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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Sam Hamill
The Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth

‘We have preferred the power that apes greatness — Alexander first of all, and then the Roman conquerors, whom our school history books, in an incomparable vulgarity of soul, teach us to admire. We have conquered in our turn... our reason has swept everything away. Alone at last, we build our empire upon a desert. How then could we conceive that higher balance in which nature balanced history, beauty, and goodness, and which brought the music of numbers even into the tragedy of blood? We turn our back on nature, we are ashamed of beauty. Our miserable tragedies have the smell of an office, and their blood is the color of dirty ink.’

— Albert Camus

The year was 1948.

Camus’ relationships with Andre Breton and Jean-Paul Sartre had begun to feel the strain that would eventually lead him to disavow all ties with the existentialists. In North America, the official policies of the Cold War were under way: Sen. Joseph McCarthy had recruited young politicos like Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon to help him ‘purge the United States Government of Communist infiltrators.’ And poetry was the province of New Critics.

Four years earlier, before the end of World War II, Kenneth Rexroth had written in his note on the poems collected in The Phoenix And the Tortoise, ‘If the shorter poems might well be dedicated to [D.H.] Lawrence, “The Phoenix And the Tortoise” might well be dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, the man who in our time pre-eminently has realized the dream of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo died impotent and broken, all his projects half done. He proved that the human will is too small a door for the person to force through into universality. Schweitzer is an outstanding example of a man who found that door which is straight, and smaller than a needle’s eye, but through which the universalization of the human soul, the creation of the true person, comes freely, as a guest.’ Twenty years earlier, Rexroth resolved his own differences with Tzara and Breton in a ‘cubist’ poem, ‘Fundamental Disagreement with Two Contemporaries,’ later collected in The Art of Wordly Wisdom (1949) under the section heading ‘Interoffice Communications.’ The exact nature of their disagreement remains for speculation. But one thing is clear: Rexroth believed that the ‘universalization of the human soul, the creation of the true person,’ may come freely, but only after enormous struggle to find that ‘door which is straight, and smaller than a needle’s eye.’ His own search for the door would lead him through the history of philosophy, comparative religion and the history of ideas, including a long study of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Among the Greek and Latin translations which complete The Phoenix And the Tortoise are three poems by the T’ang dynasty poet, Tu Fu. Rexroth had become interested in Chinese poetry when he discovered Ezra Pound’s Cathay while still in his teens. While in his twenties, he corresponded with Pound, who introduced him to James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions and Rexroth’s lifelong friend. The nature of the correspondence remains a mystery. Rexroth was deeply involved in the early Thirties with the Wobblies and all kinds of left wing causes; Pound immersed himself in the economic theories of Major Douglas and Social Credit, and actively supporting Mussolini. And writing The Cantos.

In the long title poem, Rexroth incorporates paraphrases and translations of Japanese tanka from Gotoku Daiji, Hyakunin Isshu, Lady Akazome Emon, Emperor Sanjo, and many others. By nineteen-forty-eight, his course and methodology were set. He adopted something similar to what has since been labeled the ‘ideogrammic method’ first advocated by Ezra Pound. Rexroth layers time and experience, philosophy and concrete image in ways not unlike those of Pound and Williams. One of the clearest early examples is Rexroth’s ‘When We with Sappho.’ It begins with a direct translation of the famous fragment, ‘About the cool water / the wind sounds...’ but suddenly becomes an intensely personal love poem that runs nearly four pages beyond the opening translation. Sappho becomes a presence opening the mind of the poet. A door. Pound asserted, ‘All genius is contemporary.’ Rexroth’s poetry incorporates the past as a presence in daily consciousness. What he reads is an essential element of mundane reality.

William Carlos Williams, reviewing the book in The Quarterly Review of Literature, would say almost nothing about translation. And of Rexroth’s philosophy he wrote, ‘I know nothing of mysticism... I’m going to try to take out the poetry, appraise it as best I can and leave the mysticism, as far as I can, intact. But first let me say that this is one of the most completely realized arguments I have encountered in a book of verse in my time.’ The long title poem is rich in what Williams called mysticism. It begins with the geologic past of the California Coast Range, moving quickly and surely into ‘the falling light of the Spartan/ Heroes of the late Hellenic dusk,’ while considering various ideas of Aquinas, early Chinese philosophers, some ancient Greeks, and far too many other references and accretions to quote out of context. The ‘dance of the intellect among the ten thousand things,’ an ancient Chinese poet might say.

Rexroth received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948 and traveled in Europe, working on his long poem, ‘The Dragon and the Unicorn.’ That same year, he added the finishing strokes to one of the most beautifully conceived and executed volumes of poetry since Pound’s Cathay, The Signature of All Things. Most of the poems and poems-in-translation were composed to be sung, their melodies an essential part of the composition. Among these poems, two elegies stand out: ‘Delia Rexroth,’ a poem addressed to the poet’s mother who died in 1916 when he was eleven; and ‘Andree Rexroth,’ an elegy for the woman to whom he was married for thirteen years and who died in 1940 following years of struggle with an inherited brain disease. There is also a remarkable homage, ‘A Letter to William Carlos Williams,’ in which Rexroth observes, ‘And you’re “pure”, too,/ A real classic, though not loud/ About it — a whole lot like/ The girls of the Anthology./ Not like strident Sappho, who/ For all her grandeur, must have/ Had endometriosis,/ But like Anyte, who says/ Just enough, softly, for all/ The thousands of years to remember...’

The poem illuminates the ‘sacramental relationships’ that he had come to understand as essential to poetry, and does so at least in part by praising, not Williams’s famous optimism, but its necessity and its profound consequence. Rexroth clung to hope despite devastating personal and social losses and a struggle with deep-seated paranoia, but he was no wide-eyed optimist. He believed that love is the sacramental expression of hope and responsibility:

Between Two Wars

Remember that breakfast one November —
Cold black grapes smelling faintly
Of the cork they were packed in,
Hard rolls with hot, white flesh,
And thick, honey sweetened chocolate?
And the parties at night; the gin and the tangos?
The torn hair nets, the lost cuff links?
Where have they all gone to,
The beautiful girls, the abandoned hours?
They said we were lost, mad and immoral,
And interfered with the plans of management.
And today, millions and millions, shut alive
In the coffins of circumstance,
Beat on the buried lids,
Huddle in the cellars of ruins, and quarrel
Over their own fragmented flesh.

‘They have hope,’ Thales said, ‘who have nothing else.’ By age forty-three, Rexroth had survived the deaths of his mother and first wife; he had roamed the west during the Depression and written trail guides for the WPA; he worked as camp cook and roustabout in the Cascades and hiked through the Sierras. During World War II, he was a conscientious objector who worked in a hospital and personally provided sanctuary for Japanese-Americans. Upon the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans at the outset of World War II, he declared his ‘disaffiliation from the American capitalist state’ complete — and for the remaining years of his life, he would view American letters and history not as a disaffiliated passive bystander recollecting in tranquility nor in bitterness, but as an alienated activist-poet, a devoted social commentator and agitator.

He wrote literary journalism ‘for money or for log-rolling for one’s friends.’ He was one of the great essayists of his age, and some of his best were simply dictated, then transcribed from tape, including his book American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971).

His poems reflect an increasingly breathtaking sweep of understanding — the languages and cultures he studied and his passion naturalism and the poetries of pre-literate peoples. He studie Kabbalah and Gnosticism. Reading the Encyclodpedia Brittanica inspired his poem, ‘GIC to HAR.’ He read it, ‘Straight through. Like a novel.’ He translated poems by Neruda and Lorca, Heine, classical Chinese poetry, Japanese classics, the French of Oscar Milosz and Pierre Reverdy; he studied Bakunin and the Anarchists, Buddhist and Taoist classics, the Gita and the Greeks of the Anthology; he wrote reviews on jazz, newspaper columns and composed a libretto for a ballet, ‘Original Sin,’ that was performed in San Francisco with music composed and lead by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. He edited an anthology of new young English poets, one of whom, Denise Levertov, he praised and promoted tirelessly although they had never met. He also persuaded New Directions to publish Levertov and William Everson, who would later don the robes of Dominican Catholicism and publish as Brother Antoninus.

By nineteen-fifty-eight, the American political scenario had changed. Suburbia was spreading everywhere. Eisenhower was warning of the immanent threat of the ‘military-industrial complex,’ while much of the country enjoyed a feeling of wellbeing, but for the Cold War. And the San Francisco Renaissance was in full swing. Rexroth promoted poets on the airwaves at KPFA, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the surrealist Philip Lamantia, the young Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Levertov, Brother Antoninus, and many others. He helped found the San Francisco Poetry Center at San Fracisco State University and wrote his ‘Classics Review’ columns surveying the literature of the world.

Then Jack Kerouac’s prose swept through a generation like a brushfire. Rexroth would later claim in a letter to Morgan Gibson that he’d never read [Kerouac’s novel] The Dharma Bums. That seems hard to believe since the book is mostly about Gary Snyder, whom Rexroth promoted tirelessly. But he despised being labeled, ‘father of the Beats.’ He and Kerouac didn’t like each other. Nevertheless, the publication and obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ was the result of a poetry reading in November, nineteen-fifty-six, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, organized by Kenneth Rexroth. Although the audience was tiny, it shook American poetry — indeed the poetry of most of the world — to its very core. When called to testify in court, Rexroth confounded the prosecution by placing Ginsberg’s poem in the Old Testament tradition of the prophets who came forth to testify against social inequities.

It has often been pointed out that the major inspiration for Ginsberg’s poem probably was not as much Walt Whitman as Rexroth’s lament upon the death of Dylan Thomas, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ written in nineteen-fifty-three, with heavy cadences, end-stopped lines, and barely contained anger.

They are murdering all the young men.
For half a century now, every day,
They have hunted them down and killed them.
They are killing the young men.
They know ten thousand ways to kill them.
Every year they invent new ones.
In the jungles of Africa,
In the marshes of Asia,
In the deserts of Asia,
In the slave pens of Siberia,
In the slums of Europe,
In the nightclubs of America,
The murderers are at work.
You killed him,
Benign Lady on the postage stamp.
He was found dead at a Liberal Weekly luncheon.
He was found dead on the cutting room floor.
He was found dead at a Time policy conference.
Henry Luce killed him with a telegram to the Pope.
Mademoiselle strangled him with a padded brassiere.
Old Possum sprinkled him with a tea ball.
After the wolves were done, the vaticides
Crawled off with his bowels to their classrooms and quarterlies.
The Gulf Stream smells of blood
As it breaks on the sand of Iona
And the blue rocks of Canarvon.
And all the birds of the deep rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
‘You killed him! You killed him.
In you God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
You son of a bitch.

Kenneth Rexroth would not be caught in a ‘coffin of circumstance.’ His house had become a weekly meetingplace for existentialist poets, free-love advocates, artists and literary hangers-on. He had married a third time and was the father of two girls when his marriage collapsed in 1955. He would later say of those years that, if nothing else, he finally had some readers he didn’t know on a first name basis. In the early days, these gatherings were vital and exciting, but by the time Snyder and Whalen were leaving for Japan, Duncan was disengaging himself, and Brother Antoninus was in his retreat, Rexroth was about out of patience with strung out ‘Beatniks’ who arrived with their imitations of On the Road. He charged them with being ‘mere examples of a veneer, a gastro-pharmaceutical change rather than of a profound spiritual awakening.’ Most of his closest friends in San Francisco were ‘Beat poets.’ Was he? ‘An entomologist,’ he declared, ‘is not a bug.’

In 1958, he married his longtime lover, but that marriage ended in 1961. He disliked what he saw on the San Francisco horizon as the Cold War intensified and America began building for war in southeast Asia. He wrote. He withdrew somewhat. A gourmet who insisted that today’s groceries be purchased today, he lived from hand to mouth, but insisted, ‘In America, being poor is no excuse for not eating well.’ Devasted by failed marriages and alienated from many of his old friends, his last years in San Francisco were difficult, and finally, after forty-four years in the city, he decided to leave. Rexroth moved to Santa Barbara in 1968 and in 1974 married his secretary/paramour Carol Tinker. He taught two courses at the University of California — a poetry-and-music class designed for a dozen or so students, but drew over 400 students during the protests against American involvement in Viet Nam; and a weekly ‘evening-with-Kenneth’ modeled largely on the salons he’d enjoyed in the city. He reveled in the company of young people eager to learn from a scholar out of office. Friends and students would gather at his little house in Montecito with wine and cheese, and Rexroth would install himself in a huge easy chair in a corner of the tiny living room and read in French, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Spanish, giving spontaneous translations of the poems along with capsule biographies of the poets under discussion. Everything lead to into his great web of learning. One could hardly be expected to understand the poetry of Georg Trakl without understanding German expressionism, traditional taboos pertaining to incest, pre-World War I economic conditions in Europe, the history of German rebellion against the Catholic church, the peculiarly German approach to anarchism in Trakl’s milieu, and of course the poet’s troubled mind.

The ‘class’ was a long conversation, often shaped by antiwar activities, but always leading directly back into Rexroth’s passionate learning. He believed poetry embodied a history of ideas that could become a path to enlightenment. His appetite for knowledge was insatiable and he had almost perfect recall. He was a unique inconoclast, a pacifist who loved to tweak the noses of burgeois complacency, but whose paranoia sometimes left friends utterly confounded. He believed the embodiment of justice could not be separate from the physical and emotional expression of compassion, and could still declare, ‘You killed him... You son of a bitch!’

‘Erotic love,’ the poet was fond of saying, ‘is one of the highest forms of contemplation.’ Spirituality and erotic love could not be separated in his poetry, except mockingly, ironically.


In the theosophy of light,
The logical universal
Ceases to be anything more
Than the dead body of an angel.
What is substance? Our substance
Is whatever we feed our angel.
The perfect incense for worship
Is camphor, whose flames leave no ashes.

Toward the end of his life, his poems achieved a grand simplicity that should not be mistaken for lack of consequence. Incense and sacrament are rituals preparing one for the door that is straight and smaller than the needle’s eye. This same spirituality produces, in an earlier poem:

The Advantages of Learning

I am a man with no ambitions
And few friends, wholly incapable
Of making a living, growing no
Younger, fugitive from some just doom.
Lonely, ill-clothed, what does it matter?
At midnight I make myself a jug
Of hot white wine and cardamon seeds.
In a torn grey robe and old beret,
I sit in the cold writing poems,
Drawing nudes on the crooked margins,
Copulating with sixteen year old
Nymphomaniacs of my imagination.

Does he mock himself or is his tongue in cheek, tweaking noses? The poem draws heavily from Greek and Latin traditions and even more from the classical Chinese. It achieves tragic proportion through self-mockery, and reveals its poetic tradition. It could almost pass as a version of Catullus or of Li Po. No artist can do more than contribute to a tradition and leave a legacy. His humor is often a double-edged sword. He delighted in the scandalous, both in his behavior and in his writing. He was fond of telling his audience, ‘I write poetry to seduce women and to overthrow the capitalist system... In that order.’ And yet he was also a feminist who did more to encourage young women poets than any writer of his generation.

Rexroth also combined the study of science with personal experience and philosophy like no poet before him. He was among the first American poets to recognize the complex utter interdependence of things in the ecology of the imagination as in biological reality. Reading Lyell’s 19th Century study of geology, he composed, ‘Lyell’s Hypothesis Again,’ (another poem for Marie Rexroth) that looks hard at the ‘ego, bound by personal / Tragedy and the vast /Impersonal vindictiveness / Of the ruined and ruining world,/ ...’ and concludes:

We have escaped the bitterness
Of love, and love lost, and love
Betrayed. And what might have been,
And what might be, fall equally,
Away with what is, and leave
Only these ideograms
Printed on the immortal
Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone.

His finds his tenderness in stone and in geologic time. His mystical transcendence is as rooted in modern science as in traditional wisdom-teaching. The later books are the culmination of a lifetime’s struggle toward a true spiritual awakening. Each of his longer poems, he noted, ends at a point of transcendent experience. The same is true of a great many of his shorter poems. The Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Kuan Shih Yin (in Chinese, ‘who-perceives-the-world’scries’), in Japanese Kannon, figures prominently in Rexroth’s last work. Her embodiment of compassion was one of the elements of Buddhism that most attracted him. Like his favorite poet, Tu Fu, he was a deeply spiritual and political poet who included rather than excluded the world’s religions. Unlike Tu Fu, he was a poet of erotic love without peer in his lifetime, perhaps without peer in the American language, as Eliot Weinberger has written. Only Hayden Carruth in our time has written erotic poetry of comparable power late in life. ‘It’s one thing to write a love poem at twenty,’ Rexroth would laugh, ‘and quite another at seventy.’

Confusion of the Senses

Moonlight fills the laurels
Like music. The moonlit
Air does not move. Your white
Face moves towards my face.
Voluptuous sorrow
Holds us like a cobweb
Like a song, a perfume, the moonlight.
Your hair falls and holds our faces.
Your lips curl into mine.
Your tongue enters my mouth.
A bat flies through the moonlight.
The moonlight fills your eyes
They have neither iris nor pupil
They are only globes of cold fire
Like the deers’ eyes that go by us
Through the empty forest.
Your slender body quivers
And smells of seaweed.
We lie together listening
To each other breathing in the moonlight.
Do you hear? We are breathing. We are alive.

We live in an age in which the poetry of mature erotic love is largely out of fashion. Our poets tend to prefer the cool cerebral play of Stevens to the naked jig of Dr. Williams. A young Rexroth bought a hundred copies of Stevens’s Harmonium from the publisher’s remainder list at 15 cents per copy. Rexroth was especially fond of Ivor Winters, although he often quoted him, ‘Emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated,’ following with a pregnant pause and a great guffaw. He wrote in his Introduction to the Selected Poems of D. H. Lawrence: ‘Sacramental communion is bound by time. Mass does not last forever. Eventually the communicant must leave the altar and digest the wafer, the Body and Blood must enter his own flesh as it moves through the world and struggles with the devil. The problem lies in the sympathetic nervous system, says Lawrence. And it is not easy for two members of a deranged race, in the Twentieth Century, to learn again how to make those webs mesh as they should.’ What he claims for the poetry of Lawrence may be claimed for his own poems, for ‘behind the machinery is an intense, direct, personal, mystical apprehension of reality’ that is informed by his acceptance of personal responsibility in a cruel civilization. And love is the ultimate apprehension and expression of that responsibility.

To some, Rexroth was a quintessential love poet; to others, a great poet of wilderness; to others, a political or philosophical master; and to still others, the great translator of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. In his note to The Collected Longer Poems, he wrote, ‘They seem to me almost as much one long poem as do The Cantos or Paterson.

There is a particular sweetness, a depth of love, in the last poems that is probably a result of the poet’s ‘feminization.’ He produced, late in his life, in collaboration with Ling Chung, the remarkable Collected Poems of Li Ch’ing-chao, one of China’s greatest poets and a woman who also wrote deeply personal poetry; and The Orchid Boat (later retitled Women Poets of China for paperback release); and, in collaboration with Ikuko Atsumi, The Burning Heart (retitled Women Poets of Japan for the paper edition); he edited Seasons of Sacred Lust, selected poems of Kazuko Shiraishi; and, in one of the most remarkable of feats, pulled off the invention of ‘a young woman poet from Japan,’ Marichiko, whose mystical love poems are erotically explicit.


Making love with you
Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
Until nothing can slake my thirst
But to drink the entire sea.


Your tongue thrums and moves
Into me, and I become
Hollow and blaze with
Whirling light, like the inside
Of a vast expanding pearl.

His persona was so convincing that a number of Japanese scholars went in search of Marichiko.

His last years were mostly happy. He enjoyed a Fulbright Fellowship to Kyoto in 1974, and some significant literary recognition including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Copernicus Award for his lifetime’s achievement. He used his influence at Seabury Press to bring the first volumes of Czeslaw Milosz and Homero Aridjis, among others, to the United States.

[Milosz quote]

While many of our poets exhibit an incomparable vulgarity of the soul and a dangerous ignorance of history and tradition, critics like Helen Vendler assert (in the NY Times Book Review) that we have nothing to learn from the poets who survived Holocaust, and crass mass culture aspires to a world monoculture that excludes nature and mistrusts beauty and embraces the musty mini-tragedies of the office, Rexroth points the way back toward an aesthetic that encompasses nature, history and beauty, embracing the three as aspects of one constantly evolving reality. ‘Most poets,’ he wrote, ‘resemble Whitman in one regard — they write only one book and that an interior autobiography.’

Kenneth Rexroth’s book is vast and contains multitudes. He has been among our best-known and least-read poets, the author of fifty-four books and an enormous unpublished anthology of poetry of pre-literate peoples that surveys the globe. He grave is in Santa Barbara, on a bluff facing the Pacific Ocean. His epitaph, drawn from The Silver Swan, reads: ‘The swan sings / In sleep / On the lake of the mind.’ And so he does.

Sam Hamill is the author of thirteen volumes of poetry including Dumb Luck (BOA Editions, 2002), Gratitude (1998), and Destination Zero: Poems 1970–1995 (1995), which won a Pushcart Prize; three collections of essays; and two dozen volumes translated from ancient Greek, Latin, Estonian, Japanese, and Chinese, most recently, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (2000), Narrow Road to the Interior and other writings of Basho (1999), and The Essential Chuang Tzu (1998). He is editor of The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (2002, with Bradford Morrow), The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry from Copper Canyon Press (1996), The Erotic Spirit (1995), and Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath (1988). Hamill taught in prisons for fourteen years, in artist-in-residency programs for twenty years, and has worked extensively with battered women and children. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, and two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards. He is Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press and director of the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. Hamill currently lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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Photo, top: Kenneth Rexroth reading his work to a jazz accompaniment
at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957.

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