Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

Chapter 4 (Part 1)

So busy was Rexroth as aa committed cultural revolutionary-- polemicist, critic, activist, translator, painter, and playwright as well as poet, that he was thirty-four before his first book appeared and sixty before The Collected Shorter Poems came out in the mid-1960's. By then, his erotic-mystical, anarchistic-ecological, prophetic worldview seemed to be finding fulfillment in worldwide countercultural movements for liberation from political, artistic, and sexual repression; but he doubted that the human race or the planet could be saved. Giving up on western civilization, he found the equanimity of compassionate realization in the Buddhist tradition, which had hitherto played an important but subordinate role in his work. His first tour of Asia in 1967, with the publication of The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart that year and The Collected Longer Poems the next, initiated the final phase of his work. Subsequent poems, nearly all evolving from Japanese experiences, were collected in New Poems in 1974 and The Morning Star in 1979.

The Collected Shorter Poems (1966): "Gödel's Proof" (1965)

In The Collected Shorter Poems, a section of new poems called "Gödel's Proof" precedes work from seven previously published books. Like the mathematician who demonstrated that "A self-contained system is a contradiction in terms. QED" (quoted as an epigraph), Rexroth withdrew from efforts to construct a unified philosophy, which since his adolescence had been countered by skepticism on the one hand and visionary experience on the other. The second epigraph, his translation of the anonymous Provencal nightingale poem more famously rendered by Pound, [1] affirms the way of love and nature.

After a burst of desperate dissociation, Rexroth celebrates erotic joy in the jazzy cadences of "Travelers in Erewhon" (6) and other free verses in direct statement, which he loved to recite to music. Sensuousness ranges from the lowlife simplicity of "Oaxaca 1925" (7) to the elegance of "High Provence" (9). He seems to have aged into a second youth, recalling his first. Each fleeting mortal instant is lived fully, for its own sake, as he swings through cycles of despair, love, separation, and loneliness--most vividly, perhaps, in the sequence called "Time Is an Inclusion Series Said McTaggart" (12- 13). Light, heat, snow, fog, and water envelope him and his loved ones as they dissolve in nature (6, 7, 10, 19). In such a fertile atmosphere, the cubist poems in "G&oum;del's Proof" seem strained and out of place; but in the more natural poems, affection embraces daughters, wife, and all of nature until he suddenly agonizes over mistaken love in an allusion to divorce (22).

What can be depended upon? Only the cycles of nature, shown in "Yin and Yang," the last original poem in "Gödel's Proof" before a few Chinese translations (23):

The flowers are back in their places.
The birds back in their usual trees.
The winter stars set in the ocean.
The summer stars rise from the mountains.
The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver.
Resurrection envelops the earth.

In this most liturgical and cyclical of all Rexroth's poems, the language flows effortlessly and archetypes harmoniously balance. Moving from Leo to Virgo, the moon fertilizes the virgin, who holds in moonlight the symbolic wheat of the Eleusinian mysteries, while under the world the sun moves through Pisces, the double fish and the Chinese symbol of Yin/Yang, dark/light, female/male, passive/active, and so on.

All but three lines of the poem have nine syllables, with the eleven of "The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver" quickening the pace. The last two lines of the poem, having eight syllables each, are slower, more gnomic, and statelier than the others: "In the underworld the sun swims/Between the fish called Yes and No." Emerging from the syllabic movement, however, is a triple accentual pattern in the lines about flowers, birds, winter, and summer stars, the most emphatic being "The lion gives the moon to the virgin./She stands at the crossroads of heaven." A dactyllic movement in other lines such as these supports the prophetic tone so firmly that the poem could be sung as a kind of hymn. The melody begins with short i's, then opens into long o's, a's, and u's which pass through subtle variations in relation to neighboring consonants: from "spring" to "range," from "warm" to "perfumed," from "under" to "Easter moon," on an underlying stream of sibilants. Changes of pace are also effective in this poem, beginning as it does with the languid "It is spring once more in the Coast Range," then quickening with the sharp accents of the next lines of emphatic parallelism, but slowing in the last two lines.

The tender anguish of the new poems is intensified by the theme that no instant can be redeemed. All passes away. Flowers, birds, and stars return, but they are never the same, and we are never the same. Even if patterns are eternal, particular experiences never are. In "The Wheel Revolves" Rexroth's daughter reincarnates the dancer immortalized by Po Chu I; and as summer and swallows return to the mountains where they are camping, "Ten thousand years revolve without change./All this will never be again" (21). Faith in creation cannot save the particular day, or daughter, from mutability. Having passed through countless cycles of despair, ecstasy, matrimonial responsibility, and disillusionment, Rexroth returns to a "rite of rebirth" in nature and art.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1920-32: 1949 & 1953)

Turning back from the aging bard to the precocious innovator of The Art of Worldly Wisdom, included next in part in the Collected Shorter Poems (with "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy" appearing in CLP), we are struck by the persistent anguish of mutability, the perennial loss of love, the mature awareness of death from the beginning of Rexroth's work. The stylistic and intellectual complexities of his earliest poems, written between the ages of fifteen and twenty-seven, do not obscure the fear and trembling of a youthful struggle for light out of darkness.

After Rexroth's most poignant cubist elegy, "In the Memory of Andrée Rexroth" (27-30), "The Thin Edge of Your Pride 1922-26," a sequence of fourteen delicate love poems for Leslie Smith (31-36) similar in style and tone to "Time Is an Inclusion Series Said McTaggart," opens with the colorful music of "Later when the gloated water/Burst with red lotus" that echoes Stevens and Tennyson, and ends with tanka -like lines (36):

You alone, A white robe over your naked body, Passing and repassing Through the dreams of twenty years.

The eleven poems of a section called "Interoffice Communications" in the 1949 volume, rearranged in CSP (37-68), include "Phronesis" (meaning "practical wisdom," 37-40) and other cubist poems of agonizing syntax and despair that is relieved by the imagist love poem in plain speech beginning, "I pass your home in a slow vermilion dawn" (47). The extended finale, "When You Asked for It" (69-78), is the least obscure example of cubism in the collection because the elements of experience and language are more recognizable, as in the voice of one of the poor women: "I saw my sister in a white nightgown walking among purple tree trunks in a heavy fog very slow and with a gentle smile just like she was laid away."

The book is provocative, anguished, full of life and consciousness of death, intensified by advanced artistry, but troublesome: a collection showing Rexroth's promising range of intellect and imagination, but not as satisfying as his later work.

In What Hour (1940)

The thirty-one poems of In What Hour, written between the two World Wars, pose a metaphysical problem in that actuality "might have been otherwise," as Alfred North Whitehead observes in the epigraph (79). One "otherwise" for Rexroth is revolutionary hope for a world community based on creativity, mutual aid, and love rather than on competition, coercion, exploitation, and war. But hope dimmed because of a pattern of historical defeats. Recalling the brutal destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871, the Bolsheviks' massacre of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921 and other totalitarian perversions of revolutionary idealism, Fascist victories in Italy, Germany, and Spain, suppression of strikes and radicals in the United States, and the outbreak of World War II, Rexroth comes to view history as a tragic process in which values fall from heroic sacrifices. In these poems he is not in immediate danger, but above the battle, typically mountain- climbing in the Sierras, contemplating seasonal cycles of constellations, wildlife, and vast geological processes against which human struggles seem pitiful and terrible. The tragedy of history is viewed against the inevitable cycles of nature. The poems in the first half of the volume are generally in the style of direct address, vitally descriptive of nature and human conflict, often muscularly rhetorical, whereas poems in the second half transcend history to reveal "value in mountains" (120) in a more detached cubist style.

In "Hiking on the Coast Range," the opening poem, blood from the stab of a wasp, reminding the poet of strikers killed in San Francisco, symbolizes the sacrificial creation of values (84). Prophetic voices rise from the blood of social change in "From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion" (81, entitled "March 18, 1871-1921" in the 1940 edition) and "The Motto on the Sundial," (188); but if these warnings go unheeded, if the dream of freedom dies, then suicide would be seductive ("Gentlemen, I Address You Publicly," 83) and defeat would be inevitable ("At Lake Desolation," 82, in which regiments, their throats cut, are plowed under). In the face of world crisis, aestheticism is satirized in a parody of Auden's post-communist conventionalities of playing safe, advising children to weave chains of violets instead of exploring the dangerous ruins of history (85), and also in "A Very Early Morning Exercise," in which a decadent Chinese official mutters pretty poems (91-92) in contrast to the courageous Tu Fu (Rexroth's favorite lyric poet), who hated despotism and war so much that he told off the Emperor ("Another Early Morning Exercise," 92-93). Rexroth never escapes into pure art or nature, for in "Autumn in Califonia," for instance, as he wanders in idyllic weather, he imagines a Chinese mother bursting from a bomb and Spanish comrades conversing philosophically before battle (94). Though admiring humane revolutionaries, he questions the illusory nature of action, which always eludes theory; for even as logical men with just intentions plan the future, real activists bungle and pervert such ideals ("New Objectives, New Cadres," 96). Only in nature can history be transcended. In "Requiem for the Spanish Dead," constellations offer cosmic solace during the Spanish Civil War (86-87).

Two of Rexroth's periodic commemorations of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti are "Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22, 1937," in which he predicts that the peak will one day be named after them (89-90), and "August 22, 1939," his finest poem on the social function of poetry (97-99). Beginning with a passage from Sacco's final letter to his son Dante, the latter poem asks, "What is it all for, this poetry?"--"this alphabet of one sensibility?" The answer is that poetry reveals mysteries of nature, personality, love, death: "Values fall from history like men from shellfire." He prophesies that "The rule of iron and spilled blood" will at last give way to "The abiding solidarity of living blood and brain." Even as liberators are condemned to die, classic revolutionary slogans ring out hope:

"Liberty is the mother
Not the daughter of order."
"Not the government of men
But the administration of things."
"From each according to his ability,
Unto each according to his needs."

So history interweaves with nature. In "North Palisades, the End of September, 1939," he imagines peace beyond military victories (100). "Towards an Organic Philosophy" shows in meticulous detail "The chain of dependence that runs through creation" (quoted from the naturalist Tyndall, 101). This ecological theme runs through many poems: his lover's eyes are the "color of snow" (112); he remembers hearing his first grosbeak on a farm that has become a polluted suburb (108); a girl, mountain-climbing with him, envisions a sunset on Saturn (87); and in 1939 he watches moonlight on snow as war begins in Europe (109).

Some atypical Renaissance influences show up briefly in "A Letter to Yvor Winters," metaphysically presenting "thin imagos that abide decay" out of "clouds of unknowing" (104), and in love poems for Marie, whom he married after Andrée had died in 1940 (105-107).

The last seven poems depart from the direct speech of "natural numbers." In "The Apple Garths of Avalon," resembling the symbolism of Homestead, Sebastian, one of the Damascan brothers, moves from aesthetic detachment into the absurd plethora of existence (110-12). The cubist "Value in Mountains" (120-22), taking off from Marx's theories of class struggle and surplus value, then moves from social to individual being and value. Asserting that "value is a food and not a weapon," he turns to the dialectic of mental creation in Part 2. In the last part of this poem, the style of shamanistic chanting should be compared with the sophisticated vocabulary in similar form, in "Easy Lessons in Geophagy" (123). Both primitive and sophisticated techniques blend harmoniously in "A Lesson in Geography" (129), which sounds more like Rexroth speaking than do the previous cubist poems, and which ends in ecological communion as he lies speaking and listening to stone that seems to be himself.

The final poem in the volume, "Ice Shall Cover Nineveh" (130- 36), is more explicitly prophetic than the other cubist poems in this volume. The title alludes to a legend that the Gurgler Glacier once covered Nineveh because its citizens did not feed a hungry pilgrim who was said to be one of the Magi. The calm of mountain solitude is broken by the thought of the inevitabilility of death for both individuals and civilizations. In trying to make sense of such loss, the poet recommends the kind of natural piety that sustained him through periodic disillusionments. Thus the poems of In What Hour move agonizingly through historical struggles towards a transcendent view of humanity in and beyond perpetual cycles of nature.

The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944)

Rexroth dedicated the short poems in the 1944 edition of The Phoenix and the Tortoise to D. H. Lawrence for attempting "to refound a spiritual family." Lawrence's "December Night" [2] is paraphrased in Rexroth's "Runaway" (142); but whereas the English poet asks his lover to take off cloak, hat, and shoes by the fire, offering to warm her limbs with kisses, Rexroth goes much further, warming breasts and thighs also after describing his lover's damp hair, eyes, lips, and cold cheek, concluding with the wish to build a fire in her that would never go out, and to place a magnet in her that would always draw her home. Rexroth's poem sustains and develops desire that is more impulsive in Lawrence's poem.

Erotic mysticism pervades poems such as "Floating," in which time slips away in flesh (144), and in "Inversely..," in which the lovers are "implements" of lust (148). But despair returns when the poet thinks of himself in "The Advantages of Learning" as ambitionless, friendless, poor, aging, and doomed (146). Such despair is social as well as personal. The Lost Generation, Rexroth writes in "Between Two Wars," was not so lost as the oppressed masses (150). And hearing "Madame Butterfly" on shortwave from London during World War II, he mourns the collapse of the civilization that he had taken for granted as a child before World War I ("Un Bel di Vendremo," 158). Bohemians who trivialize historical collapse disgust him (147, 153, and 166-67).

Nevertheless, love returns in a Christmas celebration (143); in a commemoration of religious and political revolutionaries (155); in the poem beginning "Climbing alone all day," in which Rexroth sensuously unites with his wife across the immense distance of a mountainside (162-63); and most triumphantly and theologically in "Theory of Numbers," in which the bliss of Holy Matrimony focuses responsibility for all humankind (164). The eroticism of these poems is grounded in Rexroth's organic philosophy. In the marvellously sensuous "We Come Back" (163) and two excerpts reprinted from The Homestead Called Damascus (159-60), for instance, erotic, seasonal, geological, and astronomical cycles triumph over accidents of existence.

Among satires, "Gas or Novacaine" (151) denounces the impotence of intellectuals in the face of disaster, and "A Neoclassicist" (167) ridicules a silly female mystic and priggish lecher. The mood changes in agonizing elegies to his mother, Delia (153), and to Andrée (154 and 166), and in anti-war poems such as "Strength through Joy" (156).

The completion of the long title poem (reprinted in CLP) is quietly celebrated in "Past and Future Turn About" (CSP 168-72), in which the poet and Marie return in autumn to the Pacific beach where once again he contemplates dying sea creatures and geological records of millenia of life and death. He doubts all doctrines, including his own. Nor can the Cross be used as a weapon against injustice, for salvation comes only through selflessness. If anything lasts, it is cosmic patterns that change and disappear:

      Autumn comes
And the death of flowers, but
The flowered colored waves of
The sea will last forever
Like the pattern on the dress
Of a beautiful woman.

Although in The Phoenix and the Tortoise there are terse satires (153, 159, 166, and 167) and tragic reminders of war (156, 158, and 161), Rexroth generally moves beyond despair into confident affections resting upon the order of nature, all expressed in consistently clear and direct language. The value of love is heightened by its brevity, by the transience of life itself. Ecstasy, celebrated both in present glory and poignant memory, gives meaning to loss. Rexroth has found his place in the universe, imagining with equanimity even his own death (164).

The Signature of All Things (1950)

Rexroth borrowed the title of The Signature of All Things from Jacob Boehme, whose doctrine of correspondences is familiar to readers of Blake, Emerson, Whitman, and other romantics who were influenced by him. "The whole outward visible world with all its being is a signature, or figure of the inward spiritual world," wrote Boehme, [3] whose most profound ecstasy occurred as he meditated on a dish reflecting the sunshine [4]: "In this light my spirit suddenly saw through all, and in all created things, even in herbs and grass, I knew God, who He is, how He is, and what His will is." [5] Rexroth alludes to this vision in "The Light on the Pewter Dish" (209), and throughout this collection the light of love streams through the universe, most brilliantly in the title poem (actually a triple poem) in which, reading Boehme by a waterfall, he sees golden laurel leaves spinning down like the years of his life in a stream of love (177). In a moonlit oak grove where black and white Holstein heifers lie under trees rooted in Indian graves, and in the startling correspondence between galaxies overhead and a phosphorescent log, there is apparent no distinction between the spirit of the universe and what Rexroth sees, what he thinks, and what he says. Other signatures, in "Lyell's Hypothesis Again" (180-81), for example, are marks on his wife's flesh that resemble marks of redrood cones in cliffs, and hardened lava which, like the ego, speaks of time.

Buddhism as well as Christian mysticism informs some of the poems in The Signature of All Things. In "Yugao" (184), alluding to the glowing ghost of one of Prince Genji's lovers in the classic novel by Murasaki Shikibu, Rexroth imagines, as Marie sleeps peacefully, that an old jealousy from his own stormy life seeks karmic embodiment. "Hojiki," Japanese for "Monk's Record" or "Record of a Monk's Hut," alludes to a collection of poetic essays on Buddhist Emptiness by Kamo no Chomei, written in 1212 A. D. In the center of Rexroth's sequence of seasonal nature poems with this title, preoccupied with wind, rain, waterfalls, and wildlife, he listens to the "speech" of falling water as he reads Christian saints in his mountain hut. Suddenly he remembers (188):

      Buddha's infinite
Laugh in the Lankavatara,
Lighting up all the universes.
The steep sides of the gorge enclose
Me like the thighs of a girl's
Body of bliss, and illusion, and law.

The Lankavatara is the sutra in which Shakyamuni bursts into laughter upon entering nirvana. Rexroth's simile of the mountain gorge as a girl's body is reminiscent of Lao Tzu's image of the Tao as a dark woman of the valley in the Tao te Ching; and in an ingenious Tantric twist, Rexroth identifies the girl's body with the triple body of the Buddha (Trikaya)--the three aspects of bliss (the experience of enlightenment, Sambhogakaya), illusion (the physical incarnation of Shakyamuni, Nirmanakaya), and law (or truth, Dharmakaya). On the last page of The Signature of All Things (212), "Further Advantages of Learning" shows us the poet rummaging through a library, suddenly haunted by nirvana as he sees a photo of a vase of the Buddha's bones.

Rexroth's nirvanic consciousness of death also shapes some of his finest elegies for individuals and for humanity as a whole. In "Delia Rexroth," he reveres his mother as the muse of his early poems and paintings (186). In a double poem for Andrée commemorating their love together in the mountains, he remembers great elegies by the Renaissance poet Henry King and the Chinese poet Yuan Chen, and Frieda Lawrence mourning as humankind moves towards oblivion (190-90). In "Maximian, Elegy V," a woman tells him as they embrace in a redwood forest that she is weeping for the world (195-96). Even when Buddhism is not explicitly mentioned, there is perennial compassion for universal suffering.

Four epistolary poems are for his friends Yvor Winters (198- 99), William Carlos Williams (193-94), William Everson (Brother Antoninus, 201), and the Irish poet Kathleen Raine (205-206); and other poems are for the actresses Geraldine Udell (204) and Gardenia Chang (later to become Madam Mao, the leader of the Cultural Revolution in China, 199), Garcia Lorca destroyed by fascism (197), and a "Masseuse and Prostitute" (179).

Among translations and imitations from Chinese, Greek, Latin, and Italian, the most stylistically and emotionally impressive, in its stately cadences, is "Leopardi - L'Infinito," in which shipwreck is sweet in the sea of infinity (207). Clarity of vision, purity of language, directness of communication, a profound sense of peace and love, and a rich consistency of tone make this collection the most coherent and satisfying of all Rexroth's volumes of short poems.

The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952)

A few quiet and mellifluous excerpts from The Dragon and the Unicorn appear in The Collected Shorter Poems, although most of the long poem (reprinted in its entirety in CLP) is polemical, satirical, and dialectical. Two of these passages are from European travels: "Rosa Mundi" and "Golden Section"--lush, philosophical love lyrics set in the entanglements of history and myth, as sensuous as Rexroth's lover's body (219).

The other six excerpts are from the last part of the long poem, when Rexroth returns to California, to Golden Gate Park, to rivers and canyons, and to the mountain cottage where he and Andrée were poor and happy two decades before (222). In "Empty Mirror," he gazes into a campfire alone, remembering wars and adventures that he used to imagine in other fires, but now seeing only fire, free from the world of purpose (223). This mystical equanimity is evident in placid imagery and lulling rhythms as, home again in nature, he sees at night spider-eyes shining in star-light reflected from his own eyes (224).

In Defense of the Earth (1956)

Though sometimes associated with the Beat movement, which the poet soon criticised after welcoming it, In Defense of the Earth is no period piece, for these poems of timeless themes of love and protest, meditation and remembrance, stand out as some of his sturdiest. The original edition began with eight love poems for Marthe, but all references to her have been omitted in The Collected Shorter Poems, no doubt because of their divorce in 1948; and the seven poems for her have lost their original order and unity (227-33, 243, and 259). Nevertheless, they remain among his most affectionate poems, amplifying the erotic and matrimonial mysticism of The Phoenix and the Tortoise as he imagines his blood flowing out to the nebulae and back to him as light in which he sees Marthe's face. In this image, cosmic and personal energies unite. Though sleeping, she communicates such deep love that he sees himself as a bird entangled in lies--a confession that intensifies to momentary speechlessness ("She is Away," 228-29). Haunted by the dead and by all impersonal forces he is sustained by erotic union. And in "The Great Canzon," a masterful translation of Dante, Rexroth identifies Marthe mystically with nature itself (232):

      Time was, I saw
Her dressed all in green, so lovely
She would have made a stone love
As I do, who love her very

In the poems for their children called "The Lights in the Sky Are Stars," Rexroth imagines himself and others as "Vessels of the billion-year-long/River that flows now in your veins"--the cosmic "Bloodstream" (237). These "vessels" are, I think, not only blood- vessels, channels of the universal energy-stream, but can be seen also as ships in the cosmic river, or even utensils such as bowls holding spirit. Contemplating the heavenly bodies, he no longer knows where he begins and ends, for his eye is the universe seeing itself (238). The periodicity of Halley's Comet and other heavenly cycles harmonize memories of his childhood with his children's present and future, if they can escape from being destroyed by depersonalizing men and their bloody ideas (238 and 241). His daughter asks whether the blood on the moon, during an eclipse, is because of all the blood on earth (243). Against the inhumanity of civilization, he offers a primitive religion of the moon, humanity, Christmas, Easter, and birthdays (242-43).

Among poems about Rexroth's youth, "The Bad Old Days" recalls the revolutionary vow that he made at age thirteen, horrified by wasted faces of the poor in the Chicago Stock Yards (258-59). And "A Living Pearl" tells about his first trip west, at age sixteen, riding freights and training wild horses. The title is taken from Dante's image of moonlight, as he recalls how the western landscape first opened his mind to organic forms in the western landscape (235- 37). And while mountain-climbing in "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," one of his richest visionary poems, he becomes clear as crystal (251).

But love of nature never seduces him from the passion of liberating humanity from injustices. Commemorating an old comrade who died after realizing that their utopian dreams would not come true for a very long time, if ever, "For Eli Jacobson" glorifies revolutionary struggles between the World Wars that made them happy with hope (244-45). And in a group of nature poems for his daughter Mary, the beauties of nature are contrasted with the threat of war (260-65).

"Thou Shalt Not Kill," Rexroth's most famous protest poem, which he recorded with jazz accompaniment, denounces cold-war enemies of mankind, powerful elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain who destroy the genius of youth. This "Memorial for Dylan Thomas" is a public sacrament of mourning and righteous outrage. Commemorating dozens of poets who went mad or died violently in acquisitive, competitive, predatory, warring societies, both capitalistic and communistic, he echoes "Lament for the Makeris" by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:

What happened to Robinson,
Who used to stagger down Eighth Street,
Dizzy with solitary gin?
Where is Masters, who crouched in
His law office for ruinous decades?
Where is Leonard who thought he was
A locomotive? And Lindsay,
Wise as a dove, innocent
As a serpent, where is he?
                Timor mortis conturbat me. [6]

Demanding to know who killed Dylan Thomas, "The bird of Rhiannon" (272), he attacks celebrities who have created a culture of death: Oppenheimer, Einstein, Hemingway, Eliot. The assumption of total moral liability in the longer poems would suggest that much of Rexroth's indignation explodes from his own necessary involvement in the very culture that he despises. Though self-righteous and at times unfair, he has unforgettably subverted the "Social Lie" that has destroyed dozens of poets and other creative youth. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is Rexroth's greatest protest poem because of its eloquently expressed range of feeling from tender sympathy to bewilderment, then to prophetic rage and accusatory assault, all grounded in brutalities of history. [7]

"A Bestiary" is a proverbial sequence for Rexroth's daughters, warning them against conformity, cuteness, power, money, parasitism, the state, fakery, myths, authorities, and epigrammatically initiating them into some fundamental truths, such as, "N is for nothing. There is/Much more of it than something" (280). Another satirical series for his daughters, "Mother Goose," contains his most whimsical poems (285-92).

After miscellaneous epigrams, diatribes, and translations comes a finale of three poems on the philosophical nature of poetry. The first poem in a pair called "They Say This Isn't a Poem" ironically sums up the theory of Leibniz's pre-established harmony, which had once attracted Rexroth, but which turns out to stink of oppression and violence (312). The second poem of this pair presents Rexroth's, and Homer's, alternate view that Nature's apparent order is only a reflection "Of the courage, loyalty,/Love, and honesty of men" (313). Finally, "Codicil" tells us that the theory that poetry is impersonal construction, as applied by Eliot, Valery, Pope, and others generates just its opposite, intimate reverie (314). These three poems succinctly reveal contradictory concerns that Rexroth struggled throughout his life to reconcile in his poetry: his intuitions of a transcendent metaphysical harmony on the one hand, and immanent personalism on the other; or put another way, the amorality of existence and the personal demand for justice.

Here then is a reaffirmation of the person, even when masked in so-called impersonal art, a fitting finale for a volume in which Rexroth comes through so robustly as lover, father, and prophet denouncing the injustices of humanity while at the same time recognizing its place in the creative process of nature.

Go to the next part of this chapter

Go to the contents page

Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry