I am once again, after many years, reading Kenneth Rexroth. I should say I am going back to school to Kenneth Rexroth. Although I am aware that Copper Canyon just brought out a beautiful edition of The Complete Poems edited by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow, I am content with my two New Directions books, The Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Longer Poems; these two volumes have my notes in them from thirty or so years back, and I find them as important for my dialogue with that young man as my encounter with Rexroth. I first went to Rexroth looking for something. I was grieving and alone and had only a few years before lost the Roman Catholicism that had nurtured me, and the solidity and gravity of his practice as a poet, a thinking poet, one who was not content to chart his heartaches and discomforts, was what held me then and kept me from flying off the planet in despair. I still aspire to his range and to the example of his integrity.

I don’t know who else has such a capacious mind and heart to grieve for the world and love it, while cursing so convincingly the greedy and dehumanizing forces of our age. He can do so because not only is the political personal to him, but also the historical, the philosophical, the metaphysical; not only were these matters personal to him, that is, he responded to all such questions as a person not a politician, historian, metaphysician or philosopher, but in the poems those things that are personal and intimate are also at once political, historical, philosophical, and metaphysical.

Along with those two volumes I am reading the special issue of The Chicago Review devoted to Rexroth, which I want to recommend enthusiastically to anyone who would like to familiarize yourself with this giant. I am going to post the opening essay here because Beer and Blechman have done a terrific job of pointing to what is unique about Rexroth as a late modern/ early postmodern poet, and I recognize in their assessment the virtues that drew me to Rexroth as a young man.

I’m also going to direct readers of this blog to other sites that feature and/or discuss Rexroth’s work, and I’ll include a poem from my latest book, Gold Star Road, that seems to me in the spirit of Rexroth, at least as I read him. Here’s the essay:

Introduction (Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry)(Critical essay).John Beer and Max Blechman. Chicago Review 52.2-4 (Autumn 2006): p11(6). (1753 words)
COPYRIGHT 2006 University of Chicago

“Both in my life and work I have constantly striven to embody a perfectly definite program,” the twenty-five-year-old Kenneth Rexroth wrote to Louis Zukofsky in early 1931. The self-possession and sheer intellectual bravado that bristles from the pages of this correspondence inspires a kind of fascinated awe, as Rexroth reels off intellectual influences like a hipster Mortimer Adler. What’s most remarkable is how accurate Rexroth was in his self-assessment; already, he had assembled an amalgam of Eastern and Western philosophies, radical politics, and above all, visionary somatic and erotic experience, the contours of which he would spend a lifetime exploring and transmuting into some of the American language’s most profound poetry.

Seventy-five years out, the trajectory of these two ferociously ambitious young writers seems to emerge almost naturally from their styles: character really turns out destiny. Zukofsky’s poetry, exquisite and gnomic, was honored in grand style at a 2004 centenary celebration at Columbia, his alma mater, which drew the pantheon of contemporary American experimental poets. Meanwhile, Rexroth’s centennial was acknowledged by an altogether more fugitive and less institutional set of celebrations in Japan, California, and New York. Despite this international recognition, however, there remains a persistent air of marginalization about his work, as if Rexroth were primarily of interest as a translator, a California poet, or a Beat writer avant la lettre.

Perhaps the most substantial impediment to a full confrontation with Rexroth’s poetry is the limpidity of his writing. Following his early experiments with cubist writing, work that Zukofsky included in the famous Objectivist number of Poetry, Rexroth adopted a style mostly at odds with the knotty modernism that defined advanced artistic practice during his youth. He turned instead to a conversational, loosely syllabic line that juxtaposed meticulous observation with reflection:

See. The sun has fallen away.
Now there are amber
Long lights on the shattered
Boles of the ancient apple trees.
Our bodies move to each other
As bodies move in sleep;
At once filled and exhausted,
As the summer moves to autumn,
As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
(“As We With Sappho”)

Rexroth’s confidence that the lyric poem affords the possibility of a substantial unity between words and the world, and not just the bare signification of an experience always already lost or available only in the far distance, separates him from the main line of twentieth-century poetry. Unlike the assembled fragments of Pound, the flashes of consciousness in Williams, or the boundless discursivity of Ashbery, Rexroth offers successive and coherent dispatches from a world, a world for which the poet’s imagination functions not as ground but as communicative medium. The difficulty of Rexroth’s writing is not so much a matter of deciphering his intention, as of coming to see what could sustain his faith in the intelligibility of experience and the adequacy of the poet’s art to communicate that experience–a faith that by most accounts modernity renders untenable.

Strikingly and surprisingly, Rexroth strongly resembles the poet who in some respects represents his opposite number: Eliot. They share a deep respect for Dante as an archetypal poet who both synthesized and criticized his culture, the sense that poetry in English had gradually lost its bearings after the seventeenth century, and the fascination with the sacred texts and classical traditions of non-Western civilizations. Consider how Eliotic at moments Rexroth’s great philosophical meditation “The Phoenix and the Turtle” sounds:

Danger and desire, or jealousy
And fear of pain, the constant pressure,
For the lesser, immediate good …
The three tragedians saw lives
As strung on doom, like the lion’s teeth
On his still tensile sinews;
Persons as trophies, the savage
Jewelry of continuity
From “pure function to pure potential,”
And Karma, the terrifying
Accumulation of bare fact.

What unites the two fundamentally is a predisposition toward mysticism, a tendency that Rexroth explored (albeit with reservations) and Eliot, in the end, rejected. The older poet journeyed east to London and the younger west to California, trajectories allegorical of political and spiritual travels that ultimately encased Eliot’s poetic powers within a husk of orthodoxy even as Rexroth discerned new antinomian possibilities in very old traditions. (A third figure with whom Rexroth might be fruitfully juxtaposed is a poet whom he encouraged James Laughlin to publish, Thomas Merton, who essentially reversed Eliot’s track from experiment to orthodoxy. Both Rexroth and Merton sympathized with the Beats and the youth movement of the 60s generally while having serious misgivings about the narcissistic acting-out and nihilism that they perceived therein.)

For Rexroth, language discloses the essential facts of human community and the inestimable value of individual perception, which together repudiate the anti-human operations of capitalism and Soviet-style collectivism. This visionary approach to language is exhibited, for instance, at the close of “The Signature of All Things,” a poem which takes its direction explicitly from the mystical thought of Jakob Boehme:

After reading for hours,
While moths rattled at the lamp–
The saints and the philosophers
On the destiny of man–
I went out on my cabin porch,
And looked up through the black forest
At the swaying islands of stars.
Suddenly I saw at my feet,
Spread on the floor of night, ingots
Of quivering phosphorescence,
And all about were scattered chips
Of pale cold light that was alive.

The macrocosm is the microcosm; the universe of stars is reflected in the bits of phosphorescence scattered throughout the forest, and both in their turn resemble the words Rexroth has been studying, simultaneously cold and alive. And the words in turn stand in for the network of poems that Rexroth has been weaving, the network of readers whose minds find their light renewed in their own solitary readings.

Like his hero Blake, Rexroth undertook a great refusal in the service of an even greater affirmation: an affirmation of the power of language to reorient human hearts in the face of seemingly insurmountable but ultimately empty structures of power and control. This affirmation depends in part upon Rexroth’s renunciation of hermeticism; by rendering his perceptions as clearly and directly as possible, he makes a poetry emblematic of the democratic impulse from which it springs.

This is to say that the power of this poetic language derives from the power of it source–Rexroth’s inseparably ethical, political, and artistic activity. Readers of the correspondence published in this issue will find him defending precisely this trinity again and again–most strikingly, perhaps, in his December 11, 1939 letter to Weldon Kees:

I am not going to get into arguments about the responsibilities of the
artist, to his species, to himself, to his art. I never recognized the
reality of such a division. There are no such things as separable
moral responsibilities, there is only one moral responsibility. […]
I have never been able to find three people, K.R. the “artist,” K.R.
the revolutionist, K.R. the human. There has always been just me.

Rexroth wrote and intended poetry as an actual force for social transformation. It is as though he adopted the classical, and specifically Aristotelian, definition of the human being as a political animal. To be human is to be engaged in the life of the city, to take on personally (in the form of individual integrity) and publicly (in form of political virtue) the ethical requirement of a just and truthful common life. Rexroth emphasized that the responsibility of the poet is essentially determined by his responsibility to be a dignified human being. Far from advocating social realism or the submission of art to ideology, Rexroth explores at the level of lived, individual experience the utopian contours of genuine ethical and natural belonging. Full ethical responsibility means living out and holding in view the utopian “not yet” of human possibility–a free community of life. Rexroth held to a vision of that life in order to better oppose the extant forms of sociality that limit and pervert the fundamental human possibility for fulfilled living.

Thus it is not so much the passing of a pre-modern ethical unity that Rexroth’s poetry and essays lament. At stake is not a lefty conservatism, or a peculiar radical classicism a la T.E. Hulme. Rather, Rexroth, who achieved his moral, political, and philosophical self-education in bohemian Chicago, laments the loss of the revolutionary urge to reinstate, and thereby reinvent, the primacy of ethics in human living. Rexroth deplores the gathering trend to reduce potentiality to actuality, the unwillingness to resist an increasingly ubiquitous dominion of abstract instrumentality, particularly in his great philosophical poems, as in this passage of “Organon”:

As fact wastes out of experience
Leaving no promise of conservation
Or perpetuity of those ultimates
Deposited in the experient,
And deaths and negatives waste being;
The erosion of being to what is,
Elimination in logic, and passage
Of history, effective equally–
And only values prime and promised
Surviving, and only dubiously–
Being as vital becomes a postulant
Of hope, a struggle of sein and sosein,
Whose only assurance is moral.

Hope for “being as vital” does not depend on any purportedly objective conditions of history. On the contrary, it is hope that makes its own history through the labor of renewed morality. Without the mobilization of this hope, there is no heroism of the creative act. And Rexroth–much like Blake or William Morris or Henri Bergson–considered this act our “only defense against the ruin of the world.”

Rexroth himself liked to cite Horace to buttress this view. But he would not for all that fail to take measure of the difference between a relatively organic culture such as Augustan Rome and our own. The values for which Horace stood, Rexroth insists, were generally representative of his culture; we moderns, by contrast, create, or rather must create, against the dominant values into which we are born.

Rexroth’s lifelong dialogue with classical literature made it impossible for him to take sides in the perennial quarrel, which became the rage again in the 1940s, between classicism and romanticism. Like his friend D.S. Savage, he was quick to see that the greatness of modern art, like the greatness of the hope that would resist the ruinous trend of history, requires both a romantic principle (of creation and liberation) and a classical one (of order and control). Rexroth’s poetry aimed at preserving and transcending these terms in a thoroughgoing reconciliation of life and art. We offer this centenary portfolio in the hope of renewing interest in a great American poet who was equally an exemplar of this utopia, a prophet whose art means to challenge us, and a man whose life invariably does.

Source Citation:Beer, John, and Max Blechman. “Introduction.” Chicago Review 52.2-4 (Autumn 2006): 11(6).

There is a treasury of Rexroth material at the site Bureau of Public Secrets:

http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/index.htm

And Jacket Magazine #23 is devoted to all things Rexroth as well:

http://jacketmagazine.com/23/rex-intro.html

And finally, from my Gold Star Road:

AIR FARE

In an airport, I met a man I knew
when we were young. In those days
he was loud, gregarious, intrepid;
I was shy and certain I was stupid,
and I wanted to be more like him.
We made brittle conversation,
and did not exchange addresses.
I did not tell him what he’d been to me.
Later, belted in beside a young child
with her mother seated on the aisle,
I wondered at how we change,
inhibit, and inhabit one another:
friends, enemies, teachers, lovers,
neighbors, students. Even the man
who worked beside me years ago,
both of us soldering circuitboards,
(I think his name was John)
shows up in my dreams sometimes
though he still doesn’t say anything.
Feeling as if my life were only mine
the way my seat, 11E, was mine, I
was trying to find, through layers
of scratched plexi-glass and drifting
clouds, a sign of where we were
and how much farther we had to go
when the restless child knocked on my
leg. “Tell me the story. This one,”
and she offered me the trifold card,
wordless but clear to any grown-up,
the one in reassuring pastel colors
where the people lift the cushions,
maybe to look for pennies there.
And here they are on the inflatable
slide, see? Or bobbing in the gentle
waves — without their bathing suits!
I didn’t know what else to tell her
so I took my pen from my pocket,
drew some birds in the air, a beach
with some people and a dog on it,
and further back, a tree. “Now me!”
she said. I gave her the pen; she bit
her tongue and drew and drew.

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  1. Just came across this post. I Rexroth’s poetry, — his own poems, his translations, his essays and other writing. I two have had the Collected Shorter Poems and Longer Poems for many years, though I also do have now the Copper Canyon Collected Poems, which is very elegantly put together.I’ve heard recordings of him reading his poems — he had a voice to rival Gilgamesh, or whatever the best hyperbole might be. (The recording of him, made back in the 50’s, reading his poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in a club in San Francisco, backed by jazz musicians, is absolutely riveting.) I’ve always regretted that I never heard him read in person.Thanks for posting this.