Kenneth Rexroth Correspondence re Japan, Buddhism, and related matters

Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

 
Chapter 8 (Part Three)
DISCOVERING THE ANARCHIST-BUDDHIST POET:
REXROTH'S LETTERS TO GIBSON (1957-79)


Buddhism and Japan 1975-79

Rexroth visited Japan in 1967, 1972, 1974-75, 1978, and 1980, to give lectures and readings, to study Japanese culture, and as always, to write poetry. His first letter to me from Japan was dated 1 February 1975, when he was spending a year-long honeymoon there with his bride Carol Tinker. During much of that year they resided in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. In a large farmhouse that they had rented, as had Donald Keene and other Japanologists, eight-hundred year old beams supported the roof above a sunken kitchen and tea- ceremony room in which hung ancient calligraphies. That first letter reached me at Goddard College in Vermont, where I had been chairing the graduate program as this progressive college progressed towards bankruptcy--one more phase of my disillusionment. For refuge, I had been meditating daily and had often visited Buddhist meditation-seminars led by the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa at his community in Barnet called Tail of the Tiger (later Karme Ch˘- ling), though I rejected guru-worship and theocracy. In early 1975 I had written Rexroth a long letter, asking many questions about Japanese Buddhism, fundamentally whether (as Gary Snyder thought) it offered an alternative to the bankruptcy of western civilization. He replied:

      That's quite a letter! I have quoted it to Japanese & Indian (I just was at an "East-West" discussion in Bombay) intellectuals and it amazes them - to whom Buddhism, Hinduism, much less Tantrism is anathema, and represents only the blackest reaction and commercialism. In Japan, some of the youngest, influenced by Snyder, have taken up their own, or Gary's "Buddhism," which is as much a recent construct as Suzuki (or Buber's "Zen Judaism") and a kind of Neo- Tantrism is popular among a very few intellectuals in India, mostly artists. Most Japanese are totally ignorant of the very existence of philosophical Buddhism or have ever read the Lotus [Sutra] or ever heard of the Lankavatara [Sutra] or the Avatamsaka [Sutra] - or know the difference between a Buddha & a Bodhisattva. "Nehan" (Nirvana) they think means "Buddha's Death Bed."
      I'm happy to know you are full of piss & vinegar and, apparently, transcendentaljism... Love to you & family       Kenneth

Three days later, on 4 February 1975, he updated my bibliography in Kenneth Rexroth and advised me to teach in Japan:

The only two books since your bibliography are, I believe, New Poems (New Directions '74) and Communalism (Continuum, Herder, Seabury 74). 100 More Japanese Poems are due next year [second printing], and the Complete Works of Li Ch'ing Chao [translated with] Chung Ling, probably 76 [actually 1979, both New Directions]. I don't think I have written many articles. Oh yes,--The Elastic Retort (Herder Seabury 74) [actually 1973]. I've never asked George [Saito] about translating me since I've been here. He lives in Tokyo & I seldom see him. Oh! I see that you don't have The Orchid Boat: the Women Poets of China, with Chung Ling (Herder, now McGraw, now Continuum) [1972]. I have also been doing a Selected Poems of Shiraishi Kazuko for the poetry series I am supposed to edit for Continuum [but his translations of her poems were published instead by New Directions in 1978]. Last I knew that [Continuum series] contained 4 Young Women (incl. Carol Tinker), David Meltzer [1973], Homero Aridjis [1974], Czeslaw Milosz [1973]. I think it will be mostly foreign poets from now on.
      I certainly advise you to correspond with Japanese universities about a job. Anybody can get a job teaching English - but best try the 1st class schools first. In the Kyoto area, Kyoto University and Doshisha University and Doshisha Women's College. In the last, write my good friend Kodama Sanehide in American Literature. He is a Pound authority and a very fine man. Remember - Japan's very expensive and you'll find it hard to live on a guest professor's salary, which is more than the regular staff get. You can make do on $800 to $1000 a month - but you'll need help to find a place to live. Japanese given names come last, family names 1st, sama = Mr. of Mrs on letters only...

Because I had been teaching in a progressive college, Rexroth warned me, on 28 February 1975, about the conservatism of Japanese education:

    &nbs; Why don't you apply for a Fulbright to Japan to study Shingon [Tantric Buddhism]? & take a leave from Goddard?
      ...Japanese education is very strict & old fashioned, much like Russian. Most colleges are still uniformed & about all middle schools. Teachers are hard worked and overpaid & students are even harder worked. So Japanese students are suspicious of "progressive" education & fear it will be worthless for them back in Japan. There are no progressive schools in the country at all - except "Friend's World College" which is not accredited... Watch your step with Japanese schools, they are in strict order of excellence and status. Kansai is nowhere. About like LA State. The order is Tokyo U, Waseda, Keio, Kobe... And remember - Japan is extremely provincial...   Love   Kenneth

In the spring of 1975, much to my surprise, I was suddenly invited to teach at Osaka University, and on 4 May, Rexroth congratulated me:

Dear Morgan san:
Fukuda san has written Kodama san that he should pass on to me the information that you have been appointed in Osaka. Very great! Unfortunately unless I too take a new job we will be back in the states. I am not sure this will reach you. Write me and I give you names of people. Faithfully, Kenneth san
We leave in July

Only after arriving in Japan in September did I learn how the appointment had come about. Rexroth had recommended me to Sanehide Kodama at Doshisha Women's College in Kyoto, a leading expert on Ezra Pound who was also writing on Rexroth's work and had seen my 1972 book. Kodama had recommended me to Rikutaro Fukuda, the eminent poet-translator and professor of comparative literature in Tokyo. Fukuda had recommended me to his former student Mamoru Saito, who had recommended me to his colleagues at Osaka University. Ironically, though I had agitated for equitable reforms in American academia, I was dependent on the "Old Boy" network in Japan in order to teach there. But I was grateful and overjoyed for a chance to live in Japan. Before moving, I received indispensable information and advice from Carol and Kenneth, who tried unsuccessfully to arrange for me to live in their ancient farmhouse after they returned to the United States in early September of 1975. On 1 June 1975 he warned me:

Dear Morgan - Let's hope you won't be too disillusioned with Japan. You have to accept a thoroly modern country - more in many ways than the USA, with odd & stray bits of the past - and with underlying little changed traditions. Buddhism's for burials, Shinto for weddings - both thoroly commercial & as bankrupting as bar mitzvahs. You have to search for the real thing. Japan is very expensive - about on a par with Sweden & much higher than the USA. It will cost you about Y250,000 a month, certainly till you get settled - expect to use most of $1,000 a month. We have an incredible place to live - an ancient farmhouse in the forest in the heart of Kyoto. I advise you to take it if I can pass it on to you. It costs Y72,000 a/month BUT no "key money" or agent's fees, which can run to over twice the rent. I would advise you to find a beautiful and wise Japanese girl to live with. It is very hard, adjusting to a country where you can't speak the language - and cant read it. It is not too hard to find a beautiful & wise lover. Gaijin [foreigners] are widely preferred to Japanese men, who are the world's worst MCPs [Male Chauvinist Pigs], while Japanese women are the world's best - especially the liberated ones & the ones who want to be liberated. I don't think you'll care to live in Osaka - it's like Chicago. Kyoto was unbombed & full of temples etc and old houses and is less than an hour from Osaka University. Everybody in Japan seems to travel many miles to work. Tokyo, once you know the right people, is an exciting city - but a horrible place to live. I'll send you names of people here & in Tokyo. Fukuda san is a friend - but it was Kodama san who passed him your name. Fukuda is a teacher of US literature & the editor of a very good anthology of Japanese poetry in English translation. He is a fine man, good to know. Don't be misled by his conservative exterior. He is very hip. Unfortunately, my two best friends, Kodama san and Atsumi Ikuko san (a girl) are going to the USA. Kodama to Yale & Atsumi to Antioch. I suggest you write to Katagiri Yuzuru san... He is a friend of some years - and of Gary Snyder. He is as the Jesuits say "one of ours." He is a professor of US lit. and the translator of Bob Dylan and still performs himself occasionally.

On 14 June 1975 Rexroth went on about his efforts to have his house approved for me by Osaka University officials, so I could move in as soon as he returned to Santa Barbara:

You must realize the Japanese usually live one to 2 1/2 hours travel from their work... Y72,000 is very cheap rent for such a house. Yes, it is furnished. In January & February utilities would cost another Y30,000 if you were home all day. Don't forget - Japan is more expensive than the USA besides the yen is stronger than the dollar - about 294 today. You can walk to an inter-urban train. The cheapest ryokan [inn] in Kyoto is about Y2500 or Y3000 c meals. The train ride is less than an hour, but I don't know about the Osaka station at the University. You can get a commute book. Above us lives a girl who teaches every day at Kobe, which is further away & involves a transfer. Get a good map of the entire Kansai area in the USA - the Japanese consulate, JAL, or Japan Tourist Bureau have them. Don't believe everything you read in the Yellow Peril press. Japan is polluted but the Inland Sea and Lake Biwa are better than Lake Erie or even south Lake Michigan. Fish are safe and delicious. Eat at home. Find a girl friend. Food, if you eat Japanese style at home costs about the same as Santa Barbara & is better. Get Japanese cookbooks and How to Eat Cheap in Japan. There are all sorts of coffee shops in Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto where you can meet girls. The best for you is Honyarado near Doshisha University in Kyoto. Stay away from gaijin [foreigners]. It's like West Berlin. 50% are CIA. Avoid "Jitoku" and even Cid Corman's "CC's." Associate with Japanese as much as possible. Forget "sitting" [zazen] at Daitokuji, etc. They - the mystical gaijin - are all "freeks" as Dianne [Jarreau] calls such people in the Inscrutable Orient. Japan is a thoroughly modern country - more so than the USA but with its most ancient traditions available. Our house is directly under Sennuji, a Shingon temple complex. If you are looking for a Shingon sensei inquire at the University and at Sennuji. The best man I know is at the mountain center of Koyasan at Soji In - but he is leaving for the USA. There are many Buddhist universities, several in Kyoto. The best is near Wakayama or at Koyasan some 100 kilometers away. These lamas [such as Trungpa] etc are all frauds. Stay away from such people & their gaijin. What Benkei? Yoshitsune's comrade? Some one has been having you on. I warn you. Above all things avoid hippie gaijin "mysticism," "aikido" (pure fake), brown rice "macrobiotics" etc etc Love from us both Kenneth
Learn both Kana [Japanese syllabaries] & a little Kanji [Chinese characters] and get some language records and a first year textbook.

On 21 June 1975 Rexroth wrote that a university official had visited his house, "casing the joint":

I got the impression they would not let you take our place. Also he made a very bad impression on us--a rude and burocratic personality. He had two men with him who seem to be government inspectors, who went about the place taking notes. They all arrived without warning. He also questioned me about your daughters and why you did not mention your wife. I told him you were separated [actually divorced] because you were teaching at different schools, but that I knew very little about your present domestic arrangements. He has a place next door to his own. I advise you not to take it. I wouldn't want him watching me. Also, willy nilly, you will be sucked into the social life of Japanese academia. All Japanese are square to some degree, even the rock & roll musicians - but like Orwell's pigs, some are squarer than others - especially most, but not all, academicians. Remember - there is NO progressive education in Japan whatsoever.
      Write right away to Gary [Snyder]'s friend Katagiri Yuzuru who teaches at Seika Jr. College, is a poet, "official translator" of Bob Dylan, shares our social attitudes, speaks perfect English. He is your best guide in Kyoto. Atsumi for Tokyo. Here are some names (Japanese order). Atsumi Ikuko will be at Antioch in a few weeks and then around the Great Lakes Poetry circuit as p. in residence. She is your very best contact & a person We love very much. If you write to her immediately you should be able to meet her in the Midwest... Morita Yasuyo (my secretary, perhaps the very nicest girl I have ever known. An Angel)... Love from us both    Kenneth

On 11 July 1975 he wrote more about the real Japan:

      No, you don't realize how remote traditional Japan is to most people - and how many people actively hate it... Almost all Buddhist temples are associations of combined undertakers & custodians of national monuments & collect money for every time you turn around. Buddhist laymen are simply grossly superstitious. Only an infinitesimal group of scholars have an intelligent understanding of their religion - due to influence of the West. Tantric Buddhism is illegal - very- but can be found in a few village temple monasteries - but they are certainly not going to admit it to you. The best place to find the kind of Shingon guru you seek is at Sojo- in in K˘yasan. Don't go to board at the other temples - they are just poor hotels.
      English is taught as a dead language and Japanese students are no more capable of speaking or understanding speech as an American "Latin major" would be able to get along in ancient Rome. They come to the first couple of classes & then vanish. Japanese education is for the purpose of passing examinations. Very few boys are interested in English or even Japanese Literature; for girls proficiency in English means a job. The Manyoshu or Genji are "school work" they had very small selections of, couldn't understand and totally forgot. English department heads are idiots who ask you to "concentrate on their favorite writer" Hawthorne, Longfellow, or of all people, Edgar Lee Masters...

In the same letter, raging at university officials, one of whom he called "a typical and a pure cop," he warned me against living in Hyogo prefecture:

the smoggiest, most congested prefecture in Kansai...Don't forget the average Japanese worker travels 1 1/2 to 2 hours each way to & from work unless he lives in an industrial village. The girl in the house above us teaches in Kobe - beyond your campus of O. U. many miles. Also - I know no one who teaches 14 hours a week - besides - they load you with unpaid committee etc work. Get tough - NOW.
      Unlike US students, whose education has some content & who do not expect to live to 2000 AD and who believe western civilization is dead, Japanese students are just plain alienated - the Red Army, the Fang, the Wolf [revolutionary groups] - all preach anti-theory, anti-books, anti-ideology and spend their energies killing each other. But they all worship the USA in its worst aspects, Macdonald's, Col. Sanders, US TV programs, any and all rock, country western, Bluegrass in their purest Nashville commercial forms. Love     Kenneth

On 31 July 1975 he continued to warn me against mixing with other Americans and idealizing Japan:

[Cid] Corman's coffee shop & ice cream parlor is a hangout for gaijin & gaijin lovers. Jitoku is worse. Katagiri's brother runs a coffee shop Honyarado which is better - but all these places crawl with freaks & CIA - usually the same people. My advice to you is to associate as much as possible with ordinary Japanese people in Japanese places. And get a Japanese girlfriend. We leave Sept 8 by boat from Kobe. Can you come before that? Don't expect the wrong things of Japan - you probably know more about Buddhism than all but 1 out of 10,000 Japanese. That actually is too low - 1 out of 100,000 would be more like it. A Japanese would as likely to seek philosophy from a Buddhist monk as you would from a "mortician."
      I have a long series of poems on the subject of your last paragraph - but I have no copies. Thank you for yours. In ideas they resemble mine - but Morgan - practice "objectivism," make it happen. Actually - they are good poems. I don't know how, with the depression & the prohibitive cost of printing, you can get a book. Carol can't. Where are you? Love, Kenneth & Carol

The "long series of poems" was The Love Poems of Marichiko (1978). These ecstatic poems of Buddhist illumination and disillusionment were offered as translations, but were actually Rexroth's original creations.
On 1 August 1975 Rexroth wrote me the last letter that I received in Vermont, for the next month I met him and Carol in Kyoto. In it he provided me with names of more friends, including

a former student of mine [at the University of California at Santa Barbara] who I think you met - poet, very hip, teaches English to businessmen in Tokyo, married to Japanese girl"--John Solt, editor of One Mind, who became my best friend in Japan and later a Harvard doctoral student in Japanese studies. Rexroth went on to idolize Morita Yasuyo, "my secretary, a very beautiful girl and a kind of saint - she seems to have no faults whatever... She also coaches me in Japanese & is generally helpful... She shares most of our tastes & attitudes..." And he described the social philosopher Tsurumi Shunsuke as "Sort of the Chomsky of Japan - but smarter... He is a good friend of Gary Snyder's and a very stimulating & extremely well informed conversationalist. He has left a Kyoto University professorship & lives by writing. His wife teaches at Seika - with Katagiri. Right now he is very active in the Kim Chi Ha defense...


Yearning for Japan

Rexroth's remaining letters were sent from Santa Barbara to me in Japan, where I lived near Osaka University from September, 1975, until April, 1979 (excepting short visits to the United States). In this final correspondence, he remained so preoccupied with Japan that he asked me to arrange a lectureship for him, so he might return to spend the rest of his life there. Unfortunately, he was overage for Japanese universities. On 1 February 1976, he wrote:

Dear Morgan - You're one of these guys who doesn't put his address on his letters but just on the envelope & then wonders why he doesn't get answers! Carol is well. I seem to be having mild cardiac-circulatory troubles. Yes I would like to come back to Japan but I am past the compulsory retirement age-70 for professors. I would have to be a special lecturer. Handai [Osaka University] would be OK, or any place in Kansai. Ask around anyone you happen to see - R. Fukuda etc. I certainly miss Yasuyo-chan. Now I am doing The Women Poets of Japan with Atsumi [The Burning Heart, New York: Continuum, Seabury, 1977] and I miss Yasuyo for that, too. I have been writing a fairly long introduction to the collected essays on Buddhism of Lafcadio Hearn [The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn, Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1977]. It is mostly about Buddhism, not Hearn. I have been trying to make it as clear and simple as possible.
      Yes, you are right about the USA. After Japan the culture shock is too much. This is the greatest military despotism since Assyria, governed by fools & feared and hated by every nation on earth. At a poetry reading of freaks, in a church, in a petty bourgeois swing club, there is no escaping homo homini lupus. I don't want to be part of the collective guilt. I do not have a male friend in Santa Barbara who is not a foreigner! I don't know what American men are talking about and I have nothing to say to them. On that score - as on most others - Toqueville was certainly right. Of course, all you have to do is go to Osaka or Kobe or Tokyo and meet the right Japanese and they are worse. But not everybody. I do hope you keep out of Jitoku & CC's and gaijin stews and make some good Japanese friends. I wish I was 35 years younger. I would... change my citizenship... Atsumi thinks it [USA] all wonderful. And I am sure so would Yasuyo. Of course they are not involved & don't see beneath the surface. I wonder what Tania's [Patty Hurst's] trial will be like. Probably a reply of Brecht's Galileo. I hope she doesn't involve her friends in disaster. The whole Japanese-American community has rallied behind that poor sansei girl [Wendy Yoshimura]. What a country! Faithfully     Kenneth

After I wrote Rexroth about my meditating and studying in Zen and Shingon temples, he responded on 10 April 1976 with some of his most penetrating comments about Japanese Buddhism:

Dear Morgan - My My - you are certainly becoming more Buddhist than the Japanese. Yes, you are right - wherever it is vital in Japan Buddhism is moving beyond sectarianism to a "synthetic Buddhism" which is very like Hinayana as imagined by the Rhys Davids [scholars of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism]. Curiously - it is J˘do Shinshu [the True Pure Land Sect] which leads in this - and which is the only congregational religion. The vast pantheon of Shingon - or of lamaism & Tantrism generally simply represents stages of personal interior experience - stages of illumination. Which is what is meant by "becoming" the bodhisattva or buddha in the mandala. No - I am not focusing on Hearn. I just had a job to edit his essays on Buddhism...
      Yes - I do wish Fukuda could turn up a trip to Japan for me this Fall. Perhaps a month of special lectures. 70 is too old for a regular job in almost all Japanese universities... The Shiraishi book was accepted by New Directions. She is in Vancouver by now. What a goofy woman! Atsumi Ikuko was here for two weeks and The Women Poets of Japan [The Burning Heart] is essentially finished. Iku is a typical 35 yr old Tokyo intellectual. I have NO young women, no religious, no revolutionary, no love poetry in the modern section & no one from Kansai!! As you have discovered, Japanese are commonly extremely narrow in their interests - they can't even give you directions except for the car lines they use daily. Yasuyo is a divine exception. I do wish she would come & stay with us in Santa Barbara for the summer... All is well with us. Did I tell you my sickness was a state of shock caused by a new pill I took for mild high blood pressure? Now I am fine - and so is Carol. A great revival of jazz & poetry. I have all kinds of dates this summer. Love from Carol & Kenneth

Rexroth's letter of 7 January 1977 refers to a Poetry Award in his name given annually to women poets living in Japan. He contributed money for prizes, Yuzuru Katagiri administered it, and judges were Katagiri and Sanehide Kodama in 1975, Toru Arima and I in 1976, Motoo Akiyama and Edith Shiffert in 1977, Katagiri and John Solt in 1978, Fukunaga and Nicola Geiger in 1979, Kiyoko Nagase and Rebecca Jennison in 1980, Noriko Ibaraki and Meredith McKinney in 1981, Kazuko Shiraishi and Edith Shiffert in 1982. (In each pair, the first judge read poetry in Japanese and the second judge in English.) At first foreign as well as Japanese women students were eligible, but after a couple of years awards were given only to Japanese women, and the meaning of "student" was extended.
      Happy New Year.
      All goes well here. I have 3 new books to send you. 100 More Japanese Poems, On Flower Wreath Hill [Burnaby, British Columbia: Blackfish Press, 1976], The Silver Swan [Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1976]. The Women Poets of Japan [The Burning Heart] has gone to the printer. It has been an unusually warm wet winter - so everything is growing vigorously months in advance. Carol spends much time gardening. I have been doing a lot of poetry-jazz concerts with great success. It seems to be making a comeback. Atsumi, Shiraishi, Yasuyo were all here on visits... Then, just now Chung Ling passed through on her way to marry...
      I hear you did not attend the Poetry Award. It is odd. They deduct all expenses - which Doshisha was to pay - They gave one to a gaijin last year - and the judges were all men! They were of course supposed to be women - preferably Shiffert san and Ibaraki Rin if she still lives in Kansai.
      I have an opportunity to tour Japan for 4 weeks doing Poetry & Jazz. I would come in cherry blossom time - but I have dates in NY & Mass all April, and either March or May in Sweden.
      No other news. We saw Kurosawa's 7 Ronin last night, which left me terribly homesick... Otherwise, for 71, I am well & happy enough. Love from both of us     Kenneth

After I had complained about loneliness, Rexroth wrote on 17 January 1977:

Dear Morgan - what a pity Havelock Ellis has passed to eternal rest. You must be unique in the history of human sexuality - the only man who ever went to Japan & complained about the difficulty of getting laid. Most gaijin think of the country as existing for no other purpose - and I don't mean girls & commercial sex...
      ...I just have now from John san what they consider the final versions [of translations of Shiraishi Kazuko's poems, by Rexroth, Carol Tinker, John Solt, and Morita Yasuyo].
      ... Did you ever see Kurosawa's "7 Samurai"? We saw it the other night & I keep dreaming [of]... the woman who turns & calmly walks back in to the burning building...
      Otherwise - I'm busy, writing poetry, two jazz poetry concerts a month, a tour of Sweden in March or May (I'm trying to get it postponed as it conflicts with the beginning of a tour of Upstate NY, then Cambridge-Boston, then NYC - and then I hope, Sweden. October all around Japan, stopover in Hong Kong & Manila, then November around India, stopover in W. Europe on the way home if I wish. I don't know if I can take all this at 71... As you doubtless know, and as Kyoto porno actresses have told me, the Hong Kong movie colony would make the Manson Family look like the 5 Little Peppers...
      Sure - print the poems [by Rexroth, Shiraishi, and others] in the Kent [State University] magazine [Shelly's, a section of which I was editing] - have them write me for something of mine when they agree... Too bad you couldn't come [to the Rexroth Awards ceremony] but it was good that Edith san [Shiffert] could. It is absurd to have a jury of all men. Do you know Shiffert san? She is a wonderful woman. Oldish, but still very beautiful and hip before hip was invented... Lots of love from us both. I'll send books when I get some more.    Kenneth

In a letter of 1 February 1977 that offered some sexual counseling, Rexroth's anarchism exploded in a diatribe against presidential candidates:

Dear Morgan - You are a caution! There are plenty of girls around Cid Corman's & Honyarado just dying to meet gaijin poets etc. If [you] fail you can buy an inflatable woman from any sex shop. They invented them. Kobe variety is world famous...
      What business have people like you concerning yourself with cheap demagogues [Carter and Mondale] whom you'd refuse to receive socially? Keep the good old [Alexander] Berkman house flag flying. Voltairine de Cleyre lives!


Archetypal Women

When I notified Rexroth that my mother had died during my latest visit to Michigan, he wrote me on 20 March 1977:

Dear Morgan - of course you have all our sympathy & condolences - but one can do little except quote the more intelligent Scriptures... It is now 60 years since my mother died & her influence is still powerful - possibly as I have come to build her into a kind of archetype - the most powerful. She certainly taught me that there is nothing in life "surpassing the love of women."
      All goes well here. I seem to have recovered from the extreme case of acute prostatitis (E. coli) without ill effects, even from the immense amount of medication. I will still be going to Japan in October. (D. V.) [Deovo lente: God willing.]

In an undated letter sent about 14 April 1977, Rexroth reported: "A few days ago a letter came from you. I picked up the mail from our mail box on the way to the grocery. When I got back home your letter had vanished. I went over the car thoroly & inquired at the two places I had shopped. Then I waited hoping someone would find it and put it in a mailbox. It has not showed up - this was the Saturday before Easter." A Japanese woman had complained to him that "other people have entered her heart with dirty shoes. All the Japanese women have tatami floored hearts. If it's not too much bother, would you repeat the substance of your air letter which arrived the day before Easter? All is quiet here."

In his last years, his lifelong preoccupation with the archetypal woman, modeled on his mother, intensified in poetry and letters, and his condemnation of most men increased. For instance, after I had written him about a faculty party, he replied on 1 May 1977:

I NEVER go to those all male Japanese parties. They made me want to take a plane to civilization right then. Like most Japanese women, I find Japanese men mostly sickening. Why do you persist in believing that Japanese women are innocent?
      ...I no longer know anyone in English literary-academic circles. Mottram is certainly the best, but I don't know him. Why don't you write him, offer to exchange books and tell him of the job [an opening at Osaka University]? My principle problem now is getting to Japan and staying there... But I am 71 1/2. My health is far better - all that was wrong was a severe acute prostatitis. I canceled my trip East - a loss of about $7500 - but impossible while I was ill. Also I missed Chung Ling, whom I will probably never see again.
      All my dreams come true too late. No news. Life goes by like a mouse, not rustling the grass. Do you have my last 3 books - 100 More Japanese Poems, On Flower Wreath Hill, The Silver Swan? Let me know. Love to you and good luck with your "westernized" lady. My only comment on that is, Why go to Japan? Does she have dyed hair? French dresses? Love   Kensan

No, Keiko Matsui did not have dyed hair or French dresses, and when Rexroth met her on his next visit to Japan, in 1978, he was so enchanted that he whispered to me, "You will never find such devotion like hers in America! Marry her right away!" With his blessing, Keiko and I were soon engaged, but were married at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto until after Rexroth and Carol had returned to Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, on 12 June 1977 he had written:

Dear Morgan - Thank you very much for the clipping about Kiku Yamada. I met her in Paris & have always wondered what happened to her. There was no hint in her conversation that she had ever had such troubles. She was in fact a very beautiful middle aged woman. Also - she was friends with a much younger woman who was traveling about Europe trying to get artists, writers, etc especially people of the non-Stalinist Left, to visit Japan at government expense. At that point I wasn't able to go. She was the daughter of the Minister of Labor, immensely rich and fabulously beautiful. No one remembers her.
      Yes, I have read [Yosano] Akiko's poem [against the Russo-Japanese War]. It is mentioned in Japanese Women Poets, and has been translated several times...
      Japanese consider the discussion of "deep" subjects bad manners, haven't you found that out? Nobody takes Western philosophy seriously ("Dekahe" for Descartes, Kant, Hegel) except professors paid to teach it. Modern Japanese philosophy is elementary, as speculative profound insight Kôbo Daishi is childish and commonplace. It's like US working stiffs who consider talk about politics or religion taboo.
      I think you'll find Sri Lanka, like India, very puritanical & stuffy. At least you'll find women who will talk freely, as equals. YES - here is permission to reprint Shiraishi's "America" [his translation, in Shelly's]. NOW I have GOT to get some sort of job in Japan. The second Fulbright doesn't seem at all likely. I wrote Fukuda about you - could you reciprocate? He seems to be the final authority on who to import from the USA. My friends are George Saito, Kodama Sanehide, Yuzuru [Katagiri], Suwa Yu, R. Fukuda, T. Nihikura etc. Somewhere I should find somebody willing to ask me over for a series of lectures... Lots of love     Kenneth
Your book [Dark Summer, poems, Milwaukee: Morgan Press, 1977] just arrived. Very beautiful!

Though Rexroth had reservations about the speculations of Kôbo Daishi (Kûkai), the founder of Japanese Shingon (Tantric) Buddhism in the early ninth century, he praised his philosophical poetry in conversations with me and urged me to translate it with my friend Hiroshi Murakami . I tried to find Rexroth a teaching position, without success, but he was able to arrange a lecture tour in 1978. On 1 January 1978 he wrote from Santa Barbara about The Communes of Japan, by Kusakari Zenzo, Michael M. Steinbach, and Moshe Matsuba (1979), which I had sent him:

Dear Morgan - Forgive me. I have delayed answering because 1) I was not sure when I might come to Japan 2) I was waiting for the Love Poems of Marichiko to be ready for a Christmas gift (I discover it hasn't even been set!)... and I have been depressed... And here it is already the Year of the Horse... I don't think a full time teaching job is anything I could handle. I need a special lectureship - like the Regents Lectures at the UC schools...
      Thank you very much for the book on Japanese communes. He (or they) don't know much about the yamabushi & Tenri groups - Sensei and his People is very good on the latter. And the Zionist bias is simply incredible. They seem to think communalism was invented by the Kibbutzem. I may come to Japan in sakura [cherry blossom] time - which would mean staying into mildew time & the incredible Japanese summer. I wish I could spend April, then come back in the Autumn, but I could not afford it. No other news. We had a good Xmas & New Year. New Year's eve in meditation at the Vedanta Temple [in Santa Barbara]. (The Buddhist Temple here is Jôdo shinshu [Pure Land] - a little like midwest Protestantism). I've had some very successful concerts over the state - 8 piece orchestra including koto & shakahachi. On Flower Wreath Hill has evolved into quite a musical composition. Trouble is - I make no money - moving the band out of LA County means $15 a musician! In SF I worked with shakuhachi & koto alone. Lots of love from us both    Kenneth

During such a performance at the University of Hawaii, where Rexroth and I met during one of my trips to Michigan, the Japanese musicians had trouble coordinating with his reading of the poetry. On the other hand, performances in California of his Chinese translations set to Chinese music were certainly the finest combinations of music and poetry that I have ever heard.


Buddha Worlds

After I had sent Rexroth some of my students' translations from Japanese into English, he was most appreciative of versions of poems from Chieko's Sky by Kotaro Takamura, about the poet's mad wife. On 10 February 1978 Rexroth wrote: "Tell your student who did the Chieko poem that those are among my favorite 20th century poems - in any language. I will send her my translation of it as soon as I get around to it..." He then wondered whether, during his next visit to Japan, he would live in the ancient farmhouse that he and Carol had previously rented in Kyoto or, as I suggested, with me in Osaka. I had recommended a former student as his interpreter-guide. He wrote: "It is very good of you to offer me your place - and a young lady as what used to be called "stick girl" (like a blind man's stick) before it became pejorative..." He then blasted Zen, which I had been practicing:

Zen is the religion of the military caste, the great rich - e. g. the Nomura brothers are all Zen monks, Ruth Sazaki was a foolish Chicago millionairess - the so-called Black Dragons, and gaijin hippies. Actually, there is going on in Japan a sudden revival of Theravada Buddhism, for centuries known only to scholars, and this is attracting youth interested in religion. It was his Zenism that got Snyder... boycotted by Japanese poets until he formed his own "movement" - the harijan... Shinshu [the True Pure Land Sect] has become a sort of "synthetic Buddhism" with strong emphasis on Shaka [Shakyamuni]. I prefer Kôyasan. There are infinity to the power of infinity Buddha worlds. See you soon. March is best. Love    Kenneth

When Kenneth and Carol came to Osaka that spring, they stayed with me for several weeks, except for trips around Japan and other Asian countries. I gave readings and lectures with him at American Centers in Osaka and Sapporo. He and Carol gave Keiko and me Furuta Soichi's translation of Chieko's Sky (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978) as an engagement present. During this visit, Kenneth was the happiest that I had ever known him to be, telling jokes and anecdotes of his adventurous life, talking endlessly about Japan, and singing songs late into the night. He blew up at me only once--because as a Buddhist I did not believe in Evil, which I saw as a form of ignorance. "There are evil men in this world," he proclaimed, "destroying essential conditions of life for all of us. They are not just ignorant. They know exactly what they are doing. They are destroying the world." This kind of prophetic truth, in poems as in talk, sent shivers through my spine. But a few minutes later we were laughing together again.

Despite Rexroth's tough morality, his worldly wisdom sometimes allowed him to be congenial with people whose work or ideas were anathema to him. After giving a poetry reading with him in an American Center in Japan, I was horrified to overhear one of the officials talk about being in the C. I. A. before moving to the State Department. I expected Rexroth to denounce this cut-throat, but he just laughed at my naivetÚ, telling me that the man was probably still in the C. I. A., along with other civilized people who were discussing Japanese art with us. He had lofty principles, but also an uncanny way of communicating with people despite radical disagreements--to a point, before exploding.

Though Rexroth confided in me, with tears welling up in his eyes, that he wanted to die in Japan, he nevertheless had to return to America, which he detested. Later, after Keiko and I were married at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, he invited us, in his letter of 3 February 1979, to visit Carol and himself in Santa Barbara:

Of course you are welcome to stay with us. But I think you have forgotten. I am the worst possible person to arrange a reading at UCSB [University of California at Santa Barbara]. I'll do what I can - and at SB City College... DON'T mention my name, or that you've written a book on me. We can of course arrange a small private, invitational reading at our home... I'm glad all goes well with you - but I can't imagine anyone voluntarily leaving Japan for this bankrupt police state.
      Montri Umavijani [the leading poet of Thailand] is due in Tokyo in a few days. You can probably reach him through John Solt. He'd like to meet you, Yasuyo & Katagiri.
      Can you send me SOONEST the little Japanese book of Marichiko and the romaji [the Japanese rendered in English letters]. Mine has been stolen... We [he and Katagiri] plan a face- en-face edition. Love to you & Keiko   from me and Carol    Kenneth

Katagiri's Japanese translation of Rexroth's Marichiko poems appeared in 1984. Actually my reading was held at Ross- Erikson's, Rexroth's Santa Barbara publisher. With Rexroth, Carol, and a houseful of other writers attending, I presented slides of K˘ya- san monastery, Rexroth's spiritual home in Japan, along with the English versions of Kûkai's "Poems That Sing Ten Images" that Hiroshi Murakami and I had done with his encouragement and that were eventually published in our book, Tantric Poetry of K&ucurc;kai (Kôbo Daishi): Japan's Buddhist Saint (1982 and 1986).

Rexroth wrote his last letter to me on 15 March 1979, focusing on Buddhist themes in his poetry in response to a draft of my essay, "Rexroth's Dharma," which I had sent him and which eventually appeared, corrected, in For Rexroth, the Festscrift edited by Geoffrey Gardner in 1980. Rexroth and I conversed on the telephone, and Keiko and I visited him a few days before his death on 6 June 1982. His final letter is a remarkably succinct statement of his central visionary philosophy:

Dear Morgan & Keiko - Your letters are indefinite about when you will arrive in SB... When actually will you be in SB and for how long? I can't arrange a poetry reading until I know. Do you want a koto player?      Thank you for the essay. The long poems are all visionary and have much the same philosophy. The Phoenix and the Tortoise was written during the Pacific War and is strung on the Hyakunin Isshu - ending with the same illumination. It is wrong to call Dainichi Nyorai the Great Sun Buddha - true - that is literal - but he is the Unlimited Illumination. Marichi-ten is not a "sex goddess" - but the first light of dawn, Myogo the morning star, which is why the calligraphy on the cover [of The Morning Star]. It was also the name of Yosano Akiko's magazine. Marichiko constantly makes comparisons of herself & lover and Marishi-ten & Dainichi. The poem "breaks" at the moments of hubris, watching the fiery [character for "great"] from the Kamogawa Bridge and at the Shizoka Gozen poem, where she realizes that illumination has been corrupted by hubris. It is the same plot as my plays -- except Iphigenia[in Beyond the Mountains]. I hope you've finished the Kûkai poems. There is a priest at Sojo in Kôyasan, who could have given you advice. Lots of love to you both.   Kenneth
Of course your friends are welcome

Much as I love and honor the work of Ginsberg, Levertov, Bly, Snyder, and other American poets who became prominent in the 1950s, Rexroth's has meant the most to me. His values, personal, libertarian, ecological, mystical, philosophical, long suppressed and ignored in the academy, are now very much alive in the diversity of American poetry. His poems and prose of pain and joy, of universal liberation and illumination, will continue to change hearts, minds, and maybe the world a little. Like Pound, Rexroth was a tragic hero of poetry; but unlike Pound, whose aesthetic prowess and Confucian ethic could not overcome his fascist proclivities, Rexroth left us poetry and prose of universal liberation.

Rexroth
crept out
slow to speak
as an ancient tortoise
from whose calligraphic shell
the Chinese told the future.


Go to the next chapter

Go to the contents page

Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry

....