Kenneth Rexroth

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

Kenneth Rexroth 1905–

American poet, critic, essayist, translator, and playwright.

Although associated with the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat poets, Rexroth is an artist who defies rigid categorization. An intimate voice is characteristic of his poetry, and it is a credit to his craftsmanship that this intimacy seems natural, not merely poetic artifice or sentimentality. Rexroth is also a skilled translator of non-Western verse into English.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Morgan Gibson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5508

The poetic theory and practice of Kenneth Rexroth … run counter to the impersonality of much modern literature and criticism…. Rexroth's "progress" as a poet has been a continual revelation of personality, the realization of a selfhood. But he is neither exhibitionistic, like Rimbaud or Lord Byron, nor confessional, like Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton. When he writes about himself, he does so objectively, taking himself for granted. Usually, his attention is fixed on other people, or on his relationships with other people…. (p. 18)

Even when technical terms from the sciences, philosophy, or theology enter his work, as they frequently do, along with historical and literary allusions, his phrasing is that of living American speech; and his own unmistakable voice comes through. His thinking, no matter how abstract and lofty, emerges from down-to-earth, sensuous experience; and his conversational idiom, tone, and rhythms unite subtle ideas with vivid, evocative imagery. (pp. 18-19)

Rexroth's poetic theory and practice are … religious as well as esthetic, anthropological as well as psychological—a philosophical totality which cannot be systematized definitively apart from the poetry, the vision which is its essence…. The experience of transcendence in the key events of life is what Rexroth calls an "anthropological religion" the basis of his poetry. He has written that the anthropologist Edward Sapir was "the only person I have ever met who thoroughly understood what I dreamed of doing with poetry. Out of anthropology, psychology, and linguistics he had developed a kind of philosophy of interpersonal communion and communication." (pp. 20-1)

[Rexroth] approaches poetry as a total organic process—visionary, communicative, sacramental—in which no aspect is extrinsic: all actuality is part of that process of creation. He is by no means indifferent to prosody and other formal considerations; he is, actually, Classical in his precision. But prosody is subordinate to vision. Poetry turns out to be not an imitation of life but a state of being alive. It is not merely artifice or invention, not primarily a formal, verbal construction, nor an instrument for instruction and pleasure. It is not a means to an end but an end in itself—and not art for art's sake, but being for being's sake. Nor is it simply the expression of ideas and feelings, conscious or unconscious and it is not regarded by Rexroth as the product of "objective" (biological or social) or "subjective" forces (such as intellect or imagination). Traditional dualisms between life and poetry, poetry and poet, poet and community dissolve in his transcendent view of creative process.

In theory and practice Rexroth is akin to such visionary poets as William Blake, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence; like Walt Whitman, the American poet with whom he has the most in common, he is "a kosmos." (pp. 21-2)

Unless the reader seriously seeks [the] visionary center of Rexroth's life, he misses the point of [An Autobiographical Novel] and of Rexroth's life's work. (p. 24)

The book is particularly useful … not only for its information about his early life, but also for what it shows about his objectivity toward his life and art…. [He] has that rare ability to look...

(This entire section contains 5508 words.)

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at his own life with the kind of amused interest and detached curiosity that we expect of historians more than from poets…. (pp. 24-5)

He is a master of photographic description, of historical and sociological analysis, and of witty anecdotes and epigrams that establish a convincing sense of fact. The skeptical reader, after putting the book down, tries to untangle the probable from the possible and the possible from the impossible; but the "minute particulars" vividly cohere into a life that defies this kind of analysis, no matter how intelligently conducted. The facts of his life, including fictions more real than statistics, speak for themselves because he writes exactly as he speaks, confident of the objective validity of his personal experience. (p. 25)

In An Autobiographical Novel, Rexroth displays a cool respect for his father's intelligence and vitality which contrasts with his profound affection for and admiration of his mother, who seems to have been the model for his ideal of the liberated, loving woman. (pp. 27-8)

[Throughout his work, Rexroth] has struggled against despair in a world gone mad, a world in which humane revolutions have been betrayed and perverted, a world in which collectives of strangers, equipped with runaway technology, push each other toward extinction. (p. 32)

His philosophical and poetic efforts to cope with despair are in part derived from the Classical poetry of Greece, Rome, China, and Japan which he has been translating since adolescence; but he is well aware that no return to the past can save the present and future. (p. 33)

[A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy], Rexroth's most ambitious experiment in literary Cubism, is a kind of "Paradise Regained," beginning with extreme despair and ending with a vision of Christian apocalypse. But the vision seems too literary to ring true, and Rexroth never again wrote anything like it. (p. 36)

[The Homestead Called Damascus] is a four-part philosophical reverie in lines, generally, of nine syllables, in Rexroth's most musically eloquent style. The narrator, who observes the action as dispassionately as Tiresias in Eliot's The Waste Land, begins with a contrast between angels, who are too "modest" and "doubtless" to question mysteries of the universe, and "youthful minds" that

                    fret infinity,           Moistly dishevelled, poking in odd           Corners for unsampled vocations           Of the spirit, while the flesh is strong.           Experience sinks its roots in space—           Euclidean, warped, or otherwise.           The will constructs rhomboids, nonagons,           And paragons in time to suit each taste.

The "youthful minds" of the poem are the Damascan brothers, Thomas and Sebastian, who grow from innocence into the experience of despair. They live in "a rambling house with Doric columns / On the upper Hudson in the Catskills" …—the Homestead, which embodies the bourgeois-Christian-Classical tradition in a state of decadence from which they try, in vain, to escape…. Western civilization seems to exist more as a memory, a reverie, than as a reality. (pp. 36-7)

Unsettled by artifice, domesticity, and decadence, the brothers contemplate heroic quests and ancient fertility rites, out of which culture originates; but, fearful of the "little death" of sexual love and the transfiguring death of martyrdom, they never find the grace that came to Paul on the road to Damascus, to pagans in search of Atlantis, or to knights in search of the Holy Grail. (p. 37)

The poem does suffer from obscurity in characterization and development. Sebastian is no more passionate and no less skeptical than Thomas, and I cannot agree with [Lawrence] Lipton that Sebastian is consistently "voluntary" and Thomas is "involuntary" …, though this does seem to have been Rexroth's intention. The brothers' moods and thoughts are so similar to one another, the vicariousness is so ambivalent, that it is nearly impossible to keep them apart. No doubt they are, as Lipton points out, "two aspects of the poet's personality"—the tendency toward sacrifice and martyrdom, and the restraining tendency of skeptical withdrawal from commitment, with the narrator expressing Rexroth's aristocratic perspective, lofty, wry, and ironic.

The "obscurity" of the poem, like that of The Waste Land, is a symptom of original exploration of the spiritual plight of modern man; but, unlike Eliot, Rexroth does not remain distinct from his personae: they do not become dramatically objectified…. (pp. 40-1)

After Homestead, which is puzzling but melodiously emotive, much of The Art of Worldly Wisdom seems ascetic and antiseptic. (p. 43)

Surprisingly, Rexroth's Cubist poetry can be passionate…. (p. 44)

The imagery [of A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy] is the most explicitly Christian of any in Rexroth's poetry, and the heavy use of literary tradition, rather than immediate perception, puts a strain on the dissociated empiricism of the rest of the poem. As a way out of despair, he seems to be moving in the direction of Eliot, towards self-sacrificial acceptance of traditional Christian mysteries. But this direction was not continued, as the poems of the 1930's show. Prolegomenon is no doubt the least satisfying of Rexroth's longer poems, but it represents his tortured struggle for a faith that transcends the vision of Homestead, and certain passages are deeply moving.

Though Cubism is not the style that Rexroth perfected as his most communicative, his experiments of the 1920's were important as a means of discovering new rhythmic possibilities in American speech. (p. 47)

In The Art of Worldly Wisdom Rexroth left behind the eloquent musicality and dreamy meanderings of Homestead. His syntactic and prosodic experiments convey a harsher, more ascetic vision. In contrast to the acute dissociation of Prolegomenon, the reveries of Thomas and Sebastian seem dilletantish. The Cubist experiments produce cadences closer to those of common speech, though the diction often remains philosophical and literary. In other words, Rexroth is moving through the Cubist poems to the direct statement which has become characteristic of most of his poetry. Perhaps the stylistic development is most apparent in what seems to me to be the most beautiful poetry in The Art of Worldly Wisdom—a sequence of love poems called "The Thin Edge of Your Pride." (pp. 48-9)

Rexroth collected his poems of the 1930's in his first published book, In What Hour (1940)…. These poems are in the various styles in which he had worked during the 1920's. We hear the introspective harmonies of Homestead in "The Apple Garths of Avalon."… Cubist experiments continue in "Organon" …, "Dative Haruspices" …, and other poems at the end of the book. Most of the poems, however, are in direct statement; and ones at the beginning are oratorical responses to a period of manic-depressive politics. (p. 49)

Throughout In What Hour, he moves from the horror of modern history, from the tragic destruction of impersonal masses, toward the mysterious processes of nature. In "Another Early Morning Exercise" … and in "New Objectives, New Cadres" …, ideologies fail to justify suffering, much less end it; so he turns to mountains and stars in "Toward an Organic Philosophy"…. In this fine poem, in which references to human struggles are conspicuously absent, solitude in the mountains evokes a profound awareness of "the chain of dependence which runs through creation."…

But such sensuous awareness of organic harmony did not satisfy Rexroth's philosophical inclinations. (p. 53)

To find transcendence in the natural process of creation out of destruction is a chilling "solution" to the problem of value, but it offered Rexroth a firmer foundation than the Christian apocalyptics we find in his Prolegomenon. We find the Damascan brothers achieving a kind of natural communion in Homestead, but theirs is a mood of resignation because of their failures in love. In "Ice Shall Cover Nineveh" and in "Toward an Organic Philosophy," despite an underlying tone of tragic acceptance, there is a more positive sense of transcendence through natural communion. (p. 54)

In my opinion, the best poem in In What Hour, stating Rexroth's position as a poet of conscience more directly and memorably than any of the others of this period, is "August 22, 1939," one of several memorials for Sacco and Vanzetti…. (p. 55)

During the 1940's Rexroth perfected his poetry of direct statement. He turned away from Cubist experiments and the political rhetoric of the 1930's and in two books—The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and The Signature of All Things (1950)—he searched for the "integral person" who, through love, discovers his responsibility for all in a world of war, cold war, and nuclear terror. The communion with nature which he had celebrated in "Toward an Organic Philosophy" … continues to be fundamental; but his great achievements of this decade are poems that affirm more convincingly than ever the transcendent power of personal love….

The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Rexroth's second book to be published, is much more coherent in style and theme than his first. (p. 56)

The introduction is a kind of manifesto of Rexroth's personal mission in a collapsing civilization…. [Just as in] his "Rites of Passage," he moves from despair through the "I-Thou" of erotic mysticism to sacramental marriage, in which he discovers "universal liability, the supernatural identification of the self with the tragic unity of creative process."… In his poetry he attains—not by ego or will, but through the grace of imag-ination—communion with nature and those he loves; and in a transcendent community of love, he discovers himself as a being responsible for all. (pp. 56-7)

I believe that Rexroth's poetic, philosophical, and visionary powers reach their epitome in [the tetralogy "Beyond the Mountains"]…. Thanks to the precisely passionate direct statement—in lines varying, usually, from seven to nine syllables—the characters are genuinely heroic without ever being bombastic. Iphigenia, Hippolytus, Phaedra, and others achieve transcendence through the mysteries of erotic union and sacrificial death. In no work does Rexroth communicate more profoundly the meaning of love as universal responsibility and the integral person as the source of community. (p. 74)

Though Rexroth's characters are derived from Euripidean tragedy, the form of his plays is more Japanese than Greek. They compare very well with Yeats's Plays for Dancers, which were also influenced by Nōh drama. (p. 75)

[One] important quality of Nōh found in Rexroth's plays is yūgen, a term derived from Zen Buddhism and defined by Arthur Waley as "'what lies beneath the surface'; the subtle, as opposed to the obvious; the hint, as opposed to the statement…."… Rexroth's dialogue is philosophically rich, always suggestive, never prosaic; his ideas are at once clear and evocative; and yūgen characterizes his exploration of the mysteries of communion. (p. 76)

[Rexroth's characters] are transformed with the kind of moral clarity that we associate more with the characters of Sophocles. (p. 77)

In Rexroth's plays, cynical men of the world such as Demetrios, Theseus, and Agamemnon are treated as Euripides would have presented them—as mock-heroic imitations. Their motives are debased by their vulgarity, sentimentality, and callousness. On the other hand, he treats women of Artemis such as Iphigenia and Phaedra, and their lovers Achilles and Hippolytus, as Sophocles would have conceived them—as ennobled by their suffering. Their fate is their responsibility, not the result of an external cause of catastrophe. In moral triumph and physical defeat they struggle in communion with others. Their love is universal; their sacrifice renews community.

Phaedra, the first play of the tetralogy, depends upon Euripides' Hippolytus; but Rexroth has radically transformed the main characters and has made explicit the elements of fertility ritual from which Greek tragedy emerged…. (pp. 77-8)

The characters in Iphigenia at Aulis, the second play, are wiser than those of the first. Agamemnon is a more sensitive man of the world than Theseus; Achilles, more aware of the consequences of love than Hippolytus, escapes his tragic death; and Iphigenia, as Rexroth describes her in his introduction, "marches straight to transcendence," her motives being the purest of any in the tetralogy. (p. 80)

[The last two plays in the tetralogy]—Hermaios, taking place in the last outpost of Greek culture "on the eve of the first night of the Christian era" …, and Berenike—ritualize the transition from pagan to Christian culture. (p. 82)

"In Hermaios and Berenike all the characters are caught in the web of cause and effect," Rexroth tells us in his note; "and the reader will have to judge for himself who achieves transcendence, how, and to what degree."… (p. 85)

Through love and sacrifice [many of the] characters achieve transcendence and re-create the human community. Depending on the purity of their acts, the integral person accepts varying degrees of responsibility. It is interesting that no act in the plays is specifically Christian; but the acceptance of guilt, universal compassion and love, utopianism, and pure sacrifice are essential ingredients of Christianity. The deaths of these Greeks, especially Iphigenia, foreshadow Christianity. The alternative is the blood-lust of the Huns. Rexroth has refrained from concluding with conventional Christian imagery, such as the apocalyptic passages in Prolegomenon and the Good Friday supper of The Phoenix and the Tortoise. He has learned to rely less and less on such conventions and more on yūgen—a hint. The acts of love and sacrifice, finally, speak for themselves. They are neither pagan nor Christian but universal. (pp. 85-6)

Beyond the Mountains is, I believe, Rexroth's greatest work to date. It must be understood not merely as drama and poetry but as sacrament…. As sacrament, it is a re-enactment of the mysteries of creative process, renewing our sense of identity as integral persons in community. The dilemmas are never, finally, resolved, except in death…. The trouble is, of course, that Rexroth's is not rooted in an organic society and culture. But this terrifying condition is precisely what he is trying to overcome in all of his work….

[The Dragon and the Unicorn] is poetry of direct statement in the familiar seven-syllable line; and it resembles The Phoenix and the Tortoise more than the other long poems (though most of that reverie was in nine-syllable lines) as interior monologue of Rexroth's inquiry into the problem of love. (p. 86)

In telling us about the world of cold war and atomic terror, the poem reveals Rexroth's personality—the range of his concerns—more comprehensively than any of his others. The sophisticated traveler, the dialectical philosopher, the anarchistic polemicist, and the lover and visionary unite in the poet as transcendent person. And this person, universally responsible, is indispensable for community…. (p. 87)

Poverty, war, the collapse of civilization are consequences of the amoral use of human beings as means to an abstract, impersonal end. They are not respected as "integral persons" but are instead made to serve "history." The philosophical basis for such exploitation is the illusion that time is "serial/And atomic"—abstractly objective rather than an organic dimension of human experience…. Modern science, technology, and politics conspire to "quantify" the individual, making love and community more and more difficult. (pp. 87-8)

But what is a person?… The person seems to be the creative process itself; and he is responsible for the universe that he creates…. Rexroth had arrived at this idea of moral responsibility at the conclusion of The Phoenix and the Tortoise; but here the idea is ontological: being is ethical. (p. 88)

Community is always threatened by "collectivity"—reducing persons to numbers, as the state and the capitalist system try to do. In a world of political repression, technological coercion, and war, love is subversive: "love becomes/As it was with the Gnostics,/The practice of a kind of cult."… Lovers unite in the reality of divine community in perpetual struggle against the dehumanizing illusion of collectivity. (p. 89)

The Dragon and the Unicorn is Rexroth's major effort to work out a philosophy of love and community. The poem suffers from the predominance of abstract thought over direct visionary experience. Nevertheless, Rexroth communicates as a man of comprehensive wisdom and deep affection. (p. 91)

Rexroth's book of the Beat period, In Defense of the Earth,… is no period piece. After a decade and a half, these poems of love and protest, of meditation and remembrance, stand out as some of his most deeply felt poems. Though many are about his life in San Francisco … or hiking among redwoods, or in the mountains with his daughter, as in "Mary and the Seasons"—there is little topicality that links them to the Beat movement. Moreover, the themes are those that have always preoccupied him, and the style of most of them is, in R. W. Flint's words, "plain statement and lyric celebration, secure in old lives, affections, achievements, and memories." (p. 95)

[In "Thou Shalt Not Kill"] Rexroth seems to be saying that anyone who thrives, or even survives, in an antipersonal culture has climbed on the "mountain of death." The successful have helped create, or at least sustain, a culture that destroys the young and talented, if not in war then in the acquisitive society at home…. As a successful poet, does [Rexroth] take any of the guilt? Certainly his assumption of total moral liability—expressed in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Beyond the Mountains, and The Dragon and the Unicorn—would lead to the insight that much of his rage and indignation are explosions from his own involvement in the very culture that he denounces. While he curses the culture, his poem becomes a part of it. Perhaps he is self-righteous, but he has unforgettably exposed the "social lie" that has destroyed dozens of poets.

"Thou Shalt Not Kill" is Rexroth's best protest poem, I believe, because of its range of feeling from tenderness to bewilderment, thence to prophetic rage and accusation. (p. 97)

Erudite as Aristotle but colloquial as Socrates, dialectical as Marx but as funny as Mark Twain, Rexroth [as essayist in Bird in the Bush, Assays, Classics Revisited, and The Alternative Society] is full of surprises. He slides an idiosyncratic insight into a subordinate clause as if it were an afterthought, or he summarizes centuries of Chinese or Jewish thought as if it were as familiar as the story of his own life. In fact, it is the story of his own life. Unlike scholars who keep their distance from objectively framed subjects, he has absorbed and tested whatever he has studied, trying it out not only intellectually but also emotionally, imaginatively, and often practicably…. To paraphrase W. C. Williams' slogan, "No ideas but in things," Rexroth's sense of life, in the essays as in the poetry, seems to be, "No ideas but in persons; no ideas but in I-Thou." (p. 101)

The mystery of human personality is best expressed, perhaps, through humor, irony, paradox; through sudden shifts in tone; through extremes of diction—all qualities of Rexroth's style. (p. 102)

[In many passages] throughout Bird in the Bush, Rexroth suggests the moral range of his thinking without binding it into a system. His Personalism is esthetic, for man is a creative being; art, therefore, reveals as much of the mystery of human existence as we can know. (p. 103)

Rexroth's third book of essays, Classics Revisited (1968), must convincingly demonstrate even to the most skeptical and exclusive academic that Rexroth is at home in this tradition. These essays … are less polemical and more patient than those in Bird in the Bush and in Assays. His remarks about sixty classics, ranging from Greek epics to Huckleberry Finn and Chekhov's plays, show that he has absorbed the wisdom of many literatures. (p. 106)

Few of the early poems are included in [Natural Numbers: New and Selected Poems]—less than a dozen pages from his first two books. Notably missing are rhetorical poems of revolutionary hope and despair, of intricate philosophizing, and of the stylistic extremes of his Cubist experiments—although a gentle Cubism is apparent in "A Lesson in Geography" … and in "Eight for Ornette's Music."… These poems for jazz accompaniment, and "This Night Only," written for Eric Satie's music …, are among the most erotic and are stylistically the most experimental. Nearly all of the other "New Poems" are in Rexroth's more conventional, direct statement in syllabics, and the prevailing tone is deeply elegiac rather than lyrical or satirical. (pp. 106-07)

What is missing from the "New Poems" is the philosophical and stylistic range, the extremes of thought and feeling, that made The Dragon and the Unicorn such an exciting book. In the "New Poems" he is doing what he has already done so well, but without the grand conception, the polemical thrust, the "turn" of attitude that characterized each of his previous books…. The quieter, more traditional side of his personality emerges in this book. He seems to be consolidating his lifework, in resignation, in a mood of "lonely, empty, tenderness."… (p. 108)

Since The Dragon and the Unicorn he has published no long poems, and few short ones, in which the dialectic of abstract ideas plays a central role. He seems less interested in the major issues of Western philosophy and more in the perfection of direct sensuous vision. Everything else, including his own fame, is an illusion. Though he has always been a visionary, he spent more than three decades searching for a philosophical rationale for his experience, for history, and for nature. In the 1960's he seems to have abandoned that kind of quest in favor of pure visionary experience. His fifth long poem, The Heart's Garden/The Garden's Heart …, an extended Buddhist-Taoist meditation written in Japan, shows the depths of his resignation and enlightenment. (p. 109)

[The Collected Shorter Poems] begins with a section of new poems called "Gödel's Proof," after which the poems are arranged book by book from The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1920–30) through Natural Numbers (1964), more or less in the order in which they were written. On the title page, the quotation from the mathematician Gödel—"A self-contained system is a contradiction of terms. QED"—expresses Rexroth's withdrawal from his efforts to construct a comprehensive philosophy in his long poems. Since adolescence, he had known that no system could cover all human contingencies; nevertheless, he had heroically tried to explain the mysteries of human existence, his efforts being checked by skepticism on the one hand and transcended in visionary experience on the other. The new poems are devoid of the dialectic and satire of The Dragon and the Unicorn, but the sensuousness and the anguish have deepened. (pp. 110-11)

Uncertain of love, what can he depend upon? What remains after marriage fails? Only the cycles of nature—the "Yin and Yang."… Of all Rexroth's nature poems, this one is the most liturgical…. The language is direct and simple; the archetypes come effortlessly, in harmonious balance with one another, in syntactic parallels. The astrological descriptions are really not obscure…. The poem is itself cyclic, from the sun at the end to the moon at the beginning.

The prosody is also impressive, the basic pattern being syllabic. All but three lines have nine syllables…. Emerging from the syllabic movement, however, is a triple accentual pattern in the lines about flowers, birds, winter, and summer stars…. (p. 112)

Besides "Yin and Yang" only one other of the new poems is in regular syllabic lines—"Organization Men in Affluent Society."… ["Song for a Dancer"] is in ballad stanzas. The other poems are in rhythms that are much freer than those that characterize most of his poetry, as if, in returning to the bewilderment of immediate sensuous experience, he has had to abandon prosodic along with philosophical preconceptions…. And the freer rhythms generally make Rexroth seem less intellectual, more spontaneous, uncertain, even reckless, than in most of his work. He seems to have aged through wisdom into a kind of second youth, in which each mortal instant is lived fully. (pp. 113-14)

Rexroth's prophetic and satirical poems have seldom been read with the seriousness that they deserve, even by his admirers, who sometimes seem embarrassed by them…. But the fierce satires, the desperate protestations, the loud polemics are essential dimensions of his work and outlook. His moments of joyful transcendence have never come easily, as in Whitman's poetry; for they have emerged from a deep sensitivity to the horror of the modern world, from a hardheaded comprehension of the doom of history, from a lifelong struggle against despair. No affirmation has been possible without negation, and the poems of the negation and protest should not be neglected.

Neither should Rexroth's literary Cubism be discounted, for it represents a heroic effort to cope with despair. In this style, both serious and comic, he was searching for the seeds of transcendent vision in the elements of experience itself. He tried always to be true to his perception, analyzing it into discrete elements which he would then recombine, in the poem, in fresh juxtapositions…. His contribution to "the Revolution of the Word" is minor, in comparison with the work of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, e. e. cummings, and T. S. Eliot; but his stylistic experiments helped him clarify his vision and language. It was a preparation for his more characteristic style of direct statement. (pp. 119-20)

[The Heart's Garden/The Garden's Heart] is a masterpiece of visionary communion with nature and the Tao, or the Way. (pp. 122-23)

Rexroth's visionary communion with the Tao is achieved in language which is as sensuous as the perceptions it conveys. In fact, no poem of Rexroth's is as musically rich, with the exception of his first long poem, The Homestead Called Damascus. Just as in The Collected Shorter Poems he circled back to the feelings of his youth, so in The Heart's Garden/The Garden's Heart he regains the pure harmonies of his earliest style. The language, however, has become simplified. The scientific and philosophical vocabulary of his early work is missing from his latest work. Rather than theorizing about vision, he conveys it directly. In a very real sense, the poem is the vision; for the sounds and silences of speech unify the poet's sensations. The unity, the harmony, of speech and perception is the Tao. (pp. 124-25)

In my opinion, the great range of Rexroth's style, from intellectually tough polemics and satires to heartbreakingly tender elegies, from Cubist innovations to the sensuous passion of plain statement, from the dynamic dialogue of Beyond the Mountains to the visionary musicality of The Heart's Garden/The Garden's Heart, establishes him as a "word-man" of the first rank.

Rexroth's words are not merely elements of poetic construction; they are the light of living speech, from person to person. Rexroth is a visionary poet like Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Lawrence, Thomas, and Ginsberg. Vision may mean sensuous perception, which is an important aspect of his poetry; and it may also mean a philosophical outlook, a Weltanschauung; but the central meaning of "vision" in Rexroth's writings is spiritual illumination, enlightenment, Zen satori, the Quaker Inner Light, Buber's "I-Thou" communion, the source of human communication and community. For Rexroth, vision is actuality: "it is precisely the thing in itself that we do experience," he states in the introduction to the [Collected Longer Poems], and in a recent interview: "our experience of reality begins and ends in illumination."

His visionary poetry should be judged, therefore, not primarily in terms of construction, or invention, or stylistic qualities, but in terms of how well it conveys this "experience of reality."… Reading it, we experience loss of ego, will, and self-consciousness similar to that experienced by the poet; for reader and poet unite in an "I-Thou." It seems to me that "The Signature of All Things," The Heart's Garden/The Garden's Heart, and other poems by Rexroth communicate the "trance state" as profoundly as Yeats's "To the Rose upon the Rood of Time" or "The Cold Heaven."

An important problem in Rexroth's work is the relation between visionary communion and the abstract thought of his Weltanschauung…. Direct sensuous vision is the central experience of his work, and his search for a rationale in abstract terms never ends in certainty, for ideas are always approximations and to some extent illusory. (p. 128)

For Rexroth, the truth of poetry resides in its being an act of communion, communication, community. He clearly belongs in the tradition of sensuous visionaries—Spenser, Milton, Goethe, Hugo, Nietzsche, Blake, and Whitman—which Saurat discusses in terms of such basic ideas as the sexual nature of creation and the mutual responsibility of all beings.

As a philosophical poet for whom poetry is vision and philosophy is an art, what is Rexroth's relation to other modern American poets?…

[Rexroth] has insisted that poetry communicates "things as they are" by virtue of its Personalism. He has generally opposed Objectivism…. Of course, his poetry shares some of the characteristics of Objectivism—definite imagery of precise visual perception, for instance, and a feeling of "surrender" but, in theory as well as in much of his poetry, he has countered Objectivism with Personalism, in which "objects are only perspectives on persons"… and poetry is personal vision, communion, communication, communal sacrament. It is true that Rexroth looks outward as he looks inward, and that he objectifies his experience in poetry; but he never hesitates to use the pronoun "I." Moreover, he opposes the Objectivist idealization and purification of language as a thing-in-itself…. (pp. 130-31)

More than other American neo-epic poets, with the exception of Whitman and Williams, Rexroth emerges in his poems as himself, speaking directly to us; whereas in Pound's Cantos or in Eliot's Waste Land, for example, there is always a literary veil between poet and reader. Rexroth's personality develops throughout The Collected Longer Poems. He speaks to us directly as the wry narrator of Homestead, as his skeptical and sacrificial tendencies conflict in Thomas and Sebastian. Finding faith in Prolegomenon, he speaks as an apocalyptic Christian prophet. Debating major philosophical issues with himself in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, he discovers universal responsibility in marriage. As the man of the world in The Dragon and the Unicorn, he continues the debate across America and Europe, returning always to the visionary experience of love. As the aging sage in The Heart's Garden/The Garden's Heart, he expresses "the immediate as the/Ultimate."… (p. 132)

Morgan Gibson, in his Kenneth Rexroth (copyright © 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1972, 156 p.

Luis Ellicott Yglesias

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The keynote of The Phoenix and the Tortoise is not autistic guilt, but articulate responsibility.

The title poem is a long meditation on "what an essential person must do" in order to deserve the gift of consciousness…. First, one must try to get free of the illusions generated by fear and desire which the state manipulates in order to atomize community into an enslaved collectivity. This can be done by striving to identify and adjust to the abiding patterns, the interlocking rhythms that sustain and transform life without the authorization of the state…. Liberty or autonomy is not the end of responsibility, but rather its beginning.

The first responsibility, perhaps, is to love and to the celebration of love because, "We shall know no further enigma." (pp. 3-4)

The second responsibility is to remembrance and lament, not because of a morbid preoccupation with the past, but because what endures in the memory gives consciousness substance and sustenance and the strength to go on….

The third responsibility is to exercise one's critical wits….

The final responsibility is communication…. [Rexroth] was almost the only American poet coming into his own in the forties who cared to write poems the way an intelligent, considerate person with urgent things to say might speak….

Indeed, this irreducible man, this integral person has learned to speak with an almost unbearable directness…. Rexroth is not a leaf-peeper, his pastoralism is critical, not naive, and the waterfall and the redwood cones of "Lyell's Hypothesis Again," or the phosphorescent log of "The Signature of All Things," are calls to a detached and disciplined knowledge of something we call Nature which is too complete to be good or evil, the better to understand and carry out our responsibilities in society where, too often, evil prevails. Nowhere does Rexroth advocate flight; one goes into the mountains in order to return clarified and ready to testify….

In Rexroth's anguished vision [Thou Shalt Not Kill, A Memorial for Dylan Thomas], Dylan Thomas's death is an occasion to remember the countless, pointless deaths of which this is just one instance. Every time a young person dies, Stephen is being stoned again….

With "Seven Poems for Marthe, My Wife" [from In Defense of the Earth], the great cycle of love poems begun in the forties was complete….

Rexroth himself must have been aware of having reached some kind of climax. In "Time is the Mercy of Eternity," he asks himself, "What can you say in a poem? / Past forty, you've said it all."… Here is purification, the end and beginning of every voyage, and a poet in perfect control of his medium….

For many poets, heedless of the fact that a similar ambition drove Torquato Tasso out of his mind, the final test of mastery is the long poem. But nothing could be more difficult, as Poe realized. To be successful, the long poem must find a satisfactory way of answering contradictory demands….

Long poems, like New England winters, bring out the worst in man and beast alike….

The Heart's Garden / The Garden's Heart, culmination and fulfillment of forty years of "following the insensate music," did nothing to change the situation. This long and perfectly realized meditative poem was too quiet, too intelligent, and perhaps too wise to appeal. (p. 4)

The Heart's Garden does not aim at giving answers to final questions that have none. Instead it is a meditation on a handful of central images that have been treasured for centuries because they have the virtue of clarifying experience to the points of making it possible to relinquish life with the facility of a ripe apple dropping from its branch. In Rexroth's poem, the great gardens of Japan become the matrix of his meditation because, in direct contrast to the two main gardening traditions of the West, they neither trivialize landscape into sentimentality, like the British, nor subject it to the arid geometries of reason, like the French. Instead, the gardeners of Japan's monasteries use rock and water, vegetation and space to make manifest "the webs / Of ten thousand lines of force," the interlocking rhythms of the energy which is life.

This energy, which can be imagined as the insensate music Williams celebrated, is also "the gate / to the roots of heaven and earth," which we pass through as we enter the garden….

Like great poets before him, he has committed his life and his work to spiritual growth and The Heart's Garden is the unassuming yet eloquent testimony of one who never doubted that "Art that does not argue nor demonstrate nor discover is merely the craftsman's impudence." (p. 5)

Luis Ellicott Yglesias, "Kenneth Rexroth and the Breakthrough into Life," in New Boston Review (copyright 1977 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. III, No. III, December, 1977, pp. 3-5.

Victor Howes

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Kenneth Rexroth is in his 70's, and his books and translations are too numerous to number. He has been living in Japan lately, and, Japaneselike, has become a creature of the floating world. He writes [in The Morning Star]:

                 Time has had a stop.                  Space is gone.                  Grasping and consequence                  Never existed.                  The aeons have fallen away.

This, of course, from another Japan. Not the one busily exporting Hondas and Toyotas.

In Rexroth's Orient there are plovers that "cry in the/Dark over the high moorland" and a remarkable "mist-drenched, moonlit" spiderweb, the work of an orb-weaver, that reminds the poet of the "net of Indra, /The compound of infinities of infinities."

[Rexroth is looking] for a sort of day-to-day mysticism. A poetry of direct statement and simple clear ideas. A poetry free of superfluous rhetoric. One might call it a poetry of moments.

Victor Howes, "Poetry of Moments," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 6, 1980, p. 17.∗

Donald Hall

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

His politics of the individual separates him from the mass of Americans—and obviously from Stalinists of the left—and yet joins him to all human beings; it is a politics of love—and Rexroth is the poet of devoted eroticism….

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. "The Signature of All Things" may be the best of all. It is the strength of Rexroth's language that it proscribes nothing…. [His] is a poetry of experience and observation, of knowledge—and finally a poetry of wisdom. Nothing is alien to him.

Rexroth's characteristic rhythm moves from the swift and urgent to the slow and meditative, remaining continually powerful….

When we try to describe a poet's style, it can be useful to name starting points, but it is not easy with Kenneth Rexroth…. To an unusual extent Rexroth has made Rexroth up. (p. 9)

Donald Hall, "Kenneth Rexroth and His Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 23, 1980, pp. 9, 43-4.


Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 2)


Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 6)