Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

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Chapter 1:

Kenneth Rexroth lived many lives in the avant-garde of six decades--first in Chicago as a precocious actor, cubist painter, and soap-box poet of revolution after World War I, then on the west coast as Wobbly, cowboy-cook, and mountain-climbing naturalist committed to the protection of the planet long before ecology became a popular concern. Exploring Mexico, New York, Europe, and later Asia, he won international fame as a poet of vision and protest, an erudite and popular essayist, a translator from half a dozen languages, Asian and Western, and an original thinker whose anarcho-erotic- Buddhist-Christian worldview united worldly and transcendental wisdom.

He was a contemplative activist, a lyricist of love and nature, a fierce satirist and preacher against injustice, a rowdy comedian and tragic playwright, an erudite sage and countercultural critic. His work was a struggle for revolutionary hope and then to mourn its defeat in World War II. This tragic view of the War as a worldwide collapse of values, along with a deeply religious sense of "total responsibility," ennobled Rexroth's character at a time when most Americans uncritically, simplistically, and self-righteously supported the "good war" against fascism. Long before the public woke up to the worldwide ecological crisis, Rexroth expected it to finish us all off eventually if a nuclear Apocalypse did not.

Recognizing the worst, he celebrated the best in love and art. A founder of the international Objectivist Movement and the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, an early promoter of Beat poetry and major pioneer of the 1960's Counterculture, he expanded the audience for poetry of high artistic and intellectual calibre, his performances of which were often accompanied by live jazz and later by Chinese and Japanese music. Befriending many poets, thinkers, artists, musicians, journalists, workers, feminists, priests, nuns, prostitutes, politicians, bankers, communists, and fellow-anarchists, he wrote from a kind of worldly wisdom unique among intellectuals. He collaborated with writers all over the world, assisted many before they became famous, and supported small presses with some of his finest work, while at the same time being published extensively by New Directions and other major publishers. The influence of his mother's feminism helped motivate his promotion of many women poets, especially those of China and Japan. His lifelong absorption and interpretation of Asian culture advanced the East-West tradition of Whitman, Pound, Yeats, and Waley. Rexroth's poetry of visionary love, at once erotic and spiritual, earthy and transcendent, revealing nirvana in this world, has changed many minds and many lives.

Orphaned in childhood, he grew up with minimal repression; and with little formal schooling he learned and created as he wished, an uninhibited adventurer who always refused to knuckle under to government, church, business, even to those he loved. He lived in poverty during his youth in Chicago and for many years in San Francisco, though international fame eventually brought him the comfort of a spacious home in Santa Barbara. A conscientious objector during World War II, he aided Japanese-Americans threatened with incarceration and performed alternative service in a mental hospital, where he suffered permanent injury at the hands of a violent inmate. He seems to have had fits of madness, temptations to suicide, the unstable temperament of a romantic poet. He went out of his way to encourage young poets, to publicize their work, to help spread a counterculture throughout the world. At times he seemed superhuman, mythic, challenging in poetry, prose, and speech the permanent war-mentality that has ominously clouded modern civilization. His ideals of universal liberation and of holy matrimony were unrealized. Were his assertions of "total responsibility" effusions of saintly modesty, guilt, the wish to save the world, or symptoms of hubris, the pride of a hero that drove him to the heights of visionary ecstasy before his fall into a final year of agonizing immobilization and silence?

Because much commentary on Rexroth's writings and ideas has appeared in Asia, Europe, and the United States, how is it possible in some surveys of modern poetry for his work to be ignored or only casually mentioned? [1] We must not forget that critics were slow to recognize Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Williams, Stein, and other major innovators. In addition, some academics have been put off by his sweeping attacks on the Ivory Tower, the New Critics, and the New York literary establishment, as well as upon other vested interests, right and left. His position on the west coast at first led to the misconception that he was a regional poet; and Asian influences in his work alienated him from some specialists unfamiliar with them. There are those who find him more interesting as a personality or thinker than as a writer of poetry. But while emphasizing that poetry is fundamentally vision, Rexroth was as devoted to craftsmanship as were other modern masters. Much of his poetry is intellectually and stylistically complex, requiring serious involvement with world literature and thought, but no more so than Pound's, Eliot's, or Zukofsky's. On the other hand, much of his writing is so direct and personal that he seems to be speaking to us in the same room, or in the mountains overlooking the Pacific, or in a Japanese garden.

Perhaps because Rexroth was younger than the classical modernists, not publishing his first book until 1940, when he was thirty-four, and yet more rebellious than the post-war generation associated with the New Criticism, he has never fit into familiar periods, movements, and trends. After promoting the Beat rebellion, he quickly disassociated himself from the movement, as he had withdrawn from Objectivism over two decades previously. Some literary historians had difficulty keeping up with his development. Incessantly independent and changeable, often alienating friends and allies, he never won the massive following enjoyed by Pound, Eliot, Ginsberg, Olson, Snyder, and others. Admirers are sometimes on the defensive about his work, for he could be an outrageous trouble- maker, and he was self-righteously ideological and artistically uneven, but so were many lesser writers.

More important than fitting him into an academic canon is to read his work empathetically and carefully, interpret it insightfully, and evaluate it philosophically as well as aesthetically. Perhaps he will receive better treatment from critics and professors as his work is increasingly explored in literary and academic publications. Ellmann''s inclusion of his poetry in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry was a kind of canonical blessing. [2]

Indeed, since his death so much has been published by and about him that we might speak of a "Rexroth boom," but it is more accurate to speak of his persistent popularity. His poetry, translations, and prose have attracted large and varied communities of readers, several generations of them, ever since his first book, In What Hour, appeared in 1940. Like his I. W. W. hero Joe Hill, we might well say of Rexroth, "He never died!"

Rexroth has been hailed by Lawrence Clark Powell as "our greatest man of letters," by Leslie Fiedler as "the last of the great Bohemians," by Hayden Carruth as "our best nature poet," and by George Woodcock as "one of the major poets of our time." [3] In For Rexroth he is celebrated by editor Geoffrey Gardner as "the most accomplished and deeply religious poet to write in this country since Whitman" (xi), "the American poet who best understands the Japanese culture" by Professor Sanehide Kodama of Kyoto (47), a "polymathic didact" who is "one of the great love poets of all time" by critic and editor Justus George Lawler (53), an "anarchic libertarian Wild West magician sage" by poet David Meltzer (56), and "a great love poet in the most loveless time imaginable" by the poet James Wright (95). [4]

According to Robert Bly, Rexroth was "the most intelligent literary man in America..." [5] Gary Snyder has confirmed his indebtedness to Rexroth; and his great friend and editor James Laughlin has said that "Rexroth had a tremendous influence on New Directions and on me... Rexroth partly took over the role of Ezra [Pound] in my life, in that he advised me what to do and put me on to things." [6]

When published in 1986 this book was the first to evaluate Rexroth's lifework and worldview as a whole, based upon his more than fifty volumes of poems, plays, translations, essays, autobiographies, Japanese and American criticism of his work, our correspondence from 1957 to 1979, and our conversations from 1964 until just before his death on June 6, 1982. Accompanying him on poetry and lecture tours of Japan, where I taught at Osaka University from 1975 to 1979, was especially helpful.

My thinking has evolved beyond that of my Kenneth Rexroth, published in the Twayne United States Authors Series in 1972, which was the first book on Rexroth by anyone. [7] Before Revolutionary Rexroth first appeared fourteen years later, no other critic had produced a whole book about him excepting Daniela M. Ciani Forza, who covered his work only to 1956 in her 1982 Italian study. [8] My 1972 volume, placing him in traditions of "religious anarchism" and "erotic mysticism" (his terms) that include classical, Christian, oriental, and modern prophets, seers, and poets, could not cover the Buddhist poetry of the last decade of his life, his immersion in Japanese culture, some of his best translations and essays, and judgments of his achievement as a whole. In the present volume, which is for the general reader interested in books and ideas as well as for the literary specialist, I have tried to make judgments of his work as objectively as possible while enriching them with insights from our friendship. All I can ask is that readers judge without prejudice the theory and practice of Rexroth's lifework, both for its own sake and for its illumination of Asian, European, and American traditions, reconceived and synthesized.

Not until after Rexroth's death did I realize how his work from beginning to end embodies a contemplative way of interacting with other beings. Rexroth's stormy life was full of anguish from many mistakes, as he mournfully admitted; but his visionary writings suggest how all beings are created, transformed, and united in love, despite massive hatred, violence, and destruction; how we live in universal community, human and cosmic, without usually knowing it; and how human life can be liberated through a revolution in consciousness. This worldview revitalizes and ennobles the human spirit, dangerously threatened by pathological military, technological, political, and corporate regimentation that toys with ecological disaster and nuclear annihilation. Denouncing the Social Lie that depersonalizes and destroys, Rexroth offered an alternative way of life, of waking up to the interacting plenitude of creative existence, in a spiritual tradition going back to Shakyamuni, Lao Tzu, Sappho, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, and other heroes of truth, love, and freedom.

I have not tried to write a detailed biography, as Linda Hamalian has done; but my second chapter, "Lives of a Poet," based on that intellectual adventure-story An Autobiographical Novel, letters, and other sources, shows how Rexroth's personality, art, and thought took various forms as they evolved from contemplative and worldly experiences. My third chapter, '"Poetry Is Vision'--'Vision Is Love'" presents his three poetic modes, symbolism, cubism, and "natural numbers," in a coherent philosophy of literature in which poetry is seen as interpersonal communication, originating in contemplation (communion, vision) and re-creating community. In Chapter 4, "The Poems," are detailed discussions of his original lyrics, elegies, satires, and revolutionary polemics in The Collected Shorter Poems (herein abbreviated CSP, 1966), philosophical reveries in The Collected Longer Poems (CLP, 1968), Buddhist lyrics in New Poems (NP, 1974) and The Morning Star (MS, 1979). These volumes and the handy Selected Poems (1984), all issued by New Directions, contain virtually all of his published poetry, exclusive of plays and translations. Chapter 5 deals with his greatest whole work, the dramatic tetralogy Beyond the Mountains (BM, 1951), on the collapse of ancient Greek civilization, foreshadowing the collapse of modern culture. In Chapter 6 I treat his translations as "Acts of Sympathy." The seventh chapter, on his "Cultural and Countercultural Criticism," his essays to his theory of literature and to major traditions from which it emerges. In Chapter 8, "Discovering the Anarchist- Buddhist Poet," I have included most of Rexroth's letters to me from 1957 to 1979, with the story of my deepening understanding of his life and work. "In and Out of the Academy," the final chapter, deals with his ambivalence towards the universities, Rexroth in the fourteen years since his death, the need for more philosophical interpretations of his work, and news of the Kenneth Rexroth East- West Collection at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan. The Bibliography includes all items about him worldwide that I could find.

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry