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Re-Discovering Community: Rexroth and the Whitman Tradition


Linda Hamalian

Kenneth Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1905. By the time he turned eighteen, he was living by himself on Chicago’s South Side. Both parents were dead, and his Aunt Minnie and Uncle Paul, who were raising five children of their own, were relieved when their ward announced he had found a small two-room apartment on Prairie Avenue. Rexroth had been a precocious child, encouraged by his parents to explore his intellectual and artistic impulses, and at the same develop a working sense of responsibility for humankind. He was exposed in particular to socialist politics – he claims that Eugene Debs and his grandfather drank whiskey together. And though his high school record was not exemplary – indeed he never got his diploma – he was an avid reader of poetry, philosophy and political theory, and learned to paint in oils and water color. He covered the ceiling of his apartment with batik prints, the walls with his mother’s Medici prints, hauled in an abandoned piano and struggled with the first phase of his bohemian life.

He paid the rent by clerking at McClurg’s bookstore, picking up odd assignments from local newspapers, and by soapboxing at Bughouse Square in Washington Park where a public forum was held nearly every night in a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park. People of all political persuasions would speak their mind: among them by Rexroth’s account in An Autobiographical Novel, "Anarchists-Single-Taxers, British-Isrealites, self-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists ... Socialists, communists ... IWWS, DeLeonites ... Schopenhauerians, Nietzcheans" (105-106). For other entertainment he would go to the Dill Pickle Club, near Bughouse Square, to hear Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. He saw and participated in plays by Ben Hecht, Strindberg, and Ibsen and was introduced to Yeats’s dance plays and Pound’s translations of Noh. He also went to the Green Mask, a tea room on Grand Avenue and State Street where weekly poetry readings and lectures were conducted. Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson would appear at these gatherings. Alberta Hunter, Jimmy Yancey and Irene Castle would stop by. And writers whose names are associated with the Harlem Renaissance – Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay – also contributed their talents. The Green Mask was one of the first clubs where Rexroth read poetry by avant-garde French poets, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman to jazz. On his own, acutely aware of the radical course his life was taking, Rexroth perceived then that Whitman was a poet of democracy and revolutionary hope who knew that the first step towards connecting with the universe was to develop his individual voice.

Indeed like Whitman, Rexroth was determined to acquire experience first hand, and to develop the ability to live spontaneously on primitive levels. Over the next few years, Rexroth had numerous adventures – hitch-hiking cross country, picking up odd jobs as cook, toothbrush maker, horse wrangler, peddling booklets on proper diet published by Haldeman-Julius. He got as far as Seattle where he did a stint on the Wobbly newspaper The Industrial Worker, after which he moved north and landed a job at the ranger station near Marblemount. He made his first connection with the western landscape, and with the old men he met who spoke in the tones and patterns that made sense to him. Here he found the wellspring of his own authentic idiom, that direct presence of speaking that Whitman demanded of his own poetry. And while he carried out his duties as patrolman – keeping the trails open for stock crews, a job for a dozen people, not one – he discovered the world of the western mountains. After a night camping near the western peak of Glacier Mountain, he realized "with complete certainty" that he had found the place where his authentic voice could surface.

Rexroth also traveled to Mexico, spent a stretch in the Chicago House of Correction, fell in love with a social worker who had been assigned to supervise his progress when he was still a minor, stowed away on a ship to Paris, hung out in coffee houses in New York City where he rented an apartment in the same Grove Street apartment as Hart Crane. When his vagabond life began to pall, he made an extended visit to Holy Cross Monastery near Poughkeepsie, one of the settings for his first long poem The Homestead Called Damascus.

Back in Chicago he resumed his life as budding poet, artist, actor and soapboxer. And just turning 22 in 1927, he married Andree Shafer, a painter and political activist like himself. After an unusually cruel Chicago winter, the couple decided to head west and start a new life in that part of the United States that had spoken to Rexroth so strongly a few years back. Unlike many other writers of this period, Rexroth was not tempted by the magic of New York City and the East Coast. For all his sophistication and savoir-faire, he did not want to live in

a city dominated by European culture and tradition, no matter how well he had taught himself that literature and art.

Seen in retrospect, Kenneth and Andree were early versions of the young people who flocked to northern California during the fifties and sixties. Although they were married, and practicing Anglicans, they were hardly conventional. Hitchhikers, obviously without steady employment, each carried a huge backpack loaded with camping supplies, writing pads, drawing pads and pencils. Rexroth had persuaded Andree that the west coast was the last place left in the United States that was not dominated by Puritan morality, where they could live in the "America" that Whitman envisioned, where they could "go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked." A wanderer-speaker like Whitman, Rexroth understood the appeal of the open road, and responded to it wholeheartedly.

Rexroth was to spend the major part of his life in San Francisco, camping in the mountains as much as a third of the year. He traveled across the country on the poetry circuit, to Europe, to Asia; but the west coast was his home. In 1968, he accepted a post as "lecturer of poetry and song" at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he spent the last fourteen years of his life. In Santa Barbara he grew increasingly involved in Shingon Buddhism, and in translating the work of women poets from Japan and China, including his invention Marichiko. Rexroth’s personal affairs were often turbulent. He was married four times, and despite the exquisite love poetry that he wrote to his wives, his relationships with them were deeply troubled. But the continuity of the poet’s life remained intact his entire life, and his talent as a poet full developed with the splendid western landscape as inspiration. Although not included in this anthology, the poems (their sheer number makes it awkward to single out one or two) that most directly reflect this inspiration are an essential part of Rexroth’s opus.

The dramatic setting of the west coast infiltrated Rexroth’s sensibility and perception. In somewhat the same way as Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry ironically enough Rexroth could not abide, Rexroth slipped into the spell of the American West, of the California spaces, the mountains, the forests, the wild terrain, and the Pacific Ocean itself. The place created a pervading, comforting conviction that no artistic accomplishment could ever match this landscape, arousing in Rexroth a sense of a sacramental presence in all things, Whitman’s organic conviction that each particle of matter is an immensity. Many of Rexroth’s poems bear that stamp of discovery. They focus sharply on flora and fauna, human anatomy, and geological measurements. These settings and details serve as contexts for Rexroth’s observations about social issues, romantic love, family relationships, and personal revelations. The authenticity of these settings and details are often the bedrock of the poems themselves.

It is important to remember that Rexroth spent as much time as he could in the mountains because he regarded camping, hiking, fishing as integrated activities of his life, not pleasant breaks from the routine of city living. Many of Rexroth’s serious periods of writing time took place in the mountains, or in his Devil’s Gulch lean-to cabin in Marin County north of San Francisco. He sought to merge his lifestyle with his vocation, to live by the values he presented in his poems, and to continuously refresh and reinforce his connection to the natural environment, his inspiration and source of imagery. Rexroth became so accomplished a camper that the WPA commissioned him to write Camping in the Western Mountains, a 234-page manuscript that covers every aspect of hiking and camping imaginable, from how to properly pack provisions in a knapsack to the merits of making pinebough beds in inclement weather.

What cannot be overemphasized is that during the thirties, forties, and fifties, the kind of poetry that Rexroth was writing ran against the grain of literary critics who believed that poetry had to be written in an impersonal voice, in language of preconceived and historical order. Moreover, there was for the New Critics, the problem of regionalism: they felt that poetry had to somehow "rise above it," forgetting the fact that one of their favorite poets, Robert Frost, was completely immersed in the New England woods and season, and that New England was one of several regions of the United States, that the New England character was not necessarily the character of the United States. Readers glancing through such early Rexroth collections as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, In What Hour, and The Art of Worldly Wisdom might suspect that Rexroth set out to write poetry that would provoke the literary critics of the day.

William Emerson argues in Archetype West: the Pacific Coast As a Literary Region that poets who have been relegated to minor status because they were provincial or regional, were in actuality able to write about cosmic reality because they had merged with their own particular world. Rexroth himself reiterates this position in numerous places: in his essay on Leaves of Grass, part of the Classics Revisited series, he writes that Whitman "found his cosmogony under his heel, all about him in the most believable details of mundane existence. So his endless lists of the facts of life, which we expect to be tedious, are instead exhilarating, especially if read aloud." Another way of putting this is to say that before we can connect with the universe, we have to find out who we are, we must establish our own personal identity. A wonderful example of this process is "Spring Rain," one of many poems that Rexroth wrote about camping with his daughter.

Throughout his life Rexroth was sympathetic with efforts to encourage writers to identify strongly with the region where they lived, and he articulated this position early on. As a member of the League of American Writers, he attended the Western Writers Conference in November 1936, where he delivered a paper entitled "The Function of the Poet in Society." He spelled out the minimal conditions that artists needed to work. He declared that he was a radical, "a social outcast [who] identified...with the forces striving for a better social system, a system in which humanity and leisure for vital appreciation of the arts would be the common property of all men." He declared that he did not deserve to live a life of semi-starvation. He did not want to write with what he called a divided personality enjoyed by greater writers with established audiences. He thought that William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot were socially ineffective even though their poetry was "truly revolutionary in its final implications." In Rexroth’s estimation, Yeats and Eliot had evolved for themselves, not necessarily anyone else, systems of theosophy and Anglo-Catholicism deeply critical of middle class values also held in contempt by Rexroth. But if Rexroth and his comrades wanted to reach their audiences, they had to strive actively to create within their readers a meaningful literary sensibility. Rexroth believed that he and his colleagues had to reach out to "all producing classes of the west," the workers and the farmers the country depended on, using the words from factories, farms, and trades, as Whitman would have them do. Rexroth was pleading, ultimately, for the recognition of regional literary magazines filled with good writing. More basically, he was stating that in order for people to tap into their creative energy, and to respect, seek and support the art and poetry of others, they had to feel connected to their immediate environment. In a sense, Rexroth was redefining democracy in dynamic terms by asserting that a free country was a country that nurtured and validated an artistic sensibility in all people, a position that Whitman had articulated more than fifty years earlier in "Democratic Vistas."

Eventually this perspective blossomed in San Francisco at the end of the second world war. Writers, artists, and a small core of Italian anarchists who lived in the Bay Area began gathered in one another’s homes for poetry readings and literary discussions. Many came down from Waldorf, Oregon where they been confined to work camps as conscientious objectors. With them they brought the little magazines and printing presses that would create new outlets for linking the life of the imagination with a pacifist-anarchist consciousness. In Berkeley, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser, all students of Josephine Miles, were transforming the Bay Area into one of the most exciting and interesting centers for poetry in the United States. These writers often crossed the Bay to Rexroth’s home on Potrero Hill, which became a gathering place for creative people less inclined to attach themselves to academic institutions. Rexroth conducted "educational" meetings based on a reading list he devised that included more than fifty works by philosophers, political theorists, poets, historians, and psychoanalysis. Various magazines like The Illiterati were given fresh transfusions, and others were newly launched, including The Circle and The Ark. Contributors included many who attended Rexroth’s evenings – Philip Lamantia, William Everson, Robert Duncan, Richard Eberhart, Robert Stock. As William Everson describes it in Archetype West: The Pacific Coast As A Literary Region (Oyez, 1976), "a distinct West Coast literary situation" was in the making where the "poet’s role as vates was affirmed, his [sic] prophetic stance as refresher and invigorator of stultified literary and social forms was asserted" (107). In other words, Whitman’s view of poet as inspired seer had surfaced once more. The literature of Asia and the Native American became equal in importance to that of Europe; the natural beauty of the west coast provided writers with inspiration, and instilled within them a commitment to promote ecological sanity. Before long, the concept of poetry as performance was revived and poetry/jazz became popular. Rexroth believed that Whitman’s American Dream became believable again because he saw men and women related, as he put it in his essay on "Leaves of Grass," "by organic satisfactions, in work, love, play, the family, comradeship – a social order whose essence is the liberation and universalization of selfhood.

This general optimism carried on through the mid-sixties as San Francisco received a whole new generation of writers – Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane DiPrima, Philip Whalen, Bob Kaufman – who wanted to write poetry of hope and responsibility. All the while, Rexroth kept writing poetry like "Fish Peddler and Cobbler" that was not disembodied, poetry that articulated the human experience. Although he saw that the world was not going to change as quickly as he wanted it to, he remained committed to carrying on the tradition that Whitman had initiated. Some of Rexroth’s best poems are the ones that express his sadness and horror about the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the outcome of the Spanish Civil War, and the events that brought about World War II. Whitman said, "I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there," and in his own way, Rexroth said the same. As Richard Gray aptly describes it in American Poetry of the Twentieth Century (Longman, 1990, p.171), the work of both men originated in personal vision, then moved into interpersonal communication to become an act of ‘imaginative identification, between the poet who has certain beliefs and the many men and women suffering and dying for those beliefs in other parts of the world." Like Whitman, Rexroth never stopped believing that poets were indispensable to the rediscovery of community.

Linda Hamalian
William Paterson University
Copyright 1999


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