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On Rexroth's Poetry


Donald K. Gutierrez

Kenneth Rexroth, who was born in l905 and died in l982, was a major American poet. He wrote poetry for over sixty years, and though he had some recognition during his lifetime, it was far less than his work (prose as well as poetry) deserved. A bohemian, an astute literary and social critic and radical, an autodidact and polymath, a transvaluational thinker and wit,     confabulator," a translator of poetry from half a dozen languages, Rexroth failed to gain the recognition during his lifetime that h  deserved as a poet in part because American literary politics and literary critical orientations didn’t not work in his favor during a sizable part of his career, Ironically, much of his best verse was written from the l930s to the mid-l950s, a period when  academic, literary and political tastes prevailed that were alien to many of the social, philosophical and artistic values for which  Rexroth’s art and life stood.

Rexroth’s view of poetry as communication, as heightened speech between persons, was violently at odds with the New Criticism and its idea of a poem as a self-referential text to be de-mystified by exhaustive analysis and interpretation. His attachment to a world-wide avant-garde and to the political left wing alienated him from such influential, political and aesthetically conservative critic-poets as John Crowe Ransome and Allen Tate and their journal, Kenyon Review, not to mention the  politically radical, but anti-West-Coast New York intelligentsia represented especially in the l940s and l950s by Partisan Review. Rexroth had been a prime force in a vigorous artistic vanguard centered in San Francisco since the l930s which had intercultural relations with the political left wing (mainly Anarchist) as well as with the Beat Renaissance of the mid-l950s which  he publicized and championed.

It was only in the last fifteen years or so of his life that Rexroth’s translations of Asian verse gained him some recognition. This is a shame, because Rexroth was an important poet. He wrote a large number of first rate poems, both long and short. The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a mid-period book of verse (l940), was once described by Thomas Parkinson as commensurate in worth to Eliot’s The Four Quartets. Rexroth wrote a number of significant long poems, such as Part I of The Phoenix and the Tortoise, The Dragon and the Unicorn, and the two relatively long works written in Japan in the l960s and l970s, respectively, entitled The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart and The Love Poems of Marichiko

Two primary subject categories in Rexroth’s verse of love and nature include many of Rexroth’s best poems such as "When We With Sappho," "Lyell’s Hypothesis Again," "The Signature of All Things," "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," "Yugao," "Towards An Organic Philosophy," "Another Spring," the broadly political poem August 22, l939," and the seven "Marthe" poems. A key passage in one of Rexroth’s best poems, "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," runs as follows:

The holiness of the real
    Is always there, accessible
        In total immanence. The nodes
    Of transcendence coagulate
In you, the experiencer,
    And in the other, the lover. [ 1956]

The first three lines especially provide a golden thread through significant, representative Rexroth poems. It suggests a spiritual dimension present in much of Rexroth’s better work, but, importantly, projected in terms of the everyday and the "everywhere." One facet of this holy reality resides in Rexroth’s poetry of reminiscence and reverie. Rexroth is a remarkable poet of reminiscence (let alone reverie), recalling his mother Delia (in "Delia Rexroth"), his first wife Andree Dutcher ("You  ashes/Were scattered in this place. Here/I wrote you a farewell poem"), his entranced childhood in "Un Bel di Vedremo" ("...that other /World before the War," a world of Debs and Huneker, of lace evening gowns and Japanese prints), the grisly scene of the Chicago stockyards in l9l7 on his first visit to Chicago (narrated in the l950s poem "The Bad Old Days"). He reminisces because he feels, usually convincingly, that he is recalling objects, people, values, events worth  re-evoking for themselves and for what they symbolize, but he also draws attention through reminiscence to the transience of life and thus to the need to crystallize value amidst the flux of existence. Also memorable is Rexroth’s capacity to project in his poetry a passion so consuming even in reminiscence that it obliterates past and present.

The Phoenix and the Tortoise, which contains some of Rexroth’s finest verse, also includes probably his greatest love poem  of reverie and reminiscence, "When We With Sappho." "Sappho" is too long a poem to analyze at length here, but I shall quote the first stanza in order to exhibit the poem’s felicitous natural expression and lyricism which result in part from Rexroth’s deft 7-9 syllabic meter (which he frequently used) and his deceptively simple diction:

We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous
            Orchard of a decayed New England farm,
Summer in our hair, and the smell
                                        Of summer in our twined
bodies,
                                Summer in our mouths, and
summer
    In the luminous, fragmentary words
    Of this dead Greek woman.
    Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.
Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
    You move against me like a wave
        That moves in sleep.
    Your body spreads across my brain
        Like a bird-filled summer. . . [ 1944]

Here, sexual love and intercourse are compared to organic human occurrences like sleep. But the comparison moves towards metaphor, for sex, sleep and nature ("bird filled summer" and ocean wave) are so blended as almost to render nature and human  nature as one. Sexual love is presented as an activity and action as natural as the elements, but then a commanding perspective in Rexroth’s verse is the congruence of human existence with the phenomena of nature. His love and nature verse is full of this concentricity and even of blended identification, whether in the stunning "Lyell’s Hypothesis Again," climaxing (again, in a love setting) in its "immortal/Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone" or in the post-orgasmic quietude of the poem "Still on Water," in which "Solitude closes down around us/As we lie passive and exhausted/Solitude clamps us softly in its warm hand."

The accomplishment of "Sappho" is in part its recording and mediating experiences of love, time and process through reverie as poetic art. The poem doesn’t depend on the facile appeal of vivid eroticism or voyeurism, or of dissatisfaction as sensationalized longing. If there is a consciousness in the poem, it is one so arching through time and transience as to resemble Nicolas Berdyaev’s beautiful term the superconscious. The lovers try to sustain the almost supernatural vividness and clarity of Sappho’s sensibility, under "Gold colossal domes of cumulus clouds//which/ Lift over the undulant, sibilant forest." The natural in "Sappho" is almost supernatural in the sheer accessibility of its "total immanence." As love, it becomes "the nodes of transcendence," and, conveyed in a poem, becomes, to Rexroth, a sacramentalizing of experience. Or as he puts it at the end of "A Letter to William Carlos Williams,"a poet "creates/Sacramental relationships/That last always."

Rexroth wrote poems about love in more than a few of its myriad permutations. If, accordingly, he could write memorably of love as realization of self and other, of each through each other (as in the "Marthe" poem "Growing"), he could also speak of the ineffable poignancy of love’s, like nature’s, transience, as he does in the l940s poem "Another spring":

        The Seasons revolve and the years change
With no assistance or supervision.
Thee moon, without taking thought,
    Moves in its cycle, full, crescent, and full.

        The white moon enters the heart of the river;
    The air is drugged with azalea blossoms;
Deep in the night a pine cone falls;
        Our campfire dies out I the empty mountains.

. . . .
. . . .
Here we lie entranced by the starlit water,
And moments that should each last forever

    Slide unconsciously by us like water. [ 1944]

If stanza one implies a meaning to or behind the nature description, stanza two submerges us in nature through an ostensible presentativeness that is one of Rexroth’s subtlest representational achievements as a poet. The lines, here and in other poems, effect a preternatural directness and authenticity. 

A sharper grief than that in "Another Spring" resides in all three of the Andree-Rexroth elegies, Rexroth’s tribute to his first wife Andree Dutcher who died in l940 and who, like Rexroth, was a vanguard artist. Here is the first two-thirds and more "objective" part of the second elegy":

                Purple and green, blue and white,
The Oregon river mouths
            Slide into thick smoky darkness
        As the turning cup of the day
            Slips from the whirling hemisphere
                And all that white long beach gleams
        In white twilight as the lights
            Come on in the lonely hamlets;
And voices of men emerge;
                    And dogs, barking, as the wind stills.
Those August evenings are
    Sixteen years old tonight and I
Am sixteen years older too- [ 1944]

The simplest of the three elegies, this one is moving in its progression from these sensitively recorded details of place sixteen years earlier when Andree was last seen alive to a present without Andree, in which Rexroth remains

Lonely, caught in the midst of life,
In the chaos of the world;
And all the years that we were young
Are gone, and every atom
Of your learned and disordered
Flesh is utterly consumed.

This elegy does not exhibit self-pity, despite the "lonely"; generally, the feelings in the poem are banked low by only being implied. This elegy to Andree acquires a certain impersonality by in the main relying on direct objective statement by which to register its pathos, not only in the irremediable passage of time when they were together, but in the final immutability of the loss of Andree, herself inexorably gone. The very personalness of the poem, the intensity of relationship, serves to keep the reader removed, not emotionally, but in terms of ready identification. Despite the deeply anguished awareness of the utter finality of the loss, no consolation is offered.

The Love Poems of Marichiko (l978) represents an order of love verse strikingly different in some ways from all Rexroth’s other love verse and remarkable for a man in his late sixties. Marichiko is a sequential verse narrative of sixty short verses supposedly written by a Japanese "poetess" named Marichiko that Rexroth claims to have translated. Actually, Rexroth wrote the Marichiko poems. This work constitutes an unforgettable union of passion and poignancy, crystallized by a context of love bliss and almost unbearable forlornness. In short, the series comprises a mini-tragedy of being loved and left. Thus the deeper thematic elements in the poem provide its searing eroticism with a process of tragic realism that is a high achievement in American love verse.

The set of poems is too long to scrutinize in its entirety here, but a quotation sketch of the work will convey its flavor and some of its force:

I sit at my desk.
What can I write to you?
Sick with love,
I long to see you in the flesh.
I can write only,
‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
Love cuts through my heart
And scars my vitals.
Spasms of longing suffocate me
And will not stop.

This intensity is typical of the entire sequence and of its dramatic desperation and anguish. Apt metaphors communicate the power of the passions permeating this love. Says "Marichiko,"

Making love with you

    Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
        Until nothing can slake my thirst
    But to drink the entire sea.

With such an unquenchable appetite for love , we are subtly prepared for some strong erotic episodes, and soon get one:

You wake me,
Part my thighs, and kiss me.
I give you the dew
Of the first morning of the world,

in which the cunnilingual sex is partly sublimated by an apocalyptic context suggesting through poetic license the extremity of passion of this love experience.

This love is so obsessive and overwhelming to "Marichiko" that even daytime, the major phase of our conscious lives and strivings, is subordinated to night and dreams of love and lover:

Because I dream
Of you every night,
My lonely days
Are only dreams.

Relations subtly, mysteriously change, and by poem # 38, after a few quiet hints in two or three preceding poems, we get this:

I waited all night.
    By midnight I was on fire.
In the dawn, hoping
To find a dream of you,
I laid my weary head
On my folded arms,
    But the songs of the waking
Birds tormented me

which is followed six poems later by

. . .
My hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks
        Are your fault.

Clearly, another, sinister phase of the relationship has evolved. Little reason is given for its occurrence ("Our love was dimmed by/Forces which came from without," we are told (#46)), but that explanation is vague at best, and leads us to think that the cause of the end of love is less important than its occurrence, which (for some people) is inevitable, like the succession of the seasons, or death. The final poems in the sequence are as fraught with grief, misery and bitterness as the earlier ones were radiant with joy and ecstasy:

My heart flares with this agony.
Do you understand?
My life is going out.
Do you understand?
My life.

The final poem in the sequence implies death in life for the woman, in these concluding lines:

I hate the sight of coming day
Since that morning when
Your insensitive gaze turned me to ice
Like the pale moon in the dawn.

Thus the series does not end sensationally, in melodrama or violence. Rather, it ends the way such matters often enough end in life, in rejection, estrangement, bitterness, one’s desire to live ebbing into a darkening grayness. "Chilled through, I wake up with the first light," she says in the same poem. The real integrity of the "Marichiko"sequence does not arise from some facile causal explanation or moral judgment. The poems suggest that love begins, grows, wanes and sometimes ends. One can’t always explain it, love can be like that. It does end, and that is as much a part of the actual trajectory of life (if less palatable to our basic ideals or fantasies) as unending love or marital fidelity. Aside from such bony realism, the "Marichiko" poems are  remarkable for so utterly blending romance and realism that the extremities of ecstatic love become inextricably part of the same world of experience as the acrid horror of abandonment. They are especially remarkable, though, for being so free of moral  pronouncement and for the narrative they frame, which allows Rexroth’s capacity for an impersonal poetics even more scope than do most of his love lyrics.

The Dragon and the Unicorn is a book-length poem written in the late l940s describing Rexroth’s travels in mainly post-World-War-II Europe. The book is a rich brew of travel material: sharp, memorable responses to cities and towns, museums and galleries, restaurants, cuisines and inns, persons famous, infamous or little-known but fascinatingly presented. Dragon is further enriched by polemic and ideology, exquisite lyric set-pieces, philosophic meditations on love, the compacted evil of the modern era, past political lost causes, and many opinions, some engaging, some challenging or startling. 

Typical of the philosophic-ideological passages in Dragon is the following part of one:

Every collectivity
Is opposed to community.
As Capitalism and the
                                State become identical,

                    All existence assumes the
Character of a vast
Conspiracy to quantify
The Individual. . .[ 1950]

Some might weary of the sweeping, ex cathedra character of passages like this, or feel that it comes close to being prose. However, it is definitely verse in its subtly crafted syllabic meter. What, moreover, might have seemed outlandishly left-wing or hysterical as a critique of American society in the late l940s seems today like powerfully relevant, sanely Anarchist jeremiads against the concentrated American power structures emerging out of the war. Further, Rexroth alternates such passages with nature and love lyrics as sensuously compelling and forceful as his best lyrics elsewhere in his work:

Bright petals of evening
                Shatter, fall, drift over Florence,
        And flush your cheeks a redder
        Rose and gleam like fiery flakes
        In your eyes. . .
                        . . .Your moist, quivering
        Lips are like the wet scarlet wings
Of a reborn butterfly who
    Trembles on the rose petal as
        Life floods his strange body.
            Turn to me. Part your lips. My dear,
                    Some day we will be
dead.

This counterpointing of abstract, ideological passages and sensuous lyrics lends Dragon form, as does its travel itinerary and its consistent tone of worldliness, erudition and heterodoxical authority. Though a few passages of misogyny and homophobia mar the book, they are more than compensated for by Rexroth’s intellectual audacity, bright responsiveness to what he sees, and his ideological anger and compassion. This compassion is exemplified by one of the highlights of Dragon which Rexroth movingly contrasts an Age of Gold in the medieval culture of Southern France with one of Iron. The latter was comprised of the Papacy and imperialist England and Northern France which annihilated the Provence of the olive and the vine, with its flourishing culture of love and literature, a booming economy and heretical Catharism.

Opinionated, occasionally arrogant and savage, Dragon is nevertheless an extraordinary work not only as poetry, wisdom, left-wing jeremiad, historical reminiscence, ideological inspiration and travel experience, but as a prescient revelation of the massive nihilism and corruption released in societies by World War II, the Atom Bomb and the genocidal bent of sheer profit-oriented, large-corporation-driven economies. Dragon is unquestionably one of Rexroth’s major works, and a major American poem in its own right.

In poems like "The Signature of All Things" or "Yugao" or "Lyell’s Hypothesis Again" or the "Andree-Rexroth" elegies, Rexroth’s work does not even seem like poetry in the sense of being a "verbal construct" or a convention of artful words and syntactic and rhythmic strategies--rather, his poems seem like an exalted experience undergone through words which have been rendered so clear, so "artless" and "right" as to take on a kind of numinous transparency revealing the heart of the poem’s essential life itself. This intense limpidity, when it occurs in Rexoth’s verse, can make his poems distinctly crystalline, a mystical image and quality he himself frequently invoked.

The words "crystal" and "crystalline" provide a link to the last aspect of Rexroth’s verse there is space to discuss: contemplation. Rexroth ends one of his finest poems, "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," with these words:

        Suspended
In absolutely transparent time, I
Take on a kind of crystalline
Being. In this translucent
Immense here and now, if ever,
The form of the person should be
Visible, its geometry,
Its crystallography, and
Its astronomy. The good
And evil of my history
Go by. I can see them and
Weigh them. They go first, with all
The other personal facts,
And sensations, and desires.
At last there is nothing left
But knowledge, itself a vast
Crystal encompassing the
Limitless crystal of air
And rock and water. And the
Two crystals are perfectly
Silent. There is nothing to
Say about them. Nothing at all. [ 1956]

The word "crystal" is mentioned in one form or another five times in these last 23 lines. This pivotal word and image relate to a few of Rexroth’s ideas about contemplation, and inform us too about the purpose of contemplation in Rexroth’s verse generally. For a poet to urge, as Rexroth does, that poetry (and thus art) as contemplation constitutes the webbing that keeps society from disintegrating or from destroying itself is a forceful claim. By dramatizing in "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity" the contemplative, mystical process through imagery of the crystal which by its very nature reduces physical reality to its basic structure (thus accentuating the "mystical" qualities of transparency, clarity, heightened visibility), one provides a kind of direct, phenomenal authority for words asserting the primacy of contemplation as vision. Vision is intensified, even exalted, seeing. But contemplation and vision go beyond that, for, as in "Time" or in a slighter, monistic poem by Rexroth called "The Heart of Herakles" (from "The-Lights-in-the-Sky-Are-Stars" series (1956)), one crosses the traditional and arbitrary line between subject (the "I") and object (the "it," Other, World) and, becoming part of one’s surroundings, transcends their and one’s own  partialness towards an exalted clarity ("I take on a kind of crystalline being"). What follows resembles the Buddhist transcendence of all worldly ties and associations represented as Nirvana (the good and evil of one’s history going by, as well as "personal facts, sensations, desires"). One is left in this mystical denudation in a state of mind--again, crystalline--that Rexroth mentions frequently and which can be summed up in lines from his long l967 poem The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart: "He who lives without grasping/Lives always in the experience/Of the immediate as the Ultimate."

What Rexroth is doing with his crystal figure, so symbolically climactic to his entire poem and, considering the definition from Heart’s Garden, to his work itself, is imagizing or symbolizing the contemplative state. There is no absolute in the traditional religious sense even in "Time"’s two crystals of self and world, unless one wishes to say that they are "absolutely" real or reside at the center of reality. But one need not decide on this absoluteness, need not even say and thus think anything about them. Perhaps that constitutes some of the meaning of the last three-and-a-half lines of the poem: "And the/Two crystals are perfectly/Silent. There is nothing to/Say about them. Nothing at all." The silence beyond words and thoughts (let alone "facts, sensations, and desires") is conceivably a mystical aural facet of the crystalline vision climaxing "Time," and as such offers a summit of tranquillity from which to contemplate newly how time is the mercy of eternity.

When James Wright wrote in l980 that "Over the years I have learned that I am far from being alone in being so grateful to Rexroth, and I believe he has saved many poets from imaginative death," he was in part alluding to Rexroth’s essays and translations, but even more to Rexroth’s love verse. But I would guess that what poets like Wright and many others--poets and non-poets--essentially prized about Rexroth’s work was that he seemed to have a great knack for clearing away the rant, pretensions and chicanery in society concealing reality. When he turned his keen sense of the real away from organized society, which he described as held together by the Social Lie, and focused on love, political/philosophical and nature subjects, a particular lucidity, vividness and intensity emerged in his verse that one could call the natural supernatural. Speaking of D. H. Lawrence’s Look! We Have Come Through!, Rexroth says "Reality is totally valued. . . ..The clarity of purposively realize  objectivity is the most supernatural of all visions." This applies perfectly to Rexroth’s own poetry as well, and is another way of indicating that numinous glow on and within the natural and the ordinary that his best work gives off-the holiness of the real.

Donald K. Gutierrez
Copyright 1999


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