Post Number: 97
|Posted on Wednesday, September 08, 2010 - 12:13 pm: ||
I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself.
I starve under capitalism, and I would starve under a dictatorship of the proletariat for the same reasons. After all I am interested in perpetual revolution in a sense other than Trotsky’s--the constant raising into relevance of ignored values. Poetry has for its mission in society the reduction of what the Society of Jesus named “invincible ignorance,” and the true poet is as much to be feared by the proletariat as by the bourgeoisie.
—Kenneth Rexroth (1931), quoted in Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (1991)
Copper Canyon Press has released Kenneth Rexroth’s Complete Poems. It’s a most welcome volume, carefully and lovingly edited by poet Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow, Rexroth’s literary executor. It contains even more work than the New Directions volumes, The Collected Shorter Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (1966) and The Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (1968). Though born in South Bend, Indiana, Rexroth (1905-1982) was at the absolute center of the San Francisco Renaissance. His poetry, his poetry readings—often to jazz accompaniment—his radio broadcasts, his lively newspaper columns, his considerable body of essays, and his even more considerable personal brilliance and charisma made him a force to be reckoned with on the West Coast. “I came to California in 1927,” Rexroth told David Meltzer in a 1969 interview collected in The San Francisco Poets:
The day I got into town, San Francisco’s leading poet, California’s leading poet, killed himself. George Sterling. He pretty much represented the California scene in those days ...The San Francisco literary world was dominated by people to whom the native son and daughter thing was all important, although most of them were not native sons and daughters...
It’s hard to believe now, with all the tremendous activity that has been in San Francisco, that San Francisco, when we came there to live, was very much of a backwater town...We met people who would say to you, “Who do you think is California’s leading writer?” And you would say, “Gertrude Stein.” They would say, “Who is that?” And then they would say, “Oh, yes!” They knew her, you see, her brother was in society on the Peninsula, but they didn’t know she wrote...We just didn’t have any competition. It was like Picasso dropping back into the world of Trollope.
Though San Francisco was definitely a cultural backwater, Rexroth frequently insisted that one of the city’s chief attractions was the fact that it was “the only city in the United States which was not settled overland by the westward-spreading puritan tradition.”
It’s easy to forget that work by Kenneth Rexroth was included in Louis Zukofsky’s famous 1931 “Objectivist” issue of Poetry (Chicago). In a letter to Zukofsky—whose work Rexroth admired for a time—Rexroth confesses that in writing this kind of poetry, “The most diverse influences have arisen to name the ideas on my page, from Proclus to Bradley or Royce, from Stoicism to the ‘organic philosophy.’ I really had no idea my brain contained such a horde.”
Rexroth did not continue to write in the style published under the banner of “Objectivism,” and he is not even mentioned in Michael Heller’s Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (1985). Nonetheless, he remained sympathetic to that early work and referred to it, not as “Objectivist” but as “Cubist” poetry. “Cubism” in poetry, writes Rexroth in Pierre Reverdy: Selected Poems,
is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture. This is quite different from the free association of the Surrealists and the combination of unconscious utterance and political nihilism of Dada...Only Walter Conrad Arensberg in his last poems, Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons and a very few other pieces, much of the work of the young Yvor Winters and others of his generation of Chicago Modernists, Laura Riding’s best work and my own poems later collected in The Art of Worldly Wisdom could be said to show the deliberate practice of the principles of creative construction which guided Juan Gris or Pierre Reverdy.
He goes on to assert that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land
works...with fragmented and recombined arguments; Pierre Reverdy with dismembered propositions from which subject, operator and object have been wrenched free and restructured into an invisible or subliminal discourse which owes its cogency to its own strict, complex and secret logic.
Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself. Its restructuring of experience is purposive, not dreamlike, and hence it possesses an uncanniness fundamentally different in kind from the most haunted utterances of the Surrealist or Symbolist unconscious. Contrary to what we are taught, it appears first in the ultimate expressions of Neo-Symbolism in Mallarmé,...above all in his hieratic metaphysical ritual, Un Coup de dés.
Rexroth was deeply aware of his friend Yvor Winters’ rejection of this kind of verse as “the deliberate courting of madness.” Yet, “when the ordinary materials of poetry are broken up, recombined in structures radically different from those we assume to be the result of causal, or of what we have come to accept as logical sequence, and then an abnormally focused attention is invited to their apprehension, they are given an intense significance,...they seem to assume an unanalyzable transcendental claim”:
We still know almost nothing about how the mind works in states of rapture nor why the disjunction, the ecstasis, of self and experience should produce a whole range of peculiar nervous responses...We are dealing with a self-induced, or naturally and mysteriously come-by, creative state from which two of the most fundamental human activities diverge, the aesthetic and the mystic act. The creative matrix is the same in both...[I]f poetic vision is refined until it is sufficiently piercing and sufficiently tensile, it cuts through the reality it has reorganized to an existential transcendence.
Finally, Rexroth argues that
The revolution of the sensibility that began with Baudelaire became in the latter work of Mallarmé a thoroughgoing syntactical revolution in the language because it was realized that the logical structure of the Indo-European languages was an inadequate vehicle for so profound a change in the sensibility. In actual fact, although Apollinaire is usually considered the watershed of modern poetry, no single poem of his represents as thoroughgoing a change in method as Mallarmé’s.
Reverdy, Rexroth insists, “has certainly been the leading influence on my own work—incomparably more than anyone in English or American.”
What kind of poetry did Rexroth’s “restructuring of the mind” —his attempt to cut “through the reality it has reorganized to an existential transcendence” —produce? “A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy” (1925-1927) is perhaps the finest of Rexroth’s Cubist poems. The title suggests its religious orientation—as does the apocalyptic tone of its concluding pages:
Too softly and too slowly tolled
And the first wave was snow
The second ice
The third fire
The fourth blood
The fifth adders
The sixth smother
The seventh foul stink
And unnumbered beasts swam in the sea
Some feather footed
Some devoid of any feet
And phosphorescent breath
The enduring bell
The wash of wave...
Some lay with their knees partly drawn up
Some lay on their sides
Some lay stretched at full length
Some lay on their backs
Some were stooping
Some held their heads bent down
Some drew up their legs
Some kicked out with arms and legs
Some were kneeling
Some stood and inhaled deep breaths
Some felt about in the dark
Some gazed, sitting still
That is Gertrude Stein filtered through a religious sensibility—Gertrude Stein as the Last Judgment—and its rhythms and repetitions had an effect on the much later “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1953), a brilliant poem written in memory of Dylan Thomas:
They are stoning Stephen,
They are casting him forth from every city in the world.
Under the Welcome sign,
Under the Rotary emblem,
On the highway in the suburbs,
His body lies under the hurling stones.
He was full of faith and power.
He did great wonders among the people.
They could not stand against his wisdom.
They could not bear the spirit with which he spoke.
But “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is something of an anomaly in Rexroth’s later work. Compare the lines from “Prolegomenon” to these from In What Hour (1940). In these latter lines, Rexroth achieved the tone that would characterize much of what he would do throughout the rest of his career:
The great geometrical winter constellations
Lift up over the Sierra Nevada,
I walk under the stars, my feet on the known round earth.
My eyes following the lights of an airplane,
Red and green, growling deep into the Hyades.
The note of the engine rises, shrill, faint,
Finally inaudible, and the lights go out
In the southeast haze beneath the feet of Orion.
As the sound departs I am chilled and grow sick
With the thought that has come over me.
(“Requiem for the Spanish Dead”)
In his excellent book, The Relevance of Rexroth (1990), Ken Knabb quotes Rexroth on “the Social Lie or the Great Fraud—to know that the ‘official version of anything is most likely false and that all authority is based on fraud.’” The following quotations are all from Rexroth:
Every day all states do things which, if they were the acts of individuals, would lead to summary arrest and often execution...What is called ‘growing up,’ ‘getting a little common sense,’ is largely the learning of techniques for outwitting the more destructive forces at large in the social order. The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it.
An appreciable number of Americans really do believe the Great Fraud of the mass culture, what the French call the hallucination publicitaire. They only know what they read in the papers. They think it is really like the movies...The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies.
Most of the real difficulty of communication comes from social convention, from a vast conspiracy to agree to accept the world as something it really isn’t at all.
Linda Hamalian’s warts-and-not-quite-all biography of Rexroth is proof that Rexroth the man often had difficulty living up to his own vision of “maturity.” (Even his admirers speak of the toll taken on him by “paranoia.”) But Rexroth’s railing against “the Great Fraud” is surely an indication of one of his deepest convictions. Though, like Jack Kerouac, he retained throughout his life a relationship with Roman Catholicism and died a Catholic—and maintained a considerable interest in Buddhism as well—in these quotations he seems like nothing so much as a secular version of a fire-and-brimstone Protestant raging against the wickedness and unreality of the world. Rexroth never lost his religious sensibility and his desire to break through to “an existential transcendence”—nor the sense of fierce dualism which gave rise to that desire—but they were replaced to some degree by the practice of what he called “the art of being civilized.” (The word “civilized” is one of the most important words in his oeuvre.) Rexroth’s shift of esthetic tone was a shift to another mode of religiosity. The desire to “restructure the mind” became the basis not only of a change in poetic strategy but of what we now call an “alternative life-style.” Rexroth liked to begin his poetry readings by asking, “Well, what would you like tonight—sex, mysticism or revolution?” and was delighted when a woman in the audience responded, “What’s the difference?” More and more, erotic love—not politics, poetry or religion—seemed, if properly performed, the instrument of social change:
We slept naked
On top of the covers and woke
In the chilly dawn and crept
Between the warm sheets and made love
In the morning you said
“It snowed last night on the mountain”
High up on the blue black diorite
Faint orange streaks of snow
In the ruddy dawn
“It has been snowing for months
All over Canada and Alaska
And Minnesota and Michigan
Right now wet snow is falling
In the morning streets of Chicago
Bit by bit they are making over the world
Even in Mexico even for us”
Rexroth produced a number of long poems throughout his life, beginning with “The Homestead Called Damascus,” which the author claimed was “written before I was twenty years old.” In its opening lines he makes a bold reference to a phrase in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “the ineluctable modality of the visible.” Allowing his religious sensibilities full play, Rexroth turns Joyce’s phrase into “the ‘ineluctable modality’ of the invisible”:
Heaven is full of definite stars
And crowded with modest angels, robed
In tubular, neuter folds of pink and blue.
Their feet tread doubtless on that utter
Hollowness, with never a question
Of the “ineluctable modality”
Of the invisible; busy, orderly,
Content to ignore the coal pockets
In the galaxy, dark nebulae,
And black broken windows into space.
Youthful minds may 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.
Or, if the will, then circumstance.
History demands satisfaction,
And never lacks, with or without help
From the subjects of its curious science.
The problem with this dense medium—slightly reminiscent of Hart Crane—is that over the course of a long poem, it is utterly unreadable. (Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, dismissed “The Homestead Called Damascus” as “a lot of talky talk.”)
Many people have commented on the wide range of Rexroth’s erudition—in many languages—but if he had a single “precursor” poet, it would have to have been Ezra Pound. Rexroth was far from Pound politically, but there is so much about Rexroth that reminds you of Pound: translations from the Chinese and Japanese, an intense interest in the troubadours (many of whom Pound had translated), a commitment to free verse and the long poem, the denunciation of the present day, even the intensely hectoring tone of much of the work, which insisted that the poet’s opinions about society were intensely meaningful. Indeed, even Rexroth’s interest in poetry and jazz was a kind of extension of Pound’s admiration of the troubadours—poets whom Pound associated with the Homeric singer. Jazz poetry, wrote Rexroth, “returns poetry to music and to public entertainment as it was in the days of Homer or the troubadours.” Like Pound, Rexroth collected a group of younger writers whom he both pushed forward and “educated.” “We were all brought up on Daddy Rexroth’s reading list,” remarked Robert Duncan. “The amount of labor and confusion he saved younger people was immense,” said poet-critic Thomas Parkinson. Like Pound, Rexroth had a deep distrust of “the academy,” calling universities “fog factories.” And like Pound, Rexroth took to the radio—Berkeley independent station, KPFA-FM—to expound his theories. 2/
Rexroth opened his Collected Shorter Poems with these lines, quietly attributed to “Anonymous Provençal”:
When the nightingale cries
All night and all day,
I have my sweetheart
Under the flower
Till the watch from the tower
Cries, “Lovers, rise!
The dawn comes and the bright day.”
The lines deliberately recall Ezra Pound’s famous tour-de-force, “Alba” (Dawn), a poem Pound placed at the beginning of his own translations from the Provençal:
When the nightingale to his mate
Sings day-long and night late
My love and I keep state
’Till the watchman on the tower
“Up! Thou rascal, Rise,
I see the white
And the night
Initially one wonders why Rexroth would place his rather pedestrian rendering of the poem against Pound’s obviously brilliant, obviously superior version. (Pound even gives an equivalent of troubadour rhyming—a practice Rexroth does not follow either here or in his translations of Reverdy.) The answer is that Rexroth’s poem is making a rather subtle point. What is “brilliant” for one person, after all, may be merely “flashy” for another. There is a problem with Pound’s poem: it centers in the concluding word, “Flies.” Obviously, Pound means the word as a verb: he is talking about the night “flying” away. Yet, from a syntactic point of view, it is possible that the word could be a noun: that is, Pound could be talking about creatures, “night flies.” He isn’t, of course, but the ambiguity—the inexactness—remains. Rexroth’s version is more pedestrian than Pound’s in every way, but it is also more exact. Pound needs “flies” for his rhyme—he couldn’t use “And the night is flying away,” for example—but the meaning of his poem suffers because of it. (Pound might have written “And the night / Dies”—but the poem might well have died along with it.)
Ezra Pound is a particularly important figure for Kenneth Rexroth because the Cantos represents a way of dealing with the genius-poet’s “diverse influences,” his “horde” of references. The problem for Pound was to find some form in which it was possible to exhibit the multiplicity of his imaginative constructs without falling into utter chaos—the shapelessness that is the poet-sculptor’s deepest enemy. When Pound is successful in doing this—as he is in "Canto LXXIV" or "Canto 99"—the effect is nothing less than thrilling: it is as if the mind’s sense of its own infinity had momentarily found a home. (Pound of course had his doubts as to whether he could achieve the same effect in the Cantos as a whole.) Rexroth’s problem was to do what Pound did without sounding like Pound. In addition, there was the problem of “obscurity”: Pound’s Cantos were notoriously difficult to understand. If, as a young man, Rexroth thought that “literary Cubism was the future of American poetry,” Ken Knabb points out that as Rexroth began to actually produce such poetry he began to realize that—despite the fact that “the current language of society [has] been debauched by the exploitative uses to which it [has] been put, and...it [is] necessary to find gaps in the structure of communication which [are] still fluent and through which the mind of the reader [can] be assaulted”—it was necessary for him to function in more accessible forms if he wanted to have an audience.
The Dragon and the Unicorn (1944-1950), is one of Rexroth’s solutions to the problem of the long poem. It begins with a rather problematical reference to an incident in the life of Christ:
“And what is love?” said Pilate,
And washed his hands.
(Pilate in fact asked, “What is truth?” See John 18:38.)
The poem then moves into an “accessible,” fairly straightforward travelogue—an anecdotal mode, often quite beautifully written, which Rexroth maintains throughout the poem, though always with interruptions:
All night long
The white snow falls on the white
Peaks through the quiet darkness.
The overland express train
Drives through the night, through the snow.
In the morning the land slopes
To the Atlantic, the sky
Is thicker, Spring stirs, smelling
Like old wet wood, new life speaks
In pale green fringes of marsh
Marigolds on the edges
Of the mountain snow drifts.
Against this language—always interesting, full of wit and stories, close to Rexroth’s celebrated conversation—is another, more problematical, more abstract language, a language of philosophical distinctions:
It is doubtful if the world
Presents itself in any
Important aspects under
The forms of serial time
And atomic space. It is
True that the intellect has
Come to be conditioned by them,
But important experience
Comes to us in freedom and
Is realized as value,
And the intellect alone
Can know nothing of freedom
And value because it is
Concerned with the necessary
And they are by definition
Of course is the ultimate
Mode of free evaluation.
Perfect love casts out knowledge.
The poem, like much of the work of the troubadours, is the interplay between these two uses of language, abstract and particular, philosophical and anecdotal. Though the philosophical passages are far from “accessible”—and are clearly necessary to the poem—they can be skipped by the reader who finds them tedious. For the reader who is philosophically equal to them, they are there in all their glorious abstraction; but for other readers there are stories, jokes, and they are often quite good stories and jokes:
The author of Le Rideau levé,
Approached as a colleague by
Sade in prison, repulsed him
Succinctly, “Mon Sieur, je ne suis
Pas ici pour avoir donné des
Confits empoisonnés aux femmes
De chambre.” The existentialistes
Don’t like him very much.
(The French is “Sir, I am not / here for having given / poisoned preserves to / chambermaids.”)
Pound of course is capable of stories and jokes as well, but Rexroth carries Pound’s techniques further—and, unlike Pound or Olson, he does not move the words of his poem around the page. There are no disturbing “field techniques” in Rexroth: the left-hand margin is always returned to.
The Dragon and the Unicorn is a triumph of Rexroth’s determination to write a poem which could be read by anyone but which does not simplify his complex sense of the world. There remains a problem, however. The passage quoted above indicates Rexroth’s antipathy to the “existentialistes,” with their powerful sense of alienation. In his introduction to the Collected Longer Poems, Rexroth writes that “It is easy to overcome alienation—the net of the cash nexus can simply be stepped out of, but only by the self actualizing man”:
But everyone is self actualizing and can realize it by the simplest act—the self unselving itself, the only act that is actual act...I hope I have made it clear that the self does not do this by an act of will, by sheer assertion. He who would save his life must lose it.
Discussing Cubist poetry’s “unanalyzable transcendental claim” Rexroth alludes to “certain projected physical responses” which accompany “the person undergoing the poetic experience, whether poet or reader”:
Vertigo, rapture, transport, crystalline and plangent sounds, shattered and refracted light, indefinite depths, weightlessness, piercing odors and tastes, and synthesizing these sensations and affects, an all-consuming clarity. These are the phenomena that often attend what theologians call natural mysticism. They can be found especially in the poetry of St. Mechtild of Magdeburg and St. Hildegarde of Bingen, great favorites of the psychologists who have written on this subject, but they are equally prominent in the poetry of Sappho or Henry Vaughan or the prose of Jacob Boehme, as well as in many modern poets.
It is important to note here that Rexroth does not understand “mysticism” to be an experience beyond words: rather, it can be embodied in the poetry of writers such as Pierre Reverdy. At the same time, Rexroth insists that such poetry—the work of the “self actualizing man”—involves “the self unselving itself”: “He who would save his life must lose it.” Rexroth is right to insist that mysticism as a literary technique is a very important way of approaching a good many modern poets. At the same time, however, his own poetry is a case of the self’s inability to “unselve itself.” His is not a poetry of unselving but of fierce ego assertion, of judgment; it is an attempt—by no means always successful—to embody wisdom:
Why this sudden outburst of
The American mass culture
Has identified the normal
Sex relation with the stuffing
Of an omnivorous and
Insensate vagina with
Highly perishable and
Expensive objects of non
Utility. Useless value
Has replaced use value and has
Been linked with sex satisfaction.
Since every young American
Male knows that very soon the State
Is going to take him out and
Murder him very nastily,
He is inclined to withdraw from
The activities prescribed for him
In the advertising pages.
Since it is physically
Impossible to realize
The fullness of love except
Between a man and woman,
This is at best a sort of
Marking time before execution.
For similar reasons, children
In the highschools take heroin.
That passage is a poetry of statement—of extremely dubious statement. We are much more likely to find Rexroth’s verse “beautiful” if we at least tentatively agree with his opinions. Here, in his benighted insistence that “it is physically / Impossible to realize / The fullness of love except / Between a man and woman,” he is as offensive as Pound on the Jews. Opinions, often debatable ones, come fast and furiously throughout The Dragon and the Unicorn:
Lawrence, Lawrence, what a lot
Of hogwash you have fathered.
Etruscan art is just plain bad.
It is the commercial art
Of mercenary provincials,
On a par with Australian
Magazine covers. Where it is
Good at all, it was done by Greeks.
We can see more clearly what is disturbing in Rexroth’s conception if we turn to another follower of Pound’s, Charles Olson. Though Olson was equally noted for his ego-assertion—he could be as dogmatic as Rexroth—he nevertheless kept himself rooted in what he understood to be “Negative Capability,” a concept which comes from the Romantic poet John Keats. In a letter to his brothers George and Thomas (December 21, 1817), Keats explains Negative Capability in this way:
that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.
In another letter—to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818)—Keats asserts that “the poetical character...is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing”:
It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.
A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually infor[ming]—and filling some other body.
In the central sections of Olson’s famous poem, “The Kingfishers,” the pronoun and the concept “I” simply disappear from the poem, though they return with a vengeance in the concluding section. One can sense something of the same thing happening in this short piece from Olson’s Maximus Poems IV, V, VI. Internet formatting will probably destroy Olson's carefully-worked-out spacing, but you can look the poem up in the original:
Maximus, March 1961-2
by the way into the woods
“Lake” ponds orient
show me (exhibit
In a way similar to Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés, the spaces around the words allow for multiple meanings (the word “orient,” for example, might be a verb or a noun) and, while one has a sense of an intense experience happening—indeed, an experience which “shows me myself”—one does not have a sense of the individuality of the person doing the experiencing. The poem is in this sense the opposite of a “dramatic monologue.” (In A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson George F. Butterick tells us that “Olson spoke of this poem as resulting from or having to do with a revelatory experience made possible...through the consciousness-expanding drug, psilocybin, a synthetic form of the Sacred Mushroom of the Mexican Indians—which he experienced a few weeks earlier, in February 1961, in an experiment conducted by drug researcher Timothy Leary.” Similarly, Rexroth remarks in the introduction to his Reverdy translations that “At the present moment  the quest of such experiences [of natural mysticism] by way of hallucinogenic drugs is immensely fashionable.”)
“Negative Capability” implies the disappearance of the poet as ego, as self. Despite Rexroth’s theme of “unselving,” there is little “Negative Capability” in his work. 3/ In “Remembering Rexroth” (Poetry Flash, January, 1992), Morgan Gibson correctly observes that Rexroth always “had an extraordinary conviction of being right.” At times—as in the passages quoted above—this makes for boring, even annoying writing. At other times, however, it is Rexroth’s great strength:
FOR ELI JACOBSON
There are few of us now, soon
There will be none. We were comrades
Together, we believed we
Would see with our own eyes the new
World where man was no longer
Wolf to man, but men and women
Were all brothers and lovers
Together. We will not see it.
We will not see it, none of us.
It is farther off than we thought.
In our young days we believed
That as we grew old and fell
Out of rank, new recruits, young
And with the wisdom of youth,
Would take our places and they
Surely would grow old in the
Golden Age. They have not come.
They will not come. There are not
Many of us left. Once we
Marched in closed ranks, today each
Of us fights off the enemy,
A lonely isolated guerrilla.
All this has happened before,
Many times. It does not matter.
We were comrades together,
Life was good for us. It is
Good to be brave—nothing is
Better. Food tastes better. Wine
Is more brilliant. Girls are more
Beautiful. The sky is bluer
For the brave—for the brave and
Happy comrades and for the
Lonely brave retreating warriors.
You had a good life. Even all
Its sorrows and defeats and
Disillusionments were good,
Met with courage and a gay heart.
You are gone and we are that
Much more alone. We are one fewer,
Soon we shall be none. We know now
We have failed for a long time.
And we do not care. We few will
Remember as long as we can,
Our children may remember,
Some day the world will remember.
Then they will say, “They lived in
The days of the good comrades.
It must have been wonderful
To have been alive then, though it
Is very beautiful now.”
We will be remembered, all
Of us, always, by all men,
In the good days now so far away.
In the good days never come,
We will not know. We will not care.
Our lives were the best. We were the
Happiest men alive in our day.
That poem is as much a poetry of statement—and of the ego—as the passage I quoted from The Dragon and the Unicorn, yet it is, as Ken Knabb and others have pointed out, enormously moving. Perhaps the deepest element of Rexroth’s verse is its nostalgia, its sense of elegy. There are few poets who can touch him in this regard:
At the door of my thatched hut,
Buried deep in the forested mountains,
The wind in the ancient ginko tree
Sounds like the rustle of brocaded silk.
(“Erinnerung” from “Imitations of the Chinese,” 1974: the title means “Remembrance,” “Memory”)
“Colors of things gone dead,” he wrote in an early poem, “of dear moments lost in tragedy.” Time, the great theme of elegies, is a subject Rexroth returns to again and again—the word “gone” echoes throughout his work—as is the notion that value is to be found only in this world ecstatically apprehended:
The order of the universe
Is only a reflection
Of the human will and reason...
The great principles and forces
That move the world...have order
Only as a reflection
Of the courage, loyalty,
Love, and honesty of men.
By themselves they are cruel
And utterly frivolous.
The man who yields to them goes mad.
(“They Say This Isn’t A Poem”)
Rexroth faced the challenge of Pound and of “the revolution of the sensibility that began with Baudelaire” in a brave and often brilliant way. He is rightly praised for the depth and beauty of his nature poetry. The American West, writes Linda Hamalian in her essay, “Rediscovering Community: Rexroth and the Whitman Tradition,” created in Rexroth “a pervading, comforting conviction that no artistic accomplishment could ever match this landscape” and aroused in him “a sense of a sacramental presence in all things....” He was extraordinarily erudite, but he could use his erudition in a playful manner. He translated lines by William Carlos Williams—the great advocate of “the American language”—into Latin (“De Fera Dormita”): suddenly Williams sounds like Catullus! And in a poem addressed to Williams, Rexroth defined the poet as “one who creates / Sacramental relationships / That last always.” In his later years Rexroth placed much of his hope for change not in “poetry” but in song. Song, he insisted, gets to the root of the matter by presenting “an alternative kind of human being” (“Back to the Sources of Literature”):
The real thing about your [David Meltzer’s] stuff, or Joni Mitchell’s stuff...is that it involves and presents a pattern of human relationships which is unassimilable by the society. What the songs speak of cannot be assimilated. I mean, here is a love song...but the kind of love it sings of can’t exist in this society. The song gets out like a bit of radioactive cobalt. It just foments subversion around itself as long as it is available...
The whole problem is to find works of art which remain permanently unassimilable and permanently corruptive...The songs of Shakespeare are permanently indigestible and permanently subversive.
(Interview, The San Francisco Poets)
If Rexroth was not capable of the lyrical heights of his friend, Robert Duncan (Duncan’s “Such is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing” is one of the most beautiful and musical examples of free verse ever written), he was certainly capable of considerable depth, insight, and passion.
This last perhaps made him a rather difficult person, despite his charm. In his introduction to the Complete Poems, co-editor Sam Hamill writes, “Although apparently incapable of monogamy, [Rexroth] nevertheless believed in marriage as the highest sacrament.” Rexroth’s biographer, the unforgiving Linda Hamalian, makes the point in a somewhat fiercer way: “He saw no contradiction between his longing for a stable, profound relationship with one woman and his predisposition to screw anyone within reach.” Despite the fact that Rexroth encouraged and attracted many prominent women writers, who admired him as well, he could refer to them at times as “writresses.” (Cf. “waitresses.”) Used after his own desert, remarked Shakespeare, which of us would ’scape whipping? Rexroth was both monstrosity and miracle, and he deserves considerably better than he has received.
In 1992 Morgan Gibson wrote, “The point of many of [Rexroth’s] allusions may be clear, but the processes of his imaginative thinking are not so easily grasped. More, not less, explication of his work is needed.” Donald K. Gutierrez’s Revolutionary Rexroth appeared in 1986 and his “The Holiness of the Real”: The Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth ten years later, but apart from such efforts there has been very little. Gibson may be right about the “clarity” of Rexroth’s myriad allusions, but a guide to the allusions—like the guides to Pound’s and Olson’s poetry—would be a very useful volume. The Dragon and the Unicorn quietly quotes from Eugene V. Debs, for example, and Rexroth re-writes St. Augustine’s “Love God and do what you will” as “Love and do what you will.”
Kenneth Rexroth saw himself as a member of an international community. Currently even his sympathetic critics tend to regard him as a regional (California) writer, albeit one of genius. One review of the Complete Poems bore the headline, “A poet transformed by California / Kenneth Rexroth collection shows how state worked its magic on him.” 4/ Rexroth might well have regarded such a designation as another example of the provincialism—“the native son and daughter thing”—he battled all his life. In writing this essay I myself have said nothing of his fine translations or, to use Ken Knabb’s word, of the continuing “relevance” of his social conscience: subjects for another paper. In 1969 Rexroth—always the anarchist—told David Meltzer,
What happened with Vietnam, and the Russian-Chinese split, was that the movement again fell into the hands of people who were representing other people’s foreign offices. American radicals are placed in the ridiculous position of supporting the foreign policies of Ho Chi Minh, or Chairman Mao, or Fidel Castro, of Tito, or Israel. That may be better than Stalin, but it is still an army, it is still a foreign office, it is still a state...You know! Here’s a Negro in San Francisco and he is running around in African clothes and he’s talking about the glories of the Congo or Nigeria or Ghana or whatever side he has taken. Why? What for? It is just another state. It is the same old shit come back.... 5/
In addition to this Complete Poems and a handful of books still in print, Ken Knabb’s Bureau of Public Secrets website has a considerable amount of Rexroth material: http://www.bopsecrets.org. You can also find information about Rexroth at the Modern American Poetry site:
1. Cf. these passages from The Dragon and the Unicorn (1944-1950):
[A]s the dual,
The beloved, is known and
Loved more and more fully, all
The universe of persons
Grows steadily more and more real.
Eventually loss or pain
To the least of these, the most
Remote known person of the
Other, is felt personally
Through the intense reality
Of the dual.
What we realize
In the beloved is the
Growing reality of
All the others.
Cf. also Rexroth’s notorious remark, “I write poetry to seduce women and to overthrow the Capitalist system. In that order.”
2. In American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971) Rexroth asserts that “KPFA has been the single most powerful cultural influence in the [San Francisco] Bay Area.”
3. In the late sequence, “The Silver Swan” (1974-1978), Rexroth represents the process of
“unselving.” A female apparition comes to him and asks,
“Lover, do you know what Heart
You have possessed?’
Before I can answer, her
Body flows into mine, each
Corpuscle of light merges
With a corpuscle of blood or flesh.
As we become one the world
Vanishes. My self vanishes.
I am dispossessed, only
An abyss without limits.
Only dark oblivion
Of sense and mind in an
Infinitely away burns
A minute red point to which
I move or which moves to me.
Time fades away. Motion is
Not motion. Space becomes Void.
A ruby fire fills all being.
