Monday, April 14, 2014

National Poetry Month—Daddy to the Beats Kenneth Rexroth

Rexroth at one of his poetry readings to jazz.

I am ashamed to admit it now.  I had never read Kenneth Rexroth.  Oh, I knew who he was.  He was a legend of sorts—the Father of the Beats, the living bridge between those cool young cats and earlier rebels—Sandburg, Vachel Lindsey, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams.  After all, it was Rexroth who stood up at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 and introduced the world to Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen.  He mentored Lawrence Ferlinghetti and hung out at City Lights Bookstore pushing the Italian anarchist literature he adored.
I knew all of that.  Yet somehow, I neglected to read him.  Not though any lack of effort on his part.  Between 1940 and his death in 1982 he produced an astonishing 27 collections of poetry.  Nine more were published posthumously, including the definitive Collected Poems in 2004.  And that doesn’t count his collections of brilliant translations of Spanish, French, Japanese, and Chinese poets.
Rexroth has been called the most well and widely read American poet yet he scarcely had a formal education.  What he did have was a brilliant, restless mind, a voracious appetite to learn and know and a most unusual life lived in almost every second up to its fullest.
He was born on December 5, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana.  His father was an alcoholic pharmaceutical salesman and his mother a fragile, sickly woman of great intellect.  The troubled family was semi-rootless, moving from Midwestern town to Midwestern town.  His mother homeschooled him on classic texts which he was reading by the time he was four years old.
After his mother died in 1916 and his father three years later, young Rexroth was sent to live in Chicago with an aunt then drifted between foster homes and friends spending most of his time on the exciting streets of the big city.  He did enroll in the School of the Art Industry, but much of his education came from listening to the debates and soap boxers at Bug House Square.
He ran with a fast older crowd and in 1923 was busted in a North Side saloon and accused of pimping.  He served several months in Cook County Jail before his legal guardian found him and bailed him out.
Back on the streets he became a passionate defender of Sacco and Vanzetti and began speaking for their Defense Fund taking to the soap box on the Square.  Other times he would mount it and read poetry.  He hung out at the Dill Pickle Club, ground zero of hobohemia, joined the Industrial Workers of the World—the Wobblies, and declared himself a philosophical anarchist and a pacifist.  Unlike other writers like John Dos Passos and e.e. cummings who were radical in their youth but abandoned the Left and even became hostile to it when they became disillusioned with Stalin’s Soviet Union, Rexroth never shirked his commitments, largely because as an anarchist and Wobbly he had not become invested in the dictatorship of the proletariat or the leadership of a Party.
By the age of 19 Rexroth had seen a chunk of the world.  There were hitchhiking trips to the Southwest and Rocky Mountains, time in New York’s Greenwich Village with a short spell at the New School.  He had even become a postulant at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York.  He left the cloistered life when he realized he could not believe its religious core.  But he was happy with the contemplative life, the silence, the room for meditation and for study.  He would often later seek to find or create those elements of monasticism and community in his life.  His discovery years later of Buddhist models influenced his later years.
In his rambles around the country Rexroth would work on a Forest Service crew at Marblemount Ranger Station in remote Washington State and then signed on a tramp steamer for a voyage that took him to Mexico and South America where he mastered Spanish and cultivated a love of Latin culture.  He made it to Europe and spent a few weeks in Paris hanging out with the Surrealists.  But he elected to return to the States rather than become a “mere expatriate.”
Back in Chicago in 1927 Rexroth fell madly in love at first sight with Andrée Dutcher a commercial artist who he encouraged to take up fine art.  She, in turn, read and gave insightful feedback to the poetry he was beginning to write.  It was a physically passionate relationship, but also intensely intellectually and emotionally satisfying.  Rexroth called the relationship near idyllic.  The couple married and settled in San Francisco, which would be his base for the rest of his life. 
The marriage produced considerable paginate poetry and Rexroth began to develop a philosophy around marriage as a sacramental experience which could be a gateway to the “the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility.”  Despite their initial closeness the marriage unraveled and the couple divorced in 1940 when Rexroth was 35.  Within a few months Andrée died and he was shattered, sinking into a deep depression which he excised by writing elegies to his beloved.
The same year Rexroth published his first collection of poetry, In What Hour? with McMillan House.
In 1941 the poet married for a second time, to Marie Kass, a nurse and a poet in her own right.  The couple made their San Francisco home a salon with weekly literary discussions as well as a refuge for war resisters and Japanese Americans dodging internment.  Rexroth himself was a somewhat over aged conscientious objector.  His activities drew the attention of the FBI.  Not for the last time.
Rexroth became fluent in Japanese and absorbed much of the culture and through that experience the Chinese and other Asians, which deeply influenced his work.  He would become the first American to work in such traditional forms as haiku.  He would later publish several volumes of translations and even penned The Love Poems of Marichiko in the guise of a translation from a young contemporary female Japanese poet so successfully that the work passes and was praised as the voice of another sex from an alien culture.
In 1944 Rexroth published his second collection, The Phoenix and the Tortoise with New Directions Press, America’s most important publisher of avant-garde, experimental, and serious literary poetry,. fiction, and translations.  It was already the home of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  New Directions would remain his principle publisher for the rest of his life.
In ’48 Rexroth and Marie separated but did not divorce.  The next year he went to France with Marthe Larsen.  The couple had an intense, passionate affair and in keeping with his philosophy of sacramental union they wed in Aix-en-Provence despite his not having a divorce from Marie.  When they returned to the US Marthe was pregnant.  Together they would have two daughters, Mary and Katherine.  He dedicated some of his most intense love and erotic poetry to Marthe by name.
In 1956 Rexroth finally obtained a divorce from Marie, but instead of being able to regularize their marriage in this country Marthe fell in love with another poet, Robert Creeley who was 20 years younger than Kenneth.  She abandoned Rexroth for him.  Anguished, he tried to expurgate mention of her from all of his poetry—difficult since many works had already been published to wide acclaim.  Marthe, herself, suffered when Creeley left the next year to live with another woman.
By this time Rexroth was established as one of the most influential poets in America.  He had long freely mentored other writers and artists, often giving them a place to stay in their travels or when they came to the Bay Area to establish themselves.  He had done just such a service for Jack Kerouak as he explored Buddhism with their mutual friend Gary Snyder.  Snyder and Rexroth explored Zen together, much more deeply than had Kerouak and the younger poet got him out of the city and into the wilderness sparking a whole new poetic vision for Rexroth and leading him eventually to environmental activism.  Rexroth appears as a major character, Rheinhold Cacoethes, in The Dharma Bums.
Ginsberg was another protégée and the famous Gallery Six reading he hosted where the New Yorker first read Howl! is often considered the signature event of the Beat era.  Later he testified as an expert witness for Ginsberg at his famous obscenity trial.  Despite his continued close personal relationships with Beat writers like Ginsberg, Snyder, and Ferlinghetti, Rexroth grew disdainful of the movement as a whole which he believed was slipping into narcissism and self-indulgent and was encouraging sloppy work by its many less talented adherents.  He was chagrined in 1960 when Time magazine, the bastion of the square and stodgy, proclaimed him the “Father of the Beats.”
During these years Rexroth supported himself primarily as a literary and cultural critic and other prose work which, though highly regarded, he dismissed as just what he did “for money.”  These writings were widely anthologized and he issued them in collections.  He also was a busy translator, especially of Japanese and Chinese classic and contemporary literature.
Rexroth also presided over Books, a half-hour weekly series which ran for years on San Francisco’s listener supported FM radio KFPC.  He also recorded readings of his poetry with jazz accompaniment.
He remained a radical and activist at heart.  He supported the Civil Rights movement and as a pacifist railed against nuclear weapons and later the Vietnam War.  He was an early eco-activist as well.  In the Bay Area Rexroth as an active part in a lively anarchist scene which included by the ‘60’s a new crop of counter-cultural Wobblies. 
In 1968 the man with scarcely any formal education became a popular lecturer in poetry at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a post he held through 1973.  He also married for a final—and lasting—time to his long-time assistant Carol Tinker.
After leaving teaching Rexroth enjoyed more time in nature and with his now adult daughters.  He spent much of his time on his translations of Asian women poets, and also promoted American female poets.
He died in Santa Barbara in 1982.  After his death several more collections of poetry and prose were published.
The Bad Old Days
The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

—Kenneth Rexroth
Portrait of the Author as a Young Anarchist
While things were going on in Europe,
Our most used term of scorn or abuse
Was “bushwa.” We employed it correctly,
But we thought it was French for “bullshit.”
I lived in Toledo, Ohio,
On Delaware Avenue, the line
Between the rich and poor neighborhoods.
We played in the jungles by Ten Mile Creek,
And along the golf course in Ottawa Park.
There were two classes of kids, and they
Had nothing in common: the rich kids
Who worked as caddies, and the poor kids
Who snitched golf balls. I belonged to the
Saving group of exceptionalists
Who, after dark, and on rainy days,
Stole out and shat in the golf holes.

—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 stayed
Away 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 fire
In you that would never go out.
I wish I could be sure that deep in you
Was a magnet to draw you always home.
—Kenneth Rexroth
Most of the world’s poetry
Is artifice, construction.
No one reads it but scholars.
After a generation
It has grown so overcooked,
It cannot be digested.
There is little I haven’t
Read, and dreary stuff it was.
Lamartine — Gower — Tasso —
Or the metaphysicals
Of Cambridge, ancient or modern,
And their American apes.
Of course for years the ruling
Class of English poetry
Has held that that is just what
Poetry is, impersonal
Construction, where personal
Pronouns are never permitted.
If rigorously enough
Applied, such a theory
Produces in practice its
Opposite. The poetry
Of Eliot and Valéry,
Like that of Pope, isn’t just
Personal, it is intense,
Subjective reverie as
Intimate and revealing,
Embarrassing if you will,
As the indiscretions of
The psychoanalyst’s couch.
There is always sufficient
Reason for a horror of
The use of the pronoun, “I.”
—Kenneth Rexroth

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