the past to enhance the present and to catapult himself into the future, using his sense of himself as his gyroscope. While he welcomed the warming wisdom of the past, he was careful to shear away from its authority. Even his early poetry reflected a mind dominated by a powerful sense of individualism, mellowed by the slanting sun of old European culture but not profoundly modified by it or made discontent with its own landscape. And perhaps reading through Emerson, he concurred with the old sage that engagement with the present moment in a particular place provided the gunpowder of the mind. At the same time, it became increasingly clear to him that a writer could not maintain a literary career like Emerson's without immense commitment to studying and reading (later on, as an unconscious tribute to this obsession of his, one San Francisco writer would complain, "Rexroth wants us to read everything"). The apprentice, Rexroth concluded, had to submit to a monastic mode of life, either in or out of a monastery.

After travelling extensively in the West, sometime around 1928 Rexroth came to New York for a second time and rented a basement apartment on Grove Street, in the same building where Allen Tate and Hart Crane, "that tragic enragé," were living. The Jazz Age was then in full swing. Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were the toasts of the Algonquin parties. Weekend parties at the Boosevain home in Jamaica Estates were presided over by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Rexroth flirted with the fringes of this scene (alluded to in Homestead), but he had neither the means nor the notoriety to participate except as an observer in that fast-paced life. Moreover, he disliked the unavoidable aspects of New York City life—the dirt, the noise, the tension, and he was soon considering alternatives. He started attending church at St. Luke's, a pre-Revolutionary church run by Peter Schlueter, "one of the most remarkable men in the history of Anglo-Catholicism in America." About mid-February of that year, Rexroth was baptized into the church and left Sin City in a snow-storm for the Holy Cross Monastery across the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie, ready to give up the world for a religious vocation—or at least a monastic one. There is no way to be sure how long he actually stayed, since his own accounts vary and the Monastery of the Holy Cross retained no record of his attendance. If we examine the events of his previous years, (described in An Autobiographical Novel), we get some understanding of how the vagaries of a difficult and relatively rootless, survival-type of boyhood could have driven him toward the security of that peaceful patch of ground overlooking the Hudson River and its verdant valley. He apparently hoped, in the presence of like-spirited sympathetic souls, to recover the meaning of theodicy in an age of faithlessness and agnosticism, to fire anew the idea of God in his own heart. From Boehme he had learned that God was equal to mind, the vital mind which is a form of imaginative, intellectual, and moral action that Emerson had tried to embody and to recommend as a counter to the ills of his age. Emerson had demanded that we reconsider and re-examine the value and trustworthiness of all received knowledge and of the intellectual habits that load our faith in that knowledge, and now Rexroth was facing a similar dilemma of doubt and belief, described in surrealistic detail in A Homestead Called Damascus. The late Robert Fitzgerald puts it very well, as if he were talking about Rexroth: "So hard at best is the lot of man, and so great is the beauty he can apprehend, that only a religious conception of things can take in the extremes and meet the case. But it seems to me there are a few things everyone can humbly try to hold onto: love and mercy (and humor) in everyday living; the quest for the exact truth in language and affairs of the intellect, self-recollection or prayer; and the peace, the composed energy of art."

It worked for a time, apparently, but the straining for freedom of action apparently overwhelmed all other impulses. Furthermore, Rexroth's craving for intellectual experience and literary associations could not be satisfied through the limited resources of the monastery (though he seems to have made good use of a lively library on the premises). After about two months of religious experience, he discovered that he was not a natural-born monk and that his temperament was better suited to a kinetic active life than to a contemplative one. He returned to New York long enough to ship out for Europe as a mess-steward aboard a rusty old freighter. On his return to Chicago, Rexroth met and married a young painter named Andree Shaefer. Together they headed for California and decided to live there. They spent some time on the Monterrey Peninsula in the area of Carmel and around Big Sur, camping, hiking from site to site, and tramping mountain trails. Soon the dramatic setting began to infiltrate his sensibility and perception. Relatively isolated from European influences, his thinking became American in a very special sense. In somewhat the same way as Robinson Jeffers, Rexroth slipped into the spell of the American West, of the California spaces, the mountains, the forests, the wild terrain, and the Pacific Ocean itself. Especially the area around Carmel had a visual splendor almost dreamlike, a "soft-focus mirage of dunes and crashing white water and guano-washed rock islets and sheer cliffs falling into the surf and forest and meadows and clinging mists and windbent stands of cypresses" (Danny Santiago). The place created a pervading, even comforting conviction that no artistic accomplishment could ever match this landscape, arousing in him once more a sense of a sacramental presence in all things. He filled his poems in progress with the stamp of that discovery. In these poems, there is nowhere a trace, not one blurring image of language or perception rooted in other cultures or geographies (though he never seems to have forgotten Apollinaire). The yet unspoiled California land breathes into and through Rexroth—and it is for this quality that William Everson calls him one of the finest nature poets in American literature. However much Rexroth may have contributed to the ferment of American letters later on in his San Francisco days, his discovery of America, in its specific local manifestations, was to be no less important a contribution. Once young writers like Snyder, Whalen, Levertov, Everson, and McClure experienced these poems, the body of America could no longer be the same to them—or to us. Rexroth had learned the significance of place (his reading of Lawrence helped), but at the same time, he never lost sight of the risk of putting place before person—of allowing place, no matter how alluring, to be the designator of personality, to the point that feelings about love, sex, and inner life are excluded. What John Ashbery said about Frank O'Hara's work applies to Rexroth's: "Even at its most abstract, even when it seems to be speaking about something else, it is poetry emerging out of his life." Yet there is little about it that we can call "confessional" in the same breath that might be appropriate for Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, or Allen Ginsberg. Rexroth does not linger over aberrant aspects of himself, nor does he dally much with quirky or bizarre reflections, in the hope that his self-absorption will make them seem exemplary rather than eccentric. He wastes little time analyzing himself or turning his personality inside out. "I have always been too busy being a poet or a painter or a husband or a father or a cook or a mountain climber to worry about my personality," he would boast in his autobiography. If he does talk about himself in his poetry, it is mainly because he cannot avoid himself as the maker of the poem, almost exactly as Emerson confronts himself in his "confessional" essays. In the end, the poem materializes as a natural setting for the ruminations of a man seemingly caught up in the big and little phenomena that make up the unknowable substance of our existence. It is an open poetry, American in its openness, and it has a powerful appeal to those people who, in a phrase of Kenneth Koch, are "dying for the truth."

It was during this period that one of the most important developments in his poetics begins to emerge. Emerson had hoped that for his generation the ancient precept, "Know thyself" and the contemporary precept, "Study nature" (espoused by Thoreau and dismissed by James Russell Lowell as mere sentiment and "one more symptom of the general liver complaint"), would become a single precept, a single piece of advice. Self-knowledge, for Emerson, was inextricably linked to the search for a stable center, an authoritative moment, an expression or mode of action in a centrifugal field. He was intent on schooling himself in endless diffusion and indeterminacy as the context for that search, so that certitude and even rigid consistency would be constantly under query. Only in this way could one know oneself. And the search had to be in the world, the world that looked like an abyss but which Emerson sensed was a constant becoming, a complex and ever-changing arena for courageous human action that discourse was incapable of capturing. Rexroth experimented with ways to blend knowledge of self with knowledge of place (Emerson, of course, was stalking the idea of the integration of sensibility). When Rexroth was successful, the physical observed metaphorically was carried into his inner or invisible world and his poetry acquires a new commanding power that grows out of this union. His poetry was never far from nature and never far from himself. He was in the world and the world was in him as the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea (St. Catherine in Siena). This quality gave his work a rugged honesty, strength, and fragility not common in the poetry of his day.

Aside from the visual splendors it offered, the Carmel area was "an outpost of bohemia, a place of artists, near artists, and would-be artists" (Kevin Starr, in Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915), the perfect setting for anyone bent on merging self-knowledge and nature. But Rexroth may have been drawn to Carmel for other reasons. Carmel had the reputation of being "progressive" (Langston Hughes lived there for years) and Rexroth was no doubt exposed to what Kevin Starr calls Carmel's "loquacious socialism" and "posturing reformism." When he later became politically active in San Francisco, Rexroth shrewdly stripped his own style of socialism of the posturing (whether he succeeded in shedding the loquaciousness as well is a matter of debate). For a while he was a member of the Communist Party, but its demands for conformity with the Party line outraged a conscience that was closer to Emerson's than Stalin's.

The radical movement in politics, originating in the struggle against the power of the railroads and land-owners in the West, swept through the San Francisco area shortly before the Rexroths arrived there. Along with it came the Marxist aesthetic which combined the demand for an American poetry derived from Whitman with the Soviet demand for a revolutionary literature. Fused, these two strains created a body of work that was peculiarly the product of the left-wing poets of the decade, mainly Rexroth and Patchen. It is worth noting that these two poets who were writing from a leftist perspective in the thirties became the beacons for the "beat generation" of the fifties and the sixties. The Rexroth-Patchen heritage was carried forward into the new poetry of social protest associated with Ginsberg and his cohorts. Robert Bly's interest in translating Spanish and South American poets may well come from looking back at the thirties, when Williams and Rexroth were translating Pablo Neruda's political poetry. Baraka, who knew Rexroth, developed his experiments with reading poetry to jazz in night-clubs where the political left gathered for entertainment.

In Rexroth's criticism of the capitalist system, in both his essays and his poetry ("You did, you son-of-a-bitch in your Brooks Brothers suit") often sounds inflexible and even merciless, nevertheless his individualism never alienated him from his nativist roots. In one respect it made him a spokesman for it—he was for a time in San Francisco an extremely popular columnist with unpopular views. The younger poets of the following generation, whose often eccentric individualism did in fact alienate them from their roots, nonetheless tried to take up the Rexroth tradition and at first treasured him for re-introducing the artist in his role as shaman—a mystical, priestly political figure in pre-historic cultures, the figure who stood at the entrance to a spiritually renovated future. It was Rexroth who recognized with incisive clarity the energizing reality of America. For him, America dealt in transformation: it suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections of two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. It suggested one adventure after the other, one wondrous day after the other, one improvement after the other. It suggested rejuvenation, the pain of impoverished childhood overcome and transcended, and even endless love once deemed lost. The real promise was immortality. Where other writers of the same intensity had a darkened vision of our customary existence as though seen through a begrimed window, Rexroth's vision remained optimistic and flickered with the light of paradise not yet rendered a vanishing fantasy by events.

Here we may have the key to Rexroth's magnetism for those writers who sought him out on Scott Street. Rexroth returned them to the human economy that Emerson had in mind when he wrote: "The one thing in the world, in value, is the active soul." It may not be an exaggeration to say that Rexroth altered the course of American poetry through his influence on some of the best minds of the following generation who sought to fashion a poetry that could become an instrument for political and social change, that might create an ambience for nourishing his vision.

Donald Hall (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth," in American Writing Today, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, Whitston Publishing Company, 1991, pp. 82-92.

[In the following essay, Hall provides an overview of Rexroth's literary accomplishments. According to Evans, Rexroth's poetry "is a poetry of experience and observation, of knowledge and allusion, and finally a poetry of wisdom."]

Among Kenneth Rexroth's lesser accomplishments, he appears as a character in two famous novels. James T. Farrell put him in the Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932–35), where he is a kid named Kenny working in a drugstore. With more creative denomination, Jack Kerouac called him Rheinhold Cacoethes in The Dharma Bums, that 1958 Beat Generation testament, where he is the figure we recognize: anarchist, leader of San Francisco's literary community, and poet.

For decades he has written lines like these, setting human life in a context of stone:

       Our campfire is a single light
       Amongst a hundred peaks and waterfalls.
       The manifold voices of falling water
       Talk all night.
       Wrapped in your down bag
       Starlight on your cheeks and eyelids
       Your breath comes and goes
       In a tiny cloud in the frosty night.
       Ten thousand birds sing in the sunrise.
       Ten thousand years revolve without change.
       All this will never be again.

One thing that is without change is that everything changes. Like many of the greatest poets—Wordsworth, Keats, Frost, Eliot—Rexroth returns continually to one inescapable perception. Maybe this elegiac vision of permanent stone and vanishing flesh derives from the great private event of his middle years—the death of his first wife Andrée in 1940 after 13 years of marriage. Her name and image return decades after her death.

But Rexroth is not limited to elegy; he is the most erotic of modern American poets, and one of the most political. The great public event of his young life was the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Years after the electrocution he wrote "Climbing Milestone Mountain":

              In the morning
     We swam in the cold transparent lake, the blue
     Damsel flies on all the reeds like millions
     Of narrow metallic flowers, and I thought
     Of you behind the grille in Dedham, Vanzetti,
     Saying, "Who would ever have though we would make this history?"
     Crossing the brilliant mile-square meadow
     Illuminated with asters and cyclamen
     The pollen of the lodgepole pines drifting
     With the shifting wind over it and the blue
     And sulphur butterflies drifting with the wind,
     I saw you in the sour prison light, saying,
     "Goodbye comrade."

In Rexroth's poems the natural world, unchanged and changing, remains background to history and love, to enormity and bliss.

As a young man, Rexroth was a Wobbly—an Industrial Worker of the World, or IWW—and he studied Marxism as a member of a John Reed Club. Later he became anarchist and pacifist, ideologies which his mature philosophic poems support with passion and argument. His politics of the individual separates him from the mass of Americans—and obviously from Stalinists—and yet joins him to all human beings; it is a politics of love—and Rexroth is the poet of devoted eroticism. "When We with Sappho" begins by translating from a Greek fragment, then continues into a personal present:

     "… about the cool water
     the wind sounds through sprays
     of apple, and from the quivering leaves
     slumber pours down …"

     We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous
     Orchard of a decayed New England farm,
     Summer in our hair, and the smell
     Of summer in our twined bodies,
     Summer in our mouths, and summer
     In the luminous, fragmentary words
     Of this dead Greek woman.
     Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.
     Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
     You move against me like a wave
     That moves in sleep.
     Your body spreads across my brain
     Like a bird filled summer;
     Not like a body, not like a separate thing,
     But like a nimbus that hovers
     Over every other thing in all the world.
     Lean back. You are beautiful,
     As beautiful as the folding
     Of your hands in sleep.

This passionate tenderness has not diminished as Rexroth has aged. His latest book includes the beautiful "Love Poems of Marichiko," which he calls a translation from the Japanese; however, a recent bibliography lists the translation of Rexroth's "Marichiko" into Japanese: in the middle of his eighth decade, the poet has written his most erotic poem.

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 like "Lyell's Hypothesis Again":

Lyell's Hypothesis AgainAn Attempt to Explain the FarmerChanges of the Earth's Surface byCauses Now in OperationSubtitle of Lyell: Principles of Geology
     The mountain road ends here,
     Broken away in the chasm where
     The bridge washed out years ago.
     The first scarlet larkspur glitters
     In the first patch of April
     Morning sunlight. The engorged creek
     Roars and rustles like a military
     Ball. Here by the waterfall,
     Insuperable life, flushed
     With the equinox, sentient
     And sentimental, falls away
     To the sea and death. The tissue
     Of sympathy and agony
     That binds the flesh in its Nessus' shirt;
     The clotted cobweb of unself
     And self; sheds itself and flecks
     The sun's bed with darts of blossom
     Like flagellant blood above
     The water bursting in the vibrant
     Air. This ego, bound by personal
     Tragedy and the vast
     Impersonal vindictiveness
     Of the ruined and ruining world,
     Pauses in this immortality,
     As passionate, as apathetic,
     As the lava flow that burned here once;
     And stopped here; and said, 'This far
     And no further.' And spoke thereafter
     In the simple diction of stone.


     Naked in the warm April air,
     We lie under the redwoods,
     In the sunny lee of a cliff.
     As you kneel above me I see
     Tiny red marks on your flanks
     Like bites, where the redwood cones
     Have pressed into your flesh.
     You can find just the same marks
     In the lignite in the cliff
     Over our heads. SequoiaLangsdorfii before the ice,
     And sempervirens afterwards,
     There is little difference,
     Except for all those years.

     Here in the sweet, moribund
     Fetor of spring flowers, washed,
     Flotsam and jetsam together.
     Cool and naked together,
     Under this tree for a moment,
     We have escaped the bitterness
     Of love, and love lost, and love
     Betrayed. And what might have been,
     And what might be, fall equally
     Away with what is, and leave
     Only these ideograms
     Printed on the immortal
     Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone.

The poet writes best when his passions coalesce.

It is the strength of Rexroth's language that it proscribes nothing. He uses words from the natural sciences and from mathematics, as well as philosophical abstractions which modern poetic practice is supposed to avoid. If he sometimes aims to speak in "the simple diction of stone," he refuses the temptation to purity: this same brief poem uses classical reference, scientific terminology and Latin taxonomy, earth-history, the "flagellant blood" of Christianity, and intimate common speech: "tiny red marks on your flanks / like bites…."

In "Lyell's Hypothesis Again" we hear Rexroth's characteristic rhythm—swift and urgent, slow and meditative, powerful; his line hovers around three accents, mostly seven or eight syllables long. (Much of his poetry is strictly syllabic.) It is remarkable how little Rexroth's line has changed over 40 years, in a world of poetic fashions. This steadfastness or stubbornness recalls his patience over publication: he did not publish a book of poems until 1940, when he was 35 years old, although he had been writing since the early 1920s. Later, in The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949), he collected and published work from his Cubist youth. Some had appeared in Louis Zukofsky's An Objectivists' Anthology (1932).

When we try to describe a poet's style, it can be useful to name starting points, but that is not easy with Kenneth Rexroth. He has said that Tu Fu was the greatest influence on him; fair enough, but there is no analogy between the Chinese line, end-stopped, with its count of characters, and Rexroth's run-in enjambed syllables. In temperament and idea Rexroth is close to D. H. Lawrence, about whom he wrote his first major essay in 1947. But Lawrence's best poems take off from Whitman's line—and Rexroth's prosody is as far from Whitman's as it can get. Perhaps there is a bit of William Carlos Williams in his enjambed lines; maybe Louis Zukofsky. We could say, throwing up our hands, that he is a synthesis of Tu Fu, Lawrence, and Mallarmé. To an unusual extent, Rexroth made Rexroth up.


He was born in Indiana in 1905 and spent most of the 1920s in Chicago's Bohemia—poet, painter, and autodidact. Late in the decade he moved to San Francisco where he has lived much of his life, moving down the coast to Santa Barbara only in 1968. He was the poet of San Francisco even before Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Kenneth Patchen, and William Everson (Brother Antoninus). For decades he has advocated the poetry of the West, the elder literary figure of the city where poetry came to happen: Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger…. His influence on the young is obvious, clearest in Gary Snyder, who is worthy of his master. When young writers from the East arrived in the 1950s—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—they attended gatherings at Rexroth's house, and it was Rexroth who was catalyst for the 1955 Six Gallery reading that was the public birth of the Beat Generation.

Later, alliances altered…. Talking about Kenneth Rexroth, it is easy to wander into the history of factionalism, for he has been partisan, and few polemicists have had a sharper tongue. Inventor of "The Vaticide Review" (apparently referring to The Partisan Review, but it can stand in for all the quarterlies), he wrote in 1957 of poet-professors, "Ninety-nine percent of them don't even exist but are androids manufactured from molds, cast from Randall Jarrell by the lost wax process." On the west coast he has been a constant, grumpy presence. If the West has taken him for granted, the East has chosen to ignore him, perhaps because he has taken potshots at the provincial East forever and ever. The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979), which purports to cover the scene since 1945, will do for an example: the poetry critic quotes none of Rexroth's poetry but sputters about his "intemperate diatribes." Nor does Rexroth make the New York Review of Books shortlist of Approved Contemporaries. Which is a pity, because he is better than anyone on it.

Taste is always a fool—the consensus of any moment; contemporary taste is the agreement of diffident people to quote each other's opinions. It reaffirms with complacency reputations which are perceived as immemorial, but which are actually constructed of rumor, laziness, and fear. As a writer ages and issues new volumes, he or she is reviewed as if the writing had remained the same, because it would require brains and effort to alter not only one's past opinion but the current professional assessment.

Perhaps the consensus of our moment, product largely of the East and the academy, is especially ignorant, especially gullible. Or perhaps it is only—in the matter of Kenneth Rexroth—that the taste-makers are offended by Rexroth's morals. In fact they ought to be because the ethical ideas that Rexroth puts forward with such acerbity are old-fashioned and individual—anathema to the suburban, Volvo-driving, conformist liberalism of the academy. He stands firm against technocracy and its bureaus and hierarchies, to which the university is as devoted an institution as General Motors. Rexroth's morals derive in part from Indiana before the First World War, in part from centuries of oriental thought, and in part from the radical non-Marxist thinking of late 19th-century Europe.

He has not been wholly without attention. James Laughlin of New Directions has been his loyal publisher who keeps his poetry in print. Morgan Gibson wrote a book about him which lists many reviews and articles about his poetry; a magazine called The Ark devoted a 1980 issue to his work; his reading aloud to music, which is superb and innovative, can be heard on several tapes and records.

Still, he should be acclaimed as one of the great poets of our literature because he has written poems like "The Signature of All Things."

     My head and shoulders, and my book
     In the cool shade, and my body
     Stretched bathing in the sun, I lie
     Reading beside the waterfall—
     Boehme's "Signature of all Things."
     Through the deep July day the leaves
     Of the laurel, all the colors
     Of gold, spin down through the moving
     Deep laurel shade all day. They float
     On the mirrored sky and forest
     For a while, and then, still slowly
     Spinning, sink through the crystal deep
     Of the pool to its leaf gold floor.
     The saint saw the world as streaming
     In the electrolysis of love.
     I put him by and gaze through shade
     Folded into shade of slender
     Laurel trunks and leaves filled with sun.
     The wren broods in her moss domed nest.
     A newt struggles with a white moth
     Drowning in the Pool. The hawks scream,
     Playing together on the ceiling
     Of heaven. The long hours go by.
     I think of those who have loved me,
     Of all the mountains I have climbed,
     Of all the seas I have swum in.
     The evil of the world sinks.
     My own sin and trouble fall away
     Like Christian's bundle, and I watch
     My forty summers fall like falling
     Leaves and falling water held
     Eternally in summer air.


     Deer are stamping in the glades,
     Under the full July moon.
     There is a smell of dry grass
     In the air, and more faintly,
     The scent of a far off skunk.
     As I stand at the wood's edge,
     Watching the darkness, listening
     To the stillness, a small owl
     Comes to the branch above me,
     On wings more still than my breath.
     When I turn my light on him,
     His eyes glow like drops of iron,
     And he perks his heard at me,
     Like a curious kitten.
     The meadow is bright as snow.
     My dog prowls the grass, a dark
     Blur in the blur of brightness.
     I walk to the oak grove where
     The Indian village was once.
     There, in blotched and cobwebbed light
     And dark, dim in the blue haze,
     Are twenty Holstein heifers,
     Black and white, all lying down,
     Quietly together, under
     The hugh trees rooted in the graves.


     When I dragged the rotten log
     From the bottom of the pool.
     It seemed heavy as stone.
     I let it lie in the sun
     For a month; and then chopped it
     Into sections, and split them
     For kindling, and spread them out
     To dry some more. Late that night,
     After reading for hours,
     While moths rattled at the lamp—
     The saints and the philosophers
     On the destiny of man—
     I went out on my cabin porch,
     And looked up through the black forest
     At the swaying islands of stars.
     Suddenly I saw at my feet,
     Spread on the floor of night, ingots
     Of quivering phosphorescence,
     And all about were scattered chips
     Of pale cold light that was alive.

Starting from his reading in a Christian mystic (Jacob Boehme, 1575–1624), he writes vividly of the natural world, he refers to Pilgrim's Progress, he ranges out into the universe of stars and focuses back upon the world of heifers and minute phosphorescent organisms. It is a poetry of experience and observation, of knowledge and allusion, and finally a poetry of wisdom.

This poem comes from the Collected Shorter Poems (1967). There is also a Collected Longer Poems (1968); they are five in number, including "The Phoenix and the Tortoise," a 30-page meditative philosophic poem from the early 1940s, and "The Dragon and the Unicorn," from the second half of the same decade, which describes European travel and argues on a high level of abstraction. Best of the long poems is the latest, "The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart" (1967).

There is also a collection of verse plays. There are many volumes of prose: An Autobiographical Novel (1966), several volumes of essays both literary and political, and a rapid polemical literary history called American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971). In addition, Rexroth has translated from Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, but it is his work in Chinese and Japanese which is deservedly best known—beginning with One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (1956). Certainly his verse translations remain among the best work in an age of translation.

But if we look for the best, we look to his own poems. To end with, here is a lyric from his New Poems of 1974:

Your Birthday in the California Mountains
     A broken moon on the cold water,
     And wild geese crying high overhead,
     The smoke of the campfire rises
     Toward the geometry of heaven—
     Points of light in the infinite blackness.
     I watch across the narrow inlet
     Your dark figure comes and goes before the fire.
     A loon cries out on the night bound lake.
     Then all the world is silent with the
     Silence of autumn waiting for
     The coming of winter. I enter
     The ring of firelight, bringing to you
     A string of trout for our dinner.
     As we eat by the whispering lake,
     I say, "Many years from now we will
     Remember this night and talk of it."
     Many years have gone by since then, and
     Many years again. I remember
     That night as though it was last night,
     But you have been dead for thirty years.

Donald Gutierrez (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Radical Man of Letter of the West," in Northwest Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1992, pp. 142-55.

[In the following essay, Gutierrez discusses Rexroth's literary career and critical reputation. According to Gutierrez, Rexroth "remains probably the most underrated poet in 20th-century American literature."]

     They say I do not realize
     The Values of my own time.
     What preposterous nonsense!
     Ten years of war, mountains of dead,
     One hundred million armed men
     And billions of paper dollars
     Spent to disembowel mankind.
     If they go on forever,
     They will have realized less
     Value than I can in one hour
     Sitting at my typewriter.
                         Kenneth Rexroth, "Me Again"


The single most intriguing fact about Kenneth Rexroth is that this significant American literary figure remains probably the most underrated poet in 20th-century American literature.

There are a number of reasons for this unenviable status, and probably more to be discovered. Geographical location has something to do with it. Moving to San Francisco in 1927, Rexroth was a long distance from New York, where reputations are most readily made (and destroyed) in the arts. In his fascinating, iconoclastic An Autobiographical Novel (1966), Rexroth claims that he wanted to steer clear of the publicity and careerist "troughs" of the Big Apple. He wanted privacy, his own space, and a place where artists were generally accepted and were not in vicious rivalry with each other. All this he felt he found in San Francisco, traditionally a strong union town with a sophisticated European ambience. He lived in San Francisco until the 1970s, then spent the remainder of this life in Santa Barbara, California, where he taught part-time at the University of California. Besides being a poet much of his life, a fine translator of verse, a political radical and a social critic of formidable perceptiveness and satiric bite, a playwright and journalist, Rexroth was also a painter with one-man shows in three major American cities, the co-founder of the San Francisco Poetry Center, and the organizer in San Francisco of active, well-attended Anarchist educational and political meetings as well as of bi-weekly literary meetings in his own home.

Despite this wealth of West-Coast cultural and social activities and engagement, Rexroth over the decades alienated the centers of power in academe and the East Coast with a battery of polemics against the dominant values found in key intellectual, critical journals like Partisan Review and the Kenyon Review, the pervasive magisterial influence of T. S. Eliot's literary criticism, and the New Critics (whom, with typical and justifiable derision, Rexroth described as Cornbelt Metaphysicians). His Bohemian posture (pose, his foes urged) identifying himself with the world avant-garde and with political radicalism did not endear him to American English Departments with their pronounced orientation towards American and English literature, and at most political liberalism, nor did he win many academic allies when he did give poetry readings at universities in the 1960s and 1970s, accompanied either by considerable arrogance to his academic hosts, or by moves on faculty wives or on attendant attractive women. A Communist in the 1920s, then a philosophic Anarchist at least into the 1950s, Rexroth had deep roots in Midwestern "native" radicalism, the powerful syndicalism of the IWW and the Indiana Populist Socialism of men like Eugene V. Debs. Also, Rexroth's identification as a Beat guru in the mid-1950s for his championing of young poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and others, stigmatized him then as a kind of elderly literary barbarian, "Daddy of the Beats" (as East-Coast literary critic Alfred Kazin impudently called him). This misrepresented association blinded people to Rexroth's real stature as a complex literary mind, and certainly did not draw attention to his own verse. Yet being stigmatized for championing literary artists of the fame of Duncan, Ginsberg, Levertov, and Snyder should by now have stigmatized the stigmatizers.

This ignorance about him was a shame, for the truth of the matter is that Rexroth was actually enormously erudite—and he was a splendid poet as well. An orphan by 13, self-taught, Rexroth developed a deep hostility towards universities and towards most English Departments in particular, which he regarded as supporting, through the New Critics or more traditional critical orientations, an artistic and political reaction that was anathema to his conception of a vital vanguard art and a "self-actualizing" communalist society. To what extent, then, Rexroth was intentionally victimized by the power centers of literary America is hard to determine. Surely, paranoid interpretations are all too tempting to explain the markedly inadequate acknowledgment of one of the truly exceptional literary artists and men of letters of America.

Consider what he accomplished. As Lee Bartlett (who recently edited Rexroth's letters to James Laughlin for New Directions) has said, "Rexroth … published over 1,000 pages of poetry, ten volumes of translations from six languages, eight volumes of literary and social criticism and an autobiography" (American Poetry, Winter 1984). Indeed, Rexroth's autobiography (edited by Linda Hamalian) which covers his life up to the late 1940s, was published recently. One of his books of criticism, entitled Classics Revisited, which first appeared in separate essays in The Saturday Review, is highly readable, distilling in a few pages the central wisdom or force of classics from The Iliad to Leaves of Grass (a second volume of these Saturday Review essays, entitled More Classics Revisited, is now also in print). He also wrote a tetralogy of verse plays based on ancient Greek models called Beyond the Mountains. Published by New Directions, these plays were also performed by The Living Theatre in New York City. Among his books of verse alone, such works as In What Hour (1940), The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944), The Signature of All Things (1950), In Defense of the Earth (1956), The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart (1975), The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952), a book-length verse "travelogue", The Love Poems of Marichiko (from The Silver Swan, 1978), not to mention numerous fine translations of Chinese and Japanese verse, should have given him eminence among 20th-century American poets, as should his activity as a West-Coast iconoclast and polyhistor in acute, entertaining and provocative weekly book reviews for the Berkeley listener-supported Pacifica station KPFA.

All of this (and it is not an exhaustive list of Rexroth's creative, journalistic, and social-political activities by any means), yet Rexroth has generally received scant attention particularly in—but also beyond—literary academia in America. To this day, he is not represented by a single poem in many of the most frequently used college anthologies of American literature. Significantly enough, some good poets know and respect, and in some cases, revere his verse.

Why have some important poets held either Rexroth or his verse in high regard? For one thing. Rexroth, somewhat like Ezra Pound (whom he detested), was a generous supporter of promising younger literary artists and of vanguard art generally. He was for years a mentor and inspiration to such distinctive poets as Robert Duncan, William Everson, Philip Lamantia, the Beats (Rexroth's promotional journalism had much to do with getting both the San Francisco Renaissance, including Duncan, Jack Spicer, and others, and the Beat writers off the ground). As William Everson said in a mid-1980s interview, "Rexroth got the thing [the San Francisco Renaissance] started in San Francisco, then Ginsberg took it back East and sold it to Time. Kerouac and his group wrote for ten years before the Beat Generation emerged, and it was Rexroth who made the difference" (Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, Lee Bartlett). He read the work of these and other poets, recommended them to the great publisher of New Directions, James Laughlin, told them what to read, in short, provided the rudiments of a vital, general education as he did for many people through his Pacifica broadcasts and his reviews and essays. He also magnanimously aided all kinds of people in trouble with the authorities, including Japanese-American friends and acquaintances during the Earl-Warren-conceived State of California program for the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. Further, he counselled young men about being conscientious objectors to war and indeed was in significant contact with "conchees" stationed during World War II in a C.O. detention camp in Waldport, Oregon. Last but not least, many poets admired his verse, particularly for its paradoxical blend of deep passion and masterful tonal and prosodic control.

But there was a downside to all this genuine and kind helpfulness. Rexroth was sometimes not an easy person to get along with. He demanded loyalty from his "followers"; he expected them to remain as he had defined them as being, and when they followed their own inevitable paths of self-development as artists, he seemed to have felt betrayed. Robert Duncan in his last years was so alienated from Rexroth that he would not even talk to Rexroth scholars about him, nor would Marthe Larsen, Rexroth's third wife, to whom Rexroth dedicated the seven splendid "Marthe" poems, written during the mid-1950s and designed (unsuccessfully, in the long run) to win back his estranged wife. Even U. C. Berkeley's Thomas Parkinson, long a strong supporter of Rexroth, in an English Department hostile to the poet, described him in a 1983 memoir as a "morally discontinuous" personality. It appears that Rexroth was capable of startling mood-swings. Also, evidence from Rexroth scholars like John Tritica, now completing a definitive bibliography of Rexroth's work, and from eye-witness reports, indicates that Rexroth estranged a lot of people, including old friends and admirers, by his unpredictable offensivencss. He used to be fond of saying that of the one-hundred worst persons in the world, 90% were poets, and even if in periods of self-dissatisfaction he might have included himself among that select society, such an opinion was not likely to develop new friendships or sustain old ones among poets.

No doubt some of Rexroth's cantankerousness and rages had to do with his career frustrations. He was a man whose full and complex worth as a social critic, political radical and polemicist, translator and poet (not to mention gourmet cook and mountain climber) was far from fully acknowledged. Eliot Weinberger, a New York-based poet and verse translator, has asserted that Rexroth deserved the status of a Neruda in Chile, a Paz in Mexico, a McDiarmid in Scotland; he deserved, that is, the national esteem of an artist who could serve as the intellectual conscience of a nation. But few if any poets or literary figures are revered in the United States unless they are distortingly popularized like Robert Frost (a process to which Frost certainly contributed) or self-mythicized like Ernest Hemingway. It was most unlikely that a Bohemian-Anarchist California man of letters would ever receive such accolades in America. After all, he made it very clear throughout his career that he was ideologically disconnected from the "heartbeat" of America, most certainly in its megacorporation aspects. And though he could (and did) expend a lot of energy convincingly implying how at home he was in the American radical tradition, mid-20th-century America was not a comfortable epoch for radicals of any stripe.

Further, as an anti-Stalinist radical, Rexroth was, according to Robert Duncan, subjected to a lot of hostility and pressure from American Stalinists, especially during the 1930s (and possibly, I would add, up into the early 1950s when McCarthyism began putting American Communists and fellow travellers—including many liberals—under severe pressure). As one who listened to Rexroth's brilliant, pompous, idiosyncratic and often hilarious KPFA broadcasts during the 1950s, I was often struck by his bottomless rancor towards Stalinists and Stalinism. This impression, persuasively created by a man who seemed versed in all the complexities and contradictions of 20th-century international radicalism in theory and practice, was counterweighted by Rexroth's sense of the formidable evil also resident in the American State and in the unrelenting rapacity and philistinism of American Capitalism ("spreading inexorably / As bacteria spread in tissue," as he put it in another context in a savagely dark visionary poem ironically titled "Strength through Joy").

If a radical poet feels no affiliation with the two most powerful and threatening societies of his day he might well feel alienated, especially in a culture that would hardly pay attention to political advice or moral denunciation from a famous poet like Frost, let along an "eccentric" Bohemian-Anarchist poet like Rexroth. How "alienated" a person really is in contemporary American society can be hard to determine; one need not be a sociologist to realize that mass people in modern urban, industrial societies lack communal bonds or support. Some advertising executives or CEOs, for example, might be more alienated from their family, friends, or themselves, than a poet of disaffiliation. Rexroth, on the other hand, often came on as if he were part of a cultured, "hip" community of individuals who despised Life Magazine or Time, the academic poets and critics, the diabolical wiles of Madison Avenue and GE, and so on. It was the Hip versus the Square: the latter category emphatically including the half-educated, claimed Rexroth, denizens of most college English Departments. In view of the ongoing academic institutionalizing of American intellectuals and artists that accelerated after World War II, Rexroth's incessant derision of academics (especially English Department ones) actually represented an ideological impulse essential to the sustaining of a vigorous and independent American intelligentsia, the sizeable lack of which partly explains the rampant corruption and concentration of power in American public life for the past thirty years or so. At its worst, Rexrothian in-group communalism shrunk to a personal snobbery, and one did have the marked impression listening to Rexroth on KPFA or reading him that he had drunk the best wines, loved the most gorgeous women, read all of the important books in every major field (this he probably came close to doing), participated in the most exciting events and knew the most significant or worthy people in the 20th century. (It is not accidental that Rexroth's first autobiography, An Autobiographical Novel, is so titled—his primary publisher James Laughlin, though a great friend of Rexroth's, insisted on adding the word "novel" [American Poetry, Spring 1989]).

Rexroth is hard to come to grips with as a biographical subject partly because he was a "confabulator"—that is, he told imaginative untruths that are themselves so vivid or entertaining or instructive that the element of lying pales. We don't know whether Rexroth's father really ate chicken and drank gin on his Terre Haute home porch with Gene Debs, or Rexroth met D. H. Lawrence in Santa Fe, or was in the same picket line that John Steinbeck describes in a famous novel when one (says Steinbeck) or eight (claims Rexroth) strikers were killed by company goons. But Rexroth telling such stories, and he had hundreds of them, might be like a novelist mediating some valuable experience—and, sometimes, he definitely was telling the (little known or incorrectly perceived) truth.

However, given Rexroth's proclivity for embroidering the truth, it can be difficult discovering his real sense of his position or "location" in American society from the 1950s on considering that he had already achieved sufficient work as a poet (and polemicist) to have received substantial critical recognition—and yet did not receive it. Rexroth was given some awards and recognition (including a Guggenheim in 1948, a Shelley Memorial Award, a National Institute Award and two California poetry awards), but nothing that bestowed eminence upon him, at least nothing comparable to, say, the far less gifted Delmore Schwartz's meteoric rise and New York critical encouragement. Nor has Rexroth received the kind of critical attention and deification bestowed by numerous academic critics on Robert Lowell, John Berryman, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath and the like, over the past few decades. It is surely significant that many of these highly touted poets, as well as their praisers, are Easterners. Rexroth, though originally a Midwesterner, born in South Bend, Indiana (in a house still standing), and associated in his adolescence and early adulthood with Chicago, came West as a young man (following, he says, not Horace Greeley's but the formidable Anarchist Alexander Berkman's advice to Go West: "Go back," Rexroth claims Berkman said to him in Paris, "There is more for you in the Far West than there is here. You can probably become famous here but you'll be just another one" (An Autobiographical Novel). If this damaged his career, it also may have helped his verse immeasurably.


One way the move West might have enhanced his verse is by endowing it with regional definition and location. The significance of this regionality in Rexroth's work has not yet been sufficiently appreciated, though Gary Synder understood it, nor has the claim made by Robert Duncan that Robinson Jeffers in his coastal California landscapes influenced both Rexroth and Everson. Aside from the value to Rexroth of San Francisco as a liberated, sophisticated city receptive to artists, the West, particularly the wilds of California, with its great mountain ranges, was a source of creative stimulation to Rexroth both as a subject and as a medium of meditation and contemplation. American poets like John Matthias, David Ray and James Wright have regarded Rexroth as a major American poet or creative inspirer. Indeed, poets have generally thought more highly of Rexroth than critics, a situation perhaps analogous to pro-ball players who have a more authoritative idea than sports writers about who the good players in the league really are. As James Wright memorably put it in 1980, "I believe [Rexroth] has saved many poets from imaginative death" ("For Kenneth Rexroth," The Ark, 1980). If Rexroth is actually a major poet—Harvard's David stows on Rexroth the thin honor of being the finest of the minor San Francisco poets (along with whom he cites Philip Whalen, Jack Spicer and Michael McClure)—this is in no small part due to his love and nature verse. The centrality of places like Mt. Tamalpais, the Coast Range, and the Sierra Nevadas in his best nature verse is evident.

In the early three-part poem "Toward an Organic Philosophy," from In What Hour, both California mountain ranges provide setting and embody substance in the poem. Professor Perkins has implied that Rexroth's verse lacks intensity and surprise (although he admits—without explaining why—that Rexroth is best quoted in full. Such a stricture, however, overlooks a "Western" aspect of Rexroth's verse which is integral to his poetic achievement—the "Asian" dimension. Consider the last six lines from Part I of "Towards an Organic Philosophy" entitled "Spring, Coast Range":

     There are tiny hard fruits already in the plum trees.
     The purity of the apple blossoms is incredible.
     As the wind dies down their fragrance
     Clusters around them like thick smoke.
     All the day they roared with bees, in the moonlight
     They are silent and immaculate.

