Rexroth Revisited

by Gary Gach, Common Ground Magazine, October 2004

Poet Kenneth Rexroth was a cultural visionary and progressive. A new edition of his work illuminates his enduring legacy.

Los Angeles, USA -- Sometimes we don?t really see a person until they?re gone. Then, in another light, their spirit becomes plain to us. So it may be with the work of poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905­-1982).

With the August release of the paperback edition of his Complete Poems (Copper Canyon, $24) ? the hardback was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as the best book of the year ? it?s time for re-evaluating his rich, complex legacy. Rexroth was an undisputed luminary of San Francisco?s cultural scene, but the broader impact of his work has yet to be measured. As full of tenderness as of outrage, his poems illuminate the enduring themes of our common humanity: communion with nature, love, wisdom, and freedom.

Rexroth was holistic before the word was hip and a trailblazer of Pacific Rim culture before the concept even existed. Elegant and levelheaded, he was a self-taught classicist (of both East and West) who?d read his poetry with jazz bassist Charlie Mingus. A contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Theodore Roethke, he bridged the Jazz Age?s ?lost generation? and the post-bomb Beats (and thence, hippies). Allen Ginsberg came to him with a letter of introduction from his family doctor, poet William Carlos Williams. When Ginsberg was preparing for the first public reading in San Francisco of Howl, Rexroth suggested he add another young poet to the billing, Gary Snyder, then translating Zen poetry at UC Berkeley. Snyder, in turn, introduced Ginsberg to Phil Whalen; Ginsberg introduced Snyder to Kerouac; and Rexroth emceed them all at the Mother-of-All-Slams, the historic Six Gallery beatnik poetry reading on Fillmore Street in October 1955, a shot heard round the world.

Among Rexroth?s favorite mottos: ?Keep your eye on the mountaintop, and the other on the lookout for bear scat on the trail.? Actually, he?d been an adept mountain backpacker since the ?30s, working for the forest service in Washington long before Kerouac would glorify the fire-lookout lifestyle in Dharma Bums. Yet Rexroth was also a city poet, a native Midwesterner who made San Francisco home (from 1927 - 1968) until his final years in Santa Barbara. He was synonymous with the Bay Area?s cultural life then, helping to establish the San Francisco Poetry Center and Pacifica Radio as well as making his home a weekly literary salon.

He mastered the difficult art of writing in his natural voice, neither shouting nor whispering, yet always singing in the clear middle register. (Not to read his poetry aloud is like trying to read sheet music without an instrument). Even the prose of his Autobiography was composed of his roaring radio rants and ruminations on KPFA. His poetry?s early modernist leanings are still fresh, tonic, and no longer so daunting today. More importantly, his voice evolved into something as direct, clear, and universal as his all-time favorite, the eighth century Chinese poet Du Fu.

During his lifetime, his collected poetry was only available in a two-book format, divided into shorter and longer poems. As one big book in this new edition, his life work is easier to read. Now we can follow a rare intellect and deep, human heart unfolding that work-in-progress called a person. One unscrolling poem, verse by verse. One lifetime, all of a piece. A waterfall in whose every drop dance thousands of rainbows.

A generalist in a century cornered by specialists, his self-guided treks through the life of the mind span science (from Lucretius to Gödel); history (check out Communalism, * his book-length survey of intentional communities); and literature (his essays in The Classics, Revisited comprise, arguably, the best basic reading list for inquiring minds).

He refused to join any of the fashionable movements, literary or social. Such politics didn?t make things easy for him. He chose anarchism (disciplined and engaged, rather than anarchy). Libertarian in the truest sense of the word, he was loyal to no side or State. For the funeral of a friend, he wrote:

There are few us now, soon
There will be none.
We were comrades
Together, we believed we
Would see with our own eyes the new
World where man was no longer
Wolf to man, but men and women
Were all brothers and lovers
Together. We will not see it.
We will not see it, none of us.
It is farther off than we thought.

There?s the personal as politics, and as political as it gets.

Indeed, Rexroth confounded radicals for including mysticism in his mix. (Think: what if Mao, like some Chinese emperors, had taken the Bodhisattva Vow of compassionate dedication to all beings).

As the full moon rises
The swan sings
In sleep
On the lake of the mind.

And he mastered one of the most difficult of all genres to write in the 20th-century: the love poem. He?s an American, grand-daddy poet of the tantric the cosmic erotic:

Your tongue thrums and moves
Into me, and I become
Hollow and blaze with
Whirling light, like the inside
Of a vast expanding pearl.

This extract, originally published as a translation of one of 60 love poems by a Japanese poetess named Morichiko, is actually by Rexroth himself. It reflects his lifelong feminism, plus his love of deflating pomp with sharp d?arts ? in this case via hoax. As can be glimpsed in Complete Poems, Rexroth was a master translator, working in over a dozen languages ? yet another virtue running counter to the tides of contemporary literary self-promotion. His retranslations of the classics are golden.

And why retranslate? Because it?s for every generation to rediscover the past. And what better time to rediscover Kenneth Rexroth than now.

NOTE: We don?t usually go to bookstores looking for books by a particular publisher, but this new edition of Rexroth is a testament to Copper Canyon Press. Founded 32 years ago, it is now one of the nation?s leading poetry publishers. Its founder, Sam Hamill, is also an activist, poet, and translator, and this tribute to his mentor couldn?t be more fitting.


* Communalism is now free online along with a lovely abundance of Rexroth resources, at the Bureau of Public Secrets:

Gary Gach is editor of What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award) and authorof The Complete Idiot?s Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Homepage: