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"Introduction" to Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth

Sam Hamill and Elaine Laura Kleiner

By turns revolutionary and conservative, simultaneously spiritual and worldly, Asian and Western, Kenneth Rexroth created what must surely be regarded as the most original synthesis of transcendent metaphysical and erotic verse ever written by an American poet. A polyglot iconoclast, Rexroth was steeped in the world's spiritual and literary traditions, absorbing ideas and philosophy into his poetry and prose all his life. The author of nearly sixty books, including translations of poetry from Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Swedish, and other languages, and two volumes of Classics Revisited among several volumes of essays, he was one of the most original and universal literary scholars of this century. William Carlos Williams, reviewing the philosophical The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944), remarked, "Let me say that this is one of the most completely realized arguments I have encountered in a book of verse in my time."

But nowhere is Rexroth's verse more fully realized than in his erotic poetry. While he continuously celebrated matrimonial relationships, he also refused to pretend that he did not enjoy daydreams of "copulating with sixteen year old nymphomaniacs of my imagination" in a poem probably inspired by a Catullan precedent. No doubt he made use of that ugly, sterile-sounding Latinate verb precisely because such imaginings are without love. In contrast, his love poems, like priestly offerings, raise all that is beautiful in this world so that it may be seen freshly transformed into the body of the sacred. In his famous "A Letter to William Carlos Williams," another kind of love poem, Rexroth defines the role of the poet as "one who creates sacramental relationships that last always." In his poetry the profane becomes the sacrament, the diurnal, mundane moment suddenly made luminous by perceptions that positively resonate with philosophical and historical content. Within the parameters of such a deep spirituality, he could remain astonishingly profane at times. He delighted in telling audiences, "I write poetry to seduce women and to overthrow the capitalist system. In that order." And yet the poetry transcends mere human sexuality, eroticism becoming but an emblem of the synthesis of self and other, the sacred revealed within the profane world, the light of eternal love exposed in temporal flesh.

Born December 22,1905, in South Bend, Indiana, to a German-American family impoverished by his father's alcoholism and his mother's poor health, Rexroth was schooled at home and by age four was reading history, arithmetic, astronomy, and natural science under the tutelage of his mother, Delia. He continued until his mother's death in 1916 and the death of his father in 1918, when he moved to Chicago to live with an aunt and enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute at age thirteen. During his years in Chicago, his self-education continued, often aided by the company of musicians, artists, anarchists, Wobblies, communists, and gangsters.

Several years later he moved to Greenwich Village with a paramour and joined the New School for Social Research before dropping out to serve a stint as a postulant in a New York monastery. At nineteen, he hitchhiked across the country, working as wrangler, fire watch, soda jerk, and at other odd jobs until, in Hoboken, he signed on as mess steward on a steamer traveling to Mexico, Buenos Aires, and eventually to Paris, where he met, among others, Tristan Tzara and the surrealists.

He married a commercial artist from Chicago, Andrée Schafer, in 1927, and the impoverished young couple hitchhiked to Seattle for their honeymoon, then on down the West Coast to San Francisco where he worked as a maritime union organizer and established himself in the intellectual and political community. He would remain in San Francisco for forty years.

In 1940, while Rexroth was working on behalf of Japanese-Americans who faced, he believed, immanent dangers, and was frustrated at making little headway, his first volume of poetry, In What Hour, was published by Macmillan. It received a number of reviews that were at best naive and at worst nasty and condescending. Rolphe Humphries called Rexroth "a simple-minded man with a liking for outdoors." Horace Gregory dismissed his work as mere "regional verse that reflected the charms of the Pacific Coast." (Writing in 1984 with a little historical perspective, Robert Hass credited In What Hour with "inventing the culture of the West Coast.") To complicate matters, his marriage was falling apart and he was called to register with the local draft board despite being almost thirty-five. Eventually, he registered as a conscientious objector.

In October, 1940, Andrée Rexroth, the poet's wife of thirteen years, lost her lifelong struggle with an inherited brain disease with symptoms similar to epilepsy. The poet was crushed. He had met Marie Kass earlier at a nurses union meeting and he married her within the year. Rexroth spent the war years serving as an attendant in a psychiatric ward in San Francisco, and the Rexroth apartment became the center for a weekly literary discussion group and a meeting place for anarchists and antiwar protesters, as well as a secret convalescent center for Japanese-Americans seeking an escape from internment camps. The poems he would write for Andrée would immortalize his sense of love lost without reference to the collapse of their relationship at the end of her life. No doubt the broken marriage intensified his sense of loss as he remembered moments of sublime harmony with her. The primary influence behind these elegies is Yuan Chen, T’ang Dynasty poet and friend of Po Chu-i revered especially for several elegies following the death of his wife. Rexroth had gone to school on Arthur Waley's and other translations of Asian classics in the thirties, after Witter Bynner had introduced him to the great Tu Fu in the twenties. It was also during the war years that he began translating The Greek Anthology, working first from a bilingual edition to refresh the little ancient Greek he had learned as a child.

His marriage to Marie ended in 1948, and Rexroth threw himself into his work on Pacifica Radio and at the Poetry Center he'd helped found (with Ruth Witt-Diamant) at San Francisco State University. He was a regular contributor to The Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday Review, and other journals, including the New York Times.

In 1949, during a trip to Europe, Rexroth was joined by Marthe Larsen, whom he married in Aix-en-Provence despite still being married to Marie. They returned, Marthe pregnant, in December, and in five years the couple had two daughters, Mary and Katherine. Marthe and their daughters inspired some of the most remarkable love poetry in our language. Marie remained close to the family, a lifelong friend and godmother to both daughters. Her divorce from the poet was not filed until 1955.

By the mid-fifties, Rexroth had become the most prominent figure in what would later be known as the San Francisco Renaissance, presiding over the most famous poetry reading of this century, a reading proposed by a painter, Wally Hedrick, to be held at the Six Gallery, a tiny former auto-repair shop on Fillmore Street. Rexroth was master of ceremonies the night of October 13,1955, introducing the poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Allen Ginsberg. The small audience included a noisy, excited Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Rexroth, dressed in a secondhand suit, stepped up to a grape crate in front of the audience and declared, "This is a lectern for a midget who is going to recite the Iliad in haiku form." Ginsberg recited his new poem, "Howll," while Kerouac beat out rhythms on a wine jug. Three years later, Kerouac would immortalize the evening in his The Dharma Bums.

Rexroth’s fallout with the Beat Generation came one evening not long after the Six Gallery reading when a rude, drunken Kerouac arrived hours late for a dinner at Rexroth’s home, and with Ginsberg, Snyder, and Whalen in tow, demanded more booze. Rexroth pitched a fit. Ginsberg announced his superiority over Rexroth as a poet, and the evening came to an abrupt halt with the departing Kerouac yelling, "Dirty German!" over and over outside and at the top of his lungs. Several years later, Time magazine, in an article on the San Francisco Renaissance, would call Rexroth "father of the Beats" to which he replied, "An entomologist is not a bug!"

By 1956, Marthe was worn out with her endless chores -- serving as primary source of household income, secretary, co-translator, correspondent, chief servant and supply sergeant for a demanding poet. She met and fell in love with the poet Robert Creeley, and made no effort to conceal her feelings. Rexroth fell into fits of depression, rage, and paranoia. He accused Ginsberg (wrongly) of promoting Creeley's affair with Marthe, and fretted over imaginary plots. He wrote of this time in "Marthe Away," later published as "She Is Away,"

                            For one heartbeat the
Heart was free and moved itself. O love,
I who am lost and damned with words,
Whose words are a business and an art,
I have no words. These words, this poem, this
Is all confusion and ignorance.