Intense these lines are not, nor are they surprising. Rexroth once described the essential quality of Yeats' Japanese Noh or Dance plays as an utterly unWestern dramatic process, with no modulated character of the sort that leads to the inevitable crisis of a Western tragedy (Bird in the Bush; Obvious Essays). Rather a dance must incorporate and release all the energy of accumulating frustrations or longings or obsessions.

Now many of Rexroth's nature poems don't even have that sort of dramatic (let alone terpsichorean) character, and thus eschew intensity. But influenced as they are by the character of Chinese verse to depict with acute accuracy the sheer appearance of nature as also representing its deepest reality, of seeing, that is, appearance and reality as one, Rexroth achieves a purity of expression and authenticity of representation that are truly remarkable. In the six lines above, the plum tree fruits, the tree's fragrance, the roaring of the bees, the moonlit silence of the trees, are so clearly described and thus apprehended that a kind of serenity is achieved that one would call natural mysticism were not such an intellectual formulation almost a violation of the essential spirit of the poem. In the poem, Spring in the Coast Range has been sharply imagized, and when Rexroth moves on to "Fall, Sierra Nevada," we should realize that his operative poetics in this poem (and in many of his best nature poems) is in effect "Asian"—the representation of nature phenomena and being so clearly and sharply and fully There, so irrefragably existent, as almost to embody presentation:

     —At noon a flock of hummingbirds passed south,
      Whirling in the wind up over the saddle between
      Ritter and Banner [Sierra Nevada mountain peaks]

     —                    The ventriloquial belling
     Of an owl mingles with the bells of the waterfall,

     —Just before moonset a small dense cumulus cloud,
      Gleaming like a grape cluster of metal,
     Moves over the Sierra crest and grows down
                                the westward slope.

How intense, how surprising is a Sung-Dynasty vase? A Sung vase Rexroth's verse may not be, but its excellence resides in part within that constellation of aesthetic values.

However, there is a kind of "Western" purposefulness in this three-fold poem after all. The verse ends as follows:

      'Thus,' says Tyndall, 'the concerns of this little place
      Are changed and fashioned by the obliquity of the earth's axis,
      The chain of dependence which runs through creation,
      And links the roll of a planet alike with the interests
      of marmots and of men.'

If there is a "philosophy" behind this verse, it is implied in the Tyndall quote—the "chain of dependence" which "runs through creation" and which identifies the common interests of humans and all other animals. This is not so much an ecological ethic or aesthetic, though it certainly is pre-environmentalist in its acute awareness of the sensitive ecosystemic interrelation of all living creatures on the earth. Rather, Rexroth's poem records natural phenomena so sensitively, accurately and authentically as to make us remember or realize that human culture, with all of its distractions, horrors and self-importance, is not the only or even the primary plane of earthly existence.

Indeed, the West in Rexroth's work (as in that of Witter Bynner, rather like Rexroth a very underrated poet but a well regarded translator of Asian verse, Gary Snyder and Morris Graves) has often meant serious interest in Oriental culture. Asia has been highly influential for some West Coast artists, as of course it has been more and more for the entirety of West-Coast society. Rexroth has long been interested in Asian philosophy and art, and he had many American-Asian friendships and connections going back to the early 1940s and probably before then. One leading Japanese literary scholar, Sanahide Kodama, has even claimed that Rexroth's Asian verse translations are easily superior to Ezra Pound's. According to Kodama, "There is no doubt that among major American poets, Kenneth Rexroth best understood Japanese culture" (American Poetry and Japanese Culture). Kodama goes on to say something equally impressive about Rexroth:

After World War II, the new generation of American poets tried to search for something deeper than exoticism, poetical forms or device; they tried to explore the values of Japanese spiritual life. The most influential of them was Kenneth Rexroth, who maintained an interest in Japanese culture when nearly all Americans had rejected it just before and during the war, and who re-interpreted it as a new source of values for the post-war generation. In the values underlying the world of Classical Japanese poetry and Shingon Buddhism, he sensed the possibility that there might be a means to save modern civilization from destruction. In place of Western rationalism and individualism, he could find in Japanese works a new world view in which man and nature are in coexistent, harmonious relationship."

This compounding in Rexroth's work of humanity and nature reached a deeply poignant climax in Rexroth's three elegies to his first wife, Andrée Dutcher:

     Now once more gray mottled buckeye branches
     Explode their emerald stars,
     And alders smoulder in a rosy smoke
     Of innumerable buds.
     I know that spring again is splendid
     As ever, the hidden thrush
     As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital—
     But these are the forest trails we walked together,
     These paths, ten years together.
     We thought the years would last forever,
     They are all gone now, the days
     We thought would not come for us are here.
     Bright trout poised in the current—
     The raccoon's track at the water's edge—
     A bittern booming in the distance—
     Your ashes scattered on this mountain—
     Moving seaward on this stream.

Perkins, who quotes this first elegy, can't find anything to say about it. I can. What is remarkable about it is the absence of overt lament or sorrow. The grief is only implied, very quietly in the 8th line "But these are the forest trails we walked together." which introduces the dead beloved. The main expression of the loss occurs in three lines in the center of the poem:

     We thought the years would last forever,
     They are all gone now, the days
     We thought would not come for us are here.

These lines and much of Rexroth's best verses, arc impressive in the utter bareness, lucidity, and "classical" restraint of their language. Rexroth believes, rather Miltonically, that language in verse should be as simple, direct and sensuous as possible. Yet, as in those three lines, the simplicity and directness of the language, by its very lack of "literary" ornamentation or pose, but also by careful choice, generate considerable force. Showing "Rexroth," like most of us, victimized by the illusion of love as something beyond time or contingency, the poem elicits our identification at the deepest emotional level, and in Rexroth's adroit use of "we" and "us" in the twelfth line, his condition of being "dead" along with his dead wife is movingly (if quietly) conveyed.

But the entire poem and its core of deep, silent lament are underscored by a nature description which exhibits Rexroth's skill in presenting the exact nuance or nature of things—the "buckeye branches" and their "emerald stars," the "smoldering alders", the "hidden thrush." All this carefully weighted exactness comprises one dimension towards Rexroth's complex ideal of communicating the "holiness of the real" which is "accessible in total immanence." But these quoted bits from Rexroth's great poem, "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," are ironic in the context of the "Andrée Rexroth" elegy because what for Rexroth, what for any husband or lover, made the real most holy is now missing—it, she, Andrée, is now dead, and thus, though nature is as vital and beautiful as it was before, it is also crucially, poignantly different.


Rexroth was a unique figure in American literary culture. There are people in our society who are Bohemians or poets or social radicals but few who combine these roles with his enormous general knowledge and highly distilled wisdom. Not all of Rexroth's essays are fine, but many of them, in their combination of trenchant insight, broad knowledge, and iconoclastic vigor and wit, are fine indeed, and, if one can put up with Rexroth's man-of-the-world tone and occasional arrogance and pretentiousness, enriching and memorable. Both volumes of his autobiography are vivid and eye-opening reading from a quite different perspective on art and thought, and on modern life and society than one would generally encounter even among iconoclasts, apolitical radicals and other members of the ideological minority. More than a few people who heard Rexroth's KPFA book talks or read his prose felt that this man, over and beyond his affectations and posturing, possessed from the late 1920s into the 1970s a visionary sense of the radical ways in which 20th-century societies were willfully destroying civilization and the earth itself and thus ultimately the human race. People in the late 1950s scoffed at his jeremiads, exposures, revelations; today, their truth is common knowledge to most children over six.

Kenneth Rexroth almost single-handedly urged that there was a West-Coast, Western-American culture that, if not as publicized and powerful as that of the East Coast, was nevertheless worthy and self-sufficient. Polemicist, verse translator, enduring radical, lecher, transvalutationist and wit, Rexroth himself embodied no little portion of the West that he inhabited most of his life and whose culture he did so much to enhance in merit, esteem and durability—no mean achievement for David Perkins' "minor" San Francisco poet:

     See, The sun has fallen away,
     Now there are amber
     Long lights on the shattered
     Boles of the ancient apple trees.
     Our bodies move to each other
     As bodies move in sleep;
     At once filled and exhausted,
     As the summer moves to autumn,
     As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
     My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
     Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
     Your body moves in my arms
     On the verge of sleep;
     And it is as though I held
     In my arms the bird filled
     Evening sky of summer.

                  (from "When We with Sappho," in The Phoenix and the Tortoise)

David Barber (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "The Threading of the Year," in Parnassus, Vol. 18, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 267-90.

[In the following essay, Barber provides analysis of Rexroth's poetry and literary development. According to Barber, "however boldly his personal history carries the impress of beatnik San Francisco and beatific Kyoto, his reckonings with the wilderness bear the telltale marks of Jeffersonian and Emersonian bloodlines."]

In his later years Kenneth Rexroth came to assume the very appearance of a weathered Chinese sage. That drooping mustache and the incalculable crinkles round the eyes, the high forehead and the set of the square chin, something about the mixed air of gruffness and whimsy in that battered physiognomy—one feels certain, gazing at the snapshots of this doughty septuagenarian, that we have seen him countless times in the corner of an inkbrushed screen, a venerable figure dwarfed by cliffs and all but lost in swirling mists, ever watchful, scroll in hand.

And so in a way we have. Rexroth looked toward Asia every bit as purposefully as another Midwestern kid by the name of Eliot took to Britannia, and his transformation into an Oriental poet-scholar was no less convincing or complete than Eliot's reincarnation as an English don. Translations and imitations from the Chinese began appearing in Rexroth's collections of poetry during the 1940's, and his initial pair of New Directions anthologies, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (1955) and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (1956), became touchstone volumes as they passed through their many editions. From the start there was a refreshing candor and undisguised ardor about it all. "I have chosen only those poems whose appeal is simple and direct … poems that speak to me of situations in life like my own," Rexroth stated in his notes to the Chinese volume. "I have thought of my translations as, finally, expressions of myself."

That candor and ardor never slackened. As he grew older Rexroth read widely in Buddhism, and lived for a time in Kyoto, courtesy of a Fulbright. In the last decade of his life he produced or coauthored six collections of Far Eastern poetry, assemblages spanning a panoramic range of periods, styles, and sensibilities. Thanks in large part to the accessibility of the texts and the sturdiness of Rexroth's renderings, this portfolio of translated verse not only found an ample following but to a sensible degree can be said to have formed and cultivated that wider readership. Self-schooled in this enterprise as in everything else, splendidly undaunted by his Jack of fluency and scholarly bona fides, he became his day's foremost popularizer of Chinese and Japanese verse, the translator most likely to have introduced the common reader to the women court poets of Japan or the gnomic utterances of Tu Fu.

Rexroth also published two collections of original verse during his last rush of industry in the 1970's. You can now read them side by side in the single trim edition recently published by Rexroth's old camping chum James Laughlin under the title Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems. And with that book in hand and a few biographical facts at your disposal you might tell an absorbing story about a stormy iconoclast from the American Heartland who reinvented himself as a contemplative imagistic poet in the Golden State, a story of how an avant garde firebrand turned his back on the dialectics of the West and the precepts of modernism to embrace the distilled quietism of the East. You would observe that a full half of New Poems (1974) is given over to Chinese translations or adaptations, and that most of The Morning Star (1979) was written in the gardens and temples of Kyoto. You would point out that in the poems from Rexroth's own hand, the line between poet and translator has blurred almost beyond recognition: One sees the same highly concentrated structures, the same containment, the same cultivation of open line and frozen image, a kindred predilection towards sequence and diary notation.

Finally, you would unfold the tantalizing dance of veils behind "The Love Poems of Marichiko," the sequence of fifty erotic lyrics that close out the book. Five of these poems first appeared in Rexroth's One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese (1974), and the poet was glossed in the end-notes as "the pen-name of a contemporary young woman who lives near the temple of Marishi-ben, in Tokyo." In the notes to the "Love Poems," however, one comes across a wink and a nudge. "Notice," Rexroth writes, "that the sex of the lover is ambiguous." This Marichiko, it emerges, is a fabrication, cross-cultural identification turned inside out, translation in drag. What better climax to a virtually lifelong intimacy with Far Eastern verse? Rexroth, on the final pages of his last book, speaks to us as a Japanese woman.

It is an almost irresistible story, resonant with psychobiographical reverberations and socioliterary overtones. There is no disputing or diminishing the importance of the Orient to the contrarian temperament and tempestuous career of Kenneth Rexroth. There's also no denying that the cultural tradewinds blowing out of California in the 1950's and 1960's helped sweep Rexroth along: The aura hovering over those New Directions paperbacks glimmered all the brighter as an amalgamation of Eastern mysticisms and wisdoms took on a faddishness in youth culture and as hybrid variations on open forms began to attract a growing faction of metrically disaffected poets. As a longtime resident of the state and the tribal elder of the San Francisco literary caravansary, as an evolutionary link between the California of Jeffers and the California of Snyder and Hass, as a driving force in both the countercultural and crosscultural permutations of the regional imagination, Rexroth is a natural when cast as the framing spirit of what contemporary punditry insists we call the "Pacific Rim." If he hadn't reinvented himself, it may have been necessary for us to invent him.

An arresting story, then, but one that's rather too available. A story, finally, that remains more colorful than sufficiently insightful, and one that helps explain why Rexroth, to quote poet (and former Rexroth student) Sam Hamill, is "among our best-known and least-read poets." It not only encourages us to lazily stylize an irrepressibly eclectic personality, but deprives us of much incentive to grapple with a body of poetry distinctive for its robust unorthodoxy and bracing restlessness. It condescends too quickly to the presumption that Rexroth's diehard Bohemian leanings and fire-breathing disdain for Eastern Seaboard snobbery bred an animus toward his own Americanness. It perpetuates the impression, this narrative line does, that Rexroth lacked the requisite quotient of modernist irony and ambiguity to himself become a fully realized poet in an age of anxiety, that he was forced to compensate for the unevenness and coarseness of his own verse by co-opting the Orient's polished refinements of sense and sensibility. It justifies his marginality and excuses his neglect. It gives his metamorphosis the cynical spin of a good career move.

Like so many others, I suspect, my first brush with Rexroth was as the name on the spine of those compact and handsomely packaged New Directions "100 Poems" paperbacks, which I regarded as standing invitations to steal a march on Milton-loving prep-school teachers everywhere. The name was not the spur. Rexroth was, as far as this Southern California schoolboy was concerned, merely the humble translator, and as such, properly shadowy. I don't think it would have much mattered to me if I'd been told at that time that Rexroth was living some 90 minutes north in Santa Barbara, ever the cantankerous polymath and for many the dean of California poets. What mattered to me was the mystique of all that white space on the pages, the allure of those calligraphic brushstrokes, the attar of erotica that seemed to promise a hidden garden of significance. What mattered was the sensation of being spoken to directly and intimately by an alien tongue across the ages:

     Tumult, weeping, many new ghosts.
     Heartbroken, aging, alone, I sing
     To myself. Ragged mist settles
     In the spreading dusk. Snow skurries
     In the coiling wind. The wineglass
     Is spilled. The bottle is empty.
     The fire has gone out in the stove.
     Everywhere men speak in whispers.
     I brood on the uselessness of letters.
                               ("Snow Storm" [Tu Fu])

So it was jarring, some years later and the Milton-lovers safely behind me, to discover that shadowy humility was not exactly Rexroth's forte. Threading my way through the largely embalmed Bohemian quarter of San Francisco in the dawn of the Reagan risorgimento, I would spin squealing postcard racks and come across the same photo time and again. It was a blurry, noirish shot of Rexroth declaiming his verse to the accompaniment of a jazz ensemble sometime in the throes of Eisenhower America, bulldog jaw jutting into the nicotine haze, all pugnacity and bardic torque. Who was the nightclubbing Homer, this leather-lunged hipster doyen? Could he possibly be the same canny soul who had made the T'ang master Tu Fu seem my contemporary?

I indulge in this scrap of personal reminiscence because I am convinced that the Rexroth of initial impressions and general acquaintance is more often than not a caricature, a "figure" whose singularity is most conveniently filed away as the headstrong sum of his polarized selves. Depending on which way we want the compass needle to quiver, he can be emblematic of a certain kind of aggrieved excess, a certain brand of generational dissonance and provincial dissent, a certain mixed breed of cosmopolitan primitivism that could call itself neither redskin nor paleface, a certain fearless vigor which is also a certain endless quandary. And depending on one's own cherished notions of artistic essence, an appraisal of Rexroth's powers can lend itself instinctively to either salutary ideals or cautionary tales. As a constellation of contradictions, enthusiasms, and antagonisms, he is perhaps surpassed only by that other notable maverick from the American interior—Little Dipper to Pound's Big. In Yeatsian terms, alas, he made the fatal error of seeking perfectibility in both the life and the art, eternally falling short of reconciling a life of action and a poetry of inwardness.

"He is no writer in the sense of the word-man," wrote Williams of Rexroth. "For him words are sticks and stones to build a house—but it's good house." And true enough, the mature Rexroth did not write poems that anyone would be tempted to call, with a nod to Williams, "little word machines." Much of his writing seems to be one species or another of pedagogy—lectures and lessons, sermons and tracts. As anyone who's read across Rexroth's bully-pulpit prose knows well, his was an incorrigibly discursive and dialectical mind, a polemical intellect of nearly inexhaustible capacity, wheels within wheels. The verse, too, often seems to have been composed in the spirit of instruction and exhortation. Rexroth's pair of long poems from the 1940's, "The Phoenix and the Tortoise" and the European travelogue "The Dragon and the Unicorn," are sprawling monuments to his mania for association and assimilation, running commentaries crammed with arcana and opinion, diatribe and panegyric, cerebral pontification and encyclopedic information:

     Bath a stageset for Terence,
     One of the world's unlikely
     Cities, as freakish as Venice.
     In the midst of its colonnades
     And the swarming well-fed people,
     Bath Abbey, immense and absurd,
     Like the skeleton of a
     Whale or a dirigible,
     Built by Walpole Gothicizing,
     The most eighteenth-century
     Product of the Middle Ages.
               (from "The Dragon and the Unicorn")

But we do wrong by Rexroth if we overstate his didacticism and only have ears for his windier topicality. This was also a poet who all his life wrote quietly wrought and intensely intimate homages and elegies, love lyrics and pacts. It's fetching irony, in light of the above remark by the good doctor of Paterson, that one of the most moving and telling of these is Rexroth's 1946 poem, "A Letter to William Carlos Williams," in which Rexroth lionizes Williams as "the first / Great Franciscan poet since / The Middle Ages" and praises the "wonderful quiet / You have, a way of keeping / Still about the world…."

     Nowadays, when the press reels
     With chatterboxes, you keep still,
     Each year a sheaf of stillness,
     Poems that have nothing to say,
     Like the stillness of George Fox,
     Sitting still under the cloud
     Of all the world's temptation …

Let others celebrate William's earthiness; in Rexroth's eyes he shall be known for his saintliness, his Quaker-like gravity, a containment that verges on mysticism. The poem closes with an affectionate prophecy, the Passaic having become "the lucid Williams River" and a young woman imparting the essence of the poet to her young ones as they stroll alongside.

     '… And the
     Beautiful river he saw
     Still flows in his veins, as it
     Does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
     And flows in time, and makes us
     Part of it, and part of him.
     That, children, is what is called
     A sacramental relationship.
     And that is what a poet
     Is, children, one who creates
     Sacramental relationships
     That last always.'

One might well expect that Rexroth would hold keen admiration for Williams. His own sense of measure and cadence owed something to Williams' perceptually alert line, as did his colloquial worldliness and moral allegiance to the local. His is arguably the most moving and incisive tribute we have for a poet who inspired a great many. But this Williams of stillness and sacrament, of "wonderful quiet," seems also a selective embodiment of the kind of poet Rexroth himself wished to become, a personification of the knowing reserve and meditative concentration his early verse only fitfully sustained.

Our leading story, of course, would have it that Rexroth learned to keep still about the world, at long last, by donning the robes of the Buddhists and assuming the manner of the classical poets of the East. "Sitting still under the cloud / Of all the world's temptation"—aren't we already closer here to the Yangtze than to the Passaic? But Rexroth is one of those poets who only grow more distorted the more we squint at him through the lens of artistic development; we must take care not to twist him into the lotus position quite so briskly and willfully. He is never quite the poet we expect him to be, or rather, we are obliged to revise our sense of his reach and his grasp the further we read on. To traverse the nearly 800 pages of his poetry amassed in the Collected Shorter, the Collected Longer, and Flower Wreath Hill is only to confirm that there are no shortcuts around the manysided soul that was Kenneth Rexroth. It's chiefly for this reason that I want for the rest of this essay neither to take the high road of eulogy nor the low road of apology but rather to locate Rexroth in a very particular clearing, a place apart form the forking paths where poets are hustled into their rightful anthologies or obscurities, a buffer zone somewhere between that squealing postcard rack and that hanging inkbrushed screen:

     All day I walk over ridges
     And beside cascades and pools
     Deep into the Spring hills.
     Mushrooms come up in the same spot
     In the abandoned clearing.
     Trillium and adder's tongue
     Are in place by the waterfall.

This is from a poem called "Hapax," and it too appears among the autumnal offerings of Flower Wreath Hill, early in the book under the section title "Love Is an Art of Time." Contrary to the collection's Oriental cast, the poem opens with a bow to the Christian calendar ("Holy Week. Once more the full moon / Blooms in deep heaven / Like a crystal flower of ice.") and bears the curiously exculpatory epigraph, "The Same Poem Over and Over." It's a nocturne set in an unspecified patch of Rexroth's beloved California ranges—a valedictory piece of meditation spoken at the end of a daylong ramble through the upcountry so familiar to the poet that "A heron lifts from a pool / As I come near, as it has done / For forty years, and flies off / Through the same gap in the trees." The tone is reverent; the language direct and unadorned. A general atmosphere of monkish solitude prevails throughout, the poem by gradual degrees convincing us that it was intended all along as a rough-hewn prayer: "Back at my cabin / In the twilight an owl on the same / Limb moans in his ancient language. / Billions and billions of worlds / Full of beings larger than dinosaurs / And smaller than viruses, each / In its place, the ecology of infinity. / I look at the rising Easter moon. / The flowering madrone gleams in the moonlight."

"Hapax" is not by any stretch one of Rexroth's most accomplished works. In fact, it's a poem that can seem to confirm one's worst suspicions about his relative indifference to linguistic tension or prosodic rigor, his disdain for psychological intricacy and dramatic irony, the mulish matter-of-factness of his compositional method, his weakness for the scenic and susceptibility to fuzzy mysticism. A commentator disposed to unkindness could well claim that not only is the scenery distinctively California but so too is the poem's cosmic bathos and its over-eagerness to be "at one" with the universe. Rexroth's religiosity appears for the most part to be a matter of vibes rather than spirit, the end-product of the poem's predetermined rhetoric of transcendence. The operative phrase, "ecology of infinity," sounds as if it should be the slogan of a Silicon Valley software firm.

But it is in this vein, I would argue, that Rexroth did write some of his most transparent and transfigured poems throughout his life—poems that shuttle more surely than this one between natural pieties and elective affinities, poems at once grounded in the immediate and bent toward the beyond, poems of en plein aire mindfulness and loamy ongoingness that ask to be read as authentic spiritual exercises, devotional verse. "Hapax," for all its seeming offhandedness, is an Easter poem set down in good faith—which is not to say that it enunciates a Christian creed, but that it seeks an emptying of self as a condition of spiritual consolation. It is here, in abandoned clearings, in alpine retreats, in periodic monastic solitudes, that we come upon Rexroth's variants on "poems that have nothing to say," to borrow his encomium for Williams. It is here, in poems where a stripped-down declarative idiom corresponds to a greater stripping-away of pretense and ingenuity, that we find a self-made contemplative poet for whom significance has become a test of artlessness.

I daresay one can find in Rexroth's writings a précis or an ars poetica for each and every paradox his temperament was heir to. It's curious nonetheless to observe him glossing this particular reconstitution of his poetic humors as the most effortless of conversion experiences, in a little wartime poem called "Precession of the Equinoxes":

     Time was, I walked in February rain,
     My head full of its own rhythms like a shell,
     And came home at night to write of love and death,
     High philosophy, and brotherhood of man.

     After intimate acquaintance with these things,
     I contemplate the changes of the weather,
     Flowers, birds, rabbits, mice and other small deer
     Fulfilling the year's periodicity.

     And the reassurances of my own pulse.

This rather sounds like the poem one would write in the autumn of one's days, disabused of youthful illusions and disencumbered of overblown ambitions. In fact, Rexroth was not yet forty, and not nearly the master of his nervous system that these lines would have us believe. As such, one can't help thinking that the poem is wise to its own wishful thinking, set down more as a prospectus than a fait accompli. Rexroth, in any event, certainly didn't become a contemplative overnight, and breaking with his past was no simple matter of losing himself in the birds and the stars. That "time was" takes us back only a year or so to the hot-blooded auguries and maledictions that fill the pages of his first book, In What Hour (1941), and a disposition given to spasms of rampant self-doubt. "Time was," he seems to have been teetering on the brink of jettisoning the fairest hopes of art and language and learning altogether: "What is it all for, this poetry, / This bundle of accomplishment / Put together with so much pain? / … What words can it spell, / This alphabet of one sensibility?"

Born a round generation behind Pound and Williams in 1905, Rexroth came of age while the Lost Generation was sowing its oats and the dashing Europe of the charter modernists was counting its dead in the trenches. We might therefore exonerate him for what might appear like grandstanding pessimism in the above passage, which can be found at the beginning of a set piece titled "August 22, 1939." Like the canonic poem of Auden's that's dated ten days later, Rexroth's is an epochal lamentation written in the throes of one of the modern era's darkest hours. And like Auden, just two years his junior, Rexroth was attempting to raise his voice against the march of armies and the sleep of reason—a "world in stupor," to borrow one of the many majestically disabused phrases from "September 1, 1939."

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden had testified in his elegy to Yeats earlier that year, but of the two poems written at the close of that grim summer, Rexroth's is the bleaker as well as the cruder deposition on the futility of the poet. The role reversal, if you will, is perhaps more noteworthy than the synchronicity. Central casting surely would have called for the rough-and-ready Midwestern autodidact, not the urbane Oxonian, to have been "one of the faces along the bar" that "clings to their average day," and keeps alive "an affirming flame." Yet it is Rexroth rather than Auden who seems to have been rendered abject by a "low, dishonest decade," coarsely cursing the darkness where his emigré contemporary nurses sparks of luminous humanism. "August 22, 1939" ends not with a gesture of affirmation but a bray of exasperation: "What are we doing at the turn of our years / Writers and readers of the liberal weeklies?"

Certainly, this poem of clenched fists catches Rexroth at the turn of his years, still more the fiery lefty than the full-blown man of letters. It is not, like Auden's, a poem for the ages but a broadside on the times. Liberals or no, the initial readers of In What Hour were no doubt more apt than we to recognize that the date of the poem salutes the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti (executed August 23, 1927) and to place its unattributed quote from Marx's Kapital ("From each according to his ability, / Unto each according to his needs"). "August 22, 1939" is one of a number of poems in the collection that rage and grieve over the bitter harvest of partisan struggle or rail at the various avatars of the Big Lie. At times this pitch of righteous declamation and unrepentant disenchantment turns Rexroth into a cross between a soapbox Marxist and an Old Testament prophet:

    It is later than you think, fires have gone over
    Our forests, the grasshopper screamed in our corn.
    Fires have gone over the brains of our young girls,
    Hunger over young men and fear everywhere.
    The smell of gas has ascended from the streets,
    Bloomed from the cartridges, spread from wall to wall,
    Bloomed on the highways, and seeped into the corn.
    It is later than you think, there is a voice
    Preparing to speak, there are whisperings now
    And murmurings and noises made with the teeth.
               (from "The Motto on the Sundial")

But In What Hour ran against the grain of cultural orthodoxy in calmer and more collected ways too. There is a clear-eyed as well as a wild-eyed poet at work in this Depression album of poems. As Robert Hass has suggested, we find in its pages a sensibility taking root: a Midwestern outcast remaking himself into a California citizen-poet, a fierce moral intelligence fighting the good fight at the far margins of the nation. Although it's evident that Rexroth's radical disaffection from the centers of official culture made the Bay Area an appealing base of operations, it's also plain that his embrace of the California hinterlands stemmed from impulses at least as elemental as ideological. An avid and delicate alertness to his adopted region's natural history, a charged responsiveness to its open sprawl and utter scale, ground the more durable passages in In What Hour, revealing backcountry affinities and reflective leanings one doesn't usually associate with hardboiled anarchists:

     Autumn in California is a mild
     And anonymous season, hills and valleys
     Are colorless then, only the sooty green
     Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep
     Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting;
     The steep pastures are tracked deep by cattle;
     There are no flowers, the herbage is brittle.
     All night along the coast and the mountain crests
     Birds go by, murmurous, high in the warm air.
                      (from "Autumn in California")

Readers whose acquaintance with California isn't limited to glossy postcards of the Golden Gate or celluloid montages of Hollywood palms can attest to the Tightness of that "sooty green" and that oak-devouring haze, but one needn't be a native to be impressed by the fine-spun attention Rexroth musters for a "mild / And anonymous season" that few writers in his day (and no great number in our own) would deem worthy of more than passing notice. A Currier and Ives calendar of stock seasonal footage is next to useless in coming to terms with the muted annual cycle of the Californian countryside, and Rexroth's precedence in paying homage to this terra incognita is a credit to both his sense of nuance and his sensible knack for "making it new." The ear must shake off the echoes of intoxicating Keatsian stanzas before it can pick up the unprepossessing stateliness of this ode to autumn, and that's arguably all to the good: The ruminative texture of the above passage, the chariness toward fully ripened rhyme ("Mild"—"valleys"; "green"—"deep") and verbal dazzle ("Birds go by"), seem altogether more fitting to the hazy, colorless, and anonymous character of the landscape under scrutiny than the chiming couplets, lush pentameters, and rapturous sprung rhythms that a verdant, dramatically transitory clime wrings from its laureates.

Rexroth had been a resident of San Francisco for more than a decade when In What Hour came off the presses. He also had some twenty years of literary industry already behind him, much of it hyperactive philosophical collage and programmatic dabblings in Objectivist serialism. These experimental proclivities apparently withered as the breadlines formed and his political activism intensified, but what really seems to have brought Rexroth back from the brink of linguistic cubism was his growing intimacy with Northern California's coastal wilds and Sierra ranges. It is surely not a trifling biographical detail that Rexroth was periodically under the employ of the Federal Writers Project during these years, contributing unsigned descriptive sketches and touring squibs to such publications as the WPA Guide to California and a Field Handbook of the Sierra Nevada. These commissions had to be a happy circumstance for an enthusiast of the trail like Rexroth, and it's safe to say that the grit and dirt he picked up along the way was a decided blessing for his poetry. Amid such abstruse set pieces as "Dative Haruspices" ("Film and filament, no / Donor, gift without / Reciprocity, transparent / Tactile act, an imaginary / Web of structure sweeps / The periphery of being …") and "New Objectives, New Cadres" ("By what order must the will walk impugned, / Through spangles of landscapes, / Through umbers of sea bottom, By the casein gleam of any moon / Of postulates and wishes?") that take up considerable breathing room in his first collection, one welcomes the tempered measure that marks Rexroth's epistles from the mountains:

    Frost, the color and quality of the cloud,
    Lies over all the marsh below my campsite.
    The wiry clumps of dwarfed white bark pines
    Are smoky and indistinct in the moonlight,
    Only their shadows are really visible.
    The lake is immobile and holds the stars
    And the peaks deep in itself without a quiver.
    In the shallows the geometrical tendrils of ice
    Spread their wonderful mathematics in silence.
           (from "Toward an Organic Philosophy")

    In the long day in the hour of small shadow
    I walk on the continent's last western hill
    And lie prone among the iris in the grass
    My eyes fixed on the durable stone
    That speaks and hears as though it were myself.
                   (from "A Lesson in Geography")

Lines like these assure us that Rexroth from early on was wholly conscious of casting himself as a poet in honorable regional exile, and they also affirm the elements of style that were coalescing into trustworthy habits of composition. The "outdoors" poetry of In What Hour—lean and economical in its syntax and its diction, coolly observant and solemnly meditative in its essential register, its balance of trust placed in the testimony of the senses rather than the force of rhetorical address—assumes the concentrated plainspoken form that Rexroth would avail himself of increasingly in the years to come. Implicit in this streamlined prosody is a finetuned moral sensibility. Steeped in the organic rhythms and seasonal variations of the California landscape, this is verse that divines in ecology a higher ethical order that might expunge the taint of a corrupt and corrosive social ethos. More simply, the mountaintop had become for Rexroth the most reliable place to steel the conscience and clear one's head. Here is the opening of "Hiking in the Coast Range," a poem commemorating the death of two dockworking unionists:

    The skirl of the kingfisher was never
    More clear than now, nor the scream of the jay
    As the deer shifts her covert at a footfall;
    Nor the butterfly tulip ever brighter
    In the white spent wheat; nor the pain
    Of a wasp stab ever an omen more sure;
    The blood alternately dark and brilliant
    On the blue and white bandanna pattern.

What bears out the intensity and urgency of these clean-hammered lines are their scrupulous attentiveness and inherent clarity: the balance of cadences and concentration of stresses ("white spent wheat," "omen more sure"), the taut quasi-scriptural deployment of successive negations and accumulating pivots, the deft interlocking of naturalistic and emblematic detail as the passage moves from "skirl" to "scream" to "wasp stab." This is not the voluble and splenetic poet who elsewhere confounds oracular power with oratorical volume; this is not the poet whose moral imperatives are largely indistinguishable from his imperious moods. It is the difference between grandiloquence and gravity; between a short fuse and a drawn bowstring.

Even so, "Hiking the Coast Range" is still in its own way a public poem written on the barricades. The hiker has hied to the hills to galvanize his resistance to injustice in the polis and to gird his lions for renewed class warfare. What's striking as one thumbs toward the midpoint of the Collected Shorter is the hush that falls over Rexroth's later backcountry poetry of the 1940's and 1950's, the hue and cry of causes and the outbursts of anathema fading out like crackling radio signals. In their place one hears a virtual liturgy of earthly delights and soulful gleanings, poems claiming sovereignty in what a later, blither generation of Californians would champion as the here and the now. A handful are examples of the forthright and singularly unaffected love poetry that is justly accorded a place of honor among Rexroth's more devoted readers. Initially most distinctive for an unblinkered erotic candor rarely encountered in mid-century American poetry (Rexroth was an acolyte of Sappho long before "Marichiko" was so much as a rustle in a kimono), these amatory poems retain their boldness on the far side of the sexual revolution because they are unmuddied by either sentimentality or lubricity and unblemished by Puritan and Freudian galls alike. Up where the air is clear, Eros routs Thanatos from the field, if only for the most fleeting of interludes. As demonstrated in the exemplary "Lyell's Hypothesis Again" (Charles Lyell was the preeminent geologist of the early nineteenth century and one of the forefathers of modern geological time), Rexroth's sylvan settings are vivid environments, not allegorized Gardens, and his grasp of the material world vastly exceeds that of your average passionate shepherd:

     Naked in the warm April air,
     We lie under the redwoods,
     In the sunny lee of a cliff.
     As you kneel above me I see
     Tiny red marks on your flanks
     Like bites, where the redwood cones
     Have pressed into your flesh.
     You can find just the same marks
     In the lignite in the cliff
     Over our heads. SequoiaLangsdorfii before the ice,
     And sempervirens afterwards,
     There is little difference,
     Except for all these years.

Encountering other such poems ("Floating," "Still on Water," "When We with Sappho") that twine in a double helix around the force of nature and power of desire, we are reminded of Rexroth's admiration for the eroticized, mystical pulse of D. H. Lawrence's poetry, which he praised in his rousing 1947 introduction to the first American edition of Lawrence's Selected Poems, for achieving its visionary authority in "the pure act of sensual communion and contemplation" and reaching its highest mastery in Lawrence's explicit love poems to Frieda composed during the couple's travels along the Rhine. This cluster of lyrics, declared Rexroth in his best Poundian manner, comprise "the greatest imagistic poems ever written," capturing the romantic union of a man and woman in so primal and natural a state that "everything stands out lit by a light not of this earth and at the same time completely of this earth…." That line could serve as the epigraph for Rexroth's own intermittent poetry of spiritualized Eros and conjugal grace, his Lawrentian tendency—revealed nowhere more indelibly than in these closing lines of "Floating"—to spot the fingerprints of the divine in the couplings of humankind:

      Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me.
      Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
      As this river slides beyond this lily bed,
      And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
      In our mortal, timeless flesh.

Memorable though they are, Rexroth's present-tense lyrics celebrating a flesh-and-blood Other under an open sky are outnumbered by wilderness poems conceived in the absence of companionship or the aftermath of passion. Most of them take the form of soliloquies rather than direct addresses to the beloved, and they chronicle more hours spent in soulmaking than lovemaking. Much as Rexroth cherished having a mate by his side as he scaled peaks and forded brooks, the evidence of these poems lays bare an even deeper need to wrestle with body and spirit in perfect solitude. The impulse is ancient, and at this late date often wearily formulaic, yet the verse Rexroth mined on a "high plateau where / No one ever comes, beside / This lake filled with mirrored mountains" ("Time Is the Mercy of Eternity") or "On the ground beside lonely fires / Under the summer stars, and in / Cabins where the snow drifted through / The pines and over the roof" ("A Living Pearl") stands out as some of the most measured and least derivative he would ever compose. While these meditations always assume a monastic distance from the madding crowd, they seldom indulge in the presumptions of holy loneliness; while they commonly incline toward mysticism, they rarely court the thin air of worldly detachment. The rituals of purification Rexroth invokes are better described as escapes into the world, revolving as they do around the pleasures of the flesh and the manifestations of place, sharply specific as they are about the passage of the seasons, the changes in the weather, the fluctuation of waters and the cycles of flowerings, the comings and goings of creatures. "Nature poetry" is almost always an enfeebling appellation, but especially so for these benedictions and baptisms written at the intersection of natural history and preternatural mystery:

      Forever the thought of you,
      And the splendor of the iris,
      The crinkled iris petal,
      The gold hairs powdered with pollen,
      And the obscure cantata
      Of the tangled water, and the
      Burning, impassive snow peaks,
      Are knotted here together.
      This moment of fact and vision
      Seizes immortality,
      Becomes the person of this place.
      The responsibility
      Of love realized and beauty
      Seen burns in a burning angel
      Real beyond flower or stone.
                                  (from "Incarnation")

"This moment of fact and vision"—here, in a phrase, is Rexroth's plumbline, the unit of measure by which he set about divining the limits of knowing and the depths of being as he lit out for the timberline. Yet the poems Rexroth consecrates to such moments have precious little in them of Romantic self-exaltation and sublimity: The visionary awakenings that grip this poet on his lonely summits or beside his rushing streams are specimen reaffirmations of recurrence, of continuity, of pattern, of the habitual and the diurnal, of responsibility. The "burning angel / Real beyond flower or stone" that appears in the closing lines of "Incarnation" gains all the greater purchase on reality by virtue of the fact that we are in the hands of a poet who is inordinately attentive to flowers and stones and by virtue of the fact that we have been paced through a poem that begins not in inspiration but perspiration: "Climbing alone all day long / In the blazing waste of spring snow, I came down with the sunset's edge / To the highest meadow…." The elevation of the soul and the attainment of serenity pivots not on "either/ors" but hangs in the balance between infinitely renewable "ands" and "thens."

The alpine wilderness, to be sure, was where Rexroth sought a peace surpassing all understanding, and in certain poems he enshrines his waterfalls and meadows and glades as the way stations of a pilgrim. Occasionally, they verge on ecstatic experience, glimpses behind the veil. In "The Signature of All Things" (the title poem of Rexroth's 1949 collection, named after the seminal work of the 16th-century German mystic Jacob Boehme) he lays the text aside and "gaze[s] through shade / Folded into shade of slender / Laurel trunks and leaves filled with sun" until "My own sin and trouble fall away? Like Christian's bundle." In "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity" he stares into a high-country pool upon an August evening and discerns "that the color / Of the water itself is / Due to millions of active / Green flecks of life … / The deep reverberation / Of my identity with / All this plentitude of life / Leaves me shaken and giddy." But for the most part, in transcribing his communions with nature, Rexroth succumbs neither to grandiosity nor to giddiness. The devotional integrity of his compactly built verse paragraphs derives from their implicit insistence that looking closely, speaking directly, and feeling deeply can (and perhaps must) merge into a steadfast and continuous sacramental habit of mind.

There is a rugged humility in Rexroth's readiness to be steadied by the cyclical and his willingness to be schooled by the commonplace. Observation, these poems intimate, incubates perception; description, revelation. "Although / I expect them, I walk by the / Stream and hear them splashing and / Discover them each year with / A start," he writes of a salmon migration in "Time Spirals." And again, in "Doubled Mirrors," tramping down a familiar road at night and descrying a "glinting / Everywhere from the dusty gravel," Rexroth hunkers down for a remedial seminar in wonder: "I suspect what it is / And kneel to see. Under each / Pebble and oak leaf is a / Spider, her eyes shining at / Me with my reflected light / Across immeasurable distance." The salmon spawn every year, it is an old story; the spiders proliferate under the leaf-fall at summer's end, there's nothing remarkable in it; and there is Rexroth, expecting and suspecting, lingering over his yoked moments of fact and vision as if they were a rosary.

Rexroth is never more firmly in possession of his tone and touch as when he seems to be simply marking time, nothing the hour, fixing the night sky, taking stock of what stirs around him. His finest poems of this ilk, with their delicacy and accuracy of perception, their owlishness and gravitas, their fastidious rhythms and spare syntax literally portray a man coming to his senses. What commends them—the poems and the senses—is their exemplary composure. Time and again in this poetry of the interior Rexroth cultivates keen regard where others might have lapsed into wild rapture—dedicating himself not to leaps of faith but rather, as he articulated in one of his most lovely poems, to "pauses of fate." The poem is "We Come Back," from the 1944 collection The Phoenix and the Tortoise, and it follows in its entirety:

      Now, on this day of the first hundred flowers,
      Fate pauses for us in imagination,
      As it shall not ever in reality—
      As these swifts that link endless parabolas
      Change guard unseen in their secret crevices.
      Other anniversaries that we have walked
      Along this hillcrest through the black fir forest,
      Past the abandoned farm, have been just the same—
      Even the fog necklaces on the fencewires
      Seem to have gained or lost hardly a jewel;
      The annual and diurnal patterns hold.
      Even the attrition of the cypress grove
      Is slow and orderly, each year one more tree
      Breaks rank and lies down, decrepit in the wind.
      Each year, on summer's first luminous morning,
      The swallows come back, whispering and weaving
      Figure eights around the sharp curves of the swifts,
      Plaiting together the summer air all day,
      That the bats and owls unravel in the nights.
      And we come back, the signs of time upon us,
      In the pause of fate, the threading of the year.

Here, I submit, is the most telling and limpid draft of "the same poem over and over" that the elder Rexroth makes reference to at the head of "Hapax." For all its classical elegance of bearing and the formal mastery of its syllabics, it is a supplicant's poem and a sacramental incantation. For all its worldliness, it seeks meaning in provisionality and in the shedding of metaphysical conceits and moral precepts. If any poem was ever a "sheaf of stillness" it is this one: In that pause of fate an orgy of motion becomes a tapestry of eternal forces and the vernal turns autumnal as our eye works down the page. Stated baldly in "Hapax," the "ecology of infinity" is a shibboleth, a buzzline. Inscribed in the "endless parabolas" of swifts and the "fog necklaces on fencewires" that "seem to have gained or lost hardly a jewel," it's a spiritual condition made manifest and a phrase redeemed.

I don't want to give the impression that this pietistic poet of the woods and rockfaces is the "true" Rexroth or a Rexroth to be extolled at the expense of all the rest there are to go around. Nor would I venture to say that this medley of work constitutes anything so commanding as a "period" or anything as coherent as a system of thought. Notwithstanding the auspiciously titled "Toward an Organic Philosophy," one of the contemplative respites among the fiery polemics of In What Hour, this is not a poet to whom we turn for grandly mounted summas. In the years roughly spanning Pearl Harbor and the McCarthy hearings (one instinctively reaches for political watermarks when considering a muckraker of Rexroth's caliber), Rexroth's poems cover a teeming variety of subjects in a variety of forms and registers: urbane epigrams ("Me Again"), erotic homages ("A Dialogue of Watching"), memoirs bittersweet and unrepentant ("The Bad Old Days," "A Living Pearl"), playful verse for his daughters ("A Bestiary," "Mother Goose"), outright screeds (most notoriously, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," an ostensible elegy for Dylan Thomas that some adherents of incendiary anaphora hail as an ur-"Howl"), and of course, the earliest of his floodtide of Chinese and Japanese translations. But I believe these intermittent Hapaxes hold up so well precisely because they occupy an honestly arrived-at middle ground between Rexroth's more vexed compulsions and volcanic convictions, sinning neither on the side of preachiness or aloofness. For that reason they are also some of the most humane poems from Rexroth's hand, urgent without straining after effects, serious without resorting to homiletics, thoughtful without thirsting for themes. Theirs is a versification and idiom of proportion, which in turn bears out the rectitude and the scrupulousness of the speaker's self-reflection.

What they are surely not, this group of contemplative verses occasioned by travels upcountry and downriver, are California eclogues or Sierra idylls, numbers written in honor of some idealized, half-mythical territory of honeyed light and stirring vistas. Proportion presupposes equilibrium, and the landscapes that loom so large in Rexroth's field of vision are as empirical and historical as they are archetypal and sanctified. As fleshed out in poems like "We Come Back," "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," "Time Spirals," or "Lyell's Hypothesis Again," Rexroth's California has fewer links to the legendary island that the first European mapmakers drew or the promised land that the nineteenth-century popular imagination painted than it has ancestral ties to an innately Protestant branch of debate over the conception of nature as scripture and geography as destiny. Call him Ishmael: The deeper Rexroth penetrates into the region's lonely isolation, the more inescapably he becomes entangled in uniquely American contours of imagination and realms of spirit. However much his work asks to be understood with reference to Marx or in light of Tu Fu, however boldly his personal history carries the impress of beatnik San Francisco and beatific Kyoto, his reckonings with the wilderness bear the telltale marks of Jeffersonian and Emersonian bloodlines.

Seeking expression through nature, argued Emerson in "The Poet," "is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others." In Rexroth's backcountry poetry, California—and the so-called American Century that he waged such a holy war against—finds a glowing ember of Transcendentalism, no longer a creed or a mission but a latent aptitude for, in Emerson's words again, "the condition of true naming … resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms…." Wherever else Rexroth's long and winding paper trail leads us, it also runs through the vicinity of Concord, and that is where, just now, this reader would like to leave him:

     Deer are stamping in the glades,
     Under the full July moon.
     There is a smell of dry grass
     In the air, and more faintly,
     The scent of a far off skunk.
     As I stand at the wood's edge.
     Watching the darkness, listening
     To the stillness, a small owl
     Comes to the branch above me.
     On wings more still than my breath.

Thomas Evans (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth," in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, edited by Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 93-104.

[In the following essay, Evans examines the significance of Eastern philosophy, particularly the fusion of "Buddhism and anarcho-pacifist attitudes," in Rexroth's contemplative poetry.]

Kenneth Rexroth should be remembered, primarily, for his contemplative verse; but this was by no means the extent of his best work. By the end of the Second World War he was already well known on the West Coast as a discerning critic, an essayist who covered an encyclopedic range of subjects, an accomplished painter, and a long-time political activist; and, throughout the later part of his life, for his translations from French, Swedish, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese, which drew attention to previously unacknowledged European and Oriental poets.

He was born in Indiana in 1905, and raised by parents who held liberal views. From the beginning, his mother encouraged him to develop his artistic abilities and to allow no-one to compel him to choose a career other than that of writer and artist. In An Autobiographical Novel he mentions that, from earliest memory, he had experienced an 'awareness, not a feeling, of timeless, spaceless, total bliss.' Such experiences gave him the determinative philosophy to achieve his ambitions. When he was orphaned, at the age of thirteen, he set out resolutely to fulfil his aspirations. Often finding himself well in advance of his classmates, he took to educating himself with dedication, and was soon influenced by the works of H. G. Wells, the French 'literary Cubists,' various Christian mystics, and classical Chinese poetry; he also met D. H. Lawrence, G. K. Chesterton, the Loeb family, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara and many other luminaries of the 1920s. And it was throughout the Twenties and Thirties that he developed his profound love of the countryside, mainly by exploring the mountains of the North West. At the same time he became actively involved with such movements as the John Reed Club and the International Workers of the World (IWW). He visited Sacco and Vanzetti in their prison cells, and the memory of this encounter—and their subsequent executions—was instrumental in directing his political tendencies. His early activities shaped a lifelong belief in anarcho-pacifism.

Rexroth had a turbulent personal life. He had an adoring mother, and the psychological damage of being orphaned at an early age may have affected his marriages. His wives had to compete with the idealised memory of Delia Rexroth. He was married four times, and, whenever a marriage ran into trouble, seemed unable to accept that his misdemeanours were a cause of friction. Yet, in contrast to this domestic instability, his verse reflects a poetic identity of one searching with contemplative detachment for a means of coming to terms with his existence.

In the last twenty or so years of his life, Rexroth became increasingly attracted to Chinese and Japanese culture—the subject of numerous essays, poems and translations. His knowledge was extraordinarily wide (his favourite reading was the seven volumes of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China,) but he was selective in what he chose to introduce into his own verse. He identified strongly with the basic principles of Mahayana Buddhism, which imbued his later poetry with an enhanced spirituality. Indeed, it is curious that Rexroth did not come earlier to Buddhism, since it advocates a lifestyle similar to the one he had aspired to. Although there are allusions to Buddhist beliefs in, for example, "The Dragon and the Unicorn" (1944–50), it is not until we come to a poem like "On Flower Wreath Hill" (1974) that we can observe him embracing Buddhist principles, after time spent in intense study to acquire an integrated understanding of the faith. It is this understanding which illuminates the contemplative aspect of such poems.

Analysed from a Buddhist point of view, much of Kenneth Rexroth's poetry can be seen as a meditation on the impermanence of all substance—the Mahayana concept of Sunyata. His love for the natural world does not present a contradiction since it is by intense contemplation on its wonders and beauty that one arrives at a realisation of this concept. In a sense, many of his poems become gateways to an understanding of that which lies beyond all changing substance, Sunyata, or Voidness (Sunya is Void, Sunyata Voidness), through their visionary evocation of this impermanence in nature, and the doctrine of Sunyata is manifest in their transcendental imagery. In later works it is also addressed directly as an explicit theme.

There are further Buddhist perspectives when Rexroth's poetry incorporates his political convictions. His anarcho-pacifism merged naturally with an actively compassionate form of Buddhism; it engendered a poet-narrator as a Bodhisattva figure. The Bodhisattva postpones Nirvana in order to serve mankind; Rexroth, the contemplative, retains his belief in political activism and participation in self-governing community.


It was in An Autobiographical Novel that Kenneth Rexroth affirmed his faith in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddha which culminates in Nirvana. The Noble Eightfold Path is a highly disciplined way of life for those who would conquer desire, since the second of the Four Noble Truths teaches that the cause of suffering in the world is desire.

To some, it is a way of life which rejects responsibility for social problems; this is, of course, not so. Those who transcend suffering and desire do not transcend compassion, and for a Buddhist the issue of social responsibility and participation is one of major importance; for a Mahayana Buddhist it is an ideal embodied in the Bodhisattva, who dedicates his life to it. The ideal influences and informs Rexroth's work at least from 1944, when he began writing the long didactic poem, "The Dragon and the Unicorn," and later in "The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart": 'I will not enter Nirvana / Until all sentient creatures are saved'; and it is a belief which fuses with his anarcho-pacifist assertion that patriarchal, hierarchical society represses man's natural forms of communication (concurring on this point with the Marxist concept of 'human self-alienation'), and that the individual has the capability to take on more responsibility for the sustenance of his existence than he is given by a capitalist society; in this he endorses George Woodcock's theory of 'individual capability' and introduces it into "The Dragon and the Unicorn" where he states that love can only exist as a kind of Gnostic cult 'Until men learn / To administer things….'

It follows, he maintains, that society functions more effectively without government when it is replaced by hitherto repressed, natural co-operation and voluntary organisation within the community. Rexroth has explored the implications of this with great faith in its practicability, and in the possibility of a 'community of contemplatives', motivated by Agape (brotherly love), which a Bodhisattva would practice on principle. Sir Herbert Read, whose political writings influenced Rexroth from his youth, claims, in his essay "Anarchism and the Religious Impulse" that 'a religion is a necessary element in any organic society' since it represents a natural authority which effectively counters the artificial authority of government. Therefore, a religion that is itself hierarchical cannot accommodate the needs of an anarchist society; but the Bodhisattva principle encourages the individual to take an active part in the 'religion' of the community and excludes a hierarchical structure. 'Buddhist Agape,' so to speak, becomes the religion, and compassion becomes instinctive instead of a tiresome necessity.

There is a further, more spiritual level on which this 'symbiosis' of Buddhism and anarcho-pacifism exists in Rexroth's poetry. In the Avatamsaka Sutra (Avatamsaka means 'flower wreath,' the inspiration for Rexroth's poem "On Flower Wreath Hill") occurs the image of the 'Jewel Net of Indra,' in which reality is likened to a net, each knot of which can be compared to a 'jewel' or the perspective of an individual human being, which is reflected in all the other 'jewels' or perspectives. Our separate perspectives are thus bound together by a single infinite law. By contemplation on the interdependence of all the other 'jewels,' rather than by selfish introspection, one becomes bound to them on an intuitive level; in Rexroth's words, everything is 'in its place, the ecology / Of infinity.' In the poem "Hapax," from which this line is taken, the Net is a feature of the organic world; the closer a community is to such an organic world, the closer it comes to perpetuating a fully integrated existence in a substantial universe—as far as this is possible in Buddhism, where all substance is impermanent.

Rexroth also uses the image of the Net in "On Flower Wreath Hill," to create the peace that spreads in Nature when the Net is no longer shaken or disturbed by human disharmony; even the 'Spider's net of jewels has ceased / to tremble.' His perception of the Net becomes a sustaining religious experience in this poem. Although it is true that he perceives this net in the architecture of nature rather than in the 'architecture' of community, the Net has a social function, as a subsidiary part of its universal purpose, since it binds together mutually supportive human beings. Significantly, Rexroth told an interviewer, 'A life lived according to the Buddha law will not need much from politics.' In the same interview, Rexroth maintained that 'the religious experience is self-sufficient.' This takes on a broader significance in the context of his desire for an organic community: the impetus provided by the experience is a compelling but intuitive force, and is the ultimate affirmation of man's link with mankind. The community is bound by the experience to work for its own health and Agape becomes instinctive.

The religious experience sustains the health of the Buddhist anarcho-pacifist community, while war preserves the health of the hierarchical capitalist state—a sentiment expressed in "The Dragon and the Unicorn": 'War is the health of the State? / War against its own members.' War is the Health of the State' is the title of an essay by Randolph Bourne, in which he observes that man was always fundamentally and naturally gregarious, and that individualism came later. As he travels through Chicago in "The Dragon and the Unicorn," Rexroth witnesses the products of 'self-alienated man' in the drastically commercialised cityscape, and understands 'What Marvell meant by desarts / Of vast eternitie. Man / Gets daily sicker and his Ugliness knots his bowels.' The industrial panorama is the result of a social system which functions by pitting man against man and by denying the gregarious instinct.

Having absorbed an IWW antipathy towards organisations which prosper through the destruction of workers' solidarity, Rexroth frequently felt morally obliged to introduce a didacticism into his poetry (typically in "Thou Shalt Not Kill," 1956). But in much of his later poetry he excludes an overt political stance, since by its very nature it functions as a catalyst for Mahakaruna, 'great compassion.' It evokes a powerful, unifying religious experience which, as Rexroth has said, transcends politics.

In his lifetime, Rexroth came close to witnessing something approaching his ideal in movements on the post-war West Coast, an area with a strong tradition of oriental awareness and anarcho-pacifism. The dynamism may have been lost, but its spirit remains in his verse.


I referred earlier to Rexroth's poetry as being a gateway to a perception of what lies beyond all transient matter: Sunya, the Void. This Mahayana doctrine permeates his later work; most notably in "On Flower Wreath Hill." It is worth concentrating on this poem; but before doing so, a fuller explanation of Sunya is necessary.

Sunyata (Voidness) is basic to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, although it has roots in the earlier school of Hinayana. It is the belief that what we know as reality is only comparatively real to us, but what exists as comparative reality is a component part of ultimate reality: 'The One is all things, and is incomplete without the least of them.' All things which exist in our comparative reality are impermanent and possess no real content, i.e. they are Void of content. They are manifestations of the Void, ultimate reality, which lies beyond them. For a Buddhist to fulfil the essence of this Void is enlightenment, the only absolute. This is the doctrine of Mind Only or Void Only: Sunyata.

This is the ultimate theme of "On Flower Wreath Hill" but the poem is also laden with references to Japanese and Buddhist mythology, and bears the powerful influence of the Late T'ang poet Tu Fu, particularly in the way Rexroth intersperses descriptive passages with personal meditations. Buddhism was at a peak in China throughout the T'ang dynasty, and the poetry of this period that is not political often contemplates the world of nature. (Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley were dissatisfied with their translations of Tu Fu, whereas Rexroth translated many of Tu Fu's poems with great sensitivity.)

Parts One and Two of the poem introduce the theme of transience by establishing links between the ancient past and the present, demonstrating the cyclical nature of time. As the narrator walks through the forest, he considers the fallen leaves and the burial mound beneath them which contains a long-dead princess; he is concerned not only with the change of tangible matter (Anicca) but with the nature even of abstract concepts such as honour and beauty: 'Who was this princess under / This mound overgrown with trees / Now almost bare of leaves?' The imagery of leaves is extended when Rexroth very probably refers to an episode in the life of the Buddha, when he grasped a handful of leaves from the ground, and asked his disciples which were more numerous, the leaves in his hand or those on the trees of the forest, (the former being the truths he had told them and the latter being the ones he had not revealed).

And now, for Rexroth, on the brink of religious revelation, 'There are more leaves on / The ground than grew on the trees.' In the lines that follow this quotation, Rexroth considers the paradox that nostalgic memory perpetuates delusions of immortality, despite earlier intuition of impermanence. After expanding on the theme of the silence and natural glory of Autumn, in Parts Three and Four, he returns in Part Five to yet another distraction from complete knowledge of Sunyata: memories of suffering, painful memories reverberate through his consciousness like a temple bell. Each part of the poem, in sequence, depicts inner conflict or comparatively serene contemplation; for, in Part Six, he reflects with equanimity on the royal dead beneath their shattered gravestones, whom no-one remembers.

The penultimate section abandons the influence of Tu Fu upon the structure of the poem (description followed by reflection), in favour of a not entirely satisfactory combination of Buddhist mythology, and ultimately an emphatic affirmation of Annica: 'Change rules the world forever. / And man but a little while.' These lines bid farewell to doubt, and clear the way for the confident tone of the final section.

In the first verse of Part Eight, the narrator generates an anticipatory tension with images of the world being 'alive,' and of his body being penetrated with electric life. He sits in the darkness on a 'Sotoba,' a grave marked by symbolic stones representing earth, water, air, fire and ether. These remind him of impermanence, which for the first time leads him to contemplate directly what lies beyond, in emptiness: 'The heart's mirror hangs in the void.' (In his essay 'Poetry and Mysticism,' Colin Wilson sees man as becoming 'an enormous mirror that reflects reality.' Again we return to the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Jewel Net of Indra. The imagery of the Net is handled with consummate skill; initially it is only referred to obliquely, in terms of silver and pearls that gleam on a young girl's sleeves, an image which is transposed to a mist of silver and pearls (Interestingly, Rexroth has suggested that one should approach illumination 'as though an invisible mist was coming up behind you and enveloping you.' These oblique references reflect the poet's gradual progression towards full realisation of the Net.

The fifth verse of this final section reflects on Annica, change, in the organic world, in the pattern of the seasons, and acts as a precursor to the harmony of the last verse; here the Net of Indra has ceased to tremble. It prepares us for a kind of frozen tableau of a mist whose every drop is lit by moonlight—transcendental architecture in which each part is a component of a harmonious whole.

In the last fifteen lines, Rexroth experiences Absolute Reality, a revelation of Void Only. In the forest, the mist and the moon, he sees the Net of Indra, linking partial reality to Absolute Reality. The sense of perfect harmony between the temporal world and infinity is strengthened by the soundless music of Krishna's flute which summons the Gopis, or milkmaids, to dance and become Real.

"On Flower Wreath Hill" is Rexroth's most significant exposition of Buddhist philosophy. His shorter poem, "Void Only" is less artistically impressive, but it is an explicit statement of Sunyata which is at least effective in its concrete language, paring down his view-point to an Absolute: 'Only emptiness / No limits' (there is an erotic version of this poem in "The Silver Swan"). What "On Flower Wreath Hill" and "Void Only" have in common is their handling of Sunyata, which is direct and explicit. But, in "On Flower Wreath Hill," the reader is prepared gradually for the experience, which occurs in the last verse, whereas in "Void Only," the poet (and by implication, the reader) is almost surprised by it, as he wakens from a dream.

In other poems, such as "Towards an Organic Philosophy" and "A Spark in the Tinder of Knowing," Rexroth implies Voidness, rather than addressing it directly, and through this method creates the style of poetry for which he is best known. Richard Eberhart once said of Rexroth's poetry that it achieved a 'calmness and grandeur, as if something eternal in the natural world has been mastered.' In Buddhist terms, the Net of Indra provides that 'something eternal,' a successful image for the inter-relationship of all things. In "Towards an Organic Philosophy," he describes three landscapes which have been subjected to different kinds of change, such as glaciation in the Sierras, and finds a common factor in 'The chain of dependence which runs through creation' (a quotation from Tyndall). As in "The Dragon and the Unicorn," shift of scene leaves an impression of constant change, the gentle motion of Annica.

"The Spark in the Tinder of Knowing" takes a single scene in which man communes with nature and finds in himself the peace which stills the landscape, a suggestion of the Void beyond Annica. But, just as "Towards an Organic Philosophy" attempts to create no more than the impression of Sunyata, through an expression of nature's part in Oneness, so this poem stops short of probing the implications of Annica. In this Rexroth is putting into effect Keats's Negative Capability, thus relying on the power of transcendence.

When he came to write "On Flower Wreath Hill," Rexroth did not abandon his transcendental descriptive ness, for it was a technique which had made him original and influential, but he combined it with explicit statements. Later poems such as "Confusion of the Senses," "Privacy," or "Red Maple Leaves" show that he retained his ability to sensualise his mystical organic philosophy without needing to define it. But it would be reckless to categorise his poems rigidly, since there is a reflective, contemplative element in so many of them.

It is also important to realise that, despite the depth and breadth of his erudition, Rexroth was unwilling to give unconditional allegiance to any one school of Buddhism, preferring to absorb those teachings which confirmed and broadened his own intuitive and intellectual concepts. He found them in Jakob Boehme, A. N. Whitehead, Tu Fu, Whitman and many others, but it was most demonstrably in the fundamental beliefs of the Mahayana school—above all in the doctrine of Sunyata—that he encountered the consummate vision of reality that he had sought.


Rexroth wrote contemplative verse, based on an organic philosophy strongly influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. The two poets he influenced above all, William Everson and Gary Snyder, preserved the essence of his belief in an organic Reality, but other religious influences broadened their vision. William Everson's loosely contemplative poetry was affected by his conversion to Catholicism. Gary Snyder felt an active kinship with nature and propounded a work ethic within that particular environment; and his beliefs were complemented by his formal Zen education in Japan.

Snyder was of a younger generation of poets; it was Rexroth and Everson who planted the seeds of organic philosophy in the San Francisco Renaissance, for it was they who had turned to religion to sustain their pacifist integrity throughout the Second World War. The War ended the era described in An Autobiographical Novel, and Michael Davidson writes of a subsequent elegiac mode in much of Rexroth's and Everson's work. In his collection of poems The Signature of All Things (1949), Rexroth finds it hard to shake off his sense of utter loss and the futility of human endeavour: 'Finally you say, "I am not / Weeping for our own Troubles / But for the general chaos / Of the world."' In Everson's 'October Tragedy' there is the same sentiment: 'Do not sing those old songs here tonight.'

Rexroth and Everson may share this elegiac mood, but they have different emphases. In the organic world, Rexroth finds equanimity (see for example, "Hojoki" or "Advent" which is dedicated to Everson), whereas Everson almost succumbs to the pathetic fallacy: 'Bitter is the quiet singing of the cricket, / And the silent pools lie black beneath still reeds.'

Although poets of Snyder's generation maintained the religious impulse, it took a more dynamic, exuberant form under the influence of Zen Buddhism. There was a determination to renew society and banish the stupor of the late Forties and the Fifties. However, only Snyder retained a dedicated organic sensibility from Rexroth's and Everson's lead (although Rexroth was by far the more influential of the two). Much to Rexroth's distaste, Snyder's poetry also showed the influence of Ezra Pound in its form and method. Under these influences, Snyder evolved his own approach to nature, which was as distinct from Rexroth's as his Buddhism.

Although Rexroth was by no means aloof from the natural world, his poetic stance is far more passive than Snyder's. His search is always for what points to the eternal in nature, while Snyder, following the more dynamic Zen philosophy, involves himself with nature viewed as a friend who is generally the stronger, supportive partner, but who is currently subjective to the same abuse as exploited people. In 'Revolution in The Revolution in The Revolution,' the landscape is personified as being 'Among the most ruthlessly exploited classes: / Animals, trees, water, air, grasses.'

Despite their differences, Rexroth and Snyder share the conviction that urban life contains little that is energising and revitalising, an opinion which is encapsulated in Snyder's 'Before the Stuff Comes Down,' in which he leaves the consumerism of suburbia and greets the Californian landscape as if it were a gust of fresh air: 'Suddenly it's California: / Live oak, brown grasses.' As the title implies, it is a vulnerable resource.

In his essay 'Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture,' Snyder refers to the Avatamsaka Sutra and the interdependence of all things, but he sees it as having more value as a reason for practical effort than as a basis for contemplation. Rexroth's emphasis is on the latter as the basis of a supportive community. Different schools of Buddhism affected the work of Rexroth and Snyder, but they were united in their belief in anarcho-pacifism and in Buddhism's contribution to an autonomous American poetry.

What, then, are the influences on the San Francisco Renaissance which are traceable to Rexroth? For Everson, they are the values of solitary contemplation, which he saw in terms of Catholicism and Jungian psychology; for Snyder, Rexroth provided an exemplar, in the preceding generation, as one who had fused Buddhism and anarcho-pacifist attitudes. His view of the landscape in terms of his organic philosophy served as a model for Everson and Snyder, and perhaps even for poets like Richard Eberhart, whose work reflects a similar sense of decay and regeneration (as in Eberhart's 'Rumination').

Oriental literature and mythology, and much else, were all sources for Kenneth Rexroth, but he created a mature American poetry which William Carlos Williams quickly acknowledged. He is ultimately an American contemplative whose vision was given shape by Buddhism. These lines of his were inscribed on his gravestone:

     As the full moon rises …
     The swan sings
     In sleep
     On the lake of the mind.


Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 11)


Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 2)