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"Thoughts on Rexroth's Prosody"

Bradford Morrow

Rexroth's art works by a technique of self-effacement. His diction and line appear to be effortless, organic, inevitable, without seam. The lack of ostentation he ascribes to his pietistic background finds as its formal companion this straightforward prosody. Still, to dissect and describe how his line, ostensibly so simple on the surface, actually works would be as difficult to do as explain Williams' variable foot: and Rexroth's was surely a less self-consciously developed art.

The longer, philosophical poems operate quite successfully within the same set of technical values as the shorter, lyrical poems. It is at least in part a function of Rexroth's anti-elitist politics that be never veers too far from a polished colloquial syntax--that of an experienced, unaffected, worldly man speaking. One is conducted through the seemingly spontaneous rhythms toward meaning. Like Blake, Whitman, and Lawrence, such formal directness of language functions in perfect symmetry with an embracing, mystical philosophy which thrusts the manners of that language out and away, almost into palpability. Consider the variety of cadence and verbal tone in the opening lines of "Floating":

Our canoe idles in the idling current
Of the tree and vine and rush enclosed
Backwater of a torpid midwestern stream;
Revolves slowly, and lodges in the glutted
Waterlilies. We are tired of paddling.
All afternoon we have climbed the weak current,
Up dim meanders, through woods and pastures,
Past muddy fords where the strong smell of cattle
Lay thick across the water; singing the songs
Of perfect, habitual motion; ski songs,
Nightherding songs, songs of the capstan walk,
The levee, and the roll of the voyageurs.

For all its rhythmic diversity the lines do not vary beyond nine to eleven syllables (two thirds of the passage is comprised of hendecasyllables); there are four or five stresses per line, mostly four. Yet by unstrained employment of different punctuation, enjambment, and variable balancing of syllabic stresses Rexroth invokes in the reader an actual physical feeling, the sensation of being in this idle canoe, buffeted by irregular, lazy currents, exhausted but alert. It is a remarkable achievement of form, and is carried off with effortless sanguinity. The final four lines constitute such a balance of differing weights--the second line triadic, the third of almost equal proportions mounted on the fulcrum of that comma and balanced out from the middle by the repeated "songs, songs"--they can be compared to a Calder mobile. Similarly line-breaks are commonly intensified in Rexroth's work by intuitively perfect serializations of the various parts of speech:

California rolls into
Sleepy summer, and the air
Is full of the bitter sweet
Smoke of the grass fires burning
On the San Francisco hills.

We see in the terminal positions of these opening lines of "Delia"--each of which has exactly seven syllables--movement from preposition to noun to adjective (though at first appearance "sweet" reads curiously like a substantive, until the eye moves back to the beginning of the next line and reads "smoke"--making "sweet" adjectival) to gerundial verb to noun. Thus the various points of stress, as one moves down through the lines of the single sentence, are here accomplished less by sheer rhythm than the grammatical expectations felt in each end-word, and the consequent "weight" intuited by the reader in those words.

None of these effects is possible, of course, in a verse that suppresses linear syntax. It is for this reason, as much as any other, that Rexroth abandoned the asyntactical techniques (cubist in origin) of the "half decade of foreboding—1927-1932," most of which were published in The Art of Worldly Wisdom in 1949. Although he proposed that the elements of his cubist verse (see "Prolegomenon to a Theodicy") "are as simple as the elementary shapes of a cubist painting and the total poem is as definite and apprehensible as the finished picture," it was the measured, syntactical line of "Floating" and "Delia" he was to develop and largely use from the thirties on. Even in the later poems in The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, On Flower Wreath Hill, and The Silver Swan--so thoroughly influenced by Japanese and Chinese models (after Waley and Pound, Rexroth was the great bringer of East Asian poetry into our culture)--he maintains much the same voice and cadences and line of the earlier work.

The simplicity of exact pronouncement may allow for particularly complex thought. Precision of fact in observation, as well as in syntax or form, is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Rexroth's crucial book-length poem, The Dragon and the Unicorn. That this poem is now so seldom read, even by Rexroth aficionados and practitioners of the craft of poetry, troubled Rexroth, and depressed him. For in The Dragon and the Unicorn we find the most complete formulation of his personal, mystical philosophy, the most extensive indictment of Western civilization (comparable to, if not as fiery and incantatory as "Thou Shalt Not Kill"), and perhaps the closest approximation to his speaking voice there is in his poetical works. (An Autobiographical Novel is the most perfect mirror to Rexroth's spoken word, as it was dictated, and edited only enough to get it past Doubleday's libel lawyers.) Set as a running travelog of his year-long journey through Wales, England, France, Italy, Switzerland, and back to America, The Dragon and the Unicorn is a meditation on the nature of love, of time and knowledge, of will and the responsibilities of the self-defining individual, of community (the moral opposite of the collective, the State), and ethics. Juxtapositions are abrupt; the life of the traveler's mind is pingponged against crisply drawn episodes on the road--the latter of which are in turn ribald, poignant, engaging, scientific, very opinionately lived moments. Together the contemplation and the travelog comprise what Rexroth himself has suggested is a Whitmanesque "interior autobiography." And nowhere in his work is the dictum "Epistomology is moral" more intricately played out than this poem.

However important The Dragon and the Unicorn may be for one hoping to gain some understanding of Rexroth's general philosophy, there is little doubt that his reputation as a poet rests, at least for the present, more on his love and nature poems (too, on his translations from Chinese and Japanese which, for lack of space, I was unable to include in this selection).

Clearly, he has written some of the most beautiful love poems in the century. His lyric celebrates not merely the disembodied metaphysic nor simply the corporeal erotic, but a synthetic and human whole, composed of both these elements. As a religious poet, Rexroth's love poems are primarily of conjugal love:

Let me celebrate you. I
Have never known anyone
More beautiful than you. I
Walking beside you, watching
You move beside me, watching
That still grace of hand and thigh.
Watching your face change with words
You do not say, watching your
Solemn eyes as they turn to me,
Or turn inward, full of knowing,
Slow or quick, watching your full
Lips part and smile or turn grave,
Watching your narrow waist, your
Proud buttocks in their grace . . .

Fundamentally sacramental, seldom does the poet's contemplation of his love of his wife distinguish between body and soul. In the above passage from "A Dialogue of Love" (written for Rexroth's third wife, Marthe) the usual dichotomy between the observing mind and the tactile flesh is consciously played down: each reflects the other. In an earlier poem, "Between Myself and Death," the dichotomy is altogether erased:

It is wonderful to watch you,
A living woman in a room
Full of frantic sterile people,
And think of your arching buttocks
Under your velvet evening dress,
And the beautiful fire spreading
From your sex, burning flesh and bone,
The unbelievably complex
Tissues of your brain all alive
Under your coiling, splendid hair.


I like to think of you naked.
I put your naked body
Between myself alone and death.

It is the most original and persuasive synthesis of transcendent metaphysical and erotic verse written by an American poet this century.

From the Introduction to Rexroth’s Selected Poems, ed. Bradford Morrow (New Directions, 1984). Copyright 1984 by Bradford Morrow.

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