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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Eliot Weinberger
At the Death of Kenneth Rexroth

This piece is 3,000 words or about eight printed pages long.

It’s a typical story: I was assigned, at my suggestion, to write an obituary on Kenneth Rexroth for The Nation, a magazine he had served for 15 years as San Francisco correspondent. Written in the week after his death, the article was promptly rejected for “overpraising a minor writer” (and a “sexist pig” to boot). The obituary was then sent, at the recommendation of Carol Tinker, Rexroth’s widow, to the American Poetry Review. Two months later they replied that they would be happy to run the piece sometime next year, and would I please send a photograph of myself to accompany it? Considering their leisure, and my mug, inappropriate to the occasion, I withdrew the article. Sulfur magazine, just going to press, then offered to add an extra page in the front of their issue-- and only there, in the obscure, sometimes honorable domain of the little magazine, could a condensed version of my small notice of Rexroth’s death finally see print. 

It’s a typical story: One cannot even publish an obituary for an American poet, for the best of them die even more forlorn than they lived. In the last 25 years, despite the so-called “poetry boom” and the thousands of poetry books published yearly, most of the important American poets have died with most of their work unpublished or out of print. Louis Zukofsky, H.D., Langston Hughes, Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Frank O’Hara, Charles Reznikoff, Jack Spicer, Lorine Niedecker, to name a few. The small group who died in print were either approved by the English Dept. in their lifetimes (Frost, Eliot, Lowell, et al.) or they appealed to adolescents (Cummings) or they were among the few published and kept in print by New Directions (Pound, Williams, and now Rexroth).

With certain exceptions, the death of an American poet inverts the reputation. Those who were heavily laureled in their lifetimes seem to vanish from their graves (Tate, Ransom, Teasdale, MacLeish, Van Doren, Schwartz, Wylie, Bogan, Bynner, Jarrell, Aiken, Winters, Hillyer, and so many more). For those who were dismissed or neglected in life, death becomes the primary condition for immortality. The English Dept. is usually too late for the funeral, but they are enthusiastic exhumers. Their critical apparatus grinds into motion and, often many years later, buoyed by exegesis, the original at last rises to the surface.  Canonization is complete, and we all too easily assume that those islands were always on the map. [We’ve already forgotten that Williams won his only Pulitzer Prize posthumously and that even in his last years he was considered by the academicians to be a sort of Grandma Moses of poetry; that the last volume of the Cantos was deemed unworthy of review anywhere; that H.D. at her death was remembered only for a handful of her earliest poems and that it took over 20 years for an edition of her Collected Poems to appear; that Marianne Moore’s Collected was, until recently, out of print for 17 years; that Louis Zukofsky was writing for 33 years before he received a single review or article on his work.]

Now, with a special issue of Sagetrieb (“A Journal Devoted to the Poets in the Pound-Williams-H.D. Tradition” published by the University of Maine at Orono) the ivy gates are opening to admit Mr. Rexroth. People will make a living explaining him, and the mountains of his life and work will swarm with curiosity-seekers, pedants, muck-rakers and axe-grinders, all as tiny as the figures in a Chinese landscape painting. It’s easy to imagine what Rexroth would have said about them-- but what will they make of Rexroth? How will they take the most readable American poet of the century and render him difficult-- that is, requiring explication, better known as “teachable”?

I sit with a pile of clippings: Poetry magazine, reviewing Rexroth’s first book, comparing the poems to the license plates made by convicts, and suggesting that the poet consider another profession. Alfred Kazin calling him an “old-fashioned American sorehead.” The New Yorker, with its usual bemused condescension, nicknaming him “Daddy-0.” John Leonard in the New York Times: ”He lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he professes Buddhism and meditates. Meditates? The heart sinks. If Mr. Rexroth is meditating, then he is not being the curmudgeon of old, of fond memory...[the] father-figure to the various dandies with black fingernails.”

And the obituaries: in New York, “Father Figure to Beat Poets”; in L.A., “Artist and Philosopher.” A few days later, the longer assessments: Colman McCarthy, in the Washington Post, surprised that the newspaper obituaries “ran no longer than a few inches,” but assuming that the “magazines that Rexroth wrote for-- The Nation, Commonweal, Saturday Review, Poetry -- [will] provide the full appreciations that he deserves.” (None did.) Herbert Mitgang, in the N.Y. Times declaring with parenthetical snideness that he “will probably be remembered as a public personality and as an inspiration (in some circles) more than as a major poet, critic or painter.”

Born in another country, Rexroth would have served as the intellectual conscience of the nation: a Paz, Neruda, MacDiarmid, Hikmet. But here, as he wrote, “There is no place for a poet in American society. No place at all for any kind of poet at all.” So in his life, and at his death, he was largely seen as a crank, a colorful American eccentric who once spiced occasional magazine copy and three well-known romans-a-clef.

It is depressing that a few moments from that vast and protean life were bottled and preserved for use ad infinitum whenever the name of Rexroth was mentioned. How sad that he died, in the mind of America, an aged Beatnik. For what is more remote than the Beat Generation? To read The Dharma Bums today (where Rexroth appears as a “bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud,” and which has dated far more than, say, Henry Miller) is to see that the Beats mainly offered an attractive selection of alternative consumer choices--red wine, Chinese food eaten with chopsticks, heterosexual sex without marriage, hitchhiking, a taste for non-representational painting, a serious appreciation of jazz, casual dress, occasional tolerance for gay sex, some dabbling in meditation and Oriental philosophy and the occult, facial hair, marijuana-- all of which quickly became the common stuff of middle-class American weekends while, ironically, the Beats continued to retain their “wild Boho” image.

Rexroth briefly embraced the Beats (despite his famous disclaimer, “An entomologist is not a bug.”) as he had so many movements: the Wobblies, the John Reed Clubs, anarchism, the Communist Party (which refused him membership), civil rights, the hippies, feminism-- most of which posed a far more serious threat to institutional America than the Beats. But as a political thinker and activist, he essentially belonged to “the generation of revolutionary hopelessness.” More than any other poet, Rexroth’s work records that history of disillusionment: the massacre of the Kronstadt sailors, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, Hiroshima. He wrote, in 1957:

We thought we were the men
Of the years of the great change,
That we were the forerunners
Of the normal life of mankind.
We thought that soon all things would
Be changed, not just economic
And social relationships, but
Painting, poetry, music, dance,
Architecture, even the food
We ate and the clothes we wore
Would be ennobled. It will take
Longer than we expected.
Still he clung to the vision of brotherhood exemplified by the various American Utopian communities whose history he wrote. His 1960 essay, “The Students Take Over,” was dismissed by an academic critic as “mad” for “announcing a nationwide revolution among students on behalf of national and international integrity.” Yet by 1969 The Nation would write, “What is most viable in the so-called New Left is in large part the creation of Rexroth and Paul Goodman whether the movement knows it or not.” As always in Rexroth’s life, the initial reaction stuck while the fact that he was proved right was forgotten: ”When a prophet refuses to go crazy, he becomes quite a problem, crucifixion being as complicated as it is in humanitarian America.”

His enemies were the institutions (the U.S. and Soviet states, the corporations, the universities, the church) and their products: sexual repression, academic art, racism and sexism, the charmlessness of the bourgeoisie, the myth of progress, the razing of the natural world. He was an early champion of civil rights, and his essays on black life in America are among the few from the period that have not dated. He was the first poet whose enthusiasm for tribal culture was not picked up from Frazer, Frobenius or the Musee de l’Homme, but rather from long periods of living with American Indians. And he was-- almost uniquely among the WASP moderns-- not only not anti-Semitic, but an expert on Hassidism and the Kabbalah. Most of all, he was America’s great Christian poet-- a Christianity, that is, which has rarely appeared in this hemisphere: the communion of a universal brotherhood. And he was America’s-- how else to say it?-- great American poet. For Rexroth, alone among the poets of this century, encompasses most of what there is to love in this country: ghetto street-smartness, the wilderness, populist anti-capitalism, jazz and rock & roll, the Utopian communities, the small bands at the advance guard of the various arts, the American language, and all the unmelted lumps in the melting pot.

As a poet, he had begun with “The Homestead Called Damascus,” a philosophical dialogue and the only poem worth reading by an American teenager, and then veered off the track into a decade of “Cubist” experiment. Had he remained there-- like say, Walter Conrad Arensberg-- he would be remembered as a minor Modernist, less interesting than Mina Loy and far inferior to his French models, Reverdy and Apollinaire. But by the publication of his first book, In What Hour, in 1941, Rexroth had abandoned the Cubist fragments of language-- while retaining the Cubist vision of the simultaneity of all times and the contiguity of all places-- to write in a sparsely adorned American speech. (“I have spent my life striving to write the way I talk.”) It was a poetry of direct communication, accessible to any reader, part of Rexroth’s communitarian political vision, and personal adherence to the mystical traditions of Christianity (the religion of communion) rather than those of the East (the religions of liberation).

The poetry: political, religious, philosophical, erotic, elegiac; celebrations of nature and condemnations of capitalism. His long poems of interior and exterior pilgrimage are the most readable in English in this century. Though he wrote short lyrics of an erotic intensity that has not been heard in English for 300 years-- worthy of the Palatine Anthology or Vidyakara’s Treasury -- he essentially belonged to the tradition of chanted poetry, not to lyric song. For some critics the poems were musically flat, yet William Carlos Williams claimed that “his ear is finer than that of anyone I have ever encountered.” The way to hear Rexroth is the way he read: to jazz (or, in the later years, koto) accompaniment. The deadpan voice playing with and against the swirling music: mimetic of the poetry itself, one man walking as the world flows about him.

Curiously, his effect on poetry in his lifetime was not as a poet, but as a freelance pedagogue and tireless promoter, as energetic and inescapable as Pound: organizer of discussion groups and reading series and radio programs; responsible for bringing Levertov, Snyder, Rothenberg, Duncan, Tarn, Antin, Ferlinghetti and others to New Directions; advocate journalist, editor and anthologist.  Though it is difficult to imagine Gary Snyder without Rexroth or Ginsberg’s “Howl” without the example of “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; though everyone has read the Chinese and Japanese translations; it seems that few, even among poets, have read “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” “The Heart’s Garden, The Garden’s Heart,” “On Flower Wreath Hill,” or more than a scattering of the short poems.

The result is that Rexroth at his death was among the best known and least read of American poets. It is a sad distinction that he shares, not coincidentally, with the poet he most resembles, Hugh MacDiarmid. (I speak of MacDiarmid’s reputation outside of Scotland.) Except for MacDiarmid’s orthodox Marxism and Rexroth’s heterodox Christianity, which are mutually exclusive, both were practitioners of short lyrics and long discursive and discoursive poems, both were boundless erudites, and both are formed out of the conjunction of 20th century science, Eastern philosophy, radical politics, heterosexual eroticism, and close observation of the natural world. (The resemblance, strangely, went beyond intellectual affinity: Rexroth claimed that he was often mistaken for MacDiarmid in the streets of Edinburgh.)

I suspect that the neglect of Rexroth and MacDiarmid is due to the fact that both are, at heart, outside of (despite their varying sympathies for) the “Pound-Williams-H.D. tradition.” Their spiritual grandfathers were Wordsworth and Whitman: the life of the mind on the open road. [It is, by the way, how one writes the Chinese tao: the character for “head” over the character for “road.”] MacDiarmid may have been sunk by his galactic vocabulary, but Rexroth?  One guess is that Rexroth was ignored because, by writing poetry that anyone who reads can read, he subverted the system, the postwar university-literary complex. Poets, especially the advance guard, driven to the fringes of society, have developed an unspoken cultishness: a secret fidelity to the “unacknowledged legislator” myth and a tendency toward private languages that are mutually respected rather than shared. The university professors, for their part, enjoy the power of ferreting out the sources and inside information, being the holders of the keys and the decoder rings-- playing George Smiley to the poet’s Karla. Rexroth blew the circuits by presenting complex thought in a simple language. The English Dept. has no use for “simple” poets, and the Creative Writing School no use for complex thought. He remained an unpinned butterfly.

Nevertheless, there is no question that American literary history will have to be rewritten to accommodate Rexroth, that postwar American poetry is the “Rexroth Era” as much (and as little) as the earlier decades are the “Pound Era.” And it will have to take into account one of the more startling transformations in American letters: that Rexroth, the great celebrant of heterosexual love (and for some, a “sexist pig”) devoted the last years of his life to becoming a woman poet.

He translated two anthologies of Chinese and Japanese women poets; edited and translated the contemporary Japanese woman poet Kazuko Shiraishi and-- his finest translation-- the Sung Dynasty poet Li Ch’ing-chao; and he invented a young Japanese poet named Marichiko, a woman in Kyoto, and wrote her poems in Japanese and English.

The Marichiko poems are particularly extraordinary. The text is chronological: in a series of short poems, the narrator longs for, sometimes meets, dreams of and loses her lover, and then grows old. Although Marichiko is identified as a “contemporary woman,” only two artifacts of the modern world (insecticide and pachinko games) appear in the poems; most of the imagery is pastoral and the undressed clothes are traditional. The narrator is defined only in relation to her lover, and of her lover we learn absolutely nothing, including gender. All that exists is passion:

Your tongue thrums and moves
Into me, and I become
Hollow and blaze with
Whirling light, like the inside
Of a vast expanding pearl.
It is America’s first Tantric poetry: through passion, the dissolution of the world (within the poem, the identities of the narrator and her lover, and all external circumstances; outside the poem, the identity of Marichiko herself) and the final dissolution of passion itself:

Some day in six inches of
Ashes will be all
That’s left of our passionate minds,
Of all the world created
By our love, its origins
And passing away.
The Marichiko poems, together with the Li Ch’ing-ch’ao translations, are masterworks of remembered passion. Their only equal in American poetry is the late work of H.D., “Hermetic Definition” and “Winter Love”-- both writers in their old age, a woman and a man as woman. Man as woman: a renunciation of identity, a transcendence of self. As Pound recanted the Cantos and fell into silence; as Zukofsky ended “A” by giving up the authorship of the poem; Rexroth became the other.

Pound left us, in Canto 120, with a vision of paradise and the despair of one who cannot enter paradise. Zukofsky left us with a black hole, 80 Flowers, an impossible density that few will ever attempt to penetrate. And now Rexroth, speaking through the mask of Li Ch’ing-ch’ao, has left us with passion and melancholy, the ecstasies of one woman (man) in a world seemingly forever on the verge of ruin:

Red lotus incense fades on
The jeweled carpet. Autumn
Comes again. Gently I open
My silk dress and float alone
On the orchid boat. Who can
Take a letter beyond the clouds?
Only the wild geese come back
And write their ideograms
On the sky under the full
Moon that floods the West Chamber.
Flowers, after their kind, flutter
And scatter. Water after
Its nature, when spilt, at last
Gathers again in one place.
Creatures of the same species
Long for each other. But we
Are far apart and I have
Grown learned in sorrow.
Nothing can make it dissolve
And go away. One moment,
It is on my eyebrows.
The next, it weighs on my heart.

[May 1983]

Eliot Weinberger’s most recent books are 9/12, a collection of political articles; The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, which he edited; and a translation of Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor.

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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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