Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom
by Morgan Gibson

. . .

Chapter 9

It is simply irresponsible for anyone engaged in American poetry to treat Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82), a world-class poet and intellectual, as if he were an almost forgotten "poet of the people," loony Beatnik, orientalized fakir, dead white male sexist pig, or false prophet. Gone are the days when we had to explain patiently, for incredulous, small-minded academics of impaired vision, the accomplishments of this great lyrical, satirical, philosophical, and religious poet of love, nature, and revolution, this beloved and influential translator of European and Asian poetry, this radical, erudite, polymath critic of culture. He played a key role in the long- range process of opening the American mind to Asian culture and absorbing some of its wisdom and beauty into western civilization. His star shines brilliantly in the constellation of modern poetry.

Those anthologists and scholars who, clinging to some provincial MLA canon out of ignorance of Rexroth's work or inability to deal seriously with his ideas, are an endangered species that will not be missed. New generations of scholar/critics, with broader, more eclectic, often radical views, are far more responsive to Rexroth's poetic genius and cross-cultural world view than were my own professors half a century ago and most of my American colleagues until recently. Like Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, and Williams, Rexroth was not accepted as a major poet during his lifetime, thanks to the dominant philistinism of the United States and the conservatism of most English departments.

Rexroth is often cited in the Beat revival, sometimes condescendingly, for his early bold and enthusiastic promotion of Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, McClure, Lamantia, and others of the Beat Generation and the ensuing counterculture; but this involvement was but one of many spin-offs of his astonishing career; and his later critique of the Beats was as astute as his sponsoring them, as leader of the San Francisco Renaissance, at the premier reading of "Howl" in 1955 and in the censorship trial thereafter. Later criticizing the Beatnik fad and pop commercialization of dissent and mysticism, he continued to promote the best work of Ginsberg, McClure, Ferlinghetti, and especially of Snyder, whose anarcho-Buddhist environmentalism was influenced by his own.

Countless readers of Rexroth, communicating with me for four decades, return to his work not primarily because of his connection with the Beat Generation, or Objectivism, or anarchism, or cubism (which characterizes some of his poetry as well as his paintings), or Buddhism, or the counterculture, but because of the startlingly unique and varied qualities of his poetry and prose, aesthetic and intellectual. The readers who keep many of his books in print do not buy them only because professors assign them in classes and critics list them in various canons, left and right. Readers become intrigued by his work and often devoted to it because of its unique mix of honesty and artistry, simplicity and complexity, personal engagement and detached analysis, high culture and common speech, brilliant sensuous imagery and philosophical depth--extremes of passion, thought, and linguistic skill that cohere in an endlessly unfolding worldview that is fascinating and liberating.

My own work on Rexroth, originating during the late 1950's, developed primarily outside of the academy during my involvement in radical politics of the civil rights, anti-war, and student movements, and matured during a long friendship with him in the context of countercultural poetry. Though sharing his antagonism to the bureaucratization of knowledge, and specifically to those critics, scholars, and other professors who neglected his work in universities, I have taught in colleges and university for four decades--25 years in the United States and 15 in Japan. This book and my first book on Rexroth in the Twayne U. S. Authors Series in 1972 were well received as academically sound studies in which information, interpretation, analysis, and criticism were offered with as much objectivity as I could muster. Some of the best work by others also creatively mixes academic research with committed involvement in countercultural activities, political as well as literary, in various movements and traditions of justice and wisdom which Rexroth illuminated in his work--radical, libertarian, communal, Buddhist, mystical Christianity, etc.

Ken Knabb's The Relevance of Rexroth

Of all Rexroth experts distinctly outside the American academy, Ken Knabb has contributed the best book-length introduction to Rexroth's work. His Relevance of Rexroth, first published in 1990, translated into French in 1993, reprinted in Knabb's collected works in 1997, and posted on his "Bureau of Public Secrets" homepage ( is solidly researched and epigrammatically expressed, from the engaged point of view of Situationism, an important movement of theory and practice prominent in the Paris revolt of 1968.

Knabb transmits an exciting sense of anarchistic experience and thought that the poet imaginatively got into his poetry, making us feel that we are with him in his poems, tragically reflecting on comrades struggling to the death for universal liberation. Knabb insightfully and convincingly interrelates revolutionary theory and action in Comrade Rexroth's poetry and prose with love, nature, mysticism, and other dominant themes. Knabb explains Rexroth's Buddhist anarchism, his communitarian personalism, his affinities with Martin Buber, for example. Readers may disagree ideologically, but Knabb's spirit and style will help readers tune into the nitty gritty of Rexroth's world view. Knabb gets at the essence of Rexroth through his ideas, quoting a few poems but mostly choice passages of prose. Knabb also gets at the way Rexroth talked, the way he "bantered with people" or slipped into an "ironic showbiz persona... to get his points across without too much solemnity" (4). Yes, that is exactly the way he was at times: "amid the give and take of conversation he would slip in a joke or an anecdote that would subtly undercut our illusions and put in a new light whatever we were talking about" (4). At other times, however, Rexroth could be dogmatically preachy, dismissive, reductive.

Knabb insightfully connects Rexroth's chief themes, sex, mysticism, and revolution, showing how Rexroth persistently interrelated these and other apparently incongruous topics: civilization and nature, sex and mathematics, personal intimacies and history, visionary contemplation and birthday parties, verse rhythms and riding a horse, for instance. Knabb is especially insightful in his shrewd analysis of Rexroth's revolutionary theory and practice, his Buddhist anarchism, his communitarian personalism, his affinities with Martin Buber. He explains Rexroth's activities in the Industrial Workers of the World and his formation of the anti-war Randolph Bourne Council during World War II and of the San Francisco Anarchist Circle (renamed the Libertarian Circle) after the war, with the aim of re-examining and reconstructing revolutionary thought. For many years his radical views, aired weekly on KPFA and in newspaper columns, as well as in literary and political periodicals, intellectually enriched the San Francisco poetry renaissance and counterculture.

Knabb's main disagreement with Rexroth is that he offered insufficient guidance for the massive revolts of the late 1960's, when he had decided that personal freedom, poetry, song, and the arts generally subverted the oppressive society more than social action. Knabb argues that even the arts of rebellion have become co-opted in the "barrage of spectacles" that maintains the status quo, a powerful thesis that is developed further in his Situationist International Anthology and other publications.

The Relevance of Rexroth deserves to be in every library, private, public, academic, where modern poetry is emphasized. My only dissatisfaction with it is that it is too short to offer full explanations for Rexroth's ideas. Like Voltaire, Rexroth presented his ideas epigrammatically, seldom showing how he reached such conclusions. His conversation and some letters indicated how carefully he thought through his positions, after exhaustive reading. Like Eliot Weinberger, Knabb thinks that Rexroth's writings require little explication; but few critics have read as widely as they have, and I know of no one, in or out of academia, who has read more widely than Rexroth. The point of many of his allusions may be clear, but the processes of his imaginative thinking are not so easily grasped. More interpretation of his work is needed.

From France

Thanks to Knabb's continuing influence on French radicalism since 1968, as a theorist, critic, and former activist, numerous French publications by and about Rexroth have appeared. Joël Cornuault has published his own substantial essays about Rexroth since 1985 and his French translations of Rexroth's poetry and prose, notably, Classics Revisited (1991), L'autumn en Californie (1994), the poet's prose account of his travels in France, and an exciting collection of the poet's essays under the title Le San Francisco de Kenneth Rexroth (1997), in which subjects range from the Golden Gate to Shakespeare, Pasternak, kabuki, the Tao, the sciences, mysticism, revolution, and Bob Dylan, to pick a few. The latter volume also includes informative commentaries by Cornuault, photographs of Rexroth, and letters from him to myself and others. Rexroth's relations with France run deep, indicated by his pathfinding essay, "The Influence of French Poetry on American," others on major French authors, and volumes of his translations of many French poets. Nadine Bloch, Catherine Daems, Yves Le Pellec, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Louis Soler, and others have also published influential translations of Rexroth's poetry and prose, as well as essays on his work. In 1996 J. A. Para devoted four days of "France Culture" broadcasts to Rexroth's work.

From the Academy

The most prolific critic of Rexroth since the 1986 publication of Revolutionary Rexroth is Donald Gutierrez, professor emeritus at Western New Mexico University and the author of five critical books on modern literature and many substantial articles on Kenneth Rexroth. He offers in "The Holiness of the Real": the Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth (1996) a more extensive and aesthetically sensitive study of Rexroth than Knabb, based on wide- ranging scholarship and close analyses of many poems. It is heartening that a critic of Gutierrez's stature has thoroughly demonstrated the high order of Rexroth's lyric and elegiac poetry of love, nature, revolution, and prophetic vision. Anyone studying modern American poetry is obliged to read this informative and insightful study.

The title of Gutierrez's book is a quotation from "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," which he praises highest of all Rexroth's nature poems. The Signature of All Things, a book profoundly influenced by the German mystic Jakob Boehme, contains the lines "The holiness of the real/Is always there, accessible/in total immanence." Gutierrez clarifies Rexroth's fundamental belief, strongly implied if not always explicitly expressed in his poetry, that Being is here and now, interactively creative, directly experienced, loving, and inherently valuable. Rexroth sacralized the thing itself (not Kant's thing in itself) as a "signature" of the whole universe, each being reflecting the whole of existence--at least each thing he chose to sacralize, though not those things, events, people, and injustices he hated in, say, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and other protest poems.

Gutierrez labels Rexroth's viewpoint "Natural Supernaturalism," but this term from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and Emerson's essays should not be associated in Rexroth's poetry with the symbolic technique of much 19th century romanticism; for Rexroth turned from the symbolic style of The Homestead Called Damascus, his first long poem, much influenced by Eliot, to his distinctively personal and direct expression and representation of experience. Instead of revealing a supernatural absolute by means of natural symbols, he envisions in his poetry the radiant details of reality, of what the physicist David Bohm has called (without reference to Rexroth) the "Implicate Order." Rexroth's sense of life and death in the context of holistic process philosophy transcends the outmoded conventions of realism without transcending nature.

Gutierrez offers close, fresh, shrewd, and aesthetically reliable readings of poems, subtly interpreting images and themes, examining many sources, and meticulously analyzing forms and prosody--a sound, humane approach that includes relevant biographical and historical material and no postmodern jargon, bizarre theorizing, or irresponsible polemics. Anyone studying or teaching Rexroth's sometimes difficult poems will find the book useful, reliable, convenient in revealing what needs to be known about the shorter poems; and the general reader will discover herein why Rexroth's poems are so delightful and insightful.

In his Introduction, Gutierrez does an exceptionally good job of describing Rexroth's contemplative sage-like persona in the poems and in clarifying the doctrine of Personalism, which Rexroth offered somewhat simplistically though usefully in opposition to the modernist dogma of impersonality in poetry. Gutierrez shows how Rexroth recognized the disturbingly personal qualities of Eliot's poetry, in violation of Possom's own doctrine, and how Rexroth's own poetry is sometimes personal, sometimes impersonal, certainly more complex than either doctrine. Gutierrez's analyses here and throughout his book are judicious, and convincing. In addition, however, Rexroth's poetic Personalism, along with his emphasis on sacramentalism, vision, communion, and community, might have been related more fully to his interest in Christian theology. Radically transforming traditional meanings of these terms, Rexroth applied them to immediate experience, even, most startlingly, to sexual love-- bringing them down to earth and body.

Also in the Introduction Gutierrez indicates the influences on Rexroth of Whitman, Lawrence, Williams, Pound, and Asian poetry and culture, defending him against the charge of Orientalism. He argues, as I have done, that Rexroth was an advocate of traditional Asian culture; but I must admit that Rexroth's enchantment with "the mysterious East" exemplifies a kind of exoticism denounced by Edward Said and other critics of cultural imperialism. Despite Rexroth's erudition, he oversimplified and romanticized premodern Japan and China, and excluded from his poetry serious attention to contemporary Asia--Japanese commercialism and Chinese communism, for example, both of which he despised. So we are left with poignant images of an Asian never-never land--with the exception of his translations of modern Japanese women poets. I think that Asia fed and expanded Rexroth's Romanticism, at a time when Romanticism was dying under the impact of Modernism. Nor would I object to exoticism, especially if it reveals the wisdom and beauty of misunderstood cultures. Rexroth romanticized "the mysterious East" in troublesome ways, to draw upon it for beauty, passion, and wisdom.

In the Introductory chapter and throughout the book, Gutierrez offers exceptionally keen comments on Rexroth's prosody, and concludes this chapter with speculations about the critical and academic neglect of Rexroth during his lifetime.

In the next chapter, Gutierrez shows how Rexroth's finest nature poems are not only vividly descriptive, but also richly philosophical in revealing the universal interactive community of all beings--how human love and struggles for freedom and justice are related to seasonal changes in the mountains and the movements of heavenly bodies. In "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," for instance, "In this translucent/Immense here and now, if ever,/The form of the person should be/Visible, its geometry,/Its crystallography, and/Its astronomy."

Many of the love poems discussed in Chapter 3 may be conveniently found in the Hamill/Kleiner collection, Sacramental Acts. Rexroth's celebrations of lovers, wives, his children, and of love in the abstract, are aesthetically inseparable from what Gutierrez calls "confabulation," which entails the idealizing transformation of fact into fable. The result is some of the most intense, often ecstatic, and well wrought erotic poetry of the twentieth century, much of it of intellectual import that in no way diminishes its sensuous passion. For example, in "She Is Away": "As on so many nights, once more I/Drank from your sleeping flesh the deep still/Communion. I am not always strong/Enough to take from you waking, the peace of love." Nor should Rexroth's idealizing poetry be compromised by the undeniable facts of his messy love-life and his problematic personality, which could be both dangerously destructive as well as astonishingly creative. One indication of the problematic relationship of art and life is that the great poems written to Rexroth's third wife Marthe were, after their divorce, reprinted without her name. Gutierrez shows brilliantly, for example, how Rexroth revised one of his major translations, that of "The Great Canzon" of Dante, which was part of the Marthe series.

Gutierrez offers a close and tender interpretation of the seventeenth poem in The Morning Star, which I believe is Rexroth's most fully realized poem of ecstatic vision. In this poem, which is set in the garden of the ancient Japanese house he rented for a year in Kyoto, and which is unfortunately not included in the Hamill-Kleiner collection, Rexroth unites with the goddess of the Morning Star: "her/Body flows into mine, each/Corpuscle of light merges/With a corpuscle of blood or flesh." Gutierrez skirts the Tantric Buddhist meaning of the poem, merely referring in a footnote to my interpretation, which had been based on Rexroth's own commentary.

Similarly, Gutierrez slights the Tantric Buddhist dimension of The Love Songs of Marichiko, Rexroth's original sequence which had been falsely presented by him as translations of work by a modern woman of Kyoto. I regret that Gutierrez skirts the poems' Buddhist and other Asian dimensions, although his aesthetic and psychological insights are impressive and valid as far as they go. The excuse that the Buddhist implications are "not essential to the autonomy of the poems" (141) is like saying that Confucianism is "not essential to the autonomy" of Pound's Cantos, or Christian theology is "not essential to the autonomy" of Dante's Divine Comedy or of Eliot's Four Quartets. If Asian qualities of the poems, both obvious and obscure, those noted by Rexroth himself and by commentators, are not essential, then why did he identify Marichiko with an East Indian fertility goddess of the dawn and the Bodhisattva Kannon, in an intricate allegory of Tantric Buddhism? Gutierrez omits mention of the strong influence on these poems of Yosano Akiko, the greatest woman poet of modern Japan (whom Rexroth had translated), the rich significance of the Japanese imagery, and the Shingon Buddhist theme. Gutierrez's comment that good and evil are identical is not grounded clearly either in the poems or in identifiable Asian influences on them. Moreover, his intriguing speculation that Rexroth wrote these poems from a woman's perspective to "redeem the misery" of his guilt-ridden problems with women calls for additional examination of these poems, which are among the very best of his last years and some of the most passionate American love poems of all time. Gutierrez might be right, but where is the evidence? In any case Rexroth's creation of Marichiko should be compared with his identification with many Asian women poets, whose poems he translated, and with the cultural heritages that they embodied. As I have shown above, Marishi-ben has been reincarnated as Marichiko, who in turn is associated with the "dark woman" of the Tao Te Ching, the yin of yin/yang, the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom), other feminine images in Asian religions, and perhaps with Asia "herself." Gutierrez's interpretation is psychologically accurate in analyzing an intensely erotic relationship, while leaving the poems simplistically "free of esoteric interpretations," as he puts it. Modestly admitting his unfamiliarity with Asian culture, Gutierrez does not attempt to show how it permeates much of Rexroth's poetry and world view, centrally affecting his creative process, and indeed the contemplative side of his contradictory personality.

Other erotic poems, which Gutierrez calls "the Love-Nature Verse," are examined in Chapter 5, in relation to what the critic calls the monistic idea of "Concentric Affinities." Here is a superb discussion of one of Rexroth's greatest poems, "When We with Sappho," in which "With 'Sapphic help, and with something of Sappho's setting in 'Orchard"'--his translation of her poem-- "Rexroth is trying to memorialize a love experience two and a half millennia after the celebration of immediate sensory experience found in the Greek woman's verse. And he does so by presenting reverie as a patterning and commingling of sexual love, sleep, waking, and rumination."

The intervening Chapter 4, "Lost Left Causes," may especially benefit generations of readers unaware of the historical struggles of the poet's lifetime, complementing Knabb's work. Gutierrez's book concludes with a lively chapter on Rexroth's "literary-social" prose, and a moving Epilogue. This important study should help bring Kenneth Rexroth to the forefront of serious attention of anyone devoted to poetry as a living art outside the academy as well as inside its often sombre walls.

Linda Hamalian's A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (1991)

Linda Hamalian's substantial biography, published by Norton in 1991, presents Rexroth as a great poet requiring serious attention by scholars, critics, poets, and general readers. Her meticulous research has turned up much information not previously available in print. She has explored with special concern his relations to wives and lovers, showing how his love life inspired much of his poetry, and how he treated women in his poems. Certainly feminist perspectives on Rexroth's work and personality are needed, just as they are needed on all subjects, but especially on this unusual man who claimed to be a committed feminist throughout his life, thanks in part to devotion to his mother, who was also a feminist. Hamalian is to be congratulated for her thorough study and the honesty of her stern critique of Rexroth's complicated love life, in which she finds abundant evidence of sexism at odds with his feminist claims. Her poignant confession of disappointment and disillusionment with the poet, because of his hypocrisy towards women, may well indicate reactions by other readers as well, a kind of feminist backlash against a poet whose love poetry, translations of women's poetry, and essays concerning women writers were enthusiastically received by many women during his lifetime.

However, Hamlian's criticism oversimplifies the problems of Rexroth's life and work. She accuses, prosecutes, tries, judges, and condemns him as sexist, without allowing any defense or alternative interpretation. His poems, including the most spiritual and philosophical, are reduced to scandalous records of erotic autobiography. Her moral, psychological, and aesthetic analyses seem impulsively simplistic. Is she aware that poets' sex-lives seldom measure up to moral commonplaces? What male poet meets strict feminist criteria? How should current feminist and other moral principles be applied to men several decades in the last?

While admitting that Rexroth's voracious sexual appetite, his countless affairs and four marriages, his mistreatment of some women violated his lofty ideals of sacramental love and marriage, we may still welcome his feminist views as good in themselves, expressed at a time when few men shared them. His promotion of writing by many women, in his essays and translations, was also rare in the male-dominated literary world. Most important, whatever we may think of him as a sexual being, however much one may disappove of some of the ways that he treated women, how exactly should such moral judgments be related to aesthetic judgements of his poetry and philosophical judgments of his ideas? To modify Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on the Marquis de Sade, "Must we burn Rexroth?" Or indeed most dead white males for thinking women inferior and mistreating them in many ways? More generally, how can his art be evaluated both in relation to his life and independently of it? Hamalian skirts these important theoretical issues.

In Rexroth's poetry and prose sexuality always has spiritual and philosophical dimensions, in which the body was inseparable from creative mind. Sexuality is often expressed and explored in Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, and Christian terms. Unlike the predatory Henry Miller, Rexroth was deeply devoted to women, who often attaining mythic dimensions in his poetry. They were his muses, awakening the feminine principle in himself and inspiring much of his poetry. A central theme in his work is the sacred quest for ecstatic loss of ego in sexual union in which two become one. He revered the Jewish Shekinah, the Christian Sophia, the Buddhist Perfection of Wisdom, and other embodiments of the feminine principle. The value of such ideas should be considered apart from the man who expressed them in poetry.

Indeed, Hamalian does not add much to our understanding of Rexroth's complex and often profound habits of thinking. His complex world view, his profound involvement with Buddhist traditions, his erudite devotion to Japanese culture, his philosophy of communion, communication, community, and creative process, all receive short shrift. His views of sexuality cannot be understood or judged properly outside these contexts. I would welcome thorough- going critiques of Rexroth's ideas from the perspectives of feminism, psychology, and philosophy: gender analyses of his imagery of women and of himself as romantic lover, critiques of his romanticism, exoticism, and mysticism, etc.

In on-going debates we must not forget that like D. H. Lawrence, André Gide, Henry Miller, AnaÔs Nin, Allen Ginsberg, and many other twentieth-century writers, Rexroth was a sexual libertarian in an oppressive, hypocritical, puritanical culture. The outrageous phallocentrism of such a remark as "I for one stand for the reinstatement of the rational intellect, the conscious will, the erect penis" (Letters ,7) is bound to offend those of us who are feminists, but it should be understood in the pre-1960's context, when blind censorship was commonplace, and when avant-garde women welcomed sexual liberation as much as men. These outbursts were directed against puritanism, not women. Many women obviously loved Rexroth and his poetry, and he seems to have loved them with great sensitivity and devotion, seeking mutual enlightenment that is revealed exquisitely in such poems as "When We with Sappho" and The Love Poems of Marichiko, among many others. Although Buddhism did not weaken his cravings, Tantrism ennobled them into avenues of transcendence, which Hamalian ignores in her relentless exposť of Rexroth's alleged mistreatment of wives and lovers, some of whom seem as untrue to him as he was to them.

Rexroth was too complicated and too honest to be politically correct (if there is such a thing). He can be seen as both sexist and feminist, an advocate of sacramental marriage and an adulterer; but can he not be forgiven for confessing a guilty conscience? (See the letter to his third wife, Marthe, quoted by Hamalian on 211; and also his letter to Laughlin on page 33 of the Letters.) His sense of personal responsibility was so powerful, so universal, that no one could measure up to it. He advocated freedom for women in an age when few women, and virtually no men but Bernard Shaw, were feminists; and he admired and promoted the work of women of genius more than most male writers of his generation. His love of women, in the flesh and in their poetry, involved interplay of intellect and imagination of the highest order.

Rexroth's mysticism, fueled by eroticism, contributed to a kind of absolutism that was difficult for some of us who knew him well to reconcile with his anarchism. Because he contemplated so deeply, so surely, arriving at ideas from intensely personal experiences, he had a clarity of vision rare in a world in which the perceptions and thoughts of most people are muddled by religion, politics, family, the media, schools, and universities. He had an extraordinary conviction of being right, of uncannily seeing into nature and human nature. His insights into people and poetry were astonishing, often at first unbelievable, but they usually hit the mark. He was often too certain to tolerate doubt or contradiction. His hubris was visionary certainty. The women in his life undoubtedly suffered from his absolutist tendencies, for though he gave much of himself to them, he also seems to have demanded too much in return.

Rexroth's flaws should be understood in relation to his almost superhuman strength of character that, driving him to liberate the world, could not save him from the self-torment of remorse and guilt, and eventual physical collapse in a tragic finale. His lofty ideals for a free humanity living in harmony with nature could not be realized, nor could his moments of visionary ecstasy be sustained.

Hamalian's elaboration of the story of Rexroth's precocious years in the Chicago Renaissance, his decisive move to San Francisco with his first wife Andrée in 1927, his activities as poet and abstract painter, and his leadership of the Bay Area literary and anarchist movements add valuable information to Rexroth's own electrifying accounts. She portrays many people in his life, based on extensive interviews and countless letters, though her style conveys little of the excitement, intellectual and erotic, of his interactions with them. She does, however, suggest something of Rexroth's philosophical investigations in her treatment of how Alfred North Whitehead, Duns Scotus, Marx, Jakob Boehme, Martin Buber, and other thinkers influenced him; and her fresh interpretation of his first long poem, The Homestead Called Damascus, is on the level of serious ideas, rather than of personalities. But she neglects to dig into the abstruse philosophizing of his second and third long poems, The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Dragon and the Unicorn; and though she offers fascinating details about the Living Theater's premiere of Rexroth's tetralogy, Beyond the Mountains, she skips its ideas, which are so crucial in the development of Rexroth's world view.

Hamalian recognizes the transformation in Rexroth's consciousness during his first trip to Japan in 1967, when he wrote his fifth long poem, The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart at Daitokuji, the Kyoto temple where Gary Snyder was studying Zen; but her acquaintance with Buddhist and Japanese subjects is superficial. What does she mean by calling Rexroth's Buddhism a "version of behaviorism" (328)? He had no use for behaviorist stimulus-response causality and rejection of consciousness. She offers (161) a bizarre interpretation of Rexroth's poem "Yugao," which has nothing to do with the Hindu "yuga," as she thinks. Yugao, meaning "moon-flower" in Japanese, is the name of one of Prince Genji's lovers who dies bewitched by a female demon, in Murasaki Shikibu's classic novel. Rexroth imagines "some old jealousy/Or hate I had forgotten" taking form, like the Japanese demon, to haunt the woman he now loves. (CSP 184-85.) The persona is clearly in a garden; so why does Hamalian think that he is camping with two women in the mountains? Why does she think that the "distraught, imagined girl" is named Prudence Ohmstead? And by neglecting Prince Genji's immensely conscientious sensitivity to interpersonal webs resulting from his promiscuity, Hamalian passed up an opportunity to explore Rexroth's similar karmic sense of total responsibility.

Nevertheless, Hamalian's indispensable biography, her excellent edition of An Autobiographical Novel, her thoughtful 1983 dissertation on The Homestead Called Damascus, and her informative articles establish her as a leading Rexroth expert, others currently being Donald Gutierrez, Lee Bartlett, Brad Morrow, Ken Knabb, Ling Chung, JoŽl Cornuault in France, and in Japan Sanehide Kodama and Yuzuru Katagiri. It goes without saying that many others, some famous, many others "common readers," deeply comprehend Rexroth's work, while publishing little about him. The most impressive dissertation that I have seen recently is Rachelle Katz Lerner's "A Gazing Eye through Different Mirrors: the Concept of Cubism in the Poetry and Paintings of Kenneth Rexroth" (U of Toronto 1992). This and her book in progress are based on fresh research and original theoretical and philosophical perspectives.

Philosophically Interpreting Rexroth

Rexroth needs to be understood as an important philosophical poet and critic in every sense of the word. He was a wise lover and a lover of wisdom, both theoretical and practical. He was one of the most profound American men of letters in an age of intense spiritual confusion and despair, when Pound was driven to fascism, Eliot to Christian monarchism, and other writers to absurdity and nihilism. Rexroth's thinking is generally truer, more humane, more ecologically grounded, more illuminating of the world as a whole than that of any other American poet since Whitman. Rexroth's wisdom was inseparable from love--of women, of nature, of the mysteries of creation. His quest for personal realization was both mystical and rational; and his visionary world view was an original synthesis of Buddhist and other Asian thought, along with classical Greek and Latin, Christian, and modern revolutionary and ecological ideas. No other American poet understood world history and philosophy as fully as he. He was intellectually complex, but his poetry was usually vivid, direct, and sharp. He was a thinker in poetry who insisted on truth. And his attitude was always "philosophical" in the face of suffering and defeat, accepting the tragic inevitability of death in the creative process of the universe, after heroically struggling to realize ideals of universal communion and community. His work has made us better men and women--more conscious, more compassionate, more understanding--as philosophy and literature should do, though they usually do not.

Now that Rexroth's poetry, translations, essays, autobiography, and ideas can be understood in the context of his lifework and world- vision as a whole, many specialized aspects of Rexroth's art can be explored more satisfactorily: relations between his painting and poetry, oral and written dimensions of his poetry, artistic and intellectual influences of all kinds, prosody, and his achievement relative to that of other poets, to mention only a few.

Cultural interpretation and evaluation is endless, for the dogmas, canons, methodologies, and judgments of each age are replaced in the next. If this study does nothing else, may it alert readers to the enduring importance of Kenneth Rexroth, his writings, and his ideas. I have tried to show how some of his poems reveal certain kinds of truth as well as beauty, how he thought and felt deeply, how his art can change minds as well as hearts, and how it can enrich our sense of the creative process of the universe.

In concluding my 1972 book on Rexroth, I compared his outlook with that of George Santayana, Susanne Langer, Denis Seurat, and others concerned with philosophical poetry by Spenser, Milton, Goethe, Nietzsche, Blake, Whitman, Yeats, and others (128- 32). Since then it has become apparent that phenomenological and hermaneutical critics are likely to find Rexroth's poetic theory and practice congenial. Rexroth's vision is of "being-in-the-world," to quote Heidegger without implying that Rexroth was influenced by him. Like Schleiermacher, Rexroth assumed that understanding rests upon pre-understanding (in community), rather than upon the objective interpretation of signs. Like Wittgenstein, Rexroth saw through the games of language by focussing on "life-forms." Like Gadamer, he dialectically questioned poems, letting them speak out of their traditions instead of imposing methodological categories on them. Structuralist, semiotic, deconstructive, and other linguistically oriented critics and "language poets" have much to contribute to an understanding of Rexroth's cubist innovations. For Freudians and Jungians there is his erotic symbolism. And his absorption and interpretations of diverse cultures harmonize with the ethnopoetics of Rothenberg, Tarn, and others.

But among modern philosophical currents in the West, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Nolan Pliny Jacobson, and others seems closest to Rexroth's organicism, which is so profoundly influenced by Asian traditions. His work also has many fundamental affinities with comparative and anthropological studies of literature, religions, and culture generally, especially with the deep ecology and Buddhist anarchism of Gary Snyder, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and of other Engaged Buddhists such as the Vietnamese monk, poet, and activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Such philosophical currents have influenced this study, leading me to conclude that as Buddhism spreads in the west and revives in Asia, Rexroth is sure to be valued as one of its most innovative interpreters. Not in ideas alone, but in sensibility did he find and transmit compassionate wisdom that is rare in the twentieth century, coming to the same conclusion as Kukai that "Bliss of the Great Void Only is my true Empress." [1]

Whatever their orientation, readers discover an amazing world, many worlds, in Rexroth's work. For rebels and utopians there are furious satires whose targets are perennially with us. But Rexroth's polemics need not alienate readers uncommitted to revolution, for in fact some of his most enduring poems are lyrics of love, nature, and life that appeal to nearly everyone. Learning how he created poetry out of despair and ecstasy, disillusionment and realization, we cannot help but live more consciously, compassionately, and creatively in the networks of existence.

The Kenneth Rexroth East-West Collection at
Kanda University of International Studies in Japan

In addition to collections of Rexroth's papers at UCLA and the University of Southern California, his own library of 13,000 volumes has been shelved and catalogued at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. When he had lived in San Francisco, his personal library had grown so large that he had kept much of it in a second apartment at 250 Scott Street. When he had moved to Santa Barbara in 1968, some of this collection had been sold; the remainer was shelved in his spacious home on his property on East Pepper Lane in Mendocito, in a small guesthouse, and in a large building where he did most of his writing. Though he never anticipated that his library would be moved to Japan after his death, the transfer is astonishingly karmic in light of the fact that he considered Japan his spiritual home. He had wanted to spend his last years and die here.

Rexroth's library reflects the extraordinarily diverse interests of this self-educated polymath genius, who wrote authoritatively about world literature, philosophy and religion, Asian and Western cultures, political ideologies, art, jazz and classical music, folklore and other subjects. The library is a goldmine for specialists in these fields as well as young minds newly awakening to books and ideas.

How did Rexroth's library come to Japan? Five years after his death on June 6, 1982, his remarkable collection was purchased by Kanda University of International Studies, with the help of Mitsuo Nitta of Yushodo Bookstore. Nitto has reported that after discussing the poet's papers with D. S. Zeidberg, head of the rare book section of the UCLA Library, he had received information about the library in the spring of 1985 from the California bookseller J. S. Edgren, who had long been in communication with Rexroth because of their expertise in Asian art. In August of 1985, thanks to Edgren's arrangements, Rexroth's widow Carol Tinker showed Nitta the library while she was still living in the poet's home. In addition to books stacked to the ceiling, there was the large desk where he had written many poems and essays. Carol Tinker informed Nitta that because the estate was expected to become a kind of memorial (though these plans did not in fact materialize), the library had to be sold. There were many difficult and painful problems involved in liquidating the estate, as Hamalian has reported in her biography.

Now that the library has been shelved and catalogued at Kanda University of International Studies, it can facilitate the work of scholars, poets, critics, students, and general readers. A list of books containing Rexroth's marginalia should help us discover ways in which he responded to various authors. And readers hitherto unconcerned with Rexroth will also find his library a valuable resource. Professor of Philosophy Gyo Furuta supervised the Rexroth Collection until his retirement in 1999. Professor Emeritus Kenji Yamaryo, Director of the University Library, then developed, with my advice, plans to facilitate its use.

In a special room among stacks of books that Rexroth collected, is the poet's desk, on which he had written most of his poetry and prose in California. "In front of me on my desk/Is typewriter and paper," he wrote in "January Night" (CSP 185), "And my beautiful jagged/Crystal, larger than a skull..." As poetry flowed through his mind, he often silently contemplated the crystal, which is still on the desk, at Kanda University What could it have meant to him? Just as William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, Rexroth seems to have envisioned in the crystal the on-going creativity of the universe, writing, "An imponderable and/Invisible elastic/Crystal is the womb of space" ("It Is a German Honeymoon," Flower Wreath Hill , 15).

Visitors are welcome at the Rexroth East-West Collection at Kanda University of International Studies, but should first make arrangements. Proposals for research projects using the Collection are invited. An e-mail network of those interested in Rexroth's work and related subjects is being developed. Some information in English about the Library is on the KUIS webpage:

Anyone interested in additional detailed information is invited to write me at

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Copyright © 2000 by Morgan Gibson

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry