Sunday, May 17, 2009


Rexroth and the busy world

The world, wrote Wordsworth, is too much with us. He was right. Each day throws at us too much stray noise, too much "breaking news" that isn't news, too much of people in the rarefied air of bureaucracies saying things they don't mean when it's obvious what they do mean. The past few nights I've been reading, rereading, the poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth is one of the poets whose work I've returned to again and again over the years, when I've deeply needed the renewal of spirit and reawakening of the senses that poetry can offer.

Sometime back in this blog I wrote about Rexroth's translations of classical Chinese poetry, here. The past few nights I've been reading from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (published a few years ago by Copper Canyon Press); all of the quoted passages below are from that collection. Rexroth lived 1905-1982. His earliest poems date from 1920 or earlier. Over the course of his life, in addition to more than a dozen books of his own poems, he also translated from several languages ancient and modern, wrote many essays, an autobiography, a few plays, and edited poetry anthologies, among other work.

Rexroth's politics for most of his life were more or less anarchist, in some sense of the word. He had a distrust of institutions of all kinds, and an affinity for political movements across a broad spectrum of the political left. A number of his poems from the 1930's deal, in part, with the events of the Civil War in Spain.

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.
Then quietly at first then rich and full-bodied,
I hear the voice of a young woman singing.
The emigrants on the corner are holding
A wake for their oldest child, a driverless truck
Broke away on the steep hill and killed him,
Voice after voice adds itself to the singing.
Orion moves westward across the meridian,
Rigel, Bellatrix, Betelgeuse, marching in order,
The great nebula glimmering in his loins.
(From the poem "Requiem for the Spanish Dead.")

Rexroth was born in Indiana. His mother died when he was about 10 or 11, and after living briefly with a grandmother he wound up in Chicago, nominally living with an aunt though largely making his own way by sometime in his teenage years. In 1927 he headed to San Francisco, then still largely a wide-open city by his account, and he stayed some 40 years before living out the last years of his life in Santa Barbara, California, where he taught a couple of lively, informal and popular university classes.

On at least one occasion he quoted someone (Voltaire? I don't have the reference in front of me) to the effect that people who feel find life tragic, and people who think find life comic. Rexroth very much had a sense of humor, evident in many of the stories he recounts in his autobiography and in various of his poems and essays. But the most pervasive tone I find in his poems, and in his work in general, is a kind of reverent sorrow, sorrow at the erosion of life and the world around him.

From the poem "Another Early Morning Exercise":

I walk along the street at three in the morning.
It is spring in the last year of youth.
The tide is out and the air is full of the smell of the ocean.
The newly arrived mockingbirds are awake
In the courtyard behind the houses. [...]
The armies of the Kuo Min Tang have taken the birthplace of Tu Fu;
The Red Army has retreated in perfect order.
I wonder if the wooden image erected by his family
Still stands in the shrine at Ch'eng Tu;
I wonder if anyone still burns paper
Before that face of hungry intelligence and sympathy.
He had a hard life he hated war and despotism and famine;
The first chance he got he quarreled with the Emperor.
Venomous papers dry their ink on the newsstands;
A chill comes over me; I walk along shivering;
Thinking of a world of miserable lives,
And all the men who have been tortured
Because they believed it was possible to be happy.
Pickets keep watch by the bridge over the mouth of the Sacramento,
Huddled over the small fires,
Talking little,
Rifles in their hands.
He translated poems from classical Greek and Latin, Chinese and Japanese poems ancient and modern, poems from French and Spanish and one or two other languages. His breadth of knowledge and study and experience was astonishing; this is evident in his writing and in the accounts of people who knew him. Along with his many politically explicit poems, he wrote sublimely beautiful poems of love and loss and the beauty of nature. One of his most famous poems, "When We With Sappho," written sometime in the early 1940's, begins with a fragment of Sappho translated by Rexroth: "...about the cool water/the wind sounds through sprays/of apple, and from the quivering leaves/slumber pours down..." It was during the Second World War. Half the world was in flames. Every continent caught up in it in one way or another. The full scale and horror of the concentration camps, and the atomic bombs that incinerated two cities, still lay ahead.

We have grown old in the afternoon.
Here in our orchard we are as old
As she is now, wherever dissipate
In that distant sea her gleaming dust
Flashes in the wave crest
Or stains the murex shell.
All about us the old farm subsides
Into the honey bearing chaos of high summer.
In those far islands the temples
Have fallen away, and the marble
Is the color of wild honey.
There is nothing left of the gardens
That were once about them, of the fat
Turf marked with cloven hooves.
Only the sea grass struggles
Over the crumbled stone,
Over the splintered steps,
Only the blue and yellow
Of the sea, and the cliffs,
Red in the distance across the bay.
Lean back.
Her memory has passed to our lips now.
Our kisses fall through summer's chaos
In our own breasts and thighs.
Two of the losses Rexroth felt most keenly in his life were of his mother, Delia Rexroth, and his first wife, Andree. Among his work are several poems written to each of them in the years after they died. In his Autobiographical Novel, he gives a heartbreaking account of Andree's slow death from brain disease during the years they lived in San Francisco in the '30's. From one of three poems he wrote, at separate times, titled "Andree Rexroth," this one written sometime in the early 1940's:

I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital --
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.
Bright trout poised in the current --
The raccoon's track at the water's edge --
A bittern blooming in the distance --
Your ashes scattered on this mountain --
Moving seaward on this stream.
Rexroth was conscious of history, of human history and the life of the earth and the heart, a force running through all he wrote. The poems of his I've loved the most are those in which the human presence alive in history is most evident. Little by little, over the years, his politics became embittered and cynical; I've found some of his writing from his later years, especially his essays and other prose, less compelling because of this. At his greatest, however, his poems are a call and a whisper of the sorrow and beauty of humanity alive upon the earth.

Coming back over the col between
Isosceles Mountain and North Palisade,
I stop at the summit and look back
At the storm gathering over the white peaks
Of the Whitney group and the colored
Kaweahs. September, nineteen thirty-nine. [...]
[...] I loiter here like a condemned man
Lingers over his last breakfast, his last smoke;
Thinking of those heroes of the war
Of human skill, foresight, endurance and will;
The disinterested bravery,
The ideal combat of peace: Bauer
Crawling all night around his icecave
On snowbound Kanchenjunga, Tilman
And Shipton skylarking on Nanda Devi,
Smythe seeing visions on Everest,
The mad children of the Eigerwand --
What holidays will they keep this year?
Gun emplacements blasted in the rock;
Machine gun duels between white robed ski troops,
The last screaming schusses marked with blood.
Was it for this we spent the years perfecting
The craft of courage? Better the corpse
Of the foolhardy, frozen on the Eiger
Accessible only to the storm,
Standing sentry for the avalanche.
(From the poem "Strength through Joy".)

Kenneth Rexroth's poetry can seem deceptively simple, deceptively easy to make: many of his most deeply moving poems appear to be made up of little more than a series of straightforward statements, with just a slightly heightened emphasis of feeling or descriptive skill. On closer reading the weave and layered currents of perception and experience, the lyric grace and epic sweep, begin to emerge. No matter how many times I read Rexroth's poems, I continue to be touched with wonder and surprise.

So much has escaped me, so much lies covert
In memory, and muffled
Like thunder muttering through sleep, that woke me,
To watch the city wink
Out in the violet light under the twisting rain.
Lightning storms are rare here,
In this statistically perfect climate.
The eucalyptus shed
Branches, doors banged, glass broke, the sea smashed its walls.
I, in my narrow bed,
Thought of other times, the hope filled post war years,
Exultant, dishevelled
Festivals, exultant eyes, dishevelled lips,
Eyes dulled now, and lips thinned,
Festivals that have betrayed their occasions.
I think of you in Gas,
The heroine on the eve of explosion;
Or angry, white, and still,
Arguing with me about Sasha's tragic book.
Here in the empty night,
I light the lamp and hunt for pad and pencil.
A million sleepers turn
While bombs fall in their dreams. The storm goes away,
Muttering in the hills.
The veering wind brings the cold, organic smell
Of the flowing ocean.

(From the poem "A Christmas Note for Geraldine Udell".)

An excellent website about Rexroth and his work is the Kenneth Rexroth Archive, in the Bureau of Public Secrets website, here. The website includes many of Rexroth's essays, articles and reviews, the complete texts of some of his out-of-print books and unpublished manuscripts, some poems and translations, critical articles about Rexroth by other writers, and other material.

Thank you for this expansive post about Rexroth. Of course I have heard of him, but sadly I have not read his poetry, and now I know what I have been missing.

Poet Man
Thanks for coming by and commenting, Poet Man.
Thanks for the wonderful post about Rexroth. Your comments are insightful and you chose some wonderful poems to quote. You helped me understand Rexroth better
Dear Lyle,
This is a wonderful post, the best overview of Rexroth I've read, with extraordinary poems. Thank you for your sensibility and generosity in general, and in particular for these longer reviews where you take us deeper into the content of what you are reading.
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