Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

Chapter 3

According to Rexroth's theory and practice, poetry is vision. Poets and critics have often used this term carelessly, but in Rexroth's work "vision" has several definite meanings that cohere in his organic philosophy of literature-in-community.

"Vision," referring to phases of a creative process of consciousness, sometimes means contemplation, in which the poet communed with nature and those he loved, and in which he periodically had oceanic, ecstatic experiences of realization, illumination, or enlightenment. At these times, sensation, perception, thinking, and feeling, especially love, were clarified, purified, and radically expanded; so he claimed that "vision is love." [1] As experience became intellectualized, vision came to mean the act of philosophizing and also the world-view projected by philosophizing; so vision is both sensuous and abstract, non-verbal and literary, personal and transpersonal. Rexroth's world vision is both conservative in reviving and uniquely synthesizing Hebraic-Christian, Classical, Buddhist, and modern traditions of spiritual realization, and revolutionary in its vigorous denunciation of the prevailing impersonality, oppression, and alienation of modern society, technology, and culture, which he believed could be replace by a humane and enlightened way of life. As his personal experiences were expressed in poetry, vision became the act of poetic communication, evolving from interpersonal communion and recreating community. His vision is uniquely his, yet it is also universal in scope and validity because it realizes the person in world community. Rexroth's world vision reveals his, and our, "Being-in- the-World," as Heidegger put it.

"Poetry is vision," Rexroth asserts in "Poetry, Regeneration, and D. H. Lawrence," "the pure act of sensual communion and contemplation." [2] Does he mean all poetry, or the best of it? Obviously his idea is normative rather than descriptive, characterizing the poetry of Lawrence, Yeats, Blake, Whitman, poetry that he translated by Tu Fu, Li Ch'ing Chao, Sappho, Dante, and his own. He means by "vision" the essence of poetry, the quality that makes it true poetry, the quality often ignored by critics who emphasize form, structure, construction, or technique at the expense of imagination, or identify artifice as poetry itself. Craftsmanship is important in Rexroth's own poetry and all poetry that he values, but as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. What, in his opinion, does poetry at its best communicate? Visionary experience: vision itself. And what is that?

He defines poetic vision as an act, a dynamic transformation of experience rather than as passive reflection; and it is a pure act, unlike impure acts of ordinary experience that lack unifying aesthetic concentration. There may be a suggestion that poetry is a purifying act, as in Aristotle's idea of catharsis; but in Rexroth's view poetry does more than purge impure emotions, for communion implies that poetry is an intimate experience of mutuality, a sacramental act of commemoration in which we may be mystically united with others and perhaps with reality as a whole. Such communion is sensual, rendered imagistically and symbolically; and delightful sounds of language indicated by the artistry of calligraphy or typography evoke the imagined world of the poem. So poetry is a contemplative act, arising in deep, clear, open-minded, loving awareness. The text and form of the poem reveal the visionary act which is the essential poetry.

Rexroth shows that vision is organic consciousness, sympathetic, clear, and steady, communing, communicating, realizing the many in the one, the one in the many, the universality of each being. In vision, the observer is united with the observed, the poet communes directly with other beings, and all beings interact in community which extends through galaxies and transpersonal dimensions of mind that he called Buddha-worlds. Such thinking must be experienced in poetry itself, not abstracted from it as doctrine, just as in understanding music we must experience music musically.

Visionary experience--essentially formless--often takes form; but a vision is not vision, as Rexroth carefully points out in The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart: "visions are/The measure of the defect/Of vision." [3] Because true vision is clarified interpersonal consciousness, not hallucination, dream, or fantasy, Rexroth's poetics is opposed to Surrealism and Dada, as shown in his cubist poem, "Fundamental Disagreement with Two Contemporaries," which alludes to Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton. [4] Similarly, Rexroth refused to identify true vision with the amoral drug highs of the Beat Generation, for he doubted that Allen Ginsberg's and Jack Kerouac's frantic searches for vision in Howl and On the Road got them beyond nihilistic confusion. According to Rexroth, vision is habitual clear-mindedness:

The illuminated live
Always in light and so do
Not know it is there as fishes
Do not know they live in water. [5]

. . .

