On Kenneth Rexroth

’s Poetry Essay, Research Paper Donald K. Gutierrez Kenneth 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

’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

warm hand."

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?

My life.

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:

Every collectivity

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

heretical Catharism.

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

frequently invoked.

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