Gary Lehmann - Author

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Kenneth Rexroth: Radical Poet for the Modern Era

Kenneth Rexroth determined early that he wanted a life of adventure and ground-breaking independence. He was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1905, but moved to Chicago with his aunt when his parents both died within two years. His father was an alcoholic. His mother was chronically depressed, so it is no surprise that he was a rebellious youth, expelled from high school, always the iconoclast. He briefly attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but he ran into trouble when he was arrested and jailed after they raided a speakeasy and brothel he regularly attended. It was later alleged that he was part owner of the brothel.

The 1920s were a heady time to advance through your teenage years in Chicago. He worked odd jobs such as being a soda jerk, amateur wrestler, and reporter, all of which heightened his awareness of the underprivileged proletariat. In speakeasies with names like the Dill Pickle Club, the Cellar jazz club and the Wind Blew Inn and from soapboxes on street corners he recited poems of revolutionary socialism. He had little formal education. His real education came from conversations he had on the streets of West Side Chicago about politics, art, jazz and poetry. From his mother’s early home schooling in the classics, he wrote poems laden with classical references to the Greek gods and Roman myths. From his days in the streets, he learned to integrate poetry and jazz. He later wrote that jazz poetry "returns poetry to music and to public entertainment as it was in the days of Homer or the troubadours. It forces poetry to deal with aspects of life which it has tended to avoid in the recent past."

Left-wing politics captured his attention, and he traveled around the country giving soapboxes speeches in favor of the International Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, supporting himself by temporary bits of labor as a horse-wrangler, sheep-herder, and pamphlet salesman for constipation cures. He was briefly a postulant in a monastery near Poughkeepsie where he learned meditation and the value of silence. Soon he took his knapsack to Mexico, South America, and Europe. In Paris, he met leading Surrealists, camped in the wilderness and learned several languages.

He married the painter Andree Shafer and moved back to San Francisco. He viewed marriage as a sacred mystical union. He was married four times. Two of these marriages overlapped. In Rexroth’s view, none of these three statements contradict.

He found publication for his early poems in small journals while pursuing an interest in eastern mysticism. Instead of writing about Greek mythology and philosophy, he now found poetic subject matter in camping, fly fishing, and love affairs. He helped found the San Francisco Poetry Center.

He rejected the formal poetry of his time and supported poets who were reaching for a new kind of freedom in verse. In the 1930s, he corresponded with Ezra Pound and was introduced to the founder of New Directions Press, James Laughlin, who included his work in his 1937 annual. In 1940, New Directions published Rexroth’s first solo volume, In What Hour, which outlines his concern for the fragile ecology of the earth.

His 1944 volume, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, contains poems that outline Rexroth’s objections to war and his fervent affirmation of love and nature. During the Second World War, he may have been involved in helping Japanese-Americans escape from internment camps. By the end of the 1940s, Rexroth had gathered a number of poets of like mind around him in San Francisco. He organized many of the poets who later became known as Beat poets into a weekly salon that featured their emerging works.

The highlight of these readings took place in the fall of 1955 at the Six Gallery when Allen Ginsberg unveiled the first of his poems from Howl, his signature poetry volume. Rexroth and other poets later appeared in court for the defense at Ginsberg’s trial for obscenity. In the 1960s, Rexroth brought a great deal of attention to classically based poetry in his Saturday Review column entitled the “Classics Revisited.” He also focused renewed attention on the Eastern classics when he published translations of ancient poetry from Japan and China.

In 1968, he moved to Santa Barbara where he taught for 6 years before accepting a Fulbright fellowship to study in Japan. At UCSB, Rexroth offended many administrators by speaking out against anti-intellectualism on campus. He saw universities as a false society joined together by the illusion of intellectualism for the purpose of exploitation and dominance. He attacked others as well. Rexroth spent his entire life speaking out against the East Coast literary establishment which, he felt, was stifling fresh social thought. He was a prime mover in establishing a two coast context for modern American poetry.

Of the more than fifty books of poetry and criticism he published in his lifetime, the best known are The Signature of All Things (1950), and Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (1980). The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth did not appear until 2002, twenty years after his death.

Kenneth Rexroth said, "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life." Kenneth Rexroth, a West Coast anarchist poet to the end, died in 1982 in Montecito. He is buried in Santa Barbara overlooking the sea.

Runaway by Kenneth Rexroth

There are sparkles of rain on the bright
Hair over your forehead;
Your eyes are wet and your lips
Wet and cold, your cheek rigid with cold.
Why have you stayedAway so long, why have you only
Come to me late at night
After walking for hours in wind and rain?
Take off your dress and stockings;
Sit in the deep chair before the fire.
I will warm your feet in my hands;
I will warm your breasts and thighs with kisses.
I wish I could build a fireIn you that would never go out.
I wish I could be sure that deep in you
Was a magnet to draw you always home.
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,

Gic to Har by Kenneth Rexroth

It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I rememberComing home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.


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