’s Poetry Essay, Research Paper
Donald K. Gutierrez
Rexroth, who was born in l905 and died in l982, was a major American poet. He wrote poetry
for over sixty years, and though he had some recognition during his lifetime, it was far
less than his work (prose as well as poetry) deserved. A bohemian, an astute literary and
social critic and radical, an autodidact and polymath, a transvaluational thinker and wit,
confabulator," a translator of poetry from half a dozen languages,
Rexroth failed to gain the recognition during his lifetime that h deserved as a poet
in part because American literary politics and literary critical orientations didn’t
not work in his favor during a sizable part of his career, Ironically, much of his best
verse was written from the l930s to the mid-l950s, a period when academic, literary
and political tastes prevailed that were alien to many of the social, philosophical and
artistic values for which Rexroth’s art and life stood.
Rexroth’s view of poetry as communication,
as heightened speech between persons, was violently at odds with the New Criticism and its
idea of a poem as a self-referential text to be de-mystified by exhaustive analysis and
interpretation. His attachment to a world-wide avant-garde and to the political left wing
alienated him from such influential, political and aesthetically conservative critic-poets
as John Crowe Ransome and Allen Tate and their journal, Kenyon Review, not to
mention the politically radical, but anti-West-Coast New York intelligentsia
represented especially in the l940s and l950s by Partisan Review. Rexroth had
been a prime force in a vigorous artistic vanguard centered in San Francisco since the
l930s which had intercultural relations with the political left wing (mainly Anarchist) as
well as with the Beat Renaissance of the mid-l950s which he publicized and
It was only in the last fifteen years or so of
his life that Rexroth’s translations of Asian verse gained him some recognition. This
is a shame, because Rexroth was an important poet. He wrote a large number of first rate
poems, both long and short. The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a mid-period book of
verse (l940), was once described by Thomas Parkinson as commensurate in worth to
Eliot’s The Four Quartets. Rexroth wrote a number of significant long poems,
such as Part I of The Phoenix and the Tortoise, The Dragon and the
Unicorn, and the two relatively long works written in Japan in the l960s and l970s,
respectively, entitled The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart and The
Love Poems of Marichiko.
Two primary subject categories in Rexroth’s
verse of love and nature include many of Rexroth’s best poems such as "When We
With Sappho," "Lyell’s Hypothesis Again," "The Signature of All
Things," "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," "Yugao," "Towards
An Organic Philosophy," "Another Spring," the broadly political poem August
22, l939," and the seven "Marthe" poems. A key passage in one of
Rexroth’s best poems, "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity," runs as follows:
The holiness of the real
Is always there, accessible
In total immanence. The nodes
Of transcendence coagulate
In you, the experiencer,
And in the other, the lover. [? 1956]
The first three lines especially provide a golden
thread through significant, representative Rexroth poems. It suggests a spiritual
dimension present in much of Rexroth’s better work, but, importantly, projected in
terms of the everyday and the "everywhere." One facet of this holy reality
resides in Rexroth’s poetry of reminiscence and reverie. Rexroth is a remarkable poet
of reminiscence (let alone reverie), recalling his mother Delia (in "Delia
Rexroth"), his first wife Andree Dutcher ("You ashes/Were scattered in
this place. Here/I wrote you a farewell poem"), his entranced childhood in "Un
Bel di Vedremo" ("…that other /World before the War," a world of Debs and
Huneker, of lace evening gowns and Japanese prints), the grisly scene of the Chicago
stockyards in l9l7 on his first visit to Chicago (narrated in the l950s poem "The Bad
Old Days"). He reminisces because he feels, usually convincingly, that he is
recalling objects, people, values, events worth re-evoking for themselves and for
what they symbolize, but he also draws attention through reminiscence to the transience of
life and thus to the need to crystallize value amidst the flux of existence. Also
memorable is Rexroth’s capacity to project in his poetry a passion so consuming even
in reminiscence that it obliterates past and present.
The Phoenix and the Tortoise, which
contains some of Rexroth’s finest verse, also includes probably his greatest love
poem of reverie and reminiscence, "When We With Sappho."
"Sappho" is too long a poem to analyze at length here, but I shall quote the
first stanza in order to exhibit the poem’s felicitous natural expression and
lyricism which result in part from Rexroth’s deft 7-9 syllabic meter (which he
frequently used) and his deceptively simple diction:
We lie here in the bee filled, ruinous
Orchard of a decayed
New England farm,
Summer in our hair, and the smell
Of summer in our twined
Summer in our mouths, and
In the luminous, fragmentary words
Of this dead Greek woman.
Stop reading. Lean back. Give me your mouth.
Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
You move against me like a wave
That moves in sleep.
Your body spreads across my brain
Like a bird-filled summer. . . [? 1944]
Here, sexual love and intercourse are compared to
organic human occurrences like sleep. But the comparison moves towards metaphor, for sex,
sleep and nature ("bird filled summer" and ocean wave) are so blended as almost
to render nature and human nature as one. Sexual love is presented as an activity
and action as natural as the elements, but then a commanding perspective in Rexroth’s
verse is the congruence of human existence with the phenomena of nature. His love and
nature verse is full of this concentricity and even of blended identification, whether in
the stunning "Lyell’s Hypothesis Again," climaxing (again, in a love
setting) in its "immortal/Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone" or in the
post-orgasmic quietude of the poem "Still on Water," in which "Solitude
closes down around us/As we lie passive and exhausted/Solitude clamps us softly in its
The accomplishment of "Sappho" is in
part its recording and mediating experiences of love, time and process through reverie as
poetic art. The poem doesn’t depend on the facile appeal of vivid eroticism or
voyeurism, or of dissatisfaction as sensationalized longing. If there is a consciousness
in the poem, it is one so arching through time and transience as to resemble Nicolas
Berdyaev’s beautiful term the superconscious. The lovers try to sustain the
almost supernatural vividness and clarity of Sappho’s sensibility, under "Gold
colossal domes of cumulus clouds//which/ Lift over the undulant, sibilant forest."
The natural in "Sappho" is almost supernatural in the sheer accessibility of its
"total immanence." As love, it becomes "the nodes of transcendence,"
and, conveyed in a poem, becomes, to Rexroth, a sacramentalizing of experience. Or as he
puts it at the end of "A Letter to William Carlos Williams,"a poet
"creates/Sacramental relationships/That last always."
Rexroth wrote poems about love in more than a few
of its myriad permutations. If, accordingly, he could write memorably of love as
realization of self and other, of each through each other (as in the "Marthe"
poem "Growing"), he could also speak of the ineffable poignancy of love’s,
like nature’s, transience, as he does in the l940s poem "Another spring":
Seasons revolve and the years change
With no assistance or supervision.
Thee moon, without taking thought,
Moves in its cycle, full, crescent, and full.
white moon enters the heart of the river;
The air is drugged with azalea blossoms;
Deep in the night a pine cone falls;
Our campfire dies out I the empty mountains.
. . . .
. . . .
Here we lie entranced by the starlit water,
And moments that should each last forever
Slide unconsciously by us like
water. [? 1944]
If stanza one implies a meaning to or behind the
nature description, stanza two submerges us in nature through an ostensible
presentativeness that is one of Rexroth’s subtlest representational achievements as a
poet. The lines, here and in other poems, effect a preternatural directness and
A sharper grief than that in "Another
Spring" resides in all three of the Andree-Rexroth elegies, Rexroth’s tribute to
his first wife Andree Dutcher who died in l940 and who, like Rexroth, was a vanguard
artist. Here is the first two-thirds and more "objective" part of the second
Purple and green, blue and white,
The Oregon river mouths
Slide into thick smoky
As the turning cup of the day
Slips from the whirling
And all that white long beach gleams
In white twilight as the lights
Come on in the lonely
And voices of men emerge;
And dogs, barking, as the wind stills.
Those August evenings are
Sixteen years old tonight and I
Am sixteen years older too- [? 1944]
The simplest of the three elegies, this one is
moving in its progression from these sensitively recorded details of place sixteen years
earlier when Andree was last seen alive to a present without Andree, in which Rexroth
Lonely, caught in the midst of life,
In the chaos of the world;
And all the years that we were young
Are gone, and every atom
Of your learned and disordered
Flesh is utterly consumed.
This elegy does not exhibit self-pity, despite
the "lonely"; generally, the feelings in the poem are banked low by only being
implied. This elegy to Andree acquires a certain impersonality by in the main relying on
direct objective statement by which to register its pathos, not only in the irremediable
passage of time when they were together, but in the final immutability of the loss of
Andree, herself inexorably gone. The very personalness of the poem, the intensity of
relationship, serves to keep the reader removed, not emotionally, but in terms of ready
identification. Despite the deeply anguished awareness of the utter finality of the loss,
no consolation is offered.
The Love Poems of Marichiko (l978)
represents an order of love verse strikingly different in some ways from all
Rexroth’s other love verse and remarkable for a man in his late sixties. Marichiko
is a sequential verse narrative of sixty short verses supposedly written by a Japanese
"poetess" named Marichiko that Rexroth claims to have translated. Actually,
Rexroth wrote the Marichiko poems. This work constitutes an unforgettable union
of passion and poignancy, crystallized by a context of love bliss and almost unbearable
forlornness. In short, the series comprises a mini-tragedy of being loved and left. Thus
the deeper thematic elements in the poem provide its searing eroticism with a process of
tragic realism that is a high achievement in American love verse.
The set of poems is too long to scrutinize in its
entirety here, but a quotation sketch of the work will convey its flavor and some of its
I sit at my desk.
What can I write to you?
Sick with love,
I long to see you in the flesh.
I can write only,
‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’
Love cuts through my heart
And scars my vitals.
Spasms of longing suffocate me
And will not stop.
This intensity is typical of the entire sequence
and of its dramatic desperation and anguish. Apt metaphors communicate the power of the
passions permeating this love. Says "Marichiko,"
Making love with you
Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
Until nothing can slake my thirst
But to drink the entire sea.
With such an unquenchable appetite for love , we
are subtly prepared for some strong erotic episodes, and soon get one:
You wake me,
Part my thighs, and kiss me.
I give you the dew
Of the first morning of the world,
in which the cunnilingual sex is partly
sublimated by an apocalyptic context suggesting through poetic license the extremity of
passion of this love experience.
This love is so obsessive and overwhelming to
"Marichiko" that even daytime, the major phase of our conscious lives and
strivings, is subordinated to night and dreams of love and lover:
Because I dream
Of you every night,
My lonely days
Are only dreams.
Relations subtly, mysteriously change, and by
poem # 38, after a few quiet hints in two or three preceding poems, we get this:
I waited all night.
By midnight I was on fire.
In the dawn, hoping
To find a dream of you,
I laid my weary head
On my folded arms,
But the songs of the waking
Birds tormented me
which is followed six poems later by
. . .
My hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks
Are your fault.
Clearly, another, sinister phase of the
relationship has evolved. Little reason is given for its occurrence ("Our love was
dimmed by/Forces which came from without," we are told (#46)), but that explanation
is vague at best, and leads us to think that the cause of the end of love is less
important than its occurrence, which (for some people) is inevitable, like the succession
of the seasons, or death. The final poems in the sequence are as fraught with grief,
misery and bitterness as the earlier ones were radiant with joy and ecstasy:
My heart flares with this agony.
Do you understand?
My life is going out.
Do you understand?
The final poem in the sequence implies death in
life for the woman, in these concluding lines:
I hate the sight of coming day
Since that morning when
Your insensitive gaze turned me to ice
Like the pale moon in the dawn.
Thus the series does not end sensationally, in
melodrama or violence. Rather, it ends the way such matters often enough end in life, in
rejection, estrangement, bitterness, one’s desire to live ebbing into a darkening
grayness. "Chilled through, I wake up with the first light," she says in the
same poem. The real integrity of the "Marichiko"sequence does not arise from
some facile causal explanation or moral judgment. The poems suggest that love begins,
grows, wanes and sometimes ends. One can’t always explain it, love can be like that.
It does end, and that is as much a part of the actual trajectory of life (if less
palatable to our basic ideals or fantasies) as unending love or marital fidelity. Aside
from such bony realism, the "Marichiko" poems are remarkable for so
utterly blending romance and realism that the extremities of ecstatic love become
inextricably part of the same world of experience as the acrid horror of abandonment. They
are especially remarkable, though, for being so free of moral pronouncement and for
the narrative they frame, which allows Rexroth’s capacity for an impersonal poetics
even more scope than do most of his love lyrics.
The Dragon and the Unicorn is a
book-length poem written in the late l940s describing Rexroth’s travels in mainly
post-World-War-II Europe. The book is a rich brew of travel material: sharp, memorable
responses to cities and towns, museums and galleries, restaurants, cuisines and inns,
persons famous, infamous or little-known but fascinatingly presented. Dragon is
further enriched by polemic and ideology, exquisite lyric set-pieces, philosophic
meditations on love, the compacted evil of the modern era, past political lost causes, and
many opinions, some engaging, some challenging or startling.
Typical of the philosophic-ideological passages
in Dragon is the following part of one:
Is opposed to community.
As Capitalism and the
State become identical,
All existence assumes the
Character of a vast
Conspiracy to quantify
The Individual. . .[? 1950]
Some might weary of the sweeping, ex cathedra
character of passages like this, or feel that it comes close to being prose. However, it
is definitely verse in its subtly crafted syllabic meter. What, moreover, might have
seemed outlandishly left-wing or hysterical as a critique of American society in the late
l940s seems today like powerfully relevant, sanely Anarchist jeremiads against the
concentrated American power structures emerging out of the war. Further, Rexroth
alternates such passages with nature and love lyrics as sensuously compelling and forceful
as his best lyrics elsewhere in his work:
Bright petals of evening
Shatter, fall, drift over Florence,
And flush your cheeks a redder
Rose and gleam like fiery flakes
In your eyes. . .
. . .Your moist, quivering
Lips are like the wet scarlet wings
Of a reborn butterfly who
Trembles on the rose petal as
Life floods his strange body.
Turn to me. Part your
lips. My dear,
Some day we will be
This counterpointing of abstract, ideological
passages and sensuous lyrics lends Dragon form, as does its travel itinerary and
its consistent tone of worldliness, erudition and heterodoxical authority. Though a few
passages of misogyny and homophobia mar the book, they are more than compensated for by
Rexroth’s intellectual audacity, bright responsiveness to what he sees, and his
ideological anger and compassion. This compassion is exemplified by one of the highlights
of Dragon which Rexroth movingly contrasts an Age of Gold in the medieval culture
of Southern France with one of Iron. The latter was comprised of the Papacy and
imperialist England and Northern France which annihilated the Provence of the olive and
the vine, with its flourishing culture of love and literature, a booming economy and
Opinionated, occasionally arrogant and savage, Dragon
is nevertheless an extraordinary work not only as poetry, wisdom, left-wing jeremiad,
historical reminiscence, ideological inspiration and travel experience, but as a prescient
revelation of the massive nihilism and corruption released in societies by World War II,
the Atom Bomb and the genocidal bent of sheer profit-oriented, large-corporation-driven
economies. Dragon is unquestionably one of Rexroth’s major works, and a
major American poem in its own right.
In poems like "The Signature of All
Things" or "Yugao" or "Lyell’s Hypothesis Again" or the
"Andree-Rexroth" elegies, Rexroth’s work does not even seem like poetry in
the sense of being a "verbal construct" or a convention of artful words and
syntactic and rhythmic strategies–rather, his poems seem like an exalted experience
undergone through words which have been rendered so clear, so "artless" and
"right" as to take on a kind of numinous transparency revealing the heart of the
poem’s essential life itself. This intense limpidity, when it occurs in Rexoth’s
verse, can make his poems distinctly crystalline, a mystical image and quality he himself
The words "crystal" and
"crystalline" provide a link to the last aspect of Rexroth’s verse there is
space to discuss: contemplation. Rexroth ends one of his finest poems, "Time Is the
Mercy of Eternity," with these words:
In absolutely transparent time, I
Take on a kind of crystalline
Being. In this translucent
Immense here and now, if ever,
The form of the person should be
Visible, its geometry,
Its crystallography, and
Its astronomy. The good
And evil of my history
Go by. I can see them and
Weigh them. They go first, with all
The other personal facts,
And sensations, and desires.
At last there is nothing left
But knowledge, itself a vast
Crystal encompassing the
Limitless crystal of air
And rock and water. And the
Two crystals are perfectly
Silent. There is nothing to
Say about them. Nothing at all. [? 1956]
The word "crystal" is mentioned in one
form or another five times in these last 23 lines. This pivotal word and image relate to a
few of Rexroth’s ideas about contemplation, and inform us too about the purpose of
contemplation in Rexroth’s verse generally. For a poet to urge, as Rexroth does, that
poetry (and thus art) as contemplation constitutes the webbing that keeps society from
disintegrating or from destroying itself is a forceful claim. By dramatizing in "Time
Is the Mercy of Eternity" the contemplative, mystical process through imagery of the
crystal which by its very nature reduces physical reality to its basic structure (thus
accentuating the "mystical" qualities of transparency, clarity, heightened
visibility), one provides a kind of direct, phenomenal authority for words asserting the
primacy of contemplation as vision. Vision is intensified, even exalted, seeing. But
contemplation and vision go beyond that, for, as in "Time" or in a slighter,
monistic poem by Rexroth called "The Heart of Herakles" (from
"The-Lights-in-the-Sky-Are-Stars" series (1956)), one crosses the traditional
and arbitrary line between subject (the "I") and object (the "it,"
Other, World) and, becoming part of one’s surroundings, transcends their and
one’s own partialness towards an exalted clarity ("I take on a kind of
crystalline being"). What follows resembles the Buddhist transcendence of all worldly
ties and associations represented as Nirvana (the good and evil of one’s history
going by, as well as "personal facts, sensations, desires"). One is left in this
mystical denudation in a state of mind–again, crystalline–that Rexroth mentions
frequently and which can be summed up in lines from his long l967 poem The
Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart: "He who lives without
grasping/Lives always in the experience/Of the immediate as the Ultimate."
What Rexroth is doing with his crystal figure, so
symbolically climactic to his entire poem and, considering the definition from Heart’s
Garden, to his work itself, is imagizing or symbolizing the contemplative state.
There is no absolute in the traditional religious sense even in "Time"’s
two crystals of self and world, unless one wishes to say that they are
"absolutely" real or reside at the center of reality. But one need not decide on
this absoluteness, need not even say and thus think anything about them. Perhaps that
constitutes some of the meaning of the last three-and-a-half lines of the poem: "And
the/Two crystals are perfectly/Silent. There is nothing to/Say about them. Nothing at
all." The silence beyond words and thoughts (let alone "facts, sensations, and
desires") is conceivably a mystical aural facet of the crystalline vision climaxing
"Time," and as such offers a summit of tranquillity from which to contemplate
newly how time is the mercy of eternity.
When James Wright wrote in l980 that "Over
the years I have learned that I am far from being alone in being so grateful to Rexroth,
and I believe he has saved many poets from imaginative death," he was in part
alluding to Rexroth’s essays and translations, but even more to Rexroth’s love
verse. But I would guess that what poets like Wright and many others–poets and
non-poets–essentially prized about Rexroth’s work was that he seemed to have a great
knack for clearing away the rant, pretensions and chicanery in society concealing reality.
When he turned his keen sense of the real away from organized society, which he described
as held together by the Social Lie, and focused on love, political/philosophical and
nature subjects, a particular lucidity, vividness and intensity emerged in his verse that
one could call the natural supernatural. Speaking of D. H. Lawrence’s Look! We
Have Come Through!, Rexroth says "Reality is totally valued. . . ..The clarity
of purposively realize objectivity is the most supernatural of all visions."
This applies perfectly to Rexroth’s own poetry as well, and is another way of
indicating that numinous glow on and within the natural and the ordinary that his best
work gives off-the holiness of the real.
Donald K. Gutierrez
Copyright ? 1999