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.”
Rexroth hit the road early in his life, and the journey was picaresque. Born in 1905 in South Bend, he spent his adolescence in Chicago during the height of the Chicago Renaissance. Expelled from high school, his classrooms were the parks, bars and coffeehouses where bohemians argued about IWW radicalism and the Modernist revolution under way in Poetry and The Little Review. From Chicago, Rexroth alighted at points west and east: Seattle, where he worked in a ranger station near Marblemount; Taos, where he peddled a pamphlet that promised a cure for constipation; Greenwich Village, where he lived in a building that was also home to Hart Crane, whose Victrola was constantly blaring the ragtime tune “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine”; Missoula, where he wrangled cattle for an anarchist rancher; and San Francisco, where he settled in 1927 and which would be his home for most of his life.
Rexroth’s early poetry is equally rambunctious. The juvenilia from his Chicago years is quiet enough, well appointed with teapots, ivory gleams and vermilion sunsets. Some commotion punctures this preciousness in “The Homestead Called Damascus” (1920-25), a long poem in which Rexroth uses a dialogue between two brothers to stage a freewheeling conversation between his influences of the time, John Duns Scotus, T.S. Eliot, Tu Fu, Conrad Aiken and H.G. Wells. In the late 1920s Rexroth changed direction again and took up Cubism. Inspired in part by the paintings of his first wife, Andrée, and his reading of Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein, Rexroth’s Cubist poems are hectic. From “A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy”: “The bell any bell and ring/The gold curves that wind up over the gold/The far shimmer/The exfoliate pentacles/The barging nosing lurging.” The vermilion sunsets were swept away by a flood of linguistic fragments.
By the time his first book, In What Hour, appeared in 1940, Rexroth had abandoned Cubism. Though it lacks an accomplished style, In What Hour is the first sustained exploration of the two subjects that dominate Rexroth’s work: politics and nature. Throughout the 1930s Rexroth was active in San Francisco’s radical left, most prominently as a stalwart opponent of the Stalinists who had hijacked California’s home-grown left-utopian tradition, and In What Hour is the most full-throated expression of his politics. It opens with “From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion” and includes an homage to Sacco and Vanzetti, “August 22, 1939.” For all their principles, however, the political poems have serious stylistic faults, and as with Rexroth’s Cubism, they are the faults of a period rhetoric. There are echoes of W.H. Auden’s ponderous bravado–“We watch imaginary just men”–and imitations of Carl Sandburg’s wheezy apostrophes, “But I hear the clocks in Barcelona strike at dawn/And the whistles blowing for noon in Nanking.”
Yet Rexroth also struggled against period rhetoric, most clearly in poems about the California wilderness. “Autumn in California,” which contains the line about clocks in Barcelona, opens with a delicate description of the landscape’s muted colors: “Autumn in California is a mild/And anonymous season, hills and valleys/Are colorless then, only the sooty green/Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep/Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting.” Rexroth was beginning to understand how to portray California not as a picture postcard but as a rugged, beautiful and elaborate ecosystem. Rexroth’s many poems about the wilderness look away from the California of Robinson Jeffers and toward the California of Robert Hass.
“Webs of misery spread in the brain,/In the dry Spring in the soft heat.” This cry of despair opens “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” a long poem that Rexroth wrote during the course of the Second World War. In his “New Year Letter” (1940), Auden felt equally miserable as he recalled how during the 1930s he had longed for “the Millennium/That theory promised us would come,/It didn’t.” Like Auden, Rexroth was deeply shaken by the start of the war, but unlike Auden his disappointment didn’t prompt him to reconsider his politics. At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Rexroth applied for status as a conscientious objector, and instead of working in the shipyards on gunboats he took a job as an orderly in a psychiatric ward, where he spent his idle hours translating ancient Greek poetry. When the United States joined the war, Rexroth quickly set about devising ways to sabotage the government’s plans to house Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast in internment camps. He and his second wife, Marie, created a complicated scheme that enabled Japanese-Americans to escape internment by relocating to the Midwest and South on educational passes.
But it wasn’t these political activities that kept Rexroth from getting tangled up in webs of misery. (If anything, his anarcho-pacifist politics themselves created a moral tangle, since they barred him from considering whether a war against Nazi Germany was a just war.) What prevented Rexroth from getting ensnared in his own misery was also what shook the period rhetoric from his poetry: death. His first wife, Andrée, died in 1940, and this devastating personal loss was compounded by the casualties of the war. In the opening section of “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” Rexroth tries to soothe his baffled brain by strolling along the San Francisco shore.
A group of terrified children
Has just discovered the body
Of a Japanese sailor bumping
In a snarl of kelp in a tidepool.
While the crowd collects, I stand, mute
As he, watching his smashed ribs breathe
Of the life of the ocean, his white
Torn bowels braid themselves with the kelp
This passage suggests that Rexroth’s attitude toward history had undergone a dramatic shift. In What Hour was written in an apocalyptic key; the world teeters on the edge of a new millennium, one that Rexroth tries to will into being with lines like “The problem is to control history,/We already understand it.” Here, as in his two collections of poems written during the 1940s, The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Signature of All Things, Rexroth’s materialism is not heroic but elegiac: Instead of trying to command history Rexroth surrenders to a view of the ahistorical and transformative power of nature. The word the ocean all but whispers is death, and Rexroth responds by regarding the ocean as a sanctuary, a realm of mutability that absorbs and transforms the mutilated world of war. Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.
There are times, however, when Rexroth’s fascination with incessant change borders on becoming a counsel of despair. “What was our sacrifice worth?” he asks in “Past and Future Turn About,” and answers with another question: “Who remembers/The squad that died stopping the tanks/At the bridgehead? The company/Was bombed out an hour later.” Rexroth tries to defend against despair in two ways, both of which involve depicting change on a human scale. The first defense is stylistic. In The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Signature of All Things, the typical line is seven or eight syllables long and features three heavy stresses, and it is consistently supple, neither fragmented nor overcompressed, because of Rexroth’s use of punctuation. He often enjambs lines, allowing descriptions and images to cascade across several line breaks. Consequently, because they are scored to a steady three-stress beat, images and ideas unfold into complex patterns without becoming unwieldy. Rexroth’s prosody allows him to be awed by larger powers that are never allowed to drown the steady beat of his voice. He would stick with this prosody for the rest of his life.
Rexroth’s second defense against despair is erotic love. A recurring scenario in his poetry of the 1940s is the body offered to another without shame, with erotic communion being the synecdoche of a larger beneficent order. In “For a Masseuse and Prostitute,” for instance, Rexroth focuses not on the dedicatee’s sexual trade but on the rejuvenating effect of her amiable fingers on her clients: “you cooked them,/And rolled them, and beat them,/And sent them away with a little taste/Of electric life from the ends of your fingers.” The most acute expression of Rexroth’s philosophy of eros is “Lyell’s Hypothesis Again,” which considers the similarity between the tiny impressions made by rocks on the flesh of Rexroth’s lover and the outlines of lignite in a nearby cliff. A rejoinder to Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, the poem suggests that it’s not only the decaying stuff of the earth’s surface, such as lignite, that discloses the dimensions of geological time but the conduct of two lovers on that surface as well. Stone, like the ocean, whispers death, and the poem’s reply is that we must love one another passionately because we die. Call it Rexroth’s hypothesis: Stone and flesh each hold the memory of the other’s dissolution and transformation.
That hypothesis, or at least Rexroth’s devotion to it, turned brittle during the 1950s. Rexroth enjoyed much public notoriety and influence during the decade. He inaugurated a weekly book review program on KPFA and read his poems before large audiences in San Francisco and elsewhere, his voice often accompanied by the swirling sounds of several jazz musicians. While the praise of admirers like Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer turned lukewarm, Rexroth remained a mentor for younger bohemian writers flocking to town. In fact, it was Rexroth who emceed the legendary evening of readings at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. One of the evening’s featured poets was Allen Ginsberg, who electrified the room with the first public recitation of “Howl.” In 1957, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti was tried on obscenity charges for publishing Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Other Poems, Rexroth was called as a witness for the defense.
Yet Rexroth’s private life was unraveling. One reason was that his pursuit of eros was much more robust and freewheeling outside of his poems, which contributed to the deterioration of his marriage to his third wife, Marthe Larsen. Rexroth expected Marthe to tolerate his boasts about the many assignations with other women he consummated while she was at work, yet he would explode at the slightest hint (true or not) of her involvement in a tryst. Rexroth simmered as well over the cold war and became increasingly disillusioned about politics. He grew to despise the Beats, with the exception of Ginsberg, and reserved a special contempt for Jack Kerouac. “Somebody once said of Mr. Kerouac that he was a Columbia freshman who went to a party in the Village twenty years ago and got lost. How true,” Rexroth wrote, accurately enough, in a review of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues (1958).
At midcentury, then, the poet was constantly before the public, but in his poetry he was frequently angry and paranoid.
You killed him,
Benign Lady on the postage stamp.
He was found dead at a Liberal Weekly luncheon.
He was found dead on the cutting room floor.
He was found dead at a Time policy conference.
Henry Luce killed him with a telegram to the Pope.
Mademoiselle strangled him with a padded brassiere.
Old Possum sprinkled him with a tea ball.
These lines appear in “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” a memorial for Dylan Thomas that Rexroth wrote after Thomas died during an American lecture tour in 1953. In fact, the poem is less an elegy for Thomas than an indictment of American society, which Rexroth accuses of murdering numerous poets. “What became of Jim Oppenheim?” he asks. “Harry who didn’t care at all?/Hart who went back to the sea?/Timor mortis conturbat me.” Whereas at the end of “August 22, 1939” Rexroth had made a genuine appeal to his audience–“What are we doing at the turn of our years,/Writers and readers of the liberal weeklies?”–he now ranted at it. And because the supple elegiac tone he refined during the 1940s, his best decade, had been soured by acrimony, his rant was not elegant or potent enough to qualify as a howl.
“Old Possum” is T.S. Eliot, and despite having charged him with being an accomplice in Thomas’s murder, Rexroth still had much in common with him, or at least with the Eliot who had written “The Waste Land” more than thirty years earlier. “The Waste Land” appealed to the imaginations of a war-ravaged generation because Eliot had managed to disguise his personal afflictions as cultural ones. Rexroth employs the same trick in “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and many other poems in In Defense of the Earth (1956), converting his personal despair about American life into the fate of a generation. When William Carlos Williams reviewed Rexroth’s In Defense of the Earth, he suggested that “Thou Shall Not Kill” be posted on the nation’s college campuses. That prescription wasn’t the doctor’s most salubrious, for one can’t help but ask if it was indeed American culture that pulled the trigger when Harry (“who didn’t care at all”) Crosby and his wife, Josephine Rotch Bigelow, died in a double suicide in 1929. And did it push Hart Crane into the sea from the deck of the S.S. Orizaba in 1932, or pour endless rounds for Dylan Thomas during his lecture tour? Endorsing Eliot’s fatalism even as he ridiculed Old Possum, Rexroth had literally become his own worst enemy.
An altogether different Rexroth presides over the work of the 1960s and ’70s. “The secret of the moss garden,” Rexroth explains in “The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart” (1967), “Is sprinkling it just enough,/Depending on the weather,/And sweeping it twice a day/So lightly the leaves are removed,/And the moss is stimulated.” Rexroth’s best late poems are like that garden, occasions for contemplation conducted in a steadfast and fastidious manner that never reaches for effects or tries to settle scores. The poems are occasions because many are occasional: homages, epigrams, exercises, gifts. Rexroth is typically a solitary wanderer contemplating either the retreat of a lover or the delicate contours of the seasons. Those few times he is cantankerous he tries to be self-effacing, a pose he could never quite master: “I am fifty-two years old./I used to think that someday/I’d be rich and successful./Well, now I am successful,/But I am still just a bum./Nobody ever offered/Me a job cataloging/His collection. Nobody/Took me cruising on his yacht.”
Were that cantankerous man around today, he would be quick to harangue Billy Collins for his daft populism, and he’d square off against experimentalists who consider formal disjunction to be a tool of social change, or who champion a shiny, happy pluralism in which styles are changed and discarded like retro Lion’s Club T-shirts. Rexroth himself wasn’t the most exquisite of stylists; his most elegant phrasings rarely sound as stirring as those of Eliot, Williams or Ginsberg. Still, like those poets, he never mistook his poetry for a product, and he could present ideas and images in an urgent, memorable and eloquent way.
Not by flesh, but by love, man
Comes into the world, lost in
The illimitable ocean
Of which there is no shore.
When Rexroth died, maybe the electrocardiogram blew a fuse because the poet had glimpsed what he had previously only imagined, that ocean where, like another Ishmael, he would find his beginning and his end.