Kenneth Rexroth (December 22, 1905 – June 6, 1982) wrote in the tradition of contemplative, mystical, visionary, philosophical, and prophetic poets such as William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Dante, Du Fu, Zeami Motokiyo, and Sappho, all of whom influenced him. Rextroth was an eclectic student of many traditions from many cultures: Judeo-Christian, classical Greek and Roman, Chinese, and Japanese. He was a modernist poet with a passionate commitment to tradition—to that which has lasted for centuries and is worth saving. His work as a whole, expository and autobiographical prose as well as passionate love lyrics, heartrending elegies, ferocious satires, and richly intellectual epic-reveries and dramas, must be read in the context of these diverse traditions. His style ranged from cubist innovations that ally him with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and other revolutionists of the word, to the limpid simplicity he learned from Chinese and Japanese masters. This stylistic variety, however, is informed by an unwavering central vision of mystical love, universal responsibility, and spiritual realization.
The Collected Shorter Poems
The Collected Shorter Poems offers a brilliant diversity of styles and forms drawn from Rexroth’s work over four decades. “Andromeda Chained to the Rock the Great Nebula in Her Heart” and other cubist poems share affinities with Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky, as well as with African and Native American song. In a more direct style are exquisite lyrics of love and nature, such as“We Come Back”; fierce intellectual satires such as “Last Visit to the Swimming Pool Soviets” (with aspersions on the so-called chic Hollywood leftists); prophetic poems of revolutionary heroism and defeat, such as “From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion”; and Chinese translations.
“Yin and Yang,” Rexroth’s most liturgical poem of natural cycles, is an Easter vision of resurrecting birds, flowers, and constellations in which imagery and rhythms are perfectly balanced. In it, the moon, moving through constellations from Leo to Virgo, fertilizes the Virgin, and the ear of wheat symbolizes the creative process of nature as it did in the Eleusinian mysteries. As moonlight proclaims the climactic coming of spring, under the world the sun swims in Pisces, the double fish and the Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang, the harmonious interactions of darkness and light, coldness and heat, female and male. The regular prosody, supporting the orderly revelation of mythology, is a combination of accentual and syllabic patterns. All but three lines have nine syllables each, and most lines have three accents each, with a fundamentally dactyllic movement supporting the prophetic tone of this memorable poem.
“When We with Sappho,” perhaps Rexroth’s greatest love poem, begins with his first translation, done as a teenager and convincing him that he was a creative artist; there follows his sacramental lyric of erotic bliss, in which he and the woman he loves—also his muse—merge in a summer meadow into the immortal world of Sappho. As he speaks intimately, hypnotically repeating “summer,” each body becomes a “nimbus” over the world, as they unite in thunder, before separating toward death.
“A Letter to William Carlos Williams” centers on the sacramental value of poetry as living speech, person to person (rather than as a text analyzed as an object). The style echoes the intimate ebb and flow of conversation with an old friend, whom he compares with Saint Francis (whose flesh united with all lovers, including birds and animals) and Brother Juniper (a wise fool who laughed at indignities). Citing the quiet imagery of daily life in Williams’s poetry, Rexroth praises Williams’s stillness (like that of the Quaker George Fox and the peace of Jesus), and the poem concludes with a utopian vision of a beautiful Williams River, as a young woman of the future tells her children how it used to be the filthy Passaic, and how the poet Williams had embodied in his poetry a creative community of sacramental relationships.
Rexroth’s most famous protest poem, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” has been recorded with jazz accompaniment. An elegy for Dylan Thomas, it mourns the destruction of many poets in this depersonalizing, violent century. Young men, Rexroth proclaims, are being murdered all over the world—such as Saints Stephen, Lawrence, and Sebastian—by the superego in uniform. The second section is reminiscent of “Lament for the Makaris,” the elegy by the sixteenth century Scottish poet William Dunbar; in it Rexroth laments the impoverishment and deaths of many poets from Edwin Arlington Robinson through Elinor Wylie and Countée Cullen to Ezra Pound. The third section, in a deepening tone, tells of many others struck down by the Moloch of the modern world. Accusations become lyrical in the last section, as nearly everyone is blamed for having a hand in the destruction of poetic vision—even writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway who have enjoyed fame and power. The poem has been condemned by some critics but praised by others as a passionate call for prophetic vision.
The Collected Longer Poems
The Collected Longer Poems, which should be read as a whole work, reveals Rexroth’s spiritual and artistic development as summarized in the introduction to the original publication of The Phoenix and the Tortoise in 1944—from despair and abandon in the face of the violent collapse of civilization, through erotic mysticism and sacramental marriage, to a sense of universal responsibility. The Homestead Called Damascus, the first of five long philosophical reveries in the collection, is a richly allusive work reminiscent of Marcel Proust and Wallace Stevens. The loose syllabic verse—generally nine syllables per line—allows Rexroth considerable freedom for discursive, philosophical reflections. In part 1, the Damascan brothers, Thomas and Sebastian, whose names suggest the themes of skepticism and martyrdom that are interwoven throughout the poem, seek some kind of erotic-mystical escape from the decaying civilization symbolized by the mansion, the landscape, and the dreamy Renaissance girl, Leslie. In part 2, Sebastian yearns for an earth goddess envisioned as a black stripper named Maxine, whereas Thomas seeks faith in the black wounds of Jesus. Part 3 elaborates the dilemma between erotic/heroic mysteries and the decadence of domestic bliss. Both alternatives paralyze the brothers, although they speculate about the “ambivalent vicarity” of each person symbolizing others. In the final part, Thomas settles for this philosophical notion, while Sebastian sinks into sterility. Although the poem suffers from some obscurity of characterization and theme, it is a work of serious speculation, resplendent with hallucinatory images, mythological puns, and metaphysical questioning.
A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy and The Phoenix and the Tortoise
A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy, Rexroth’s second long poem, is a search for transcendent perfection within the flux of experience, a search conducted by means of a cubist aesthetic in which he analyzes and recombines the elements of experience and language. He passes through a Dantean Hell before envisioning the Apocalypse in the most explicitly Christian imagery to be found in any of his poems. In his third long poem, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, whose title and theme of mystical love are derived from William Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle, Rexroth develops a religious, ecological viewpoint in which World War II and the injustices of all governments are anarchistically denounced, while value painfully emerges out of personal love. The style is clear, direct, often epigrammatically conveying a deeper faith in life than the previous two long poems.
The Dragon and the Unicorn and The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart
The fourth long poem, The Dragon and the Unicorn, is a postwar travel narrative in which Rexroth searches for the meaning of responsibility and its source in love as he proceeds across the United States and Europe. Witnessing the physical and spiritual effects of war and historical depersonalization, he condemns the collectivities of church, state, political parties, armies, and corporations for suppressing and destroying personality, and he celebrates the community of lovers that actually,miraculously, continues to exist. The last long poem in the collection, The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart, extends this celebration of actuality. It is a masterpiece of poetic communion with the dao in Japan, rich in allusions to Asian poetry and Buddhist wisdom, and culminating, in a musical style that shines with the sensuous imagery of rural and urban Japan, in the most fully realized passages of illumination in all his poetry. Hearing the music of waterfalls, he listens deep in his mind to transcendent music, overcoming the gap between actuality and Otherness. He does not seek visions, but rests in the innocent vision of actuality, which is also ultimate. Professor Kodama Sanehide of Doshisha Women’s College in Kyoto has traced intricate allusions to Japanese poetry in this poem and others, leading him to conclude that of all American poets, Rexroth best understands Japanese culture. Certainly The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart is the most delightfully and wisely realized of his long poems.
Asian influences, apparent from the beginning of Rexroth’s career, intensify in his later work, which includes several volumes of Chinese and Japanese translations, with women poets being singled out in three of them. Buddhist allusions radiate from New Poems, On Flower Wreath Hill (his sixth long reverie), The Silver Swan, and, most of all, The Love Poems of Marichiko, a long sequence of Tantric ecstasy.
Rexroth has sometimes been criticized for being more concerned with philosophical speculation than with the subtleties of language, but these charges seem as superficial as the categorization of his work, by some early reviewers, as merely West Coast nature poetry; there is a vast range of linguistic and prosodic technique in his work. At one extreme is the cubist free verse of A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy, at the other extreme is the syllabic versification of much of his poetry of direct statement, influenced by Greek, Chinese, and Japanese traditions. Often nine syllables are a norm around which lines ranging from seven to ten syllables are skillfully arranged, the sounds falling into remarkable melodic patterns rare in modern poetry. Rexroth’s vowel-patterns are especially distinctive, a technique absorbed from Japanese poetry. Sometimes jazz rhythms (“Travelers in Ere whom,” for example), and ballad stanzas (“Songs for Marie’s Lute-Book”), as well as a host of other styles, forms, and techniques are employed.
Finally, the many translations are of enormous value. They not only have introduced many readers to poetry in Chinese, Japanese, and European languages, but also deserve to be read as enduring works of art in their own right. The translations are organically inseparable from Rexroth’s other work, bringing to life voices that harmonize with his own, in a complex but coherent vision of worldwide community.
Plays: Beyond the Mountains, 1951 (4 plays).
Nonfiction: Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, 1959; Assays, 1961; An Autobiographical Novel, 1966, 1978; Classics Revisited, 1968; The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World, 1970; With Eye and Ear, 1970; American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, 1971; The Elastic Retort, 1973; Communalism, from the Neolithic to 1900, 1975; Excerpts from a Life, 1981; World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, 1987; More Classics Revisited, 1989; Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 1991.
Translations: Fourteen Poems by O. V. de L. Milosz, 1952, 1982; One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, 1955, 1957, 1964; One Hundred Poems from the French, 1955, 1972; Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile, 1956; One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, 1956, 1965; Poems from the Greek Anthology, 1962; Pierre Reverdy Selected Poems, 1969; Love in the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese, 1970; The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China, 1972 (with Ling Chung); One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, 1974; The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan, 1977 (with Atsumi Ikuko); Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi, 1978 (with Carol Tinker, Atsumi, John Solt, and Morita Yasuyo); Li Ch’ing Chao: Complete Poems, 1979 (with Chung).
Miscellaneous: The Kenneth Rexroth Reader, 1972 (Eric Mottram, editor).
Gibson, Morgan. Kenneth Rexroth. New York: Twayne, 1972.
_______. Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986.
Grisby, Gordon K. “The Presence of Reality: The Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth.” Antioch Review 31 (Fall, 1971): 405-422.
Gutierrez, Donald. The Holiness of the Real: The Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
_______. “Rexroth’s ‘Incarnation.’” Explicator 53, no. 4 (Summer, 1995): 236.Hamalian, Linda. A Life of Kenneth Rexroth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
Houghlum, Brook. “Kenneth Rexroth and Radio Reading.” English Studies in Canada 33, no. 4 (December, 2007): 55-67.
Pekar, Harvey. “Between Rexroth and Gary Snyder in the Bay Area.” In The Beats: A Graphic History, by Harvey Pekar et al. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Rexroth, Kenneth. “An Interview with Kenneth Rexroth.” Interview by Cyrena N. Pondrom. In The Contemporary Writer: Interviews with Sixteen Writers and Poets, edited by L. S. Dembo and Cyrena N. Pondrom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972.