It opens, not like a gate,
Like hands in prayer that unclasp
And close around me.
Then nothing. All senses ceased.
No awareness, nothing.
Only another kind of knowing
Of an all encompassing
Love that has consumed all being.
Despite the theme of “unselving”—and the assertion that “My self vanishes”—nothing in Rexroth’s language actually places the ego sense in question. Rather, the effect of the passage is something like “Look what happened to me!” It still depends on ego assertion. The interplay of various voices one finds in Pound, Eliot, Duncan and Olson is rarely to be found in Rexroth—though Rexroth does insist in his introduction to The Collected Longer Poems that his work embodies “the interior and exterior adventures of two poles of a personality.”
4. David Kipen, The San Francisco Chronicle, 1/25/03. In “Rexroth Rediscovered,” an article written for the LA Times, Dana Gioia suggests that Rexroth has suffered the fate of the regional writer—neglect from the East:
Rexroth’s place in the American literary canon, like that of many Californian poets such as Robinson Jeffers, William Everson, Josephine Miles, Yvor Winters, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer—remains open to critical debate. Consistently ignored or underrated by the Eastern literary establishment, these poets continue to exercise an active influence on West Coast writers, and they continue to be read, though largely outside the academy.
Interestingly, The Dragon and the Unicorn—which is probably Rexroth’s central utterance—takes place for the most part in Europe.
Rexroth’s primary publisher was New Directions, which in 1958 published Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. Had Rexroth written anything that sold like Ferlinghetti’s book, his status as a “Western writer” would have been utterly transformed.
5. Rexroth puts it in a more positive way in The Dragon and the Unicorn:
Stay poor; try to keep out from
Under the boot; love one another;
Reject all illusions; wait.
There is no need to assume
The existence of a god
Behind the community
Of persons, the community
Is the absolute. There is no
Future life because there is
The heart of being is the act of
Contemplation, it is timeless.
Post Number: 95
|Posted on Wednesday, September 08, 2010 - 10:41 pm: ||
I could only peruse, but I see your essay is also complete.
It would be a luxury for me to read & digest it in its entirety.
Good to find a reference to Keats' ng (“unselving”), and a mention of Ferlinghett, and Mr. Kerouac.
"Kenneth Rexroth saw himself as a member of an international community."
^^ d'accord - Yes, an ideal membership for the artist.
Oh, and the remedy for hallucination publicitaire makes for wise advice for Everyman:
"The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies."
Staff Esther Murer
Post Number: 168
|Posted on Thursday, September 09, 2010 - 11:28 am: ||
is this an older essay? I see that the COllected Poems came out in 2004.
Post Number: 98
|Posted on Thursday, September 09, 2010 - 10:58 pm: ||
Hi, Esther. Yes, it is. It appeared in an earlier "Foley's Books," but it disappeared with all the rest of my columns. Ken Knabb, who promotes Rexroth on the internet (and other places), wrote me complaining that he could no longer find the essay. Philomene Long's sister Pegarty also wrote to me saying she could no longer find my piece on Philomene. I thought it would be a good idea to re-post such pieces since people were interested in referring to them. I also plan to re-post my long interview with Allen Ginsberg and a few other things as well. There were a lot of columns and they were around for a long time--and then they suddenly disappeared.
Staff Esther Murer
Post Number: 170
|Posted on Friday, September 10, 2010 - 06:55 am: ||
Thanks for the info. I applaud your doing this. I spent five years compiling a massive site on the Norwegian author Jens Bjorneboe, which disappeared this spring when att abruply axed the personal web pages. It was an internationally known resource. Fortunately it was archived by the Wayback Machine -- I don't suppose your essays would be there, would they?
Post Number: 99
|Posted on Friday, September 10, 2010 - 05:48 pm: ||
What's the Wayback Machine? How can I find out about it? I have no idea whether my Alsop Review columns might be there.
Post Number: 100
|Posted on Friday, September 10, 2010 - 07:32 pm: ||
Thanks, Esther. I've never heard of the Wayback Machine. How do I contact it?--though I suspect that the people hunting for my essays would have found them there. Luckily, I have copies of everything. Some have found their way into my books.
Staff Esther Murer
Post Number: 174
|Posted on Friday, September 10, 2010 - 09:16 pm: ||
If you know the url for past web pages no longer accessible (1996 to "a few months ago") you may try searching for the url at
Looks as if you may be able to do other types of searches as well.
I had 3 sites that disappeared, only one was archived -- fortunately the most important one.
(Message edited by Staff Esther Greenleaf Murer on September 10, 2010)