Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

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Chapter 7

Because Rexroth was a philosophical poet, his theory of literature emerged directly from his practice. His essays extend the thinking of his poetry, offering an antidote to the depersonalizing jargon of much current criticism. His own criticism had packed wallop after wallop against the Social Lie and for revolutionary artistic truth since the 1930's, but Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, his first collection, did not appear until 1959, the title alluding to the jazz great Charley Parker. Rexroth called his prose intellectual journalism like that of of Huneker, Mencken, Wilson, and he might have added Herbert Read and Albert Camus. He blistered Henry James, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Beat poets, Cold Warriors, and pedants. With off-beat insights and erudite polemics, he celebrated the fiction of ancient China and Japan, Mark Twain and Henry Miller, the plays of Yeats and Beckett, the poetry of Lawrence and Patchen, the paintings of Turner and Morris Graves, jazz and the I-Thou of Martin Buber. In prose as in poetry, a prophetic voice awakens the reader with sarcasm and epigrams:

The hipster is the furious square. (40)

Genuine revolt goes with an all-too-definite life aim--hardly with the lack of it. (43)

Heroism is only smouldering and will flame up after all these dark ages are over. (84)

Always full of surprises, he slides mind-boggling ideas into subordinate clauses as afterthoughts, or summarizes centuries of Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist thought as if it were as familiar as the story of his own life. Often it is the story of his life, for he absorbed and tested whatever he studied, trying it out intellectually, emotionally, and practically, trying to meditate like Lao Tzu or painting like Sesshu, for instance. He wrote from the inside of what he wrote about, inspiring the reader to enter the creative adventure also. His claims are sometimes extravagant and always debatable, but his writing shines through much of the fog that hangs over literature.

In Assays, interpretations of Chinese culture, the Kaballah and Gnosticism, American Indian songs, translation, youth revolt, and American poetry expand themes introduced in the first collection, the contemplative, communicative, and communal functions of art. Classics Revisited and "More Classics Revisited" in The Elastic Retort, essays reprinted from Saturday Review, comprise a comprehensive introduction to world literature, going beyond the European limitations of the Hutchins-Adler Great Books. Also in The Elastic Retort are sections on Japan, ancient and modern, and Christian theology.

Classics Revisited and More Classics Revisited

Professors and general readers alike have admired Rexroth's essays in Classics Revisited, first appearing weekly in Saturday Review from the mid-1960's, thanks to his friend John Ciardi, the magazine's poetry editor. They were undoubtedly read by more squares and philistines who were unfamiliar with his poetry, than by beats and hippies. Young intellectuals, those who read Marcuse and Sartre, Hesse and Ginsberg, Mao and Basho, dug his poetry, his oriental translations, and his counter-cultural essays, but seldom had patience with his historical breadth and philosophical depth. Few understood that as poet and critic he was practicing philosophy in its root sense of "love of wisdom," questing for the good, the true, and the beautiful, in this barbaric age of capitalist, fascist, and pseudo-communist exploitation, cultural collapse, wars, and ecological disasters pointing to the annihilation of humanity.

Rexroth's remarks on Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, English, and American classics are those of a poet who read many of them in their original languages, for pleasure and personal insight rather than out of the need for degrees and promotions. Unlike the coercive, authoritarian, and bureaucratic rhetoric of Allan (The Closing of the American Mind) Bloom, ex-Secretary of Education Bennett, Mortimer Adler and other salesmen of the Great Books, Rexroth's vigorous style immediately arouses our genuine interest in reading, rereading, and pondering the classics, for joy and realization rather than out of any frustrating obligation to be perfectly "educated" or "civilized." Rexroth also illuminates Asian and modern classics along with ancient western classics. And recommendations of the best translations, by one of our greatest translators, are especially useful.

In accord with radical philosophical personalism, he thought that the classics--"basic documents in the history of imagination"-- focus on "human individuals and their interrelationships." At a time when many critics were reducing literature to myth, he wrote that literary classics "objectify the crucial history of the subjective life," whereas myths "subjectivize the objective world." Structure, he thought, inhering in life itself, should not be imposed artificially by a writer. He also thought that because life itself is tragic, most classics are tragic also, though often with comic ingredients. Like himself, it might be added.

Now that many critics are devoted more to academic jargon, methodologies, and status than to literature itself, it is a pleasure to read Rexroth's brilliantly concise accounts of the tales of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Beowulf, Job, Oedipus, Socrates, Genji, King Arthur, Macbeth, Julian Sorel, Huck Finn, and other heroes in a way that draws us into the works themselves and their universal meanings which "can be revealed but never explained": "The absurdity of life and death, heroic wistfulness, nostalgia for lost possibilities, melancholy of missed perfection," for example (3).

Rexroth gets at such universal meanings by indicating how each classic reflects the human relations of its culture. For instance, "Homer contrasts the societies of the Greeks, the Trojans, and the Olympian gods as the three forms of political association that prevailed in the Heroic Age...: the barbaric war band; the ancient, Bronze Age, pre-Greek city-state; and the imperial court" (6). His intricate sociological analysis of The Mahabharata, whether or not it is upheld by continuing scholarship, would move even the casual reader to want to explore Indian history. And because of Rexroth's ecological outlook, which had developed ever since his adolescence, he often shows how literature reflects relations of humanity to the environment, most notably in the Finnish Kalevala: "Its deep, resonant evocation of the natural environment, the rich dark green or snow-white land of forests and lakes and pastures where herdsmen, hunters, and fishers go about their timeless ways; its strong matriarchal bias; its ironic acceptance of the tragic nature of life; its dry humor; its praise of intelligence and hospitality as prime virtues..." (25).

Rexroth illuminates all genres--fiction as well as poetry, drama and history, autobiography and philosophy. He lamented, "What we call philosophy today is a complicated method of avoiding all the important problems of life" (80); but in the classics he finds wisdom and virtue, sharing, for instance, Socrates' view of philosophy as "the care of the soul--the moral integrity of the individual--and therefore as a perpetual challenge to public apathy, ignorance, lack of integrity or sensibility. 'Conscience judges power' is the meaning of philosophy" (51). "The Socratic soul inhabits a metaphysical democracy; the Platonic soul is the pinnacle of a rigid hierarchy of splendid crystals" (54). Radiant epigrams like these are meant to generate thought, not freeze it, and to improve our lives. "Lucretius is the only major poet in all literature who dissents relentlessly from the Social Lie... He... has remained one of the few thinkers... able to deny the fear of death with the knowledge of ... total extinction. This, I suppose, might be called the ultimate paradox of wisdom" (60).

In revisiting the wisdom of the classics, Rexroth does not slight their artistry. He directs our attention to the rhythms of language, its subtleties of meaning, the twists of intricate plots and multi-faceted characterizations, as well as enduring ideas. "Whitman's philosophy may resemble that of the Upanishads as rewritten by Thomas Jefferson," he wittily tells us, then goes on. "What differentiates it is the immediacy of substantial vision, the intensity of the wedding of image and moral meaning. Although Whitman is a philosophical poet, almost always concerned with his message, he is at the same time a master of Blake's 'minute particulars,' one of the clearest and most dramatic imagists in literature."

Rexroth might be faulted for omitting line-by-line analyses, for sometimes oversimplifying complex works, for ignoring some of the enigmas of critical theory, and for an old-fashioned concern for what authors say--their ideas and world views. I myself regret that he seldom reveals the full logical process of arriving at conclusions that he presents so compellingly. In this respect he is more like Voltaire than Bertrand Russell; but like both libertarian thinkers he popularizes great ideas without vulgarizing them. As an introduction for the common reader or the student just beginning to read literature, or as an aid to the specialist interested in expanding his or her horizon or the writer exploring the work of his great predecessors, Classics Revisited cannot be beat.

In an "Afterword," Brad Morrow quotes from Rexroth's appraisal of Tu Fu: "He has made me a better man... as well as, I hope, a better poet." When I discussed this idea in my comparative literature seminar at the University of Illinois, Chinese students agreed with Tu Fu and Rexroth, regarding the idea as self-evident, while American students, brought up on forms, techniques, and methodologies, doubted that literature improved anybody. Classics Revisited, along with More Classics Revisited, like the books discussed therein and Rexroth's work as a whole, does change lives.

The Alternative Society focusses on recent American writing in relation to the mentality of permanent war. With Eye and Ear covers the Far East, Christianity, world classics, and American writing with versatility, though these essays are not as startling as the earlier ones. American Poetry in the Twentieth Century analyzes literary interactions among such communities as the Indian, Spanish, French, German, English, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, and Negro, regional groups such as New England Transcendentalists and Southern Agrarians, the Midwestern and West Coast Renaissances, and movements such as Imagism, Cubism, Marxism, and the Beats, never failing to point up unique achievements of individual poets, though judgments are frequently reductive.

In his longest study, Communalism: from Its Origins to the Twentieth Century, Rexroth examines bizarre, chaotic, and sometimes immoral but always idealistic attempts to re-create communities of free-association (1x), the "Libertarian Tradition" from the Neolithic Village, through Christian mysticism and some Near Eastern and Russian communities, into more than a century of American utopianianism that culminates in the "Post-Apocalyptic Communalism" of the 1960's (229). Those communes have been the most successful, ethically and practically, he claims, that have been held together by powerful religious or ideological commitments, charismatic leaders, well-planned divisions of labor, and ceremonial celebrations of life.

This historical study clarifies many ideas alluded to, sometimes enigmatically, in his poetry, and helps to justify his worldview. However, there is no evidence that he ever lived in a commune after deciding against a religious vocation in his youth. Rather than retreating into a local utopia, he arrived at the mystical insight that people are naturally in a universal community of interdependent beings that is revealed and improved by world-wide networks of artists, thinkers, revolutionaries, saints, and Bodhisattvahs. Vision evolves from this pre-existing community, creates poems and other forms of communication, and liberates and transforms persons. So vision evolves from community and recreates community. Humanistic revolution is the development of transpersonal values inherent in the universal community of beings, whereas collectivism is coercively depersonalizing, in his view. communitarian personalism kept him free of the authoritarian left and right and of American capitalism disguised as democracy. He held out for liberty, compassionate action, voluntary association, mutual aid, and a community of love arising from I-Thou communion. He prophetically denounced alienation, exploitation, power-madness, violence, war most of all, and refused to compromise his vision.

In World Outside the Window Bradford Morrow has made an excellent choice of Rexroth's essays from earlier collections of the prose, adding some uncollected essays and his own informative Preface. In the earliest item, a hitherto unpublished speech entitled "The Function of Poetry and the Place of the Poet in Society" (1936), Rexroth argues that the poet, especially the modern poet, "has been an enemy of society, that is, of the privileged and the powerful," because the poet threatens established society by forever making the language "a more efficient instrument for the control and appreciation of experience." Rexroth goes on to show how poets also evaluate experience, judge the world, and offer philosophical, religious, and political views at odds with the social order. Rexroth believed that as outcasts, poets of all kinds and viewpoints would increasingly be allied with common people awakening to the need for revolutionary change. But cautioning against any party-line conformity, the anarchist poet concluded with an enticing quotation from the Communist Manifesto: "From each according to his ability, unto each according to his needs." Throughout his life, Rexroth never wavered from his conception of the true poet as rebel, visionary, and critic of society.

This revolutionary conception shapes his interpretation of D. H. Lawrence as a prophetic poet, in an essay that has struck many readers as his very best (1947), subtly exploring Lawrence's sensibility, eroticism, ideas, and artistry, and boldly asserting that poetry is vision, rather than mere artifice. "The Cubist Poetry of Pierre Reverdy" (1969) is also a masterpiece, succinctly getting at the essence of the Revolution of the Word. Rexroth's discussions of the visionary paintings of Morris Graves, Turner, and Whistler are as perceptive as his views of poetry. And in his critiques of the Beat Generation and the counterculture, from the mid-1950's through the 1960's, he shrewdly distinguishes between true revolt (working devotedly to overcome what Marx had called "human self- alienation") and false revolt ("caricaturing the values of the very civilization that debauched you in the first place," 74). In "Who Is Alienated from What?" (1970) he examines Existentialist, Christian, Marxist, Hegelian, and Psychoanalytical interpretations of alienation, placing his hopes on the creative estrangement of artists and writers. His radicalism is consistently ethical as well as aesthetic, going to the roots of the human spirit. So he suggests that the beauty of Asian art and poetry offers many Americans relief from self-alienation.

Because of Rexroth's intellectual and spiritual maturity, his views on such esoteric subjects as gnosticism, Thomas Vaughan's alchemy, and Japanese Buddhism cohere with those on social conflicts, for he shows how the inner light, transmitted through the arts, changes the world. For literary readers who may or may not be philosophically inclined, there is abundant wit, humor, insight, and information in discussions of French and Japanese influences on American poetry, and in "The Art of Literature" from the 1974 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Rexroth can be faulted for being "hipper than thou," for sarcastic and belligerent reductionism applied to his enemies, and for enthusiasms that are not always transmitted convincingly. But even when he is not exactly right, he is never far from wrong, never trivial, never dull, always challenging, and often wise. World Outside the Window will reach several generations of readers--those of us whose minds were expanded by Rexroth's work during his lifetime, and others who have discovered him since his death. Old fans may regret that certain essays were not reprinted--"American Indian Songs," "My Heads Gets Tooken Apart," those on Kenneth Patchen and Henry Miller, and critiques of Christian theology are some of my favorites--but no one will be perfectly satisfied without a complete collection of Rexroth's essays.

Out of his family's radical heritage he had, as a child, committed himself to the liberation of humanity, later participating in the Revolution of the Word, and of the Deed. But his optimism was dashed by World War I. Though much serious post-war literature signaled the collapse of the idea of progress, he nevertheless retained some hope for social and cultural revolution. Like Trotsky, he thought that the Russian Revolution had been betrayed; but he believed it had been betrayed by Trotsky as well as by Stalin and Lenin--by Bolshevism, which had violently and dictatorially violated the I-Thou of personal trust, love, and responsibility no less than had capitalistic "democracy." Inspired by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Emma Goldman, and Spanish syndicalists, he swam in the main- stream of anarchism, which was not for him merely activism against state-power, but a mystical movement of interpersonal realization of universal responsibility for all beings, non-human and human. So anarchism blended non-dualistically with ecology, Christian mysticism, and Buddhism.

Distrusting systems of all kinds, Rexroth did not write a definitive prose work philosophically uniting the major dimensions of his world-view, which are drawn together in his poetry more intricately than in his prose. For a clearer and more detailed sense of his intellectual development, we need a collection of his most important introductions, some to volumes of his own work and some to his editions of the work of others, along with hitherto unpublished prose. His Introduction to The New British Poets, for instance, offers an ever-fresh "neo-romantic" alternative to the impersonality of much modernism. And one of his last essays, the introduction to The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, offers a concise exposition of Japanese Buddhism that illuminates his own poetry. Rexroth might well be praised as he praised Hearn, for helping to prepare the West for the Japanese sense of nature and of Dharma (27), so vital in the wisdom of Rexroth's poetry and prose.

And what is wisdom? Since ancient times in Asia and in the West wisdom has meant not mere learning, but profound insight or realization of life and death in the double sense of creating as well as understanding reality and truth. Out of favor in our technocratic age, wisdom has never been needed more than today. More than most modern intellectuals, the prose and poetry of Kenneth Rexroth transmits wisdom from what the Japanese call Kokoro --the one heart-mind that is all and yet nothing.

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry