Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

Chapter 2

Kenneth Rexroth seems to have passed through several incarnations during his seventy-seven years as poet, translator, essayist, playwright, revolutionary activist, one of America's first abstract painters, and visionary sage.

Born in South Bend, Indiana, on December 22, 1905, Rexroth lived most of his first twenty-one years in the midwest, primarily in Chicago, where precocious accomplishments brought him fame before he moved to San Francisco in 1927. Making his home there until 1968, when he moved to Montecito in Santa Barbara, he is generally identified as a West Coast writer. But extensive study and travel throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia gave his work a cosmopolitanism rare in American poetry; and from 1967 until his death in 1982 his writing and thinking were centered on Japanese Buddhism.

Did he quixotically charge off in diverse directions at once, or did his various careers express a coherent worldview? How could a poet celebrating love and nature also be committed to social change while at the same time trying to transcend the world as a mystic? Mystics are thought to be ascetically indifferent to erotic love or changing the world, revolutionaries often decry romance as anti- social diversion, and lovers are usually too wrapped up in each other to become fully committed revolutionaries or mystics. Nevertheless, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were revolutionary lovers; Dante and Yeats were erotic mystics; Kropotkin and Tolstoi were saintly anarchists; and like Blake and Whitman, Rexroth was an erotically mystical revolutionary. He wrote to his second wife:

This is your own lover, Kenneth, Marie,
Who someday will be part of the earth
Beneath your feet; who crowned you once with roses
Of song; whose voice was no less famous
Raised against the guilt of his generation.   [1]

His voice was righteously raised with comrades like Eli Jacobson, whose Bolshevism the anarchist Rexroth opposed, but with whom he felt a common commitment:

    We were comrades
Together, we believed we
Would see with our own eyes the new
World where man was no longer
Wolf to man, but men and women
Were all brothers and lovers
Together. [2]

Revolutionary activism, far from distracting him from mysteries of nature, in fact sprang from ecological contemplation that often lovingly united inner and outer experience, spirit and body, person and universe:

The world
Is alive tonight. I am
Immersed in living protoplasm,
That stretches away over
Continents and seas. I float
Like a child in the womb. [3]

Here Rexroth alludes to "womb-consciousness," symbolized in the mandala of Tantric Buddhism, a major influence on his worldview because its practice of erotic meditation confirmed his own intuitions of the creative processes of mind, body, and universe, and their fundamental unity. Whereas early Buddhists had viewed sex as a pernicious attachment that caused suffering and delusion, Tantric practices in Nepal and Tibet in the seventh century, and in China and Japan later, involved erotic symbolism and yoga (yab-yum) as skillful means of realizing universal Being. All of this appealed to Rexroth, whose deepest commitments seemed to flow from a still pool of compassionate wisdom that might be called his Buddha-nature, obscured though it was at times by emotional and intellectual turmoil. He was certainly not a Buddha, for he suffered from attachments, passions, and delusions at least as much as the rest of us; but he realized in his poetry, more than many poets, how to love in a world of interdependent, interacting beings that mutually reflect each other. This mystical worldview, therefore, embraces eroticism and revolutionary action, both of which may be means of discovering with others the underlying harmony of natural processes. Because he envisioned a community of love in the universe as it is and in human society as it might become, his revolution was anarchistic, aiming at the liberation of consciousness and the perfection of a pre-existing community of love. In opposition, he persistently denounced political coercion in communistic, socialistic, and capitalistic states.

Rexroth's autobiographical prose makes clear how visionary, oceanic, nirvanic intimations of eternity, as if he lived in and out of the world simultaneously, generated his vocation as a poet of revolutionary consciousness. He searched through religions, philosophy, and literature for explanations of these experiences, sometimes finding Christian thought appropriate, and later mostly Buddhist imagery and ideas. For Rexroth, love unites all beings and is never limited to pairs of lovers. His short poems of love and nature and his long philosophical reveries express a sense of the underlying, harmonious interdependence of all things. When he periodically lost this sense of fundamental harmony, he would furiously explode in satire, polemics, and revolutionary prophecy against those people, institutions, and impersonal forces that threaten love, consciousness, and life itself.

Turning from political action as hopes for humane revolution faded, he developed an organic philosophy, in poetry and prose, that found its fullest expression in Buddhist imagery such as the Net of Indra, in which each jewel in an immense net reflects all others just as each being reflects all others throughout the universe, and each Buddha- world reflects infinite Buddha-worlds. His remarkable achievements in many fields, then, sprang from habitual contemplation, communion with people he loved and with the cyclical processes of nature, and a sense of community extending from human and earthly realms to galaxies and limitless realms of spirit. If he had lived longer, he might well have produced a philosophical-poetic systhesis of Buddhism with modern ecology, social theory, physics, linguistics, and anthropology. That had been his tendency all along.

Before his readings, Rexroth liked to ask whether the audience wanted sex, revolution, or mysticism. Then he would tell about the blond who once, from a front row seat, seductively asked back, "What's the difference?"

An Autobiographical Novel: The Midwest (1905-27: 1966)

The best way to understand the interactions between Rexroth's inner and outer lives, contemplative and worldly experience, mind and action, is to read An Autobiographical Novel, covering his first twenty-one years (henceforth abbreviated AN). The story was originally dictated into a tape recorder while he was touring Europe with his family, then was transcribed and read on his KPFA radio program in San Francisco, and in 1966 was published by Doubleday. He aimed to understand himself in communion with his daughters and others whom he loved.

In a style that varies from the witty, hilarious, and outrageous to the profound, Rexroth narrated his philosophical, spiritual, and artistic quests, his ceaseless adventures as poet, painter, translator, and revolutionary; and the resulting book is packed with brilliant ideas and unforgettable impressions of countless famous intellectuals with whom he interacted. His original account ended in 1927, just after he (then twenty-one) and his bride Andrée had hitchhiked from Chicago, where he had grown up, to San Francisco, and just before the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston poisoned worldwide dreams of revolutionary change.

Highly acclaimed in England and America for its portrayal of the poet and his historical milieu, it has been reissued on both sides of the Atlantic. [4] Like Yeats' Autobiographies and Wordsworth's Prelude the book reveals "the growth of the poet's mind," but Rexroth seems to have been more worldly than either of the earlier poets, despite his mysticism. His feet were on the ground and on the pavements of Chicago during the Roaring 1920's. Dead-pan objectivity, photographic description, witty anecdotes, adventurous story-telling, and incessant intellectual inquiry sweep us into his stormy life. Regardless of inaccuracies that biographers have suspected if not always have proved, Rexroth's life-story shows how his creative powers as painter and poet emerged from his contemplation of the universe, how his ideas developed through personal encounters, vast reading, the practice of translation, and an incessant spiritual quest. Like Augustine and Rousseau, Rexroth told his life as a search for ultimate values, though his differed radically from theirs. Rexroth's sense of life came closest to that of Tu Fu, his favorite non-dramatic poet, who seemed to be saying in his work that "only men's steadfastness, love, magnanimity, calm, and compassion redeem the nightbound world" (319).

These values inhere in the contemplative, visionary experiences discussed at length. When he was four or five years old, observing a wagon-load of new-mown hay, he claims that "An awareness, not a feeling, of timeless, spaceless, total bliss occupied me or I occupied it completely" (338). The careful wording shows that bliss was not merely his feeling, but something that he was aware of beyond time and space, a "normal and natural life" transcending the tribulations of ordinary life and yet immanent in physical existence. So he seems to have had intuitions of nirvana or heaven on earth. When he was eleven, and his mother died, "a great sense of peace and well-being came over me as though I, too, had gone to a heaven which was all one calm, limitless, vision" (77). When he had a high fever from flu, he terrified his father by saying, "The whole room is filled with silver lines like thousands of spider webs of light. They all come together over there where there is a spot so bright you can't stand to look at it. That is the other me on the other side of the universe" (91).

At fifteen, he plunged into philosophy for explanations of such visionary experiences of "communion" (152)--a term which implies Christian love, but he goes on to show how other religions and philosophies also contributed to his worldview. So speculation characterizes much of his work, especially the longer poems, though he realized that it could not finally explain visionary life or express the love and wisdom flowing from it. Instead, in order to transmit his deepest experiences in poetry, he came to rely upon such powerful images from Tantric Buddhism as sexual bliss with female deities, symbolizing the union of compassion and transcendental wisdom, and sun and moon as symbols of enlightenment.

As a youth in retreat at Holy Cross Monastery near Poughkeepsie he considered becoming an Anglo-Catholic monk; but though he experienced rapture throughout Holy Week, he did not feel "called" to this vocation (334-35). Instead, he sought enlightenment in erotic mysticism and sacramental marriage, enthused by the writings of D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, and many ancient mystics. He described marital bliss with his first wife, Andrée Dutcher, an anarchist painter who suffered from epilepsy and kleptomania, as "total identification" (358). Similar experiences generated "When We with Sappho" and other ecstatic love poems. This poem, beginning with Rexroth's version of Sappho's apple- blossom poem, shows how he and his beloved transcend historical fact, for she is "Not like a body, not like a separate thing/But like a nimbus that hovers/Over every other thing in all the world." The intensity of direct address mounts from the hypnotic repetition of "summer" to the startling imperatives of "Lean back. Give me your mouth." The lovers' bliss illuminates the world, ancient as well as present, human and natural: "I will press/Your summer honeyed flesh into the hot/Soil, into the crushed, acrid herbage/Of midsummer." Afterwards they rest and savor Sappho's poem. Finally in silence their bodies slip away like the sun as they move toward death with Sappho. [5]

Love is, then, the dominant emotion of Rexroth's poetry and prose: love of women, of community, of nature, of poetry and the other arts, of innumerable Buddha-worlds (dimensions of universal mind). Love is at once erotic and transcendent, flowing through him and the universe, reflecting all beings in every being, transforming life into poetry, uniting individuals in communities. His satirical and polemical poems attack those who deny, block, or pervert love into destructive power. His elegies commemorate his loves in recognition of inevitable cycles of creation through destruction. His translations came about through sympathetic identification with poets of many cultures. So all of his poetry and poetics, his philosophizing and acting in the world to savor and improve it, flow fundamentally from love.

In his tales of family, friends, lovers, and spiritual and literary masters, we learn how he enacted roles of rebel, prophet, and bard from ancient times as well as from the American tradition of conscientious dissent and revolt, encouraged by his parents' noblesse oblige. The family's values were those of the American struggle in defense of natural rights of conscience as proclaimed in the revolution for national independence, in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, frontier populism, New England Transcendentalism and Abolitionism, the spiritual and political radicalism of European immigrants, Debsian socialism, the Industrial Workers of the World, feminism, and other movements for social reform in opposition to militarism, bureaucratic repression, ecclesiastical authoritarianism, political prosecution, and capitalistic profit-making at the expense of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Like Whitman and Williams, and unlike Pound and Eliot, he never abandoned American experience, even as he absorbed European and Asian cultures, for he felt no fundamental contradiction between his labors as a Wobbly logger and cowboy and delight in translating Greek and Chinese poetry. He took himself for granted, accepting the universality of his own experience instead of submitting to external authorities for discipline. So mystical realizations are presented as matter-of-factly as political struggles.

The earliest Rexroths were thirteenth century Harz Mountain peasants and scholars and West German officials, some perhaps Jewish. In America, the first Rexroths were Pietists and radicals, marrying with Indians, Negroes, and Irishmen, and settling mostly in Ohio. Kenneth's father was Charles Rexroth, an unsuccessful but high-living pharmacist of considerable sophistication, wit, and charm, a drinking-companion of Theodore Dreiser, James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Fields, George Ade, and other famous mid-western writers. Kenneth's mother was Delia (or Della) Reed, a woman of aesthetic sensibility who had dropped out of Oberlin College for a brief business career with a suffragette before marriage.

Less than a year after Kenneth was born, the family moved to Elkhart, Indiana, where his mother began educating him with methods similar to the Montessori system, an Indian soon taught him nature lore, and his father later equipped him with a scientific laboratory. Kenneth's childhood seems to have been idyllic until, in his fifth year or so, his father had the first of a series of financial crises, a couple of years later his mother's lung hemorrhaged, and his father began drinking so heavily that Kenneth was emotionally distanced from him and thereafter despised drunks. Despite these tribulations, the family visited England and the Continent later that year and traveled as far as Constantinople, initiating Kenneth as a world-traveler. They then settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, for about three years, but occasionally visited New York, where he met such famous Bohemians as James Gibbon Huneker, Sadakichi Hartman, and the anarchist lovers Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Meanwhile, as his parents had love affairs, little Kenneth began to have his own in a dream-world inspired by the utopian Oz books. When he was ten, his parents moved with him briefly to Chicago, then separated, reunited, and returned to Elkhart, where his mother died in 1916 of gangrene of the lung. Devoted to her as an ideal mother and liberated woman, he commemorated her in several elegies, calling her "a fierce lover,/A wild wife, an animal/Mother." [6] For a couple of years he then lived in Toledo, Ohio, with his paternal grandmother and then with his father, who died in 1918 (91). If Kenneth had learned to debate ideas from his father, he had learned to love deeply from his mother; so in his poems, thinking rises from love and, finding no ultimate answers, sinks back into love.

The boy then lived in Chicago off and on until 1927, first with his mother's sister, then alone in his own studio. Residing in James T. Farrell's neighborhood, he later appeared as a fat boy named Kenny in Studs Lonigan. [7] He attended classes at the Art Institute, Edmund Burke Grammar School, and eventually Englewood High School, but his real education was extra-curricular, as he began to associate with many celebrities and become known as poet, theater director and actor, abstract painter, journalist, and political activist. Observing Communists and reading Lenin, he rejected Bolshevism because of its militarism and centralized authoritarianism and for the rest of his life remained an anarchist, opposed to centralized government and all other collectivities. A poem called "The Bad Old Days" tells how, after reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and H. G. Wells' The Research Magnificent, and seeing for himself, in the stockyards area of Chicago, "Debauched and exhausted faces,/Starved and looted brains," [8] he took a revolutionary vow that is probably the one of Eugene Debs in The Dragon and the Unicorn: "While there is a lower class,/I am in it. While there is/A criminal element,/I am of it. Where there is/A soul in jail, I am not free." [9] Paradoxically, he also believed that he "belonged to a special elite whose mission it was to change the world" and that his primary way of doing this was through poetry (149).

During his fifteenth year, the most intellectually active time of his life, he began translating poetry, Sappho's "Apple Orchard" first of all, then other poems from the Greek, Chinese, and Japanese, depending on Judith Gautier's French versions of oriental poems until he could read the originals. He visited classes at the University of Chicago, but never pursued a degree. He claimed to have begun his first long philosophical poem, The Homestead Called Damascus, as early as 1920, and to have finished it in 1925, during his first major love affair, with a social worker ten years older than himself named Shirley Johnson ("Leslie Smith" in his poetry), and a minor fling with a Jewish student named Ruth at the University of Chicago. The poem's symbolist style and Christian questing for spiritual renewal were strongly affected by his discovery of "The Waste Land" in the Dial of 1922, which he imagined to be revolutionary until realizing its reactionary thrust. Because of his reaction to symbolism generally and Eliot's work in particular, he did not publish his own long poem as a whole for thirty-two years (191- 201 and 255-58).

Accompanying Shirley to Smith College, he visited in Boston the imprisoned Sacco and Vanzetti, whose anarchist saintliness permanently deepened his radical commitments. In New York he tried sexual yoga with a free-thinking female disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. Back in Chicago he acted in plays by Pirandello and other modernists and joyfully discovered Middle English and Latin poetry, philosophy, and theology, which attracted him to the sacramental system of Catholicism, especially its Anglican expression, though he remained heterodox in thought and behavior. Hitch-hiking to Seattle in 1924, he worked as a logger and participated in The Industrial Workers of the World, then explored primitive life in the Ozarks before settling again in Chicago, where he led a Dada movement and studied anthropology on his own, inspired by Edward Sapir, who seems to have understood Rexroth's poetics of communion and communication. [10]

Breaking up with Shirley, he explored the Southwest and Mexico, meeting the D. H. Lawrence circle, which hardly resembled the community of love that he had been seeking, then worked with both cowboys and Indians on the west coast. He studied Wittgenstein, but rejected the Tractatus for Duns Scotus' ontology, eventually finding that no philosophy offered final answers or embodied the wisdom that he craved. Working his way on a ship to Europe, he met Aragon, Soupault, Tzara, Cendrars, and other literary heroes in Paris, but returned to the American West after Alexander Berkman advised him not to become another expatriate. He was soon mountain-climbing and training horses in Montana, then met Rivera, Orozco, and other revolutionary artists in Mexico.

In 1927 he and his bride Andrée hitchhiked from Chicago to California, where he was to make his home thereafter, arriving just before news of Sacco and Vanzetti's execution in Boston shattered revolutionary hopes--an event commemorated in some of his finest elegies. [11] In the same year he completed "Prolegomena to a Theodicy," his second long philosophical reverie, a Christian vision of hell and heaven in the cubist mode, begun in 1925 but not published until 1932.

The first twenty-one years of Rexroth's life must have been even more complex than could be indicated in the concentrated, rapidly-paced narrative of An Autobiographical Novel. It seems that he was never idle nor at a loss for discovery and creation. And during his years of being based in Chicago, especially the last seven, his religious, mystical, philosophical, political, erotic, and artistic perspectives coalesced in a way that determined the rest of his lifework.

Excerpts from a Life: California (1927-48: 1981)

Although by the age of twenty-one Rexroth had had more adventures than most people have in a lifetime, the move to California in 1927 initiated an even greater leap forward. In this second phase of his development, centered in San Francisco until 1968, his poetry, drama, translations, criticism, revolutionary activism, and painting reached fruition, with most of his major writings being published before his attention centered on Asia as never before.

An additional installment of Rexroth's autobiography, Excerpts from a Life, covering the years 1927-48, was published first in 1981 and included in Linda Hamalian's 1991 edition of An Autobiographical Novel, now the standard edition (but my footnotes refer to the 1981 Excerpts.). We learn how the Rexroths settled in San Francisco, where he rapidly rose to a pre-eminent position in the literary life of the region. They turned from geometrical painting to a rendering of organic forms as they climbed mountains, observed landscapes, and made friends with the photographer Edward Weston, the painter Hilaire Hiler, the poet- critic Yvor Winters, the lesbian-anarchist poet Elsa Gidlow, and a young Russian genius, Mark Kliorin, who eventually disappeared in Moscow.

In 1929 Rexroth began publishing in magazines, and in 1932 made his first major international breakthrough as a leading cubist in the "Revolution of the Word" when two versions of "Prolegomena to a Theodicy" appeared in An "Objectivists" Anthology in Le Beausset, Var, France, in 1932: the poet's original and a revision by editor Louis Zukofsky that Rexroth repudiated in the same issue. [12]

Rexroth's comprehension of Marxism, especially the theory of capitalistic self-alienation at the center of Marx's humanist philosophy, matured in response to the Great Depression and international crises; so during a visit to New York he joined the first John Reed Club because of its broad representation of diverse viewpoints at that time, despite his objections to Bolshevism, which he and many other radicals believed had perverted Marx's ideas. Andrée, on the other hand, joined the Communist Party, went insane, and attempted suicide. They separated, Rexroth fell in love with Marie Cass, a nurse, and married her in 1940, after Andrée had died in an epileptic seizure.

The same year, In What Hour, consisting of thirty-one poems of revolution, love, and nature, was published by Macmillan and the next year won a California Silver Medal Award. This brilliant first book, the product of twenty years of writing and more than a decade of publishing in periodicals and anthologies in Europe and the United States, includes cubist poems as well as poems in natural speech. Though critics admired the nature poems and Rexroth's intellect and artistry, they had difficulty grasping the serious quest of the poet, through the poems of revolutionary hope, struggle, defeat, and despair, towards an organic philosophy in which value is naturally emergent in geological and biological, social and artistic, processes. [13] The quest zigzags like a mountain trail, so dark at times that it is apparently impassable before suddenly brightening. As Rexroth confronted social, economic, and military crises of the 1930's from mountains under stars, he realized in these poems how creation emerges from destruction, universally.

Rexroth saw World War II as a supreme symptom of an exploitative, authoritarian, dehumanizing, and disintegrating "civilization," rather than simply a conflict between Democracy and Fascism. Nor did he support the Soviet state, which in his opinion had betrayed humane ideals of social revolution. Like Kenneth Patchen, Paul Goodman, William Everson, William Stafford, Carlos Cortez, and other anarchist and pacifist writers, he refused on ethical grounds to kill impersonal "enemies," even for a government less unjust than the totalitarian states. Instead of joining a war effort that he believed would perpetuate injustices, he did what he could to advance the values of love, cooperation, and community. He was, therefore, constantly and often dangerously threatened by those uncritically supporting the war, including former friends from the Left; and his position was unique even among pacifists, who were generally from traditional peace churches. As a conscientious objector, he worked as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, where he was permanently injured by a violent patient. He also gave humanitarian aid to Japanese-Americans, threatened by evacuation and incarceration, who in turn helped him explore oriental culture.

The study and practice of Buddhist and Christian contemplation show up in his second book, The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944). According to the preface, the poems were written after 1940, but at least one exception must be the translation of Sappho's apple- blossom poem, which he had written as a youth. In a style of classical clarity the poet moves from desperation, abandon, and resignation in response to cultural collapse, shown in the Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Roman paraphrases, through "erotic mysticism" (in the original poems of love and nature) into a consciousness of "universal responsibility" through "sacramental marriage," which generated the long title poem in response to World War II. The poems were later reprinted: the title poem in The Collected Longer Poems; the thirty-seven short ones and a few of the twenty-six translations in The Collected Shorter Poems and most of the translations and imitations from Chinese, Greek, and Latin in various collections of translations. The book was enthusiastically reviewed and won him another California Silver Medal Award the following year. [14]

After the war, in a worldwide upsurge of idealistic hopes for a new way of life despite Cold War militarism, Rexroth helped organize the Libertarian League for a thorough study of revolutionary thought and action from an anarchist perspective. He also organized weekly poetry readings that spawned the San Francisco Renaissance years before the Beats appeared, and which led to the establishment of the Poetry Center at the San Francisco State College (now University). [15] Distinguishing his own ethics, based on a personal, mystical sense of universal community, from statist politics (Republican, Democratic, Communist, Socialist, Fascist) on the one hand and the mindless amorality of many Beats and Hippies on the other, Rexroth claimed that his literary and political activities had helped spread a new style of cultural revolt across the continent and abroad (61). Rejecting the "Social Lie" that coerces people into serving dehumanizing institutions, Rexroth uncompromisingly advocated being true to love, friendship, knowledge, relentless inquiry, critical thought, and the creative spirit of nature and art.

Organic Christian Personalism: California and Europe (1947-67)

In 1947, Viking published Rexroth's edition of Selected Poems of D. H. Lawrence, containing his vigorous introduction to the erotic-visionary-prophetic poetry, an important influence on his own. Though Rexroth had been publishing criticism for almost two decades in periodicals, the Lawrence essay, written as imaginatively as his poetry, brought him international fame as an important critic at odds with the impersonal formalism of the New Critics and other academics.

He was divorced from Marie the next year, married Marthe Larsen, and traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship. It was renewed in 1949, when, in his anthology, The New British Poets, his long essay on the neo-romanticism of Dylan Thomas, Denise Levertov, George Barker, Hugh MacDiarmid, and others who were expanding the emotional and intellectual range of poetry across the Atlantic effectively introduced their work to many American readers.

Also in 1949, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, a collection of his cubist poems written between 1920 and 1932, was published in an effort to revive the Revolution of the Word. This third volume of Rexroth's poetry included his second long poem, retitled "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy," shorter poems, and the first of many manifesto-like introductions to his books. But because of improper printing after the director of the Decker Press in Prairie City, Illinois, was murdered, the collection was reissued, as Rexroth had originally intended it, in 1953 by the Golden Goose Press in Sausalito. The first edition was dedicated to his late wife Andrée, and the second to the anarchist poet and painter Kenneth Patchen, with whom Rexroth then felt closer than to any other American writer at that time, for Patchen was extending techniques abandoned after this book. In the 1953 preface, Rexroth belligerently proclaims:

I write for one and only one purpose, to overcome the invincible ignorance of the traduced heart. My poems are acts of force and violence directed against the evil which murders us all. If you like, they are designed not just to overthrow the present State, economic system, and Church, but all prevailing systems of human collectivity altogether... I wish to speak to and for all those who have had enough of the Social Lie, the Economics of Mass Murder, the Sexual Hoax, and the Domestication of Conspicuous Consumption.

Such polemics turned off some readers, for the time was not ripe for revolution of any kind. [16] During the McCarthyite years of the Korean War, Rexroth was one of the few writers to proclaim publicly an uncompromising faith in human liberation from all forms of coercion, winning him admiration from some, but contempt from many, including Stalinists who resented his attacks on the Soviet Union. Not all of the poems in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, however, were radical in style or subject. The best poems in the collection, in fact, the sequence for Leslie Smith, his Chicago lover, are tender love lyrics of much wider appeal than the cubist and rhetorical pieces (CSP 31-36).

From this quiet side of Rexroth's sensibility came The Signature of All Things (1950), the fourth book of his own poetry, including some of his most enduring personal lyrics and translations of mystical love and nature and a preface affirming that "the integral person is more revolutionary than any program, party, or social conflict..." The book's title is borrowed from Jacob Boehme, the seventeenth century Christian mystic who, along with Buber, Schweitzer, Suzuki, and Kropotkin, influenced the spiritual anarchism of Rexroth's poems. Their style, he says, is influenced less by contemporary poetry than by folksongs from around the world, primitive and ancient songs, and "directly communicative poetry" by Burns, Landor, Blake, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, and others. The syllabic prosody that had become familiar in Rexroth's non-cubist work is concisely explained. Though the book is dedicated to Marie, to whom the most erotic poems are addressed, Marthe, his third wife, bore their first daughter, Mary, the year that the volume was published. [17]

Rexroth's poetic, philosophical, and visionary powers are epitomized in Beyond the Mountains, four verse tragedies on the disintegration of the Greek world, prophetic of the cultural collapse of our own age, influenced by Japanese Noh drama as well as by Sophocles and Euripides. They were published separately in periodicals, then altogether as a book in 1951. Phaedra was premiered in St. Louis in June, 1951, directed by James Walsh, who acted also in the New York premiere by the Living Theatre of the tetralogy as a whole--including also Iphegenia at Aulis, Hermaios, and Berenike-- directed by Julian Beck and starring Judith Malina, December 30, 1951-January 20. [18] The plays' theme of spiritual commitment in the face of collapsing civilization was amplified the next year in The Dragon and the Unicorn, Rexroth's fifth book of non-dramatic poetry and his fourth long philosophical poem, evolving from his travels in post-war Europe, under the threat of World War III. The poem amplifies the erotic, organic Personalism, still predominantly Christian but with vivid Buddhist themes and imagery, of The Phoenix and the Tortoise, the philosophical reverie which it most closely resembles; but Rexroth's style has become much stronger and more flexible in this longest of his poems. [19]

In 1952 Rexroth's first full collection of translations, Fourteen Poems by O. V. de L. Milosz, most of them done years before from the French, confirmed his already recognized accomplishments as a translator. A year after a second daughter was born in 1954, his children were honored in the acidly whimsical A Bestiary for My Daughters Mary and Katherine. Also in 1955, One Hundred Poems from the French and the ever-popular One Hundred Poems from the Japanese established him as a major translator who was extending Pound's attempt to bridge Asian and Occidental cultures. Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas, his most powerful and renowned protest poem against the worldwide culture of violence, ripped through the reactionary decade. This blistering poem and the Bestiary were reprinted with other poems of protest, satire, and affection in his sixth full book of original poetry, In Defense of the Earth in 1956, dedicated to his daughters. A short preface reaffirms the visionary and prophetic role of poetry in opposition to a destructive society. [20]

Also in 1956 Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile (published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as the first City Lights Pocket Poets book) and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese [21] increased his popularity as a translator. He taught at San Francisco State College, even though, having never completed highschool, he bristled at academic restrictions. And in 1957 he received a Chapelbrook Award and the Eunice Tietjens Award from Poetry magazine.

Meanwhile his fame was dramatically spreading because of worldwide attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation after he had introduced Allen Ginsberg and other poets at a reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955; for more than any other American poet, he had kept alive, through dark years of war and Cold War, the spirit of revolt, protest, and liberation, even when it was widely believed that conformity and conservatism were permanent. His support of the Beat movement was critical and temporary, for he objected to the ignorance, amorality, and commercialism of some of its participants, but he long praised Ginsberg as a major poet of visionary protest and remained close friends with Ferlinghetti, McClure, and especially Snyder, whose work has the closest affinities with his own. [22]

In 1957 The Homestead Called Damascus, his first long philosophical poem, the symbolist reverie of two brothers' quest completed in 1926, was first published in The Quarterly Review of Literature with Lawrence Lipton's introductory essay, and won a Longview Award. [23] He also received a Eunice Tietjens Award from Poetry magazine, a $1000 Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Chapelbrook Award, and an Amy Lowell Fellowship.

Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, Rexroth's first whole book of criticism, issued in 1959, and Assays in 1961, extended the already powerful influence of his erudite but popular prose that had been appearing in periodicals in support of the new American poetry, and projecting a bolder, more imaginative comprehension of world culture than was evident among most academics.24 Also in 1961, he and Marthe were divorced. The next year, Poems from the Greek Anthology reminded readers that his poetic practice and theory were grounded in western classics as well as in those from Asia.

In 1963, The Homestead Called Damascus was republished as a booklet with a Foreword by James Laughlin, [25] along with Natural Numbers: New and Selected Poems, a small, quiet assortment from his previous books, with a few new poems for his daughters. [26] He was also writing a column for The San Francisco Examiner and teaching a course in art history and appreciation at the San Francisco Art Institute. The next year he received a grant from The National Academy of Arts and Letters, taught at San Francisco State College, and in the summer was poet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, where had I convinced my skeptical colleagues to invite him. In 1965 he won a William Carlos Williams Award from Contact magazine.

As youth rebellion boiled against racial discrimination, academic restrictions, and especially the war in Southeast Asia, Rexroth spoke out clearly and forcefully against injustices, but published no new protest poems after 1963. Why? Perhaps rebellion could not defeat the "Social Lie," against which he had said all that he could say, or so he thought. Moreover, he had come to the tragic conclusion that those who rule the world would destroy it through ecological catastrophe or nuclear war. They

are pushing all this pretty
Planet, Venice, and Palladio,
And you and me, and the golden
Sun, nearer and nearer to
Total death. Nothing can stop them. [27]

In 1966 An Autobiographical Novel and The Collected Shorter Poems, containing new work and poetry from nine previously published books, climaxed his career thus far. [28]

The Buddha's Way: Asia (1967-82)

Rexroth made enduring poetic, philosophical, ecological, and utopian contributions to the holistic worldview evolving in the counterculture, while condemning drugs, mindless music, senseless activism and other stupid excesses along with the alienation, bigotry, coercion, and warfare of the established culture. Throughout his life he had been developing an organic philosophy of mind and community long before many intellectuals had recognized the ecological basis of human life and thought.

Believing that the disintegration of western civilization was being hastened by the technological revolution, he turned increasingly to traditional Asian culture, which had influenced him from the beginning of his career, but which had remained subordinated to Christian themes until 1967, when it predominated over western thought in his work. In that year, after visiting Japan and other Asian countries for the first time, and Europe again, on a world tour made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and an Akademische Austausdienst Award from West Berlin, he wrote at Daitokuji Zen Temple in Kyoto The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart, his fifth long poem, a Buddhist reverie in his most sensuously melodic style, rich in allusions to Japanese literature, in which he seems to attain satori. This masterpiece of living in the Tao, dedicated to his daughters and to Carol Tinker, was published first as a book in 1967, with graphic designs by the poet, and the next year in The Collected Longer Poems. [29]

The long poems, read consecutively with the aid of its preface, display the development of Rexroth's worldview from the resignation of Homestead to the apocalyptic Prolegomenon, then through the erotic-organic Personalism of The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Dragon and the Unicorn, to the realization of Dharma in Japan. [30] Buddhist influences had appeared in Homestead, and after a twenty year hiatus had thematically and imagistically shaped The Phoenix and the Tortoise, which nevertheless was centrally Christian, but they had intensified until by 1967 his outlook was predominantly Buddhist. [31]

Like his friend Thomas Merton, Rexroth had seen no fundamental contradiction between Christian and Buddhist contemplative experience, in the "peace that passeth understanding" beyond words and ideas. As a youth he had understood Buddhism as as "pure religious empiricism... the Noble Eight Fold Path, whose culmination is the 'unruffledness'--Nirvana--which underlies reality." [32]

He had anarchistically explored the Eight Fold Path of morality (right speech, conduct, and livelihood), meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and contemplation), and wisdom (right views and aspirations). His morality was not monastic but revolutionary, based on responsibility for all humanity, like that of a Bodhisattva who renounces nirvana until all beings enter it. He practiced yoga off and on, but did not believe "in sitting zazen, facing the wall and straining, as at stool, for satori. Satori is an invisible mist, which envelops you unaware and finally never goes away." [33]

In 1968 Classics Revisited, his most popular collection of essays from Saturday Review, vastly expanded his fame as a critic. Having lived in San Francisco for forty-one years, Rexroth became so disgusted with the increase of drugs and crime there that he moved to Santa Barbara in the fall to begin teaching on the University of California campus there. [34]

In 1969 Rexroth vigorously defended cubism in the Introduction to Pierre Reverdy Selected Poems and in translations therein; and the year after that he swung from west to east again in Love in the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese. Also in 1970 The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World centered on American literature and society in the face of nuclear extinction; and With Eye and Ear related eastern and western literature and religion. He was so firmly established in American intellectual life, despite his relentless objections to it, that in the spring of that year, just before campuses exploded all over the country in massive strikes against the war in Southeast Asia, I arranged for him to be offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee which he declined because students at the University of California--Santa Barbara were demanding that he continue teaching there.

