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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Kevin Gallagher
Natural Numbers

This piece is 1,000 words or about three printed pages long.

Now that his Complete Poems are laid out for all of us to see, we have no choice but to make room for Kenneth Rexroth in the canon. This special Jacket tribute celebrates the work of this great poet, essayist, translator and activist from the United States.

Rexroth’s poetry was not well understood during his lifetime. Born in 1905 in South Bend, Indiana, he moved to California in the late 1920s and remained there for the rest of his life. It was in California where he emceed the famous “Six Flags” reading that earned him the name, “the father of the Beats.” Rexroth hated such a tag and was known for replying “an entomologist is not a bug!” First off in this selection is Sam Hamill’s introduction to the entomologist’s new collected poems and gives new and old readers alike a snapshot of the life and work of the Kenneth Rexroth the poet.

Photo of Kenneth Rexroth autobiography cover

Contrary to the popular label thrust on him, Kenneth Rexroth was a late modern poet, one of the early post-modern poets, and toward the end of his life (which ended in 1982) became an eastern classicist. Regardless of the form his poetry took, it always involved at least one of three themes:  love, the natural world, or politics.

Early in Rexroth’s career, Louis Zukofsky included him in both the special Objectivist issue of Poetry, and in the famous Objectivist Anthology (though Rexroth considered himself a cubist rather than an objectivist). Rexroth also painted cubist works as well, the essay by Beatrice Farwell printed here is one of the few writings on his paintings. Although publication in these venues, as well in popular journals such as Blues, had earned him quite a reputation, Rexroth soon abandoned cubism for a method that Rexroth scholars call “natural numbers” — poetry that is similar in syntax and diction to actual speech between humans. This method is exhibited in one of his great love poems, “As We With Sappho,” originally published in his 1944 book, The Phoenix and the Tortoise. In the poem he and his lover are reading the Greek poet with pauses for the making of love:

Kiss me with your mouth
Wet and ragged, your mouth that tastes
Of my own flesh. Read to me again
The twisting music of that language
That is of all others, itself a work of art.

We with Rexroth, provide this tribute.

Many see Rexroth as an erotic mystic who saw our human relationships of love, as well as our life with the natural world, as equally sacramental.   Known to have spent long spells in the Sierra Nevadas, Rexroth wrote many poems expressing the holiness of the natural world, as in the poem “Hapax,”

.......... The night is full
Of flowers and perfume and honey.
I can see the bees in the moonlight
Flying into the hole under the window,
Glowing faintly like the flying universes.
What does it mean. This is not a question, but
an exclamation.

Either through his own poetry or his relentless campaigns on behalf of younger poets, Rexroth influenced a wide array of our best living poets. Among them are Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Haas, Carolyn Forche, Philip Levine, and Gary Snyder.

Indeed, this tribute includes a never before published interview that Rothenberg and David Antin conducted with Rexroth in addition to a poem by Rothenberg.

Photo of Kenneth Rexroth, from back cover of autobiography

Yet, Rexroth was also known to be quite cantankerous and at times pretentious. By the time of his death he had alienated many who had seen him as a mentor.  Eliot Weinberger’s “At the Death of Kenneth Rexroth,” reprinted here, reveals how his death had all but been a blip to mainstream United States media.

That part of him has left us and the work remains. In recent months Rexroth tribute readings have occurred across the country that have included many of his former foes — including Robert Creeley.

As the piece by Anastasios Kozaitis suggests, many in the new generation actually long for the rash of a Rexroth in the often too polished and too small world of U.S. poetry.

Copper Canyon’s publication of the Complete Poems pulls together many Rexroth poems that were hard to get or out of print. New Directions published a Collected Longer Poems and a Collected Shorter Poems in the 1960s. In addition to that work, the Copper Canyon volume includes all of Rexroth’s poems that appeared after those volumes. The new volume also includes a section of early and uncollected work. This section includes one Rexroth’s overtly political works, “Noretorp-Noretsyh,” that originally appeared in the Evergreen Review:

In the Hungarian night
All the dead are speaking with one voice,
As we bicycle through the green
And sunspotted Californian
November. I can hear that voice
Clearer than the cry of the peacocks,
In the falling afternoon.

Although this “complete” work is over 750 pages, it really amounts to less than half of his poetry. Rexroth is perhaps most known for his translations of the Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, Greek and other poets. Indeed, his translations of the Chinese and Japanese are among the best selling books of poetry of their time and continue to sell well to this day.

One of the reasons why these books sell so well is that they are good poetry in American English — his philosophy of translation. The contributions by Weinberger, Stephen Bradbury and Mark Lamoureux in this tribute all deal with Rexroth the translator.  A Collected Translations would be a great companion volume to the Copper Canyon.

In his last years, the line between his translation and his own poetry had blurred. One of his last books was The Love Poems of Marichiko. Marichiko, he wrote, “is the pen name of a contemporary young woman who lives near the temple of Marishi-be in Kyoto.” The poems became highly regarded in both Japan and the United States for their simple clarity and emotion:

Burn in my heart.
No smoke rises.
No one knows.

However, when he learned that he was up for a translation prize for these poems he admitted that he had written them himself. In this tribute, two former students of Rexroth, the novelist Lise Haines and the poet Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno share insight of the Rexroth who wrote the Marichiko poems.

Kenneth Rexroth started his career a cubist and ended it as a women poet from Japan!

Something for everyone.

— Kevin Gallagher

Kevin Gallagher is a poet and political economist living in Gloucester, MA. His poems appeared in Jacket 21, and review of William Corbett’s All Prose appeared in Jacket 16.

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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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