THE COMPLETE POEMS OF KENNETH REXROTH
Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington 98368
The relationship between poetry and philosophy, I suppose it is more or less superfluous to say, is very complex. I'm sure one could spend three or four years at University looking at the subject through a telescope, and come away with a sort of grasp of it, but it may not be a firm grip. A poet may be a philosopher, and the other way around. On the other hand, the poet may be no philosopher at all and the other way around. And if, as a reader, we go hunting philosophy in poems, we may get into all sorts of trouble. Or, it could be really good. I think what I mean to say here is that the relationship between poetry and philosophy is very complex. Except, of course, sometimes it's really simple.
For example, Coleridge was as much a philosopher as a poet. Or, and perhaps to be more exact, he was a sometimes great poet who, for reasons not our concern here, came to give his greater attention to philosophy and was regarded by many as one of the leading thinkers of his time. But in his greatest poems, whatever philosophy or world view or religious sentiment is its foundation, it's what we regard as 'poetry' which takes up all our attention. Even when a line posits some kind of central thesis ('No sound is dissonant which tells of Life') there is a poetic grace and power which at once complements the idea, and stops it sounding like a philosophic text or pulpit voice. Blake and his mysticism I'm sure is another case in point, but I don't really know enough about Blake to go into it. I may take a week off in February and consider it further.
The reason I raise all this is The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. There is a lot of philosophy and mysticism in this book, some of it like this:
Value and fact are polar aspects
Of organic process. As plus
Is to minus a value: 'virtue'
And minus is privative 'fact';
So minus is to virtue, 'sin.'
That is, quality is the aspect
Assumed in perspective of polar
Antitheses of achievement.
How comfortable, and how verbal.
I think this, from the long (30 page) 1940s poem 'The Phoenix and The Tortoise', is philosophy or something very much like philosophy. I think also that no matter how many times I read it I will never have a clue what it means. Which for a lot of poetry is absolutely fine, but I think this is philosophy or something very much like it and intended to be understood. So it fails. Or I fail. One of us fails, that's for sure. A lot of this long poem is of this nature, but there is also this:
One more Spring, and after the bees go,
The soft moths stagger in the firelight;
And silent, vertiginous, sliding,
The great owls hunt low in the air;
And the dwarf owls speak at their burrows.
We walk under setting Orion,
Once more in the dim boom of the sea,
Between bearded, dying apple trees,
In the shadows of the Easter moon;
And silent, vertiginous, the stars
Slide over us past the equinox.
The flowers whirl away in the wind like snow.
The thing that falls always is myself.
The moonlight of the Resurrection,
The moon of Amida on the sea,
Glitters on the wings of the bombers,
Illuminates the darkened cities.
The motion of Egyptian chisels
Dissolves slowly in the desert moon.
I would claim elegance and readability and rewarding substance for this, even though I lose its thread around mention of the moon of Amida, which I should maybe go and look up in a book. A good deal of Rexroth could make you want to go and look up something in a book. In this respect he is a lot like Pound. He is not much like Pound, to be honest, but the long poems which act as kind of huge cornerstones to his career have something of the methodology of the 'Cantos', in that they collage elements of various philosophies, histories and other texts into what I'm sure are coherent wholes, even though it's very difficult for a new reader to read them as such. One long poem, the later 'The Dragon and The Unicorn', stretches to a couple of hundred pages. It is beyond me at the moment, but with a decent slice of luck I may live another twenty years or so, so I have time on my side.
The thing is, I like this book a lot. For starters, it's very intelligent. Rexroth is very intelligent, and it's a very intelligent book. I don't think you can say this about a lot of books of poetry. Poets may be clever (in varying degrees) but clever isn't the same as intelligent. Reading some of these poems is (to invoke Pound again) a bit like reading the 'Cantos': you often don't get it, but it's as if something good is rubbing off on you, and you're partaking of, and sensing some idea of life that is spiritually and intellectually good. It's an enervating experience, and it doesn't hurt at all, even though you thought it might.
But I really like this book for a simple reason above any other: it has some good poems in it. Here's one I like a lot. It's a section from 'The Lights In The Sky Are Stars', which is dedicated to one of his daughters.
THE HEART OF HERAKLES
Lying under the stars,
In the summer night,
Late, while the autumn
Constellations climb the sky,
As the Cluster of Hercules
Falls down the west
I put the telescope by
And watch Deneb
Move towards the zenith.
My body is asleep. Only
My eyes and brain are awake.
The stars stand around me
Like gold eyes. I can no longer
Tell where I begin and leave off.
The faint breeze in the dark pines,
And the invisible grass,
The tipping earth, the swarming stars
Have an eye that sees itself.
I love that bit where he can't tell where he begins and leaves off. What's more, for Rexroth, this 'lying under the stars' business isn't some literary conceit written for effect. This is someone who spent a lot of time out in the woods, living and trekking and, it seems, making a lot of love in the open air. (It can be good, I've heard.) With Rexroth, you get a hundred per cent genuine self, and once you bypass the occasional philosophy text book language of the earlier poems you read an authentic human voice: 'I have spent my life striving to write the way I talk', he said. And he strove also to write a poetry that would be available to and understood by any reader. In this, he was simply carrying through his lifelong political belief in community. He wrote a poem called 'Toward An Organic Philosophy', and with a title like that you hardly need to read the poem to figure what it means and where the poet is coming from. Plus, he stands in a historical and poetic territory which has left him an almost forgotten figure in our current received knowledge of twentieth century literature. In politics, he comes from the era between the world wars when American radicals were truly radical, and when a socialist vision seemed achievable and realistic. Rexroth was completely a part of that movement, but like many others of his generation he believed you couldn't be a radical without you'd studied the past, found out about the world, lived life to the full, and formed your own views about it all. Radicalism wasn't some kind of fashionable movement, or fad. It's this which distanced him from the later cultural trends of the sixties, where to his way of thinking what was going on was lazy sloganeering with little or no background and foundation in serious thought and experience. In other words, it wasn't his kind of radicalism. He was one of the main movers behind the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s, an authentic political and literary activist, and believed it was the beginning of a utopian society. Instead, the vision of the world he'd held and fought for over many years fell apart:
There are few of 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.
(from 'For Eli Jacobson')
And when the sixties came along, and the Beats and others of a similar mind began to occupy some of the foreground of cultural life, Rexroth was sidelined partly by them and partly as a result of his own convictions. But, nevertheless, it's all slightly paradoxical how the story has panned out. The way Rexroth is scarcely mentioned in the histories is even more curious because, at the same time, he is sometimes called 'the father of the Beats'. He emceed the reading where Allen Ginsberg read 'Howl' in public for the first time, and many consider Rexroth's poem 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' was as much if not more of an inspiration for 'Howl' than anything Walt Whitman wrote (although both he and Ginsberg refute the notion):
They are murdering all the young men.
For half a century now, every day,
They have hunted them down and killed them.
They are killing them now,
At this minute, all over the world,
They are killing the young menÉ..
Reading Rexroth, and reading around Rexroth, one is looking at an enormous chunk of literary history. But this is not the main reason I like this book. As I said, it has a lot of good poems in it. The ones I like best are those where the poet reminds himself and us of the vision of wholeness and the world around us. They are not 'nature poems', they are more about the transcendent experience of being a part of the world, and a celebration of life. He has the clarity of the Oriental poet:
Young, in Spring, I gathered
Flowers on the mountain.
Old, in Autumn, I pick
Sedges by the river.
Positive - negative.
Negative - positive.
Never understand me.
As long as I have lovely
Children I have nothing
To be sorry about.
(from 'Elegy on Encountering the Trouble of the World')
One has to mention Chinese and Japanese poetry when speaking of Kenneth Rexroth, because his knowledge of it was extensive, and it was a major influence upon his own work. Along with a lot of other people, he first discovered the Chinese through Pound's 'Cathay', and for a while was in prolonged correspondence with Pound about poetry and politics. They fell out over politics, not surprisingly. Rexroth subsequently translated widely, and the tone and flavour of Eastern writing became more and more apparent in his later work. Remarkably, his very later work includes a series of poems attributed to one 'Marichiko'. 'The Love Poems of Marichiko' were presented as translations of poems written by 'a contemporary young woman' poet from Japan, and they are quite lovely:
Because I dream
Of you every night,
My lonely days
Are only dreams.
It was only when Rexroth was nominated for a translation prize that he revealed he had written the poems himself. They are almost worth the price of the book alone.
In truth, this book is too big for me at the moment. I haven't read anything like all its 750 or so pages, and there is way too much of it for me to take in. I found myself so interested in Rexroth I had a look on the Internet, and discovered even more things to read. He wrote lots of essays and literary journalism, and an autobiography, and there's lots of it available online. So I got diverted from the book in hand and found myself reading some of the other things he'd written, and I don't regret it at all. I have no idea what this book costs in the UK: it says $24 on the cover. I suggest you just use your credit card and not worry. In principle, I don't like huge massive enormous books of poems: they are too heavy too hold up comfortably and read (this one is), they look somewhat daunting (this one does), and they lack the sense of excitement a slim volume produced in the heat of creativity might (I say 'might') have. And this one does lack that. But sometimes you have to have big books because that's the only way you are going to get the poems and recover a poet's work. I notice from the Press Release this one was originally published in hardback. Goodness knows what it must have weighed. It probably came with a health warning, or advice on how to lift heavy objects safely. Whatever - this is a good and interesting book. I think I already said that.
© Martin Stannard, 2005