Karl Young


Kenneth Rexroth: Protest, Rebellion, and Beyond

Swords That Shall Not Strike; Poems of Protest and Rebellion, by Kenneth Rexroth, edited by Geoffrey Gardner. Glad Day Books, Enfield, New Hampshire, U.S.A. 1999.

The subtitle of this book might suggest to some readers a collection of ideological rants. That its spectrum extends considerably beyond polemics may come as a relief to some, a disappointment to others. Rexroth's political poetry seamlessly moves in and out of other concerns, as an essential part of his political orientation and his sense of bearings as a poet. Geoffrey Gardner's understanding of this, and his means of presenting it in a collection of Rexroth's poems likewise shows his sensitivity as a reader and his abilities as an editor. Glad Day Publishing's inclusion of this volume in its series adds to the fortunate combination of poet and editor, and it, too, becomes an extension of Rexroth's sense of the nature of possibilities in publishing as a revolutionary activity. The Press is a collaborative project seeking to restore continuity between "literature" and other types of discourse artificially segregated by market analysts and academicians.

As much as Rexroth saw the importance of protest and revolt in his poetry, he never saw them as sufficient in themselves. For him, storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace without a holistic sense of social possibilities--with goals rising from basic needs rather than theories--couldn't accomplish anything more than a perpetuation of the existing order under new names. For him, ideologies as such were as toxic as industrial effluent. Social change required a sense of the breadth and fullsomeness of life, and Rexroth's sense of perpetual expansion and discovery through poetry remained an essential component, as well as a reflection, of the liberation and inclusiveness of that social dynamic. Discovery and creation needed constant integration into a larger whole, and his expansiveness would mean little if it were segregated into discrete ghettoes or suburbs instead of joining the confluences and celebrations of life and art.

As a major 20th Century crime against humanity, and reference point in protest and rebellion, the framing, kangaroo court sentencing, and execution of two Anarchists, Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, remained constant throughout Rexroth's life. Rejection of Capitalism acted as a given in his thinking; the failure of mechanisms for change in the framework of representative democracy mirrored the destructiveness of the economic system run under its aegis. The overwhelming innocence of these men held deep significance for him, but so did something just as essential: the solidarity generated for them and against the perverted system that snuffed them, not only throughout the feuding clans of the left but throughout society at large. As much as Rexroth commemorated the day of their execution throughout his life with elegies for them, he did not forget the potential for optimism in the spectrum of protest. Appropriately, Gardner chose one of the elegies, "August 22, 1939," as the first poem in the book. Equally appropriate, Rexroth begins the poem not with his own words, but with a passage from a letter Sacco wrote to his son several days before his execution. Sacco clearly states principles that Rexroth followed throughout his life: the importance of love; the capacity of nature to act as a source of renewal and repair for the damages society inflicts on people; the need for generosity; the essential responsibilities of those in fortunate circumstances to those in need; and the resources of the working class.

"...when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging soulness I will tell you what I used to do. To take her for a quiet walk in the country, gathering wildflowers here and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and the tranquillity of the mother nature, and I am sure she will enjoy this very much, as you surely will be happy for it. But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don't use all for yourself only, but down yourself just one step, at your side and help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim; because they are your friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell, for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved."

This acts as a brief summary of Rexroth's major themes, and it seems appropriate that it should come not from a critic but from one of the people whom Rexroth saw as the source of wisdom. In the poem itself as in many others, Rexroth mourns, but continues with the life that has gone on during the twelve years since the execution.

Again appropriately, the second poem in the collection "From The Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion" celebrates the aspirations of rebels defeated in the first instance by Capitalists and in the second by the Bolsheviks whom the rebels trusted. The failure of both Capitalism and of Bolshevism makes several of Rexroth's major points, which cannot be stressed too much. Perhaps the most important being that just because one system fails, doesn't mean its antagonist must work better. Rexroth had never seen Capitalism as viable, but Marxism, often seen as its only alternative, offered nothing better. Throughout his activism in left-wing politics, he moved in and out of Marxist circles. His rejection of the movement came not as an automatic response to the propaganda of its antagonist, but from thorough familiarity with its beliefs and practices. At times, the rejection did not come easily. As his thinking evolved, he came to see the failures, inherent in the ideology from the time Marx closed the first International to silence opposition, as inherently tragic, leading not to communalism but to what he came to call Bolshevism, a name which had Lenin's deceit built into it. Soviet Bolshevism became no more than State Capitalism, a bureaucratic perversion that simply warped its Capitalist mirror. As time went on Bolshevism in effect drained the left of its energy, and this constant betrayal of revolutionary possibilities had become a toxin in political action locally and globally, just as Capitalism acted as a constant drain on all resources, human, natural, and spiritual. The constant drain of opposition into Bolshevism effectively stifled meaningful resistance and, ironically, bolstered Capitalism, just as Bolshevism would have collapsed almost immediately if it hadn't had Capitalist opposition as a tool to generate internal support. Rexroth sought possibilities in many different forms of social structure, keeping in mind the need for diversity, pluralism, and the abilities of people in different circumstances to work out solutions to their problems if they had the room to do so. At the turn of the millennium, it seems particularly important to follow the lead of Rexroth and others like him, as the world enters new configurations of dichotomous antagonisms. Working from other communitarian models, particularly those provided by Classic Anarchism, Rexroth sought alternatives to dominant ideologies throughout his life.

[Readers interested in finding out more about philosophic and historical dimensions of the movement can do so on-line at the Spunk Library and at Dana Ward's Anarchist Archive. Ken Knabb's Bureau of Public Secrets site is particularly useful in the present context, since it includes The Rexroth Archive, the best author page I've found so far on the web, and an archive of papers related to Situationism, an Anarchist movement which nearly succeeded in bringing about a revolution in France in 1968. You can find Anarchists who use the philosophy as a justification for behaving like spoiled twelve year olds, yet you'll find no more of them in this group than you can find anywhere else. If you've really got your heart set on seeking demented bomb throwers, you'll be disappointed. You can find a few among Anarchists, as you can among any other segment of the world's population. When you get to the big leagues, Anarchists have never created an Aushwitz or a Gulag or a Hiroshima bombing or anything like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti - such have been the private preserve of states.]

"Requiem for the Spanish Dead" exhibits Rexroth's response to historical events beautifully, following lines Rexroth developed in other poems.

The great geometrical winter constellations
Lift up over the Sierra Nevada,
I walk under the stars, my feet on the known round earth.
My eyes follow the lights of an airplane,
Red and green. growling deep in the Hyades.
The note of the engine rises, shrill, faint,
Finally inaudible, and the lights go out
In the southeast haze beneath the feet of Orion.

As the sound departs I am chilled and grow sick
With the thought that has come to me. I see Spain
Under the black windy sky, the snow stirring faintly,
Glittering and moving over the pallid upland,
And men waiting, clutched with cold and huddled together,
As an unknown plane goes over them. It flies southeast
Into the haze above the lines of the enemy,
Sparks appear near the horizon under it.
After they have gone out the earth quivers
And the sound comes faintly. The men relax for a moment
And grow tense again as their own thoughts return to them.

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

Much of the opening stanza reiterates one of Rexroth's major themes. He sees nature and human observation of its patterns as a means of repairing damage and as a source of new ideas and hope. The constellation of the hunter Orion follows its course along with the other stars of the winter sky, bringing in mythologies from all over the world. The intrusion of the alien airplane acts as both a toxin in the environment and a reminder that neither nature nor observation nor beauty nor mythology nor mysticism provides a total solution for the affairs of the world. The second stanza places Rexroth among the troops, in their particular reality in a combat zone. Foot soldiers of any war spend most of their time bored, depressed, aware of the misery of the situation--or in fear. There's no glory, just waiting as the shape of stupor shifts from tedium to dread. As the bombs hit targets farther along the line, the soldiers feel temporary relief, but realizing that others have died in their place brings them back to the maze of ambivalences that run through military campaigns. In the final stanza, Rexroth places little emphasis on the pornography of violence. When all is said and done, people can die more painfully in other situations, including long bouts of boredom morphing in and out of panic in hospital beds. The most profound loss comes from the cancellation of possibilities, the things that these troops will not be able to do or to share.

These examples of protest and revolt center on events clearly designated as political. But for Rexroth the need for change and renewal operated on many levels, beginning with, and always returning to, the environment. At the time Rexroth began his work as an environmental activist, the number of people who shared his concern was minuscule. Words like "ecology" had not entered the general vocabulary. Ignored by the right and the left, the world seemed insistent on fouling its nest, and as Rexroth's poetry and activism grew, so did his sense that the natural world not only served as a basis for human renewal, but that irresponsibility in this area formed a pattern of toxicity that ran through all levels of action and perception. Given this orientation, it seems logical that Rexroth saw plain celebrations of nature as a form of protest and revolt. A number of poems in this book form the base of this kind of subversion of tyranny in other spheres. "A Letter to William Carlos Williams" includes direct indictment of pollution in a poem of praise and admiration. Through the first stanzas, Rexroth builds on images of purity and freedom in a line of figures he sees as having strong affinities with Williams. The set of comparisons functions as praise, as a searching of possibilities, and as a prelude to the indictment, which itself comes forth framed in praise and a projection into the future so wildly optimistic it functions as jesting hyperbole while remaining something that should happen.

Now in a recent poem you say,
'I who am about to die.'
Maybe this is just a tag
from the classics, but it sends
A shudder over me. Where
Do you get that stuff, Williams?
Look at here. The day will come
When a young woman will walk
By the lucid Williams River,
Where it flows through an idyllic
News from Nowhere sort of landscape,
And she will say to her children,
'Isn't it beautiful? It
is named after a man who
Walked here once when it was called
The Passaic, and was filthy
With the poisonous excrements
Of sick men and factories.
He was a great man. He knew
It was beautiful then, although
Nobody else did, back there
In the Dark Ages. And the
Beautiful river he saw
Still flows in his veins, as it
does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
And flows in time, and makes us
Part of it, and part of him.

Williams's sense that the river was beautiful as it was, but that it also needed cleaning up lies at the heart of these lines, as it forms a capsule summary of Rexroth's sense of social conditions.

The execution of innocent men, the carnage of war, and the dirtying of rivers may be easier to see than other forms of pollution. In Rexroth's view, psychological toxicity ran through corrupted societies, poisoning the minds of individuals as well as the water they drank or the battles they fought. He had seen this work its course in the self-destructive tendencies of artists and activists, as he had seen it in his father. At the time of Dylan Thomas's death, he wrote "Thou Shalt Not Kill," an elegy that included a full spectrum of those who had destroyed themselves as a result of psychological toxicity. In one of his essays, Rexroth speaks of the traumas that lead to Thomas's self destruction through alcoholism in psycho-social terms. In the poem, Rexroth vents his rage in the militant terms usually reserved for combat, since he saw the forces that lead to self destruction as a more dangerous enemy than those encountered on a battlefield precisely because they are easy to hide or ignore. Here is part of one of his lists of the casualties. As it begins, Rexroth places an emphasis on intentional suicides, particularly those who fail, and die slowly as a result of the failure. He then shifts to those who waste their abilities.

Another threw herself downstairs,
And broke her back. It took her years.
Two put their heads under water
in the bath and filled their lungs.
Another threw himself under
The traffic of a crowded bridge.
Another, drunk, jumped from a
Balcony and broke her neck.
Another soaked herself in
Gasoline and ran blazing
Into the streets and lived on
In custody. One made love
Only once with a beggar woman.
He died years later of syphilis
Of the brain and spine. Fifteen
Years of pain and poverty,
While his mind leaked away.
One tried three times in twenty years
To drown himself. The last time
He succeeded. One turned on the gas
When she had no more food, no more
Money, and only half a lung.
One went up to Harlem, took on
Thirty men, came home and
Cut her throat. One sat up all night
Talking to H.L Menken and
Drowned himself in the morning.
How many stopped writing at thirty?
How many went to work for Time?
How many died of prefrontal
Lobotomies in the Communist Party?
How many are lost in the back wards
Of provincial madhouses?
How many on the advice of
Their psychoanalysts, decided
A business career was best after all?

One of the remarkable aspects of this poem is that Rexroth includes primarily poets, artists, and activists. Other writers tend to see their group as a sort of elect, a sacrosanct elite above contamination, and the ones designated as the deliverers of the benighted masses. Rexroth sees them as just as susceptible as anyone else.

In all of probability, this poem formed the base and pattern for Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," written in October 1955 in preparation for the 6 Gallery reading organized by Rexroth. The similarities don't need too much comment, right down to the chemical dependencies, to formal structures coming from screams and the jazz qualities subsumed in the verse lines, to the identification of Moloch as the enemy. The biggest difference in the two poems is that Ginsberg essentially sees intoxication as fun. After a reading, when asked if the poem weren't something like a fraternity brothers' party - including the shouting down of the rival Moloch team, and the cheer-leader's chorus for Carl Solomon. His response was a broad smile, a "yes!" and a blessing. He knew what he was doing in moving away from protest, and emphasized that in the "Footnote" chant. Nor did he seem to detect any unintentional sarcasm in the question, though he was highly skilled at avoiding conversation that could move into uneasy areas. Ginsberg's ability to reach intuitive levels of response remains unsurpassed, and that, rather than a desire for radical change is where the poem works best. "Thou Shalt Not Kill" makes readers, including many of Rexroth's fans, uneasy. And so it should. This poem is a protest, challenging allies as much as Moloch. "Howl" is not: it declares madness holy and hence something to appreciate. Those more interested in social change would tend to favor Rexroth's poem. Those needing an affirmation of their way of doing things would tend to favor Ginsberg's. There seems little point in claiming either poem inherently superior to the other, but the comparison shows differences between the two poems, and the two poets. At the same time, it may be significant to see Ginsberg moving closer to challenges in poems such as "Kaddish" and Rexroth moving into affirmations and intuitive responses in poems that might find their way more easily into a book of love or nature or mystical poems.

In book-length poems, Rexroth set forth critiques and examples of other possible courses of action and development. Gardner's selection of passages from the longer poems provides a means of introducing them to readers who might otherwise shy away from them precisely because of their length. That these longer poems go largely unread even among Rexroth's fans brings up a curious set of problems. With many long poems, from Pound's Cantos to Neruda's Canto General, readers tend to start with segments favored by critics and read the whole work sporadically. This has its values "the "Alturas de Macchu Picchu" section of Canto General, for instance, stands well enough by itself, and rightfully deserves its status as one of the major works of the century. Rexroth's long poems, however, rely on no elaborate formal devices and work by cohesiveness rather than disjuncture. This makes them poems that can more easily be read from beginning to end. It also means that his arguments, as arguments, stand out more clearly. Ideally, this should present opportunities for something like a dialogue between author and reader. Given the nature of reading poetry at the end of the 20th Century, many readers are more used to passive reception than something approaching the active debate so essential to Rexroth's conversation and his sense of poetry in relation to its audience. Here is a passage from "The Dragon and the Unicorn" which suggests an antidote to toxins, but also leaves plenty of room for debate:

The security of love lies
In the state of indwelling rest.
It is its own security.
This is what free love is, freedom
From the destructive power
Of a society coerced
Into the pursuit of insane
Objectives. Until men learn
To administer things, and are
No longer themselves organized
And exploited as things, there can
Be no love except by intense
Effort directed against
The whole pressure of the world.

Rexroth's prosody seems particularly suitable to fluid transitions, and plays as much a role in the poems in this book as it does elsewhere. Throughout most of his life, Rexroth composed verse in syllabics: lines of roughly even length that carry the same aural weight despite different patterns of stress. You can check out the mechanics of this by counting syllables in the poems quoted above. As mechanism, there's nothing particularly magic about it. Michael McClure can spontaneously compose and recite Rexrothian poems with ease and humor. As much fun as it can be to listen to one of these impromptus, McClure says he can't write anything he's satisfied with in syllabics, and his serious poetry relies on unified flashes and metric pulses that go in a different direction. The flexibility with which you can compose in syllabics, once you've accustomed your ear to this kind of measure, provides a base that a wide range of poets could employ. H.D., Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, and Joel Openheimer, for example, took this type of verse in four different directions. For Rexroth, there may have been some populist value in this kind of line. It's not easy to do well, but it does allow for a wider range of variation than any others currently in use in modern English. If you can imagine the Passaic River renamed after W.C. Williams, many of the poets in such a society might very well compose in forms similar to this. Rexroth didn't simply formulate radical ideas in hieratic modes, as did many of his contemporaries: the verse form he used acted as a potential tool for radical change.

You can approach Rexroth's poetry from any number of different starting points. For some, his mystical or amorous poetry might be a good thread to follow. His nature poetry might be the most widely acceptable point of departure at the current time. His extensive activity as translator offers another avenue, and the extensive body of essays he produced opens up yet one more possibility. However much such divisions may be useful in approaching or studying Rexroth, none remains isolated in his work, but all flow into each other as part of a larger synthesis. At the same time, the larger opus refuses to remain a segregated entity--this is no self-contained and self-referential artifice--but rather a body of literature that constantly moves the reader out into an ever expanding world.

In this context, any poem that puts forward an alternative vision acts on one level as protest, and a form of protest that implies possible remedies. Ideally, protest poems should also be poems of affirmation, and Rexroth's opus becomes a model of the function of protest in a larger context. In Swords That Shall Not Strike, Geoffrey Gardner shows skill and intelligence in making a selection that allows multiple types of poetry to reveal the dimension of protest in them. This book thus becomes an ideal introduction for readers most interested in political and social issues. It also provides an excellent commentary carried out through examples rather than prose. Rexroth had a great capacity for creating models which others have followed. Ken Knabb's The Relevance of Rexroth acts as a model introductory book of criticism, as Morgan Gibson's Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East West Wisdom acts as a model of commentary based in philosophy. Now Gardner's selection acts as a model of thematic editing.

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