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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Steve Bradbury
Reading Rexroth Rewriting Tu Fu in the “Permanent War”

But ein Text ist gar nichts ohne den Kontext.
            — Ch’ien Chung-shu [Note 1]

The Chinese polymath Ch’ien Chung-shu may have been exaggerating when he said “a text is nothing without a context,” but I think there is a strong case for arguing the texts of Kenneth Rexroth are rather more than less from being read in the contexts in which they were written. Many of his poems from the thirties, when he emerged as a poet on the left, were occasioned by the “events of the hour” and participated in the “conversations of his day,” as critics were wont to say in the rhetoric of the period. Nor were his poems from the forties — arguably his most accomplished decade — any less responsive to their times, even though by then Rexroth, like other leftist writers during these difficult years in the decline of the left, had turned from politics to eros and the consolations of philosophy and the classics. [Note 2] But here the shift in subject matter and the poet’s mastery of the “technique of self-effacement” — to borrow Bradford Morrow’s apt description — often make it difficult to read these poems in context without the help of a good literary biographer and social historian. [Note 3] But I think the same could be said of Rexroth’s poems from the Chinese of Tu Fu. This is one corner of the poet’s “five-foot shelf” that gains immeasurably from being read in context. But here the difficulty rests upon a problem of self-effacement that has less to do with Rexroth’s art than with a certain artfulness in his manner of presentation. [Note 4] Take this example from One Hundred Poems from the Chinese:

      Snow Storm

Tumult, weeping, many new ghosts.
Heartbroken, aging, alone, I sing
To myself. Ragged mist settles
In the spreading dusk. Snow skurries
In the coiling wind. The wineglass
Is spilled. The bottle is empty.
The fire has gone out in the stove.
Everywhere men speak in whispers.
I brood on the uselessness of letters. [Note 5]

In the context of a volume of translation by an established translator and man of letters who begins his introduction with the claim that the thirty five Tu Fu poems in his collection “are based on the text in the Harvard Yenching Concordance to Tu Fu,” “Snow Storm” becomes a text that invites us to pretend as if this poem were actually Tu Fu’s. [Note 6] If we accept this invitation, Rexroth disappears and we enter the reading moment, where we find an aging and solitary Chinese poet in some stormy winter of his discontent, voicing his despair over his impoverishment and “the uselessness of letters.” Even without knowing the origin of this vocational crisis we are moved by both the intensity of Tu Fu’s feelings and his deft feeling for form. Rereading the poem, we begin to notice how the enjambment and syntactical inversions of the opening lines seem to underscore the speaker’s desperation in the face of this reversal of fortunes before they sweep us, like the snow, through the swirl of the next few sentences to the laconic, end-stopped lines, which force us to pause over each material sign and symbol of the speaker’s depleted state, before advancing us to the final couplet, whose parallel structure and covert rhymes leave us with the impression that the “uselessness of letters” is closely tied to, and perhaps a consequence of, the social condition implied in “Everywhere men speak in whispers.” At which point we notice how the sibilance in the closing lines seems to amplify the silence into which poetry and society have both fallen and adds a note of disgust to the speaker’s despair as well. Having returned this far, our eyes are suddenly drawn to the Whitmanic allusion that had been concealed by Rexroth’s enjambment: “I sing to/ Myself.” Although it seems intrusive at first, on reflection we realize how fitting the allusion, and the line break, are for this T’ang poet who, like some aging, broken, Whitman, grieves over a nation to which he can no longer sing.

Read as a translation, “Snow Storm” is among the most moving and vivid of the thirty-five poems from the Chinese of Tu Fu in this 1956 collection. But is also among the most unfaithful, as sinologists have long pointed out. [Note 7] And we need not defer to scholarly opinion here, for Rexroth’s source text, conveniently for us, was not the Chinese of Tu Fu but the English of Florence Ayscough: [Note 8]

      Snow Falls

The clash, the cries of battle;  sounds of weeping,  
      wailing;  many   fresh     spirits of the dead;
His heart  burning  with autumn grief,   the old man  
      sits  alone,  humming poems in a deep low voice.

Clouds,  torn in confusion,  sink low  in prevailing  
Hurrying  snowflakes  perform  a posturing dance  
      on whirling   wind.

A gourd ladle   is thrown down,  the wine jar  con-
      tains  no more   ‘clear green’;
An earthenware stove    stands there    even as though
      the fire   were red.

In many    Prefectures    breath of news exhaled,
      breath of news inhaled,    has ceased;
I sit   in autumn grief:   verily   it is futile   to send a
      letter. [Note 9]

If we compare the two versions closely we are relieved to find that most of Rexroth’s liberties are ones that we would expect from any conscientious poet-translator faced with such a dauntingly prosaic source text. While sinologists and antiquarians might quibble over the Whitmanic allusion and the substitution of an empty bottle and wineglass for Tu Fu’s gourd ladle and wine jar, the anachronisms are fairly unobtrusive and even appropriate in the light of Rexroth’s introductory remark that he hoped his translations were “true to the spirit of the originals, and valid English poems.” [Note 10] The liberties he has taken with the closing lines, however, are another matter. As we can see from Ayscough’s version, which closely follows the Chinese, Tu Fu gives little evidence of the vocational despair that nearly overwhelms the speaker in the end of “Snow Storm.” On the contrary, he is distressed over the absence of news and the futility of sending a letter because of the war and his captivity.

Here we encounter another significant departure in Rexroth’s version: suppression of the context in which Tu Fu was writing. As Ayscough’s commentary makes clear “Snow Falls” was written while the poet was a captive in the capital city of Ch’ang An after it had fallen to rebel forces during the catastrophic An Lu-shan Rebellion. Part of his distress over the absence of news and his desire to send a letter was that he was anxious to hear of the fate of the imperial court, which had fled into exile. There may be an implied vocational anxiety in the fact that the forty-five year old poet had been about to accept his first official appointment when the outbreak of the rebellion and the court’s subsequent flight prevented him from beginning a long-awaited career in the imperial service; but neither this poem nor any other he wrote during his captivity betrays the slightest loss of faith in the poetic vocation. Armed with this knowledge of the source text, we begin to have doubts about Rexroth’s claim of being “true to the spirit of the originals.”

Read as a translation in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, “Snow Storm” is a text that seems to lose something by being read in context, but this is not the context in which this poem from the Chinese of Tu Fu was written and presented, as we can see from this version of the text, published eleven years earlier in the April 1945 issue of The Briarcliff Quarterly:

      The War is Permanent

                              After Tu Fu

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

There is no difference between this version and the one in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese apart from their titles and bylines. Yet these two changes alone make a world of difference in the way we read and interpret the text. “The War is Permanent” is clearly a paraphrase: a poem that invites us to peer beneath the “half mask, half revelation” of a Chinese poet and read it as if it were one of Rexroth’s own. [Note 11] Or, as Rexroth put it in the notes to One Hundred Poems from the Chinese: “I have thought of my translations as, finally, expressions of myself.” [Note 12]. Buried in the middle of a three-page endnote devoted to Tu Fu’s life and times, the invitation is lost, and the use of the word “translation” makes it an equivocal invitation at best. [Note 13]
But there is no such equivocation in the April 1945 issue of The Briarcliff Quarterly. Here, whatever concerns we may have had over the faithfulness of his version become irrelevant. Indeed, we expect Rexroth to have taken liberties with his source and would be disappointed not to find those “allusions to the present” that distinguish the handiwork of the poet from that of the translator. [Note 14] Nor need we look further than the title, for Rexroth’s world was also at war. But in the context of a war that was, in April 1945, drawing to a close, the title has a polemical force that makes us pause for a moment to wonder why he would insist “The War is Permanent” when most Americans were already anticipating the peace and prosperity to follow. [Note 15] Is he alluding to the fact that (as Alfred Kazin would drearily observe in a Cold War memoir of “the lean and hungry thirties”) “the war, in the form of permanent rearmament, goes on and on”? [Note 16] Or is he is anticipating the Cold War that many American policy makers were already preparing for? Or the surging anti-communism on the “home front” that was driving a beleaguered left into silence? At which point, the line “Everywhere men speak in whispers” suddenly resonates with new interpretive possibilities and we realize that this poem is no less responsive to the times than Rexroth’s own poems of the period. But to read this paraphrase in context we really need the help of a good literary biographer and social historian.

Turning to Linda Hamalian’s formidably revealing A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (1991), we find that in 1944 the poet discovered, quite by accident, that former “comrats” of a once vigorous “Red San Francisco” had informed against him during the FBI investigation of his appeal for conscientious objector status. [Note 17] Although the poet won his draft appeal later that year, the revelations of the FBI investigation were only the most recent in a long series of personal frustrations over the fallen state of the left. In 1937, in the heyday of the Popular Front, he had been active in a number of Communist Front organizations and on the payroll of the Federal Writers Project, employment which provided him with both the companionship of politically sympathetic writers and opportunities to spend time in his beloved Sierras (Rexroth helped author the FWP’s Guide to California). [Note 18] This was the year he wrote many of the signature anarchist elegies on which he built his reputation as a poet on the left: “Requiem for the Spanish Dead,” “Autumn in California,” and other poems in which a climb through the Sierras provides the setting for uplifting meditations on the “Crisis of Capital,” “the Crisis of Fascism,” and the anarchist dream of “the withering of the State.” [Note 19] Although his politics were predominately anarchist and his poetry elegiac, his leftist regionalist verse found favor with poetry editors at both the Communist New Masses and the liberal New Republican. “I do not think there exists anything resembling a political problem in adjusting the work of our native ‘avant garde’ to the culture of the workingclass movement,” he professed with Whitmanic conviction in a 1937 essay on  “Poetry and Society.” [Note 20]

From the lofty prospects of that beacon year in the heyday of the Popular Front it was all down hill for this poet on the left. In 1938, disillusioned by the revelations of the Moscow “show trials,” Rexroth severed his ties to the Communist party; he also quite the WPA in frustration over “internal politics.” [Note 21] The following year, like everyone on the left, he stood appalled at the defeat of the loyalist cause in Spain and, six months later, the shock of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, which brought a swift end to the Popular Front and paved the way for the German invasion of Poland and the beginning of Rexroth’s “Permanent War.” [Note 22] With “the black aurora of war/ Spread over the sky of a decayed civilization,” as he bemoaned in “August 22, 1939,” the dream of a withering of the State devolved into an apocalyptic nightmare in which “values fall from history like men from shellfire” and all men “insulate” themselves from the principles that had formed the political basis of his poetic vocation. [Note 23] The title of the poem is itself a telegraphic comment on the poet’s diminished prospects. August 22, 1939 was both the eve of the “Hitler-Stalin Pact” and the twelfth anniversary of the execution of the anarchist martyrs Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a formative event in the genealogy of Rexroth’s political faith he had mourned two years earlier in “Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22, 1937.” In this bleak 1939 sequel, which opens with the question that would haunt him through much of the next decade (“What is it all for, this poetry?”), the recollection of the anarchist martyrs elicits no inspiration. It only returns the poet, in a futile repetition, to the question he began with; but in this instance it is presented in a manner that leaves no question as to the context in which Rexroth is writing:

What is it all for, this poetry,
This bundle of accomplishment
Put together with so much pain?
Do you remember the corpse in the basement?
What are we doing at the turn of our years,
Writers and readers of the liberal weeklies? [Note 24]

If the corpse in the basement is the revolution, the reference to writers and readers of the liberal weeklies registers the ideological changes in American life and letters that would soon drive him and other writers on the left into silence. As the crisis in Europe intensified antifascist sentiment and sympathy for the Allies, Rexroth’s fierce denouncements of the Roosevelt administration’s abandonment of strict neutrality put him at odds with editors of the dwindling number of journals willing to publish writing from the left. [Note 25] After Pearl Harbour, when virtually the entire American literary community “donned real or metaphoric uniforms in ‘the fight for national survival,’“ as Danial Aaron has observed, Rexroth, whose pacifist and libertarian convictions had roots in the forgotten figure of Randolph Bourne, saw the loss of political values translated into a loss of poetic venues. [Note 26] In 1941 only two of his poems found their way into print; the following year only one, and this in the small anarchist journal Retort; in 1943 he published nothing at all. [Note 27] He had indeed become a poet singing to himself.

Rexroth had no doubt seen the writing on the wall as early as the fall of 1940 when he saw the reviews to In What Hour, his first volume of poetry. Containing his entire “bundle of accomplishment” and published by the New York firm of Macmillan, the poet had hoped this volume would bring him the wider recognition he had longed for. Although it won the California Literature Silver Award, opinion on the East Coast, where the poet still looked for recognition, was disappointing to say the least. As Hamalian points out, several of the harshest reviews appeared in the “butcher paper” journals that had long patronized his work. [Note 28] The reviewer for The New Republic was not only scornful of Rexroth’s poetry; he entirely neglected to mention its political content — this in spite of the fact that, as a “baffled” Rexroth pointed out in a letter to the editor, several of the most political poems in In What Hour had been published in The New Masses during the reviewer’s tenure there as poetry editor. [Note 29] The reviewer for Partisan Review was not much kinder, for while he deigned to mention Rexroth politics he dismissed the poetry as “an amiable but thin and powerless realism.” [Note 30] The reviewer for the more politically conservative Poetry, well on its way to becoming the dowager empress of American modernism, was even more scornful of both his poetry and his politics, referring to the one as “hag-ridden by antecessors” and the other as “fulminations.” He even went so far as to close the book on Rexroth’s “twenty years at hard labor” by closing his review with an analogy that must have felt intimidating in the increasingly conservative political climate of the time: “we could scarcely expect his poems to be greatly unlike those articles fashioned by prison inmates for a stipend. I dislike stressing the parallel, but the Rexroth of In What Hour sorely needs either a change of occupation or a parole.” [Note 31] So much for adjusting the work of the native avant garde to the culture of the working class movement.

Small wonder then that Rexroth began to turn from politics to eros, philosophy, and the classics.This is not to say that he abandoned his politics. Although the war may have brought an end to his revolutionary idealism, ironically, it also gave him opportunities to mobilize his pacifist and libertarian convictions. He became a local representative of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors and formed a pacifist reading group called the Randolph Bourne Council, which would eventually cement his relationship with a younger generation of writers and artists who shared his convictions. [Note 32] In February 1942, after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the interment of the Japanese-American community, Rexroth helped establish the American Committee to Protect the Civil Rights of American Citizens of Oriental Ancestry and, with his wife’s assistance, converted his San Francisco flat into a “halfway house” for Japanese Americans who opposed the government’s draconian relocation plan. [Note 33] But in his poetry, however, the politics of the sublime, as it were, gives way to an aesthetics of the beautiful. The early forties sees him writing the first of the exquisitely erotic love poems — nearly all of which have the Sierras as their mise en scene and his second wife as his nameless erotic other — that would fill his second volume of poetry, The Phoenix and the Tortoise. These he hoped would provide “a basis for the recreation of a system of values in sacramental marriage” that he spells out in that collection’s long philosophical poem. [Note 34] The same period sees the first of his “epigrams of resignation” — many paraphrased or pastiched from the Greek and Latin — that give voice to his “sense of desperation and abandon in the face of a collapsing system of values.” [Note 35]

The Tu Fu paraphrases did not come until a few years later, after America’s entry into the war left the poet feeling like an exile in his own country and the FBI investigation gave “exile” a fearful dimension. [Note 36] Like other poets who had come to the end of America’s “Democratic Vistas,” Rexroth sought a “Passage to the Orient.” [Note 37] He had long been familiar with the poet’s work through the translations of Witter Bynner and Florence Ayscough and admired the poet immensely. Part of Tu Fu’s appeal for Rexroth was no doubt his “simplicity” and “directness,” as Rexroth had often remarked, but what prompted him to turn to Tu Fu now was his despair over the fall of empire and chronic unemployment were easily translated into Rexroth’s despair over the loss of the social cause in which he had once employed his poetry. [Note 38] “Poetry like Tu Fu’s,” as Rexroth would acknowledge in 1956, “is the answer to the question, ‘What is the purpose of Art?’”; which is virtually the same question he had posed to the writers and readers of the liberal weeklies “August 22, 1939”; for which the answer Rexroth would provide many years later was: “elegiac reverie [or] as Whitehead said of religion, What man does with his aloneness.” [Note 39]

But there are other sources of personal frustration at work in Rexroth’s rewriting of the “half-mask, half revelation” of  “The War is Permanent,” as we can see from this distraught letter the poet wrote in December of 1944 to his close friend and publisher, James Laughlin:

... You know Jim, I guess I am beginning to get a little bit snakey... The fact that I do not seem able to ever become selfsupporting, let alone capable of supporting a wife and home and children, is beginning to destroy me, as it has, apparently, destroyed my marriage. Marie [Kass, Rexroth’s second wife] has run away again — partly because she is sure I am sleeping with June [Oppen] — which just happens not to be true — but I think mostly because it has become literally impossible for her to keep our household functioning on her salary. It is just absurd that a person as smart and talented and whatnot as I am should be unable to feed himself. I have worked terribly hard, and done good, permanent work — and I have passed the turn of my life and I am a beggar with no more recognition than the slightest poetaster. Nothing in this life or any other is more important to me than my marriage — yet it is constantly falling to pieces — and is probably gone for good this time. I think of Ezra [Pound], who has always been better fixed in every way than me, growing diseased with bitterness — and it horrifies me. Why in the name of god did I ever choose such a profession? It horrifies me to think that behind what I really believe is some of the best love poetry of the 20th century lies vast expanses of jealous recrimination and bickering about money. I don’t care how great the accomplishment is — it isn’t worth the price. [Note 40]

Rexroth may have exaggerated his distress in order to bolster a letter he had started as an apology for “attacks” he had made on Laughlin’s New York office for not doing more to promote The Phoenix and the Tortoise. [Note 41] The book had been out for several months, sales were sluggish, and he had yet to see a single review. But if the letter began as an apology, it soon turns into a prose poem of personal and vocational despair. His frustration over the book’s reception seems almost anticlimactic in comparison with the frustrations he was now facing. As his letter shows, the poet had been dependent upon his wife for the freedom to write full time. (What he doesn’t mention is that one of the causes for her frustration with the marriage was his tendency to burden her with onerous secretarial chores.) [Note 42] Marie’s departure — not the first by any means since their relationship became troubled the previous year — left him with both the specter of finding a job and the spectacle of witnessing the collapse of his “new system of values in sacramental marriage.” Her departure must have rattled his vocational confidence, for he turns his “prose poem” into an appeal for financial help and reassurances about the value of his “accomplishment,” the word he had used in “August 22, 1939.” [Note 43]

But worries over money and the “uselessness of letters” were compounded by the poet’s anxiety over impending middle age. In this stormy winter of 1944-1945, the poet was approaching his thirty-ninth birthday (he was born on December 22, 1905) or, by Chinese count, his “fortieth year,” prompting him to turn to the following poem from the Chinese of Tu Fu in the English of Florence Ayscough:

      A New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House

The year   has paced   through the constellations,   we
      hold vigil   in the house   of my younger   brother;
The Red Pepper   Dish   has already   been extolled
      in song.

All assembled   are of one mind;   from the stable
      comes noise   of horses;
Glare   from the candles   arranged in rows   startles
      crows   from the trees.

At bright   dawn   my years will bridge   four   tens;
I fly,   I gallop   towards the slanting   shadows of

Who   can   alter this,   who can bridle,   who restrain
      the moments?
Fiery   intoxication   is   a life’s   career. [Note 44]

From which he made the following paraphrase:

      New Year’s Eve

                              After Tu Fu

The men and beast of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire. [Note 45]

This paraphrase, which appears under the title “Winter Dawn,” in 100 Poems from the Chinese, is even more moving than “The Permanent War” but so are its departures. [Note 46]

As Ayscough’s commentary points out, this poem was not composed after the outbreak of the An Lu Shan Rebellion but five years earlier during the long and prosperous peace that the rebellion brought to an end. Yet Rexroth has introduced a martial note into the opening description. Anachronisms abound and are far more conspicuous. “Green wine bottles,” “red lobster shells,” and “cars starting” not only transport the poet into the Twentieth Century, they place him in a milieu readers of The Briarcliff Quarterly may well have imagined as the San Francisco Rexroth made his home even without knowing he was a resident of that city on the bay. Striking as these are, nothing quite prepares us for the quotation from Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne.” This anachronism provides one of the most touching moments of the poem and yet the sentiments it conveys are quite out of season. For the Chinese, as Ayscough’s translation suggest, New Year’s Eve is a time for family members to come together to renew loyalties and affections, distribute gifts, and above all eat, which gives the occasion a social significance more like Christmas or Thanksgiving. For Americans, of course, New Year’s Eve is a time for renewing ties with lovers, friends, and “auld acquaintances,” as the line from Burns so forcefully illustrates. Rexroth has magnified these cultural differences by deleting all references to family and “family time.” He has also replaced the symbol of this joyful occasion (“Red Pepper Dish”) with objects that are literally emptied of their cultural meaning; recalling the spilt wineglass and empty bottle in “The War is Permanent,” these too “litter the table” as the material signs and symbols of his depressed condition. Moreover, he has turned the clock forward many hours, for in Ayscough’s version the “New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House” has only begun and the guests are “all assembled” and “of one mind.” [Note 47] In Rexroth’s it is over, and whatever joy and fellow feeling the gathering may have occasioned for those who remain behind has dissolved as “Each/ sits listening to his own thoughts.”

In reading the poem through the first time, it is not until we reach this line that we realize the quotation from Burns’s is not sung in this instance, but recalled as a question, and one that no longer seems rhetorical: For Rexroth, “the Party” was over in more than one sense of the word. This lapse into a pensive and anatomized silence after the conviviality implied by the reference to “Auld Lang Syne” is all the more chilling by virtue of Rexroth’s substitution of Ayscough’s “all” with a conspicuously enjambed “Each.” Here too a line break partially conceals a literary allusion that engages Rexroth’s despair over his lost anarchist prospects; “Each/ Sits listening to his own thoughts” closely echoes a memorable line from the climactic opening of a classic of the anarchist revolutionary tradition, Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. This is the moment where the young Berkman, in the company of Emma Goldman, makes the calamitous decision to assassinate Henry Clay Frick after reading a newspaper account of how the industrialist ordered Pinkerton guards to fire upon steelworkers and their families during the Homestead Strike against Carnegie Steel in 1892: “We sit in silence, each busy with his own thoughts. Only now and then we exchange a word, a searching, significant look.” [Note 48]

It is not the revolution of a hopelessly incompetent and politically naïve assassin that Rexroth is alluding to here but the revolution of the pacifist and libertarian who emerged from his thirteen-year prison ordeal “humanized, tolerant, able to sympathize with the most diverse and antagonistic individuals.” [Note 49] The fact that Berkman had opposed American participation in the First World War and spent his final years in a debilitating silence, his writing ignored, only underscores the poignancy of the allusion.

As with “The War is Permanent,” Rexroth reserve’s his greatest departure for the closing lines. Both versions show the speaker imagining the following afternoon, but in Ayscough’s, which, again, closely follows the Chinese, he is galloping towards the sunset. While he does not have full control over his steed, there is a sense of exhilaration in his flight toward his “sunset years,” as they say, as if the future were a field of action and promising possibilities. In Rexroth’s version, on the other hand, the it is not the poet that is “Borne headlong/ Towards the long shadows of sunset,” but life itself, as if the poet were merely a hapless spectator in a future in which all action, including flight, were foreclosed: a field waiting to be consumed in a California brush fire.

Ironically, by the time “New Year’s Eve” appeared in print the war was over and the bleak future that Rexroth had imagined for himself in the winter dawn of his fortieth year was more like that of his source text than his paraphrase. These were the beginning of “Happy Days” for Rexroth. [Note 50] By war’s end he had reconciled with his wife, had transformed his home into a “mecca” for writers and artists who shared his pacifist and libertarian convictions, was publishing regularly, and involved in journalistic and editorial ventures that brought him a small income and a renewed sense of professional worth. By the end of the decade, his career was flourishing and he was well on his way to establishing his postwar reputation as a man of letters. With the decline of his vocational despair and the transformation of his vocational identity, so declined his incentive to rewrite Tu Fu’s poetry. There are five he made during the war which I have not discussed: “Farewell Once More, To My Friend Yen at Feng Chi Station,” “Night in the House by the River,” and “Dawn Over the Mountains,” which were included without titles in The Phoenix and the Tortoise;” “Moon Festival,” which appeared with “The War is Permanent” in The Briarcliff Quaterly; and “A Restless Night at Camp,” which was published in the Fall 1945 issue of Retort. [Note 51]   Of the remaining poems from the Chinese of Tu Fu, most were made in the early fifties after Rexroth had adjusted himself to the liberal ideology that came to dominate American letters in the postwar era. Few touch on war or its consequences for the poet, and those that do show Tu Fu brooding on the fall of empire or his own fall from imperial grace are more elegiac than grief-stricken. None show the angst-ridden figure we encounter in “New Year’s Eve” and other Tu Fu paraphrases from the war. Some are quite social and evince great confidence in his “bundle of accomplishment,” as we can see from this translation Rexroth originally made as a Christmas present for his friend, the poet Richard Eberhart:

      To Pi Ssu Yao

We have talent. People call us
The leading poets of our day.
Too bad, our homes are humble,
Our recognition trivial.
Hungry, ill clothed, servants treat
Us with contempt. In the prime
Of life, our faces are wrinkled.
Who cares about either of us,
Or our troubles? We are our own
Own audience. We appreciate
Each other’s literary
Merits. Our poems will be handed
Down along with great dead poets’.
We can console each other.
At least we shall have descendants. [Note 52]

I haven’t provided Rexroth’s source text here because this translation, like most of those he made in the fifties, is surprisingly faithful. Which is not to say that it would not gain from being read in the context in which it was written. In the context of a life that was coming to resemble Tu Fu’s, the assertion, “I have thought of my translations as, finally, expressions of myself,” no longer seems equivocal.

[Note 1] — “Chinese Literature,” The Chinese Year Book. 1944-45 (Shanghai: The China Daily Tribune Publishing Company, 1944-45) 115-128, 119. By chance, Ch’ien makes this statement in a discussion of the Chinese translations of Ezra Pound, which may explain why the sentence is primarily in German and why the essay is larded with quotations from other European languages. I suspect the context in which Ch’ien was writing may have also played a role in his conspicuous display of erudition: a postwar Shanghai in which the largely expatriate readers of The Chinese Year Book tended to look down upon Chinese intellectuals. If so, it would certainly lend weight to his assertion.

[Note 2] — Or, as Rexroth put it crudely at the time in reference to Muriel Rukeyser: “She, like all of us, is definitely dropping the class struggle for the ass struggle” (Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters Ed. Lee Bartlett (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991) 55.

[Note 3] — Morrow’s “Thoughts on Rexroth’s Prosody,” can be found in the Kenneth Rexroth section of Modern American Poetry: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2000), edited by Cary Nelson ( The literary biographer I have in mind is, of course, Linda Hamalian, whose formidable, and formidably revealing, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: Norton, 1991) provides an indispensable guide to Rexroth’s life and times.

[Note 4] — The words in quotations are borrowed from the title of William Stafford’s Rexroth tribute, “A Five Foot Shelf,” Poetry 111 (December 1967): 158-160.

[Note 5]One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New York: New Directions, 1956) 6.

[Note 6] — xi.

[Note 7] — See, for example, John L. Bishop’s review of One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, in Comparative Literature 10.1 (Winter 1958): 61-68.

[Note 8] — Like Pound, Rexroth eventually memorized several hundred Chinese characters but he never acquired sufficient command of Chinese to translate directly from the language without the aid of an English crib or translation. As Ling Chung has shown, the vast majority of Rexroth’s poems from the Chinese were made from either English or French sources without his ever having consulted the Chinese. “A Checklist for the Possible Sources of Kenneth Rexroth’s Chinese Translations” can be found in her 1972 dissertation, “Kenneth Rexroth and Chinese Poetry. Translation, Imitation, and Adaptation” (University of Wisconsin) 254-277.

[Note 9]Tu Fu: The Autobiography of a Chinese Poet, A.D. 712-770 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929) 228-229. I have preserved Ayscough’s somewhat eccentric line breaks and spacing. Each group of words corresponds to an individual character in the original Chinese. At the urging of the poet Amy Lowell, with whom she collaborated on one of the first American collections of Chinese poetry in translation, Fir Flower Tablets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), Ayscough developed an eccentric theory that the etymological derivations of Chinese characters conveyed important “overtones” in classical poetry. To convey some of these “overtones” in English, she occasionally glossed characters and phrases within the body of her translations. Her “breath of news exhaled, breath of news inhaled, has ceased,” is one of the more egregious example.

[Note 10]One Hundred Poems from the Chinese xi.

[Note 11] — Rexroth uses the mask metaphor in his description of Tu Fu’s “poetic personality” in the endnote to One Hundred Poems from the Chinese 135.

[Note 12] — 136.

[Note 13] — Several scholars have remarked on the ambivalence in Rexroth’s staement but, as far as I know, only Ling Chung, a Taiwanese scholar who wrote her dissertation on “Kenneth Rexroth and Chinese Poetry,” appears to have recognized that Rexroth “projected his experience and convictions into some Tu Fu translations” (“This Ancient Man is I: Kenneth Rexroth’s Versions of Tu Fu,” Renditions 21-22 [1984]: 308-330, 328). Unfortunately, Chung did her research more than a decade before the appearance of Linda Hamalian’s 1991 biography and the Rexroth-Laughlin correspondence and was therefore not in a position to read Rexroth’s translations in the contexts in which they were written.

[Note 14] — The phrase in quotations is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s discussion of the German and French comparative approaches to translating the classics, in The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 136-138. Although Nietzsche speaks in the disapproving voice of a German classicist outraged by the French poets’ “conquest” of the text, his sympathies in this quarrel over the treatment of the classics are clearly with the other side.

[Note 15] — As this paraphrase was not among the three Tu Fu paraphrases Rexroth included in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, which appeared in print in November 1944, “The Permanent War” was most likely made during the late fall or early winter of that year. By which time the Allied forces were already closing on Germany and the U.S. offensive in the Pacific had advanced as far as the Philippines. By the time the paraphrase appeared in print the war in Europe was virtually over and victory in the Pacific inevitable if not imminent.

[Note 16]Starting Out in the Thirties (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1965) 166. Kazin started out as a writer on the left in the thirties but did not end up there.

[Note 17] — For a summary of some of these reports, see Hamalian 129.  

[Note 18] — Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996) provides a concise but comprehensive description of the political and social basis of the Popular Front: “The Popular Front was the insurgent social movement forged from the militancy of the fledgling CIO, the antifascist solidarity with Spain, Ethiopia, China, and the refugees from Hitler, and the political struggles on the left wing of the New Deal. Born out of the social upheavals of 1934 and coinciding with the Communist party’s period of greatest influence in US society, the Popular Front became a radical historical bloc uniting industrial unionists, Communists, independent socialists, community activists, and émigré anti-fascists around laborist social democracy, anti-fascism, and anti-lynching” (4).

[Note 19] — The terms in quotations, typical of the leftist discourse of the Thirties, are not from Resroth’s poems but from his essays of the period.

[Note 20]The Coast 1 (Spring 1937): 36.

[Note 21] — Rexroth denied that he was ever a member of the Communist Party, but Hamalian is persuaded he joined in 1935 and withdrew a few years latter (84). In either case, he had long been active in a number of Communist front organizations. In the early thirties, he and his first wife, Andrée Schafer, who was a Communist Party member, helped form the San Francisco John Reed Club, which was later absorbed into the League of the American Writers. He was also a member of the League for the Struggle of Negro Rights and participated in the San Francisco General Strike of 1934.

[Note 22] — As Daniel Aaron has noted, the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact “virtually killed Communist Party influence over the intellectual community of the United States” (“Literary Scenes and Literary Movements,” Columbia Literary History of the United States Ed. Emory Elliott [New York, Columbia University Press, 1988] 733–757, 749.

[Note 23]Collected Shorter Poems 98.

[Note 24] — 99.

[Note 25] — See Hamalian for a summary of Rexroth’s “wrathful” exchange with the editors of The New Republic over American neutrality (102).

[Note 26] — Aaron 755.

[Note 27] — See James Hartzell and Richard Zumwinkle’s Kenneth Rexroth/ a Checklist of His Published Writings (Los Angeles: Friends of the UCLA Library, University of California, 1967).

[Note 28] — Hamalian 105.

[Note 29] — Rolf Humphries, “Too Much Abstraction,” The New Republic (12 August 1940): 221. Rexroth’s letter appeared under the title, “Literary Argument,” in The New Republic (11 November 1940): 663-664.

[Note 30] — Gordan Sylander, Partisan Review 7.6 (November-December, 1940): 482-483.

[Note 31] — William FitzGerald, “Twenty Years at Hard Labor,” Poetry 57 (November 1940): 158-160.

[Note 32] — Hamalian 116.

[Note 33] — As Hamalian notes, Rexroth also came up with a scheme for providing Japanese evacuees with educational passes to enable them to transfer out of the interment camps to areas of the country where anti-Japanese sentiment was less severe (113-114).

[Note 34]The Phoenix and the Tortoise (New York: New Directions, 1944) 9.

[Note 35] — 9.

[Note 36] — Rexroth uses the term “exile” in this sense in “August 22, 1939”.

[Note 37] — The phrases in quotation are Whitman’s but the tendency to seek a “Passage to the Orient” is characteristic of many American poets, especially those, like Rexroth, with a strong social agenda.

[Note 38] — In a “Symposium on Chinese Poetry and the American Imagination,” Gary Snyder observed that one of the appeals of Chinese poetry pointed out that it offered role role models unavailable to American poets “forced, willy-nilly, to all be alienated revolutionaries.” Ironwood (1981): 11–21, 38–51, 14.

[Note 39] — This last quote is from Rexroth’s essay on Tu Fu in Classics Revisited (New York: Avon Books, 1968) 126-131, 127.

[Note 40]Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters 46-47.

[Note 41] —   Judging from their exchange, Rexroth’s “attacks” (Laughlin’s word) were quite unjustified.

[Note 42] — Their disintegrating relationship is the primary subject of Hamalian’s twelfth chapter, “Private Battles 1943-1944” (130-141).

[Note 43] — According to Hamalian, Marie’s “powders,” as Rexroth referred to her flights, began the previous year (see “Private Battles 1943-1944” 130-141). Curiously, Hamalian, who is otherwise exhaustive in her treatment of the poet’s marital relationships, neglects to mention this December “powder.”

[Note 44]Tu Fu: The Autobiography of a Chinese Poet 110-111.

[Note 45]Briarcliff Quarterly 2 (October 1945): 127.

[Note 46]One Hundred Poems from the Chinese 5.

[Note 47] — In “This Ancient Man is I,” Ling Chung points out Rexroth turned the occasion into “the closing moments of a birthday party held for a forty year old poet in Twentieth Century America” (317).

[Note 48] — Alexander Berkman, Life of an Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader. Ed. Gene Fellner (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1992) 7.

[Note 49] — “Alexander Berkman,” reprinted in More Classics Revisited. Ed. Bradford Morrow (New York: New Directions, 1989) 121-124, 122. Perhaps needless to say, Rexroth was opposed to political violence even against the State. Fortunately for Frick, Berkman bungled the assassination; fortunately for Berkman, he was so incompetent in the role of political assassin that he was not given a death sentence.

[Note 50] — “Happy Days” is the title of Hamalian’s chapter dealing with the years 1945-1947. Here, as elsewhere, my biographical sketches are greatly indebted to her biography.

[Note 51] — For the convenience of those who would like to read these remaining Tu Fu paraphrases in the context in which they were written but have no knowledge of Chinese or access to Rexroth’s sources, let me note a few of the more exemplary departures from the source text. But first, note that his choices are themselves exemplary of the pattern of his rewriting, for three have war as a prominent mise en scene and two introduce vocational anxieties where none were originally expressed. In “Night in the House by the River,” for example, Rexroth also transforms an expression of distress over the absence of news caused political uprising into an angst-ridden declaration of poetic isolation: “Poetry and letters/ Persist in silence and solitude” (One Hundred Poems from the Chinese 29). In this paraphrase the “Red Decade” is also conjured up in Rexroth’s substitution of “workers” for “fisherman” and “woodchoppers.” In “Moon Festival,” although there is no direct mention of poetry and letters, his professional frustrations are, I believe, implicit in his rendering of the poem’s closing lines: “The moonlight/ Means nothing to the soldiers/ Camped in the western deserts” (8) This is a complete reversal of Ayscough’s version, which closely follows the Chinese in insisting “No  moon  should shine  above the encampments  of our soldiers   to the West,” precisely because moonlight is not a mirror for the poetic arts but a poetic expression for the longing for home and thus means everything to the soldiers camped on the western deserts. Both here and elsewhere, Rexroth exaggerates Tu Fu’s social isolation, often to the point of introducing a note of desperation missing in his sources. In “A Restless Night at Camp,” for example, Ayscough’s “Rare   stars   for a moment    seen,    then not” is transformed into an  ominous “One by one the stars go out,” which is followed a few lines later by an image whose baleful echoes of Genesis (“Birds cry over the water”) are a far cry from the almost comforting tableau presented in Ayscough’s version of the line (“Beside water   sleep   wild birds — they call   to each other.”) (23). Similarly, in “Farewell Once More, To My Friend Yen at Feng Chi Station,” Tu Fu’s isolation (“Silent,  solitary,   to nourish   breaking   years.”) is translated into an almost intractable social condition (“Mute, friendless, feeding the crumbling years” [italics mine]) (22). This image of the poet as a speechless and powerless witness to the ravages of time in a world in which time and the world are themselves being ravaged recalls the closing lines of “New Year’s Eve.”

[Note 52] — Rexroth mentions the Eberhart context in his note for the translation, which appears in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese 15. Without access to their correspondence it is impossible for me to pinpoint the year Rexroth made this translation for Eberhart. It could not have been earlier than the winter of 1946, which is when they first met. As it did not appear in print until One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, I suspect it was made it about the same time he wrote “Our Home is in the Rocks,” which also pays poetic tribute to Eberhart. This would place it in or around the winter of 1953.

Steve Bradbury has published poems and translations in boundary 2, Poetry International, Raritan and elsewhere, and two volumes of translation, Fusion Kitsch: Poems from the Chinese of Hsia Yü (Brookline, Massachusetts: Zephyr Press, 2001) and Poems from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh (Kane’ohe, Hawai’i: Tinfish Press, 2003).

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