The day that Kenneth Rexroth died was not a dark, cold day. He disappeared in the beginning of summer in Santa Barbara in 1982, having suffered a massive heart attack as the sun was declining into evening and weathercasters were recapping the highs and lows of another mostly sunny day. The only instrument that registered the poet’s passing was the electrocardiogram monitoring his heart. It blew a fuse when he died.
A blown fuse. Perhaps in his last moments Rexroth had glimpsed how his work would be trampled in the noise of the coming days. The author of more than fifty volumes of poetry, translations and essays, Rexroth was a talented poet and a tireless promoter of the art who reached countless people through readings, magazine columns and radio broadcasts. He instructed, cajoled and insulted some of the best and worst poetic minds of several generations. But the obituary writers kept the poet from his poems. The New York Times settled for evaluating Rexroth’s standing as a literary personality, noting that he was “the godfather of the Beats” and the model for characters in Studs Lonigan and The Dharma Bums. The Washington Post catalogued Rexroth as an “unswatted gadfly” and, perhaps embarrassed by having only four column inches to define this rare specimen, conceded it would be the job of the periodicals for which Rexroth wrote–The Nation, Commonweal, Saturday Review–“to provide the full appreciations that he deserves.” Those appreciations never appeared.
But why disparage obituary writers? Their job is to deposit a few remnants of the deceased’s life into a time capsule suitable for a scrapbook, so oversights are to be expected. Elegies for Rexroth did eventually appear, and with them hopes of transformation. During a memorial service broadcast over KPFA in Berkeley, the poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti reported that Rexroth was “hovering over us at that moment, in the form of a giant Monarch butterfly dreaming it’s a Chinese philosopher.” It’s a peculiar and provocative image, serving not only as a compliment to the unswattable gadfly but also as an invitation into Rexroth’s mammoth canon. After all, Rexroth had published three collections of translations of Chinese poetry and been a lifelong enthusiast of the T’ang master Tu Fu. Why not, then, elaborate on Ferlinghetti’s image and argue that Rexroth’s entire canon represents an attempt to slough off the materialism of the West for the mystical traditions of the East?
The appearance of Rexroth’s Complete Poems (forthcoming in January) is a suitably large reminder of why that story, though tempting, would be wrong. The volume features an astonishing mix of short lyrics and long discursive poems; the recurring motif throughout is the travelogue, with the trails of the Sierra ranges, the shorelines of California or the stairways of a Japanese moss garden acting as the setting for the excursions of Rexroth’s voracious mind. If there is a single fitting image for the Rexroth who tramps about in the Complete Poems, it can be found in Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, an American epic that Rexroth once praised in a column he wrote for Saturday Review: “The wilderness, rough, harsh, and inexorable, has charms more potent in their seductive influence than all the lures of luxury and sloth. And often he on whom it cast its magic finds no heart to dissolve the spell, and remains a wanderer and an Ishmaelite to the hour of his death.”