When Marthe left, he begged her to return, promising to undertake therapy and make substantial changes in the way they lived. But it was too late. Marie and Rexroth’s dear friend James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, assuaged him as best they could while the furies overcame him. In October of 1956, Poetry magazine published his "Seven Poems for Marthe, My Wife." Rexroth’s condition deteriorated so much that Marthe returned, fearing he might be suicidal. Marie and Laughlin again provided some much-needed financial aid.

Misdirected rages brought an end to several of Rexroth’s friendships during those years. The only periods of calm seem to have come while he was writing or when he was with his daughters, or in the company of his few intimate friends. In the poems he achieved a calmness of heart and mind, a sense of grace his daily life did not contain. He campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the poetry of Denise Levertov, Snyder, Whalen, Lamantia and others, despite his often stormy relationships with the poets themselves.

During a month-long journey to New York, Rexroth received a letter from Marthe begging him not to return. He had received a $1,0000 Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and he was writing for Esquire and other journals, leading Marthe to believe that perhaps an amicable separation could be made. It was not to be. The following year the family set off for Aix-en-Provence on an Amy Lowell Poetry Fellowship, visiting Italy in 1959. But his literary successes did nothing to ease tensions in the family, and in 196l, Marthe left and filed for divorce. Rexroth learned to live alone, but his wild emotional ride continued as he alternately disparaged Marthe and wrote her impassioned love letters. When New Directions planned to publish his "new and selected pomes," Natural Numbers, in 1963, he removed Marthe's name from the poems he had written for her.

Carol Tinker became Rexroth’s partner and assistant, much happier in such a role than Marthe had ever been, and the poet enjoyed growing popularity. Several small awards made it possible for Rexroth, Carol, and his daughter Mary to travel around much of the world in 1967, ending their journey with a visit to Gary Snyder who was then living in Kyoto.

Offered a year-to-year teaching job at the University of California in Santa Barbara beginning in 1968, Rexroth, wanting a little financial security for the first time in his life, accepted, and with Carol Tinker left San Francisco. In a notebook he kept during the first days in Santa Barbara, he noted," I lived forty years in San Francisco and haven’t a real friend to show for it." And yet he had performed with some of the best jazz musicians in the world and written with greater and broader knowledge and with more diversity than any poet of his generation. He had been a major contributor to leading literary journals and brought poetry to the airwaves.

He bought a house in Montecito and had his huge library shipped down the coast. He was enormously popular with students, especially when he disparaged "the fog factory" of the English Department, and announced that too many university students at "Surfboard Tech" were "either stoned or illiterate or both." His outbursts were funny and enlightening, but they also made enemies. The university "pink-slipped" him in 1973, saying he was too old to teach any longer.

He settled into his relationship with Carol Tinker. Theirs was more a partnership of souls than a conventional husband-and-wife relationship, but when he received a Fulbright Fellowship to visit Japan in 1974, he thought it best that they be legally married, and so they were.

His last years were his happiest. Despite his falling out with Ginsberg, Snyder, Duncan, and others, he continued to champion their poetry. In many ways, he had become "feminized" through translating the great Sung Dynasty poet Li Ch'ing-chao (working with the scholar Ling Chung) and an anthology of Chinese women poets, The Orchid Boat. He invented Marichiko, writing a volume of poems in the voice of "a young Japanese woman poet," and translated classical and modern Japanese women poets. His biographer, Linda Hamalian, suggests, "Translating the work of women poets from China and Japan reveals a transformation of both heart and mind."

Another Rexroth scholar, Morgan Gibson, has written extensively in two books about the deepening influence of Shingon Buddhism late in the poet’s life. In Revolutionary Rexroth (Archon Books, 1986), he writes of Rexroth’s conviction that "poetry originates in personal vision (communion with others) [sic], takes form in the direct communication of living speech, person-to-person, and functions sacramentally in community." Rexroth himself had said that his spiritual aim "was to move from abandon, to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility." If his domestic life was often troubled, no doubt a significant part of that difficulty was the result of the poet's attraction to strong, independent-minded women.

In any case, he enjoyed his life, playing the aging enfant terrible at poetry readings, performing with koto and shakuhachi accompaniment. Although he was sometimes indefensibly difficult and often turbulent, he exhibited all his life a profound devotion to the way of poetry, and was equally capable of almost boundless generosity. His love poems realize a sense of completion, an abiding sense of unity. If they are idealized in comparison to his daily life, it makes no difference. The poetry remains.

In December, 1980, Rexroth suffered a heart attack and was bedridden for several months, during which time he worked on a festschrift honoring James Laughlin, observing, "I wouldn’t have had a career without Laughlin, and I look on [him] as my best friend." The following spring, Rexroth suffered a stroke, forcing his wife to rush him to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. Late that summer, he suffered a second (and much more severe) stroke, that left him virtually unable to speak. He required round-the-clock nursing that Medicare and Blue Cross would not cover, and in September, his "best friend" Laughlin stepped in once again, providing funds for Rexroth to be cared for at home. The last six months of his life were plagued by a worn-out body giving in to the ravages of time -- congestive heart failure, an inoperative hernia, kidney failure, yet another stroke, and even periods of paralysis. But he was fond of his young nurse and during times when his memory for words functioned, he would scrawl "Call Carol," or "I'm hungry," on his small blackboard.

He died June 6,1982, of a massive heart attack that blew out the fuse of the electrocardiogram machine that was monitoring him. He was buried in Santa Barbara in a simple grave on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His epitaph is a poem from The Silver Swan (Copper Canyon Press, 1976):

As the full moon rises
The swan sings
In sleep
On the lake of the mind

It is remarkable that a life as deeply troubled as that of Kenneth Rexroth should produce erotic poetry of such profound transcendence. It is remarkable, but not that extraordinary considering how often real genius is accompanied by personal suffering and /or insufferable behavior. Whether writing of idealized love, of love lost, of a father's boundless love, or of the deepest spiritual engagement, he achieved again and again in his poetry exactly what he most longed for but could not find in his life: a passionate but utterly calm self-transcendent state of infinite connectedness. In the love poems, even the longing resonates with classical overtones, the poet's staggering erudition informing poems so translucent, so transparent as to be confused with simple-mindedness by a Eurocentric critic.

In poetry, Kenneth Rexroth, orphan polyglot iconoclast and autodidact, great man of letters with virtually total recall, agit-propagandist and anti-establishment activist, ecologist and scholar, could finally transform desire into something larger than either or both of the lovers themselves. He achieved something almost impossibly simple -- a glimpse of sacramental grace within our temporal flesh in a fragile, perishing world. "Erotic love," he was fond of saying, "is one of the highest forms of contemplation." Written from the haunted and celebrated depths of a life lived to the fullest, Rexroth’s love poetry transcends his personal suffering, realizing an ascendant universalization of experience.

It is sad to note that Kenneth Rexroth sometimes bit the very hands that might have fed him, but his commitment to truth and a revolutionary lifestyle far out-weighed his concerns for self-promotion. His anti-establishmentarianism cost him dearly: his work is almost never included in major anthologies, and yet the nature of so much of the work itself bears the undeniable and indelible handprint of genius -- not only in the poetry, but also in his essays. In his recent study of Rexroth's shorter poetry, The Holiness of the Real (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), Donald Gutierrez points out that Rexroth was stigmatized by advocating on behalf of the Beats and poets like Robert Duncan, and that Rexroth has been further victimized by being found "politically incorrect" (once again) by the present status quo. That he spent a lifetime encouraging literacy in general and poetry in particular and that he was uniquely generous to so many poets, both elder and younger, is beyond dispute. He did more to encourage publication of writing by young women than any other prominent white male of the sixties or seventies, and he established a scholarship for young women writers in Japan. And equally beyond dispute are the fact and beauty of so much of his work. It remains to be explored, like a great snowcapped peak rising at the edge of the Pacific.

From Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Ed. Sam Hamill and Elaine Laura Kleiner. Copper Canyon Press, 1997. Copyright for the Introduction © 1997 by Sam Hamill and Elaine Laura Kleiner.

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