Because Rexroth's spiritual life, like Thomas Merton's, was never an escape from humanity, he had become increasingly concerned about the buildup of the war in Southeast Asia and political repression of opponents to it. Though he persistently spoke out against the war and other injustices, generally sympathized with the Movement, and admired the honest commitment of many activists, he did not conceal his contempt for participants who were stupid, amoral, or totalitarian. Some of them, in turn, distrusted his anarchism, considered him above the battle, did not know his earlier protest poems, did not care for his music and poetry performances, or saw no "relevance" in the Buddhist poems that he was writing at this time. He grew increasingly dubious about confrontational opposition as the war worsened. Ever since the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti he had seen idealistic rebellions crushed. He knew that even the most militant demonstrations would not bring down the Military-Industrial Complex and usher in Utopia. [35] He wrote me on June 3, 1970:

As the world economic crisis II shuts down, radical melodrama, massive confrontation, calls for "general strikes" observed only by tiny minorities, all this will have to change to infiltration, organization, long term planning. The past decade of adventurism was purely a function of the affluent society. Jerry Rubin is Hugh Hefner in dirty whiskers. Eventually of course we will have new armies of unemployed, dispossessed and starving. But now is the time for the cadres to consolidate and hang on to any strategic positions they've gained. Nobody knows now how to plan, organize, train -- or what for. So don't quit!

I think the "crisis program" here was a fine idea. A "hard strike" would not have been pulled off. There'd have been a mass picket line for a couple of days, arrests, clubbings, gas, shootings, and then it would have been over. As it is students are getting credit for "crisis classes" in the theory and practice of social conflict, the economics of the war economy, the history of revolutions, etc etc and more credit for canvassing door to door in Santa Barbara, and union to union, and lunch hour factory to factory, and store to store.

Rexroth's political critiques might seem to have nothing to do with Buddhism, but in fact the war and resistance to it heightened awareness of the universal suffering of humanity, which the Buddha claimed resulted from attachments. The disillusioning process of history, so familiar to Rexroth, had deepened his interest in the Buddha's way of liberation, as opposed to political activism. When I asked him whether certain meditation experiences might be satori, he explained to me in his letter of September 23, 1970, the difference between Buddhist and Christian realization:

My. My. First time? I've always thought that's what part of the mind is always doing anyway - you just get a sharp focusing of attention on that level and a kind of hypertrophy of importance. It's the opposite of the mystical experience where there is a gradual dying out of any "importance" into IMPORTANCE and a sense of peace and contentless where you occupy CONTENT--the "meaning of meaning." What a disappointment that title [of I. A. Richard's book] was in the 20's when we expected something quite different. Of course in completion all polarities and antitheses merge. Love to all Kenneth.

As the Movement collapsed, Rexroth tried to keep alive radical ideas in his writing of Communalism: from Its Origins to the Twentieth Century. In 1971 he reported, "This has been a year of retreat. Everybody is scared after the 69-70 pogroms against students & blacks. Reagan's bloodbath policy has worked so far." Unlike Gary Snyder and others, he saw little hope of the Movement's securing itself in communes: "Most of the country ones sound like Wheeler's ranch, shit on the ground, crash pads of an unrelieved nightmare of drugs & disorder - essentially a phenomenon of breakdown not revolution--and totally upper middleclass." (Undated letter to me.)

In 1971, Rexroth's longest literary study, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, showed how writing had emerged from complex regional, ethnic, intellectual, and artistic communities; and more quiet nature poetry from his Japanese experience, Sky Sea Birds Trees Earth House Beasts Flowers, was dedicated to Carol Tinker and Gary Snyder.

In 1972, after he had commented on a draft on my Kenneth Rexroth, it was corrected and published.36 He participated in a Japanology Conference in Tokyo; and The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (translations done with Ling Chung, contributed to the rising consciousness of women in literature. In 1973 The Elastic Retort: Essay in Literature and Ideas offered more "Classics Revisited" and other pieces on Japanese and western religion and culture.

In 1974, after marrying the poet Carol Tinker in an Episcopal service in Santa Barbara, he lived with her in a Kyoto farmhouse with eight-hundred year old beams, a tea ceremony room, and rare calligraphies. For about a year he gave readings and lectures throughout Japan and other Asian countries, explored cultural traditions, and worked on new poetry and prose. One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese [37] and New Poems (a short collection of work in progress) [38] appeared in 1974, along with his authoritative essay on the art of literature in the fifteenth edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, followed the next year by the fullest exposition of his social philosophy, Communalism, from the Neolithic to 1900, his longest historical study.

Our correspondence on Buddhism indicates his disappointment in finding many Japanese less sophisticated than he had expected.

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, or ever heard of the Lankavatara or the Avatamsaka - or know the difference between a Buddha & a Bodhisattva." [February 1, 1975]

Buddhism is for burials, Shinto for weddings - both thoroly (sic) commercial & as bankrupting as bar mitzvahs. [June 1, 1975]

A Japanese would as likely to seek philosophy from a Buddhist monk as you would from a "mortician." [July 31, 1975]

Rexroth denounced Zen as a religion of militarists, millionaires, and hippies, but excepted Daisetz Suzuki, whom he had met as a boy in Michigan, and whom he admired as a creative thinker. Similarly, though he loathed the sentimentality of many haiku, the poetic offspring of Zen, he admired the great accomplishments of Basho and Shiki.

Despite his complaints he loved many Japanese friends, authors ancient and modern, poetry and Noh, temples, shrines, and gardens, about which he spoke enthusiastically when we met in Kyoto just before he and Carol sailed to Santa Barbara. Back in America he denounced his homeland:

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... 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... I wish I was 35 years younger. I would... change my citizenship... [February 1, 1976]

Deepening Japanese influences had shaped the poignant lyrics in The Silver Swan and On Flower Wreath Hill, the Buddhist sequence of eight short poems written in a Kyoto cemetery as he had anticipated death, published in 1976 and dedicated to Yasuyo Morita, Rexroth's secretary in Kyoto who contributed calligraphies on the cover and title page, while he had done those inside. The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan (translations with Ikuko Atsumi) and The Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (edited with Rexroth's Introduction on Japanese Buddhism) followed in 1977; and Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi (translations of the most famous living woman poet of Japan done with Carol Tinker, Ikuko Atsumi, John Solt, and Yasuyo Morita) in 1978.

Also in 1978 the Rexroths returned to Japan and toured South Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand, sponsored by the United States Agency of International Communication despite his outspoken objections to United States militarism and foreign policy. A novelistic sequence of sixty short poems called The Love Poems of Marichiko Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and dedicated by him to her and by her to him proved that his passion was unflagging. The truth of the matter is that though he took pains to present these poems in public readings and in notes as translations, he confided to a few friends that he had made them up entirely himself. Staying in my home at Osaka University, he tried to produce, with the help of Yasuyo Morita and a young tanka poet, a full Japanese version of the poems to be published as Marichiko's original work, but was dissatisfied with the results, which were incomplete and never published, though some of the proceedings remain on a tape in my possession. The Marichiko poems were republished in 1979 by New Directions in The Morning Star, containing also The Silver Swan and On Flower Wreath Hill. This last book of his original poetry, along with Li Ch'ing Chao: Complete Poems (translations of the greatest Chinese woman poet done with Ling Chung), were the last full books to be published in his lifetime as he faced death from a failing heart. [39]

In 1980, For Rexroth, edited by Geoffrey Gardner, the first Festschrift about his work, appeared as he returned to Japan for an international poetry conference despite declining health. That year Bradford Morrow issued a chapbook of Rexroth's light verse for his birthday, Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer, and the next year edited Excerpts from a Life, Rexroth's last publication that he was able to read. He was able to join in the celebration of his earlier career as an abstract painter, at the retrospective show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. [40]

Although Rexroth had been baptised an Episcopalian, at his request his good friend Father Alberto Huerta, S. J., of the University of San Francisco, gave him a Roman Catholic baptism on Easter Sunday, 1981, and thereafter said Mass for him periodically at his bedside, where he was immobilized for over a year because of strokes and heart trouble. He was unable to speak at our last meeting, ten days before his death on June 6, 1982, but with tears in his eyes squeezed my hand in reply to questions. Courageous to the end, he had refused hospitalization; so James Laughlin had generously arranged for around-the-clock medical care at home, where Carol Tinker could remain with him. On 11 June, an ecumenical funeral was conducted by four Jesuit priests at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church near their home, with nuns from the Santa Barbara Vedanta temple chanting in Sanskrit, with music composed by his Dick Collins of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and with the orientalist Esther Handler giving a reading of On Flower Wreath Hill. Father Huerta eloquently celebrated

Rexroth's profound ability to contemplate the things which make up this universe: the leaves that descend down some river in the high Sierras in the Fall, the Japanese red sun that illuminates with a sudden flash at dawn in Kyoto, the mediterranean colors of Aix en Provence in Spring, or the simple rustling leaves and the infinite kaleidoscope sky which he contemplated with his sensitive blue eyes for over one year from his rectangular bedroom window. For when he could not speak, nor sit outside on the porch to let the light touch him, he would travel with his heart and mind through this opening in the wall to the incandescent light of all faith and all truth.

Rexroth was buried in the Santa Barbara cemetery, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, among cypresses and pines. [41] John Solt, his former student and collaborator on translations, organized a memorial service at the Marishi-ten Temple in Tokyo the following August at which poet Kazuko Shiraishi and actress Maralia Yoshimasu read The Love Poems of Marichiko and sutras were chanted. In October, a memorial program of Rexroth's poems was led by poet-professor Yuzuru Katagiri, who read his Japanese translations of them at the Kyoto American Center and presented the eighth annual Rexroth Awards, which Rexroth had founded, to Japanese women. Memorial issues of Kyoto Review, Seiza (Tokyo), Poetry Flash (Berkeley), and Sagetrieb (Maine) appeared. Katagiri's Japanese translations in 1978, 1979, and 1984 extended Rexroth's influence in Asia. [42] On June 4, 1983, a memorial poetry reading was held at the Kyoto American Center, led by Katagiri, with jazz accompaniment by Ron Hadley, and involving poet-friends Nanao Sakaki, Yo Nakayama, myself, and Keiko Matsui Gibson, who described him in a memorial poem as "a firey Buddha, a raging Fudo-Myoo" (a fierce-looking but compassionate king with upraised sword whose sculptured form guards Tantric Buddhist temples). [43] I also offered memorial lectures on Rexroth and Buddhism on five Japanese campuses, including Koya-san University in the awesome monastery which Rexroth had considered his spiritual home in Japan. In 1984 Brad Morrow's selection of Rexroth's poetry was published by New Directions. [44]

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry