Kenneth Rexroth Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 5508 words.)

Luis Ellicott Yglesias

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Victor Howes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.