St. John of the Cross said it,
The desire for vision is
The sin of gluttony. [6]

"The True Person"

Rexroth insisted that vision is personal, the experience of a "true person" in community. "The universalization of the human soul, the creation of the true person," was evident in the life of Albert Schweitzer, for example. [7] Such a person is neither merely a self-made man, nor someone who simply loses himself in work or meditation. Such a person loses ego, but not the whole person, which is realized only in loving, creative interaction with others. Rexroth takes himself for granted as an integral person instead of condemning himself as a sinner or striving to change himself into someone else.

Rexroth's personalism is aesthetic as well as ethical and psychological. Because vision is personal, he typically stands undisguised in his poetry and prose instead of concealing himself behind an impersonal literary construction, a mask, like Yeats, or an "objective correlative," like Eliot in accordance with the New Criticism. Rexroth's poetic theory and most of his practice challenge the impersonality of much modernist literature and criticism, particularly as Eliot dogmatized in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" about the necessity of the poet's losing his personality as he learns to express not himself but his medium. Rexroth's "progress" as poet was radically subversive of Eliot's principles, for Rexroth's work was a continual revelation of personality, his own and the personalities of the many poets from many cultures whose work he translated after imaginatively conversing with them. Rexroth might well have argued against James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus that the true poet remains in his handiwork like a pantheistic spirit, instead of invisibly behind it like the Roman Catholic God. Rexroth openly participates in much of his poetry, excepting his plays, and even in them the characters' tragic lives dramatize the poet's philosophical personalism, which links each one with the fate of the human race, as the Chorus proclaims near the end of Beyond the Mountains:

There are countless
Iphigenias marching to
Their deaths at this moment in all
The dust motes of the rising sun.

There are no things in the real
World. Only persons have being.
Things are perspectives on persons--
A mote of dust is a distant
Person seen with dusty interest. [8]

Communion: "Communication Raised to the Highest Power"

Rexroth's poetry typically arises out of pre-verbal, pre- conceptual, visionary experiences similar to those described in the sutras and tantras, D. T. Suzuki's Zen writings, William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, Martin Buber's I and Thou, Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things, George Fox's Journals, Vedanta, and other sources referred to throughout his work; but he remained sceptical of dogmatic and theoretical explanations, especially those depending upon an Absolute or a supernatural god. His sense that "The Holy is in the heap of dust- -it is the heap of dust" [9] resembles the Quaker Inner Light, Blake's "Heaven in a wild flower," the emptiness of the Buddha- nature, but such an intuition cannot be forced into a dogmatic system, for such experience can only be intimated artistically, not defined scientifically.

Rexroth's "perfect communion with others" [10] was often erotic, but at the same time it transcended physical attraction. In his many love poems, the women are spiritual beings, sometimes human, sometimes divine, as in the seventeenth poem of The Silver Swan, when, before dawn in Japan, he imagines a nude girl taking form from the light of the Morning Star: "her/Body flows into mine, each/Corpuscle of light merges/With a corpuscle of blood or flesh." [11] But the erotic mysticism that permeates his poetry is but one kind of communion and, as we learn from his introduction to The Phoenix and the Tortoise, it is but a phase in the development of the person out of despair, through sacramental marriage, to a realization of universal responsibility. [12] With this responsibility, a person acts with compassionate consciousness of world community. So communion of two persons in the "mutual being" of love entails, by implication, responsibility for all beings in universal community; for each is inseparable from all.

In regarding poetry as vision, Rexroth meant that it arises out of contemplation and communion to become communication and so was not complete as merely private experience. So he can also, without contradiction, say that poetry is "interpersonal communication raised to the highest power." [13] "It communicates the most intense experiences of very highly developed sensibilities," he wrote in one of his most important essays on aesthetics, "Unacknowledged Legislators and Art pour Art," in which he emphasized the personal origin of poetry and its communication not predominantly of feeling or thought, but of whole experiences: "A love poem is an act of communication of love, like a kiss."14 Such communication has a strong ethical value, strangely reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's "criticism of life." In Rexroth's words, poetry is a "symbolic criticism of values." [15] So love poems and nature poems become criticisms of a dehumanized culture based on the alienation of people from one another, from their own nature, and from the universe as a whole. But such moral and intellectual functions of poetry are never separated from its emotional, psychological, sensuous, and spiritual aspects, for it "widens and deepens and sharpens the sensibility..." [16]

Rexroth felt that Chinese and Japanese poetry often communicates experiences of such "highly developed sensibilities" more directly and purely than most European poetry because "Most poetry in the Western world is more or less corrupted with rhetoric and manipulation... with program and exposition, and the actual poetry, the living speech of person to person, has been a by product." [17] This extraordinary statement, which is certainly debatable, may suggest one reason for Rexroth's turn from cubism, which was prevalent in his theory and practice of poetry as well as painting between the World Wars, to the poetry of natural speech, which became his predominant mode from The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) on. Also, terms from European and American philosophy and historical struggles, so prominant in his poetry before The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart (1967), were used less often as oriental and especially Buddhist themes and imagery filled his poetry and translations.

In Rexroth's view, communication rests upon some preunderstanding from communion and community. A message is not transmitted mechanically by means of a text, from sender to receiver; rather, meaning evolves from pre-established community, some kind of mutual existence and mutual interest. Out of I-Thou, meaning evolves. Unless we share consciousness, we can understand nothing. True communication, through poetry and other arts, helps us realize mutual being.

"The Craft Is the Vision and the Vision Is the Craft"

In emphasizing vision, Rexroth may seem to underplay skill; but in fact he was a meticulous craftsman in both poetry and prose, and his criticism of literature places a high premium on artistic technique, not as an end in itself as in aestheticism, but as a means of communicating experience. He appreciated subtle forms and techniques of many kinds of art such as action painting, progressive jazz, and the Revolution of the Word that were often condemned as obscure; but they moved him because of his sensitivity to craftsmanship and his curiosity about its meaning. "Purposive construction of any kind is a species of communication," he wrote, "just as any kind of communication must be structured." [18] And in successful visionary poetry such as Lawrence's Birds, Beasts, and Flowers "the craft is the vision and the vision is the craft." [19]

Rexroth's own craftsmanship is impressive, and his prosody deserves a long study. He wrote some rhymed quatrains and limericks as well as a few unpublished sonnets, but most of his poetry is in free verse and in syllabic patterns that are intricately melodious: for example, the nine-syllable lines of most of The Homestead Called Damascus, the 7-8 syllable lines of most of The Dragon and the Unicorn, The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, and of parts of Beyond the Mountains, and the seven syllable lines of many shorter poems such as "The Reflecting Trees of Being and Not Being":

In my childhood when I first
Saw myself unfolded in
The triple mirrors, in my
Youth, when I pursued myself
Wandering on wandering
Nightbound roads like a roving
Masterless dog, when I met
Myself on sharp peaks of ice,
And tasted myself dissolved
In the lulling heavy sea,
In the talking night, in the
Spiraling stars, what did I
know? [20]

If this passage is read aloud so that the seven syllables of each line are given equal duration, sound and meaning are fused with great clarity and dignity. Syllabic verse seems eminently suited for Rexroth's poetics of visionary communication in that it focusses attention directly on sound's meaning, the sense of sense, with more control than free verse because of regular line-lengths, whereas rhymed and accentually metered verse divides attention between the abstract sound system and the actual sound and meaning of language. In transmitting experience with maximum directness, Rexroth did not want the playful tension between abstract and actual patterns of sound, which are appropriately enriching in other kinds of poetry. He seems to have been influenced by syllabic verse in Japanese, Chinese, and French, which he translated profusely, more than by contemporary practitioners of syllabics in English such as W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Dylan Thomas. Why he chose to write lines of certain length is not certain, but they feel normal in English, in which we are accustomed to alternating lines in ballad stanzas of eight syllables (not counting truncations and other frequent variations) and in most poems before free verse, pentameter lines of ten syllables: Rexroth seems to have discovered natural line-lengths from seven to nine syllables without regular accentual patterns. The seven-syllable lines (mixed with five-syllable lines) of Japanese haiku and tanka also influenced his practice. The framework of seven syllables, in this poem, allows for full freedom of speech, while at the same time providing emphases at the ends and beginnings of lines-- "first," "Saw," "Youth," "myself," "Wandering" (repeated), "Nightbound," "roving," "Masterless," "Myself," "ice," "dissolved," "sea," "Spiraling," "I," and "Know." There are also profuse echoes from line to line, supporting the unrolling theme, in parallelism indicated in the following diagram:

In my childhood
                 when I first/Saw myself
                                                 unfolded in/The triple mirrors,
in my/Youth,
                 when I pursued myself/
                                                 Wandering on wandering/
                                                 Nightbound roads
                                                 like a roving/Masterless dog,
                 when I met/Myself
                                                 on sharp peaks of ice,/
                 And tasted myself
                                                 In the lulling heavy sea,/
                                                 In the talking night,
                                                 In the/Spiraling stars,
what did I/Know?

This subtly constructed poem of cosmic vision continues with his questioning what he knows, as he imagines his blood flowing out to the nebulae and back. Losing himself in the vastness of the universe, he knows only faces of other persons, mostly of his beloved, beyond space and time. He explained how he deliberately patterned vowels and consonents to enhance the melody of much of his verse, a method that he seems to have learned in part from Japanese poetry:

Most of these poems are in syllabic lines. (Sometimes after the poem is cast in syllabic lines it is broken up into cadences.) Against this is counterpointed a rhythm primarily of quantity, secondarily of accent. In addition, close attention is paid to the melodic line of the vowels and to the evolution of consonants (p-b-k, m-r-l-y, etc.) In most cases a melody was written at the time of the poem. [21]

What is important here is that melody is inherent in the poem's language, in the rise and fall of pitch in the spoken poem, rather than being determined by an abstract form imposed upon natural speech.

Indeed, Rexroth's poetry is most often in the direct statement and address of "natural numbers," in the normal grammar of actual speech. Symbolism characterizes The Homestead Called Damascus, his first long poem written between 1920 and 1925, but this mode was then abandoned. A third mode, described by Rexroth as cubism or objectivism, was practiced mostly between the World Wars, with such work collected chiefly in the latter half of In What Hour (1940) and The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1940), though some also appears later.

The Vicarity of Symbolism

In his youth, Rexroth wrote symbolist poetry which evolved into The Homestead Called Damascus, his first long philosophical poem. This musical narrative of the traumatic quests of two brothers is full of symbols and myths of decadence, sacrifice, and fertility--a rambling home full of the bric-a-brac of imperialism; dreams of Tammuz and Adonis, castrated; Persephone and a black stripper promising libidinous-spiritual revitalization. The brothers have vague, inconclusive, meandering metaphysical and theological conversations and helpless fantasies about a beautiful Renaissance maiden who occasionally rides past on a white horse. The poem echoes Stevens, Yeats, Aiken, Proust, James, French symbolist poets, anthropological scholars such as Frazer, Weston, Harrison, Cornford, Murray, and the strongest influence of all, Eliot, whose The Waste Land had enthused Rexroth until he realized that Eliot stood against everything for which he was working for. [22] The style of Homestead was not compatible with Rexroth's emerging aesthetic theory and practice of cubism and later of direct utterance, so he wrote nothing else like it and did not publish it for thirty years. Moreover, symbolism, suggesting a transcendent Reality remote from immediate experience, grew from a metaphysic opposite to his idea of immanence, that the "Holy is the heap of dust" and is not symbolized by it. Nevertheless, the poem is a remarkable achievement that deserves to be honored for its own sake, for the sensuousness of its sound, the complexity of its characters and their interactions, the suggestiveness of its imagery, and its philosophical implications:

I know this is an ambivalent
Vicarity--who stands for who?
And this is the reality then--
This flesh, the flesh of this arm and I
Know how this flesh lies on this bone
Of this arm, this is reality--
I know. I ask nothing more of it.
These things are beautiful, these are
My sacraments and I ask no more. [23]

The Revolution of the Word: Cubism and Objectivism

Rexroth's cubist poetry and painting launched him into the international avant-garde between the two World Wars, when the Revolution of the Word was in full swing. [24] It was a comprehensive revolution, not only of language and art, but also of the mind and of life itself. Whereas symbolist poetry seemed to be a language of aristocratic decadence, cubism appealed to his ambition to reconstruct language along with everything else. His youthful, elitist commitment to change the world was lifelong, though his modes of writing changed. [25]

Rexroth's earliest cubist poems were written as early as 1920, but were not published in little magazines from 1929 on and were not collected until 1949, when they appeared in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, including the long poem A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy, along with short poems. Such writing was called "objectivist," but he preferred to describe his work as cubist, involving "the analysis of reality into simple units and the synthesis of the work of art as a real parallel to experience," as in Eisenstein's films, some of the poetry of Apollinaire, Cocteau, Cendrars, MacOrlan, Deltier, Soupault, Cendrars, Aragon, Tzara, Eluard, and especially Reverdy in France, Williams, Pound, Stein, Winters, Arensberg, Lowenfels, and Zukofsky in America, songs of pre- literate people such as American Indians, and of course cubist painting. [26]

Rexroth vigorously and originally promoted the cubist aesthetic, theoretically and practically, in his own paintings, poems, essays, and translations from the French. His analytical mind was attracted to the direct, definite reconstruction of experience as an art object, which he distinguished from the dreamy suggestiveness of symbolism and surrealism. "In the Memory of Andrée Rexroth," the agonizing elegy opening The Art of Worldly Wisdom, is Rexroth's cubism as its best, at once personal and objective:

is a question of mutual being
a question of congruence or
proximity a question of
a sudden passage in air beyond
a window a long controlled fall
of music... [27]

Rexroth's Introduction to Reverdy contains his strongest defense of cubism, which as a young man he was sure would be the future of American poetry: "Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself." [28] Such poetry, he claims, induces in the reader 'Vertigo, rapture, transport, crystalline and plangent sounds, shattered and refracted light, indefinite depth, weightlessness, piercing odors and tastes, and synthesizing the sensations and affects, an all-consuming clarity.' [29] This claim for such experience which he called "visionary" and which a later genertion would call "psychedelic" cannot be argued, but only tested in the actual, immediate experience of reading cubist poetry--such as, for example, the last section of "Andromeda Chained to Her Rock the Great Nebula in Her Heart":

Eyes in moss
Salt in mouth
Stone in heart
An owl rings the changes of silence
Torn head
Crow's wings
Black eyeballs
Poison seeps through the parabolic sand
The rock on fire
Ice falls towards the sun [30]

Reading such a passage, I experience vertigo and some of the extreme sense impressions described by Rexroth, but not, I regret to say, an "all-consuming clarity," which more aptly characterizes the poems of "natural numbers" rather than cubist poems. The phenomena that he describes may be comparable to those of mystical experiences; but he is careful to make a fundamental distinction between religious experiences, which are "necessitated and ultimate," and visionary poems, which are not. [31]

Poetry may communicate vision in the sense of communion, I-Thou, without being itself a vision of transcendent being.

Why did Rexroth turn away from cubism after it had made him internationally famous? In the 1953 preface to The Art of Worldly Wisdom, he explains that because even some of his friends in the Avant-garde did not comprehend his cubist poems, he decided to reach a wider community of readers by writing very much as he spoke, in normal syntax. Nevertheless, some cubist poems continued to appear even in his late books, in the section called "Gödel's Proof" at the outset of The Collected Shorter Poems, for example. He never gave up on cubism, helping to revive it in essays and translations of French poetry.

Though not much in favor today, Rexroth's cubist poetry nevertheless shows his early artistic originality, his immense intellectual power, and his contribution to a worldwide cultural transformation that continues today in "language poetry" and other manifestations. In practicing cubism, he analyzed and controlled the elements of language in innovative ways that carried over to "natural numbers," especially in startling juxtapositions of particulars of experience and the phrasings of direct address. Whenever in later years he returned to cubism in his poetry, translations, and essays, it was a reminder that the Revolution of the Word and of Life had not been extinguished, even during the repressiveness of the Cold War.

Dorothe Van Ghent and Rachelle K. Lerner have written brilliantly about Rexroth's cubism, the latter relating his painting to his cubist poetry and theory in her dissertation and a book in progress.

"Natural Numbers"--"Striving to Write the Way I Talk"

Rexroth's most characteristic, successful, and popular mode of poetic communication might be called "natural numbers," a term used in the title of one of his books, referring to poetry that stylistically approximates, in syntax and diction, actual speech of person to person. From about 1920 on he wrote translations from Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and Latin in this mode, starting with translations of Sappho:

...about the clear water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down... [32]

The classical directness and clarity of ancient poetry, especially of Japanese tanka, mastered through the art of translation, infused his original poems as well. Among the earliest of these is the sequence for Leslie Smith entitled "The Thin Edge of Your Pride," dated 1922- 26, containing such perfect imagist passages as:

After an hour the mild
Confusion of snow
Amongst the lamplights
Has softened and subdued
The nervous lines of bare
Branches etched against
The chill twilight. [33]

Rexroth had become famous as a cubist before the poems in "natural numbers" began appearing in periodicals in the mid-1930's. He speaks through the "natural" poems as if a listener is present, so the poems are intense, dramatic speech-acts, typically expressing love or friendship, often grief, sometimes outrage and social protest. Even if a listener does not seem to be present in poems of meditation and lone reminiscence, the voice remains so intimate that the reader becomes Rexroth's confidant. In autobiographical poems such as "A Living Pearl" and contemplative poems in the mountains such as "Lyell's Hypothesis Again" and "Toward an Organic Philosophy," [34]

the words draw us towards him as if we are sitting beside a campfire under the stars, listening to him talk.

Direct address is also evident in the revolutionary rhetoric of the poems in the first half of In What Hour, the anti-war memorial for Dylan Thomas called "Thou Shalt Not Kill," the ethical speculations of The Dragon and the Unicorn, and the dramatic tetralogy Beyond the Mountains, stylistically influenced by Japanese Noh drama. "I have spent my life striving to write the way I talk," Rexroth wrote, [35] and his public readings convincingly demonstrated the relationship between his writing and speaking. Even when technical terms from the sciences, philosophy, politics, and theology enter his prose and poetry, along with literary and historical allusions from the major civilizations, there is a natural flow of living speech, an acceptance of the Tao, the way things naturally are, except in the symbolist and cubist poems, in which language has been willfully, sometimes forcefully, reconstructed. "Natural numbers" became the appropriate mode for the Buddhist worldview that grew in importance in Rexroth's work from World War II on, for in Buddhism, the will and ego turn out to be illusions floating in calm, compassionate contemplation.

"Actual Poetry Is the Living Speech of Person to Person"

The evolution of Rexroth's chief poetic mode, "natural numbers," from lyrical, elegiac, and satirical to dramatic forms, supported and was supported by his idea that "actual poetry is the living speech of person to person." [36] His friend William Carlos Williams, with whom he had many affinities, believed that "you have no other speech than poetry," [37] and Whitman had heard America singing in its common speech. Rexroth thought that poems are derived from the poetic flow of living speech, that poems are realized orally, that texts like scores of music are indications of oral performance, an art which he practiced and promoted extensively long before readings became commonplace. Though this process, poetry unites poet and audience in community. This approach counteracts the pedantic idea that poetry is fundamentally on the page or in the mind as an object of impersonal, analytical study, or that poetry is some kind of artificially constructed arrangement of words that no one would ever conceivably say to another. For Rexroth, true poetry realizes the spiritual union of Martin Buber's I-Thou. [38]

Not all actual speech can be poetry, or course, for much talk is thoroughly debased; but poetry cannot be poetry unless it is vital communication from sensibility to sensibility, actualized in speech from one to another. The idea would have been readily accepted by the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Japanese, among others who thought of poetry as song that unites performers and audience.

When Rexroth implies that poetic communication depends on sensibility, he seems dependent on Wordsworth, who defined a poet as "a man speaking to men--a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind." [39] Despite this fundamental agreement about the poet's nature and function, however, there are differences of emphasis; for whereas sensibility for Wordsworth is innately endowed, for Rexroth it can be developed to the qualitative magnitude necessary for true poetry: poets may be made as well as born.

Poetry As Communal Sacrament

According to Rexroth, poetry originates in personal vision (communion with others), takes form in the direct communication of living speech, person to person, and functions sacramentally in community. In "American Indian Songs" he shows how song, and art generally, unite the individual to society and nature. [40] People alienated from nature, from each other, and from themselves, as most people are in modern secular, industrial or post-industrial society, cannot imagine living organically; so poetry has a revolutionary function in reminding us that we do live in nature, in some kind of community, invaded and broken though it may be by technological forces that divide us from each other. In An Autobiographical Novel Rexroth wrote eloquently about the sacramental activities of organic societies:

In the rites of passage--the fundamental activities and relationships of life--birth, death, sexual intercourse, eating, drinking, choosing a vocation, adolescence, mortal illness--life at its important moments is ennobled by the ceremonious introduction of transcendence: the universe is focused on the event in a Mass or ceremony that is itself a kind of dance and a work of art. [41]

Rexroth centered on his own rites of passage and those of his family: his birth, sexual and intellectual awakenings of adolescence, his parents' illnesses and deaths, hopes for a religious vocation that climaxed during a retreat in an Anglo-Catholic monastery, and his lifelong commitment to the vocations of poet, artist, and revolutionary. [42] He wrote to and about his children and their growing awareness of the universe in "The Lights in the Sky Are Stars," "Mary and the Seasons," "Xmas Coming," and many other poems. [43] He heartrendingly commemorated his mother in two elegies and his first wife Andrée in three elegies. [44] Some of his most intensely erotic poems are the Marichiko poems. 45 Eating and drinking are celebrated in several appetizing passages in The Dragon and the Unicorn [46] and elsewhere. And countless nature poems center on ritualistic observations of seasonal cycles and the motions of heavenly bodies. Of all rites of passage, Rexroth seems to have been most preoccupied with marriage, for 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..." [47]

In sacramental marriage as distinct from a merely legal bond, the I-Thou of interpersonal communion (the original vision of poetry) is realized and celebrated as the center of community, uniting each person with humanity as a whole, in universal responsibility. The union of the loving couple is the nexus of the mystical union of all. The theme is prominent in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, the Marichiko poems, and many others.

Rexroth's poetry is typically sacramental whether it celebrates erotic and marital union or processes of nature, humanistic revolts for freedom, or visionary creations. His poetry as a whole transmits a boundless reverence for life and love of humanity.

Most comprehensively of all the shorter poems "A Letter to William Carlos Williams" reveals Rexroth's visionary poetics, his commitment to poetry as interpersonal communion, communication of vision, and communal sacrament. In intimate direct address, Rexroth compares Williams to St. Francis, Brother Juniper, and Yeats' Fool of wisdom and beauty. He praises Williams' quiet affection for red wheelbarrows, cold plums, Queen Anne's lace, his stillness like that of George Fox and Christ, from which the authentic speech of poetry emerged. Then Rexroth prophesies that a young woman, walking one day in a utopian landscape by "the lucid Williams River," will tell her children that it used to be the polluted Passaic in the Dark Ages. Just as the river flows through nature, Williams' veins, Rexroth's speech, history, the imagined woman and her children, as well as those of us who read the poem--flowing like the Tao, the Way of Lao Tzu--so all participate in the universal community of all beings, revealed in poetry:

And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
Sacramental relationships
That last always. [48]

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry