The Relevance of Rexroth

Chapter 1: Life and Literature


REXROTH (before reading his poetry): “Well, what would you like tonight, sex, mysticism, or revolution?”

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: “What’s the difference?”


Kenneth Rexroth was born in Indiana in 1905, descended from a variety of abolitionists, socialists, anarchists, feminists and freethinkers. After an unusually enlightened upbringing he was orphaned at the age of twelve. He spent most of his teenage years in Chicago, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and helped run a jazz coffee house, mingling with the musicians, artists, writers, radicals and eccentrics who made up the bohemian world of the twenties. Almost totally self-educated (he had only five years of formal schooling), he read omnivorously, wrote poetry, did abstract painting, worked in avant-garde theater and began teaching himself several languages. In his late teens he hitched all over the country, spending summers in the Far West working as a cowboy cook and wrangler and at various farm and forestry jobs, and once worked his way to Paris and back.

He recounts these early adventures in An Autobiographical Novel. The first impression you get is that it is mostly about other people — Louis Armstrong, Alexander Berkman, Clarence Darrow, Eugene Debs, Marcel Duchamp, Emma Goldman, D.H. Lawrence, Diego Rivera, Carl Sandburg, Edward Sapir, Sacco and Vanzetti all turn up briefly, along with an Indian woman who introduces him to sexual yoga, a member of the Bugs Moran gang who later retires to Hollywood as a consultant for gangster movies, a talkative poet who says he has belonged to “the three most gossipy organizations in modern life, the Anglo-Catholics, the Trotskyites, and the homosexuals,” and a multitude of others — anarchists, Communists, Wobblies, dadaists, surrealists, occultists, prostitutes, crooks, cops, judges, jailers, hoboes, hillbillies, lumberjacks, cowboys, Indians. . . . It’s a fascinating book, not only for its account of Rexroth’s own incredible range of experiences, but for its evocation of a radical-libertarian American subculture that passed away in the early years of the century and for its glimpses of the 1920s bohemianism that foreshadowed the later worldwide counterculture. “What I was witnessing was the development in a few places in Chicago, New York, and Paris of a culture pattern that was to spread all over the world. In another generation all professional people of any pretense to bohemianism in Sydney or Oslo did the things we did, but back in those days we all knew one another.”

An Autobiographical Novel leaves off in 1927 [a later edition brings the story up to 1949], when Rexroth moved to San Francisco. (He said he liked it because it was accessible to the Western mountains, remote from New York cultural domination, and virtually the only major American city that was not settled by puritans but by “gamblers, prostitutes, rascals, and fortune seekers.”) In the thirties and forties he played an active role in a number of libertarian, civil rights and antiwar groups (during World War II he was a conscientious objector), and he was the leading spirit in the literary and cultural ferment that led to the postwar San Francisco Renaissance. During the fifties and sixties he wrote poems, plays, essays and social criticism, translated poetry from seven languages, presented book reviews and other programs over noncommercial radio KPFA, and pioneered the reading of poetry to jazz.

In 1968 he moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he taught courses in underground poetry and song. Apart from several extended visits to Japan, he lived there until his death in 1982.

* * *

I was fortunate enough to get to know him a little in the sixties, when I attended a class he was giving at San Francisco State College. He had been at odds with academia all his life (he called the universities “fog factories”), but by this time his stature was so undeniable and there was such a demand for “relevance” in education that he was allowed to create whatever course he wanted. His “class,” which was certainly more instructive than any other I ever took, consisted simply of open-ended discussions of anything and everything, along with occasional other activities such as group dramatic performances.

He was generally pretty sympathetic to the recent countercultural developments in which most of us were involved, but he tempered our naïve enthusiasms with a healthy dose of humor and skepticism, made us aware of larger perspectives — comparing Bob Dylan with underground French singers we had never heard of, or declaring that the greatest psychedelic artist was some medieval mystic who had painted her own visions, or heartily approving the most radical antiwar actions while cautioning us against the manipulations of bureaucratic leftists. Occasionally, aroused by some social atrocity or some instance of personal meanness, he would lash out with a withering attack. Usually he just genially bantered with people. He rarely harped on his own views, but amid the give and take of conversation he would slip in a joke or an anecdote that would subtly undercut our illusions and put in a new light whatever we were talking about. Sometimes months or years later I would remember some seemingly offhand remark he had made and suddenly realize what his point was, and appreciate how modestly and tactfully he had made it.

His drawling, gravelly voice recalled W.C. Fields’s, and in his public appearances he sometimes adopted a sort of Fieldsian oratorical manner to go along with it. “That reminds me of a time [eyes rolled back nostalgically] when I was talking to Lewis Mumford — a man with whom I usually agree [muttered out of the side of his mouth] — and he said . . .” This ironic showbiz persona was very entertaining, but I think he used it primarily to get his points across without too much solemnity: to the casual observer unaware of the irony he might seem to be merely a slightly pompous, name-dropping old “colorful character” recounting an amusing anecdote. He was no doubt aware of his own merits, but to me he never seemed to be caught up with himself — writing or talking, he was always dialoguing. So many writers call attention to every little finding they’ve come up with; Rexroth would toss off really original insights as if they were just well-known banalities, or attribute his own merits to others — many are the writers he praised for being mature, courageous, widely learned, at home in many cultures, etc., who were actually far less so than he himself. He was reputed to be pretty cantankerous at times, but to me what stands out is his geniality and magnanimity.

But I didn’t know him well enough to say much about his personal life. This book deals mainly with his writings — and only with certain aspects of them. I wrote it for two reasons. I wanted to sort out for myself what I found valuable and what I disagreed with in a writer who has meant a lot to me; and I wanted to interest other people in reading him. I hope I succeed at least in the latter.

* * *

Some of Rexroth’s earliest poems resemble the “cubist” poems of Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy: they break up and restructure verbal elements like cubist painting does with visual elements. They also reflect his studies in primitive song and modern linguistics. He says that this sort of experimental eclecticism, which he shared with many other poets of the twenties, stemmed from the belief that “the current language of society had been debauched by the exploitative uses to which it had been put, and that it was necessary to find gaps in the structure of communication which were still fluent and through which the mind of the reader could be assaulted.”4 Eventually he came to feel that he could achieve the same effects within more accessible forms. Apart from those few early exceptions most of his poems are pretty straightforward and need little or no explication.

An academic critic once sarcastically referred to Rexroth, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen as “members of the bear-shit-on-the-trail school of poetry.”5 Rexroth, of course, took this as a compliment. He often spent months at a time in the woods and mountains, and quite a few of his poems reflect his experiences there. In one of the most beautiful he is lying beside a waterfall reading The Signature of All Things by Jakob Boehme, the visionary mystic who “saw the world as streaming in the electrolysis of love.”

Through the deep July day the leaves
Of the laurel, all the colors
Of gold, spin down through the moving
Deep laurel shade all day. They float
On the mirrored sky and forest
For a while, and then, still slowly
Spinning, sink through the crystal deep
Of the pool to its leaf gold floor. . . .
The wren broods in her moss domed nest.
A newt struggles with a white moth
Drowning in the pool. The hawks scream,
Playing together on the ceiling
Of heaven. The long hours go by.6

So many of his love poems take place in nature that after a reading he was once asked, “Mr. Rexroth, don’t you ever make love indoors?” In this one he and his lover are lying in a canoe lodged in a waterlily bed in a Midwestern stream.

Let your odorous hair fall across our eyes;
Kiss me with those subtle, melodic lips. . . .
Move softly, move hardly at all, part your thighs,
Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
As this river slides beyond this lily bed,
And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
In our mortal, timeless flesh.7

Back in the city, Rexroth emceed the famous 1955 gathering at which Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl.” As a defense witness at the obscenity trial that soon followed he dumbfounded the prosecutor by remarking that Ginsberg was simply carrying on a venerable tradition, going back to the Biblical prophets who came forth to denounce the iniquities of society. This is equally true of Rexroth’s own “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” a bitter antiestablishment diatribe written a couple years earlier upon the death of Dylan Thomas, which somewhat resembles and probably influenced Ginsberg’s poem:

You are murdering the young men. . . .
The hyena with polished face and bow tie,
In the office of a billion dollar
Corporation devoted to service;
The vulture dripping with carrion,
Carefully and carelessly robed in imported tweeds,
Lecturing on the Age of Abundance;
The jackal in double-breasted gabardine,
Barking by remote control,
In the United Nations . . .8

Besides these three main themes of “sex, mysticism and revolution,” there are satirical epigrams (this one is on British cooking)—

How can they write or paint
In a country where it
Would be nicer to be
Fed intravenously?9

Elegies (this is from one in memory of his first wife, Andrée) —

I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.10

Family scenes (in this one, which may seem strange to people raised in our increasingly illiterate age, he is fishing while one of his daughters sits nearby reading Homer) —

Mary is seven. Homer
Is her favorite author.
. . . She says, “Aren’t those gods
Terrible? All they do is
Fight like those angels in Milton
And play tricks on the poor Greeks
And Trojans. I like Aias
And Odysseus best. They are
Lots better than those silly

And a variety of other genres too numerous to quote — lyrics to music (folk tunes, Elizabethan tunes, Erik Satie, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman); Buddhist meditations in Japan, recited to koto and shakuhachi (“The Silver Swan,” “On Flower Wreath Hill”); feminine mystical-erotic poems which he pretended he had translated from a young Japanese woman (“The Love Poems of Marichiko”); surreal Mother Goose rhymes and a subversive “Bestiary” for his children; reminiscences comic (“Portrait of the Author as a Young Anarchist”), erotic (“When We With Sappho”) and nostalgic (“A Living Pearl”); memorials to repressed revolutions (“From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion”); open letters (“A Letter to William Carlos Williams,” “Fundamental Disagreement with Two Contemporaries” addressed to Tristan Tzara and André Breton); and translations from Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese (including several volumes of Oriental women poets). [Many of these poems are online at this website.]

What I think of as especially characteristic of Rexroth’s poetry is the way he interrelates even the most disparate and seemingly incongruous topics. However immersed in nature, he always remains aware of the human world, and the juxtaposition of the two realms cuts through both nature sentimentality and civilized pettiness. Watching the constellations, he envisions the Spanish Civil War (“Requiem for the Spanish Dead”). Climbing in the mountains, he remembers Sacco and Vanzetti (“Climbing Milestone Mountain,” “Fish Peddler and Cobbler”). Erotic relations interweave with evocations of the elegant mathematical relations that order the universe (“Golden Section,” “Theory of Numbers”). Elegiac reveries drift from poetry to history to nature to society:

The centuries have changed little in this art,
The subjects are still the same.
“For Christ’s sake take off your clothes and get into bed,
We are not going to live forever.”
“Petals fall from the rose,”
We fall from life,
Values fall from history like men from shellfire,
Only a minimum survives,
Only an unknown achievement.
They can put it all on the headstones,
In all the battlefields,
“Poor guy, he never knew what it was all about.”
Spectacled men will come with shovels in a thousand years,
Give lectures in universities on cultural advances, cultural lags. . . .
This year we made four major ascents,
Camped for two weeks at timberline,
Watched Mars swim close to the earth,
Watched the black aurora of war
Spread over the sky of a decayed civilization.
These are the last terrible years of authority.
The disease has reached its crisis,
Ten thousand years of power,
The struggle of two laws,
The rule of iron and spilled blood,
The abiding solidarity of living blood and brain.12

I quote this fairly typical passage at some length to give you an idea of the tone and flow of his poetry; but it is difficult to convey just how widely he ranges and how complexly he interrelates without quoting whole pages. You can see this especially in the “philosophical reveries” gathered in his Collected Longer Poems. In the longest and most interesting one, The Dragon and the Unicorn, which recounts a trip he took to Europe in 1949, the chronological narration of his travels and encounters is interspersed with pointed cultural and political comments and with more abstract philosophical or mystical passages. The latter act as a counterpoint to the narrative, sometimes moving independently with no apparent relation to it; sometimes seeming to comment on it (a description of a bohemian gathering is followed by a discourse on the dilemma of isolated persons in a world of reification); sometimes clashing with it (a denunciation of some miserable social reality is followed by a vision of universal community). Rexroth notes that these passages of comment should be taken with a grain of salt — they are part of an internal dialogue and are often juxtaposed with complementary or contrasting viewpoints. In one place, for example, he declares: “The only Absolute is the Community of Love with which Time ends,”13 but in another: “The Absolute as a community of love . . . I doubt if I believe it, but it seems to me a more wholesome metaphysical metaphor than most.”14

To my taste Rexroth’s philosophical reveries are much more interesting than the comparable works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound — two poets he heartily disliked and whose influence he combatted all his life. At their best they may be “greater” poets (though even that is debatable), but Rexroth is certainly a saner and wiser one. He has none of Eliot’s snobbery or neurotic prissiness, and even at his crustiest he is far less cranky, obsessive and self-indulgent than Pound. You can take his reflections seriously without having to make allowances for some absurd reactionary ideology.

During the reign of Eliot, Rexroth found most American poetry to be “dull academic stuff by petty people who lead dull, petty, academic lives. In the right circles it has been thought terribly unfashionable to write about anything so vulgar as love, death, nature — any of the real things that happen to real people.”15 Against this state of affairs he was constantly insisting on relevance, putting things back into perspective. Speaking of jazz poetry, he noted that despite its apparent innovativeness it simply “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.”16 When Eliot pontificated on the need for “tradition” and disparaged William Blake as a naïve eccentric who made up his system from scratch, Rexroth observed: “Mr. Eliot’s tradition goes back to Aquinas as interpreted in the pages of L’Action Française. Blake’s goes back to the Memphite Theology and the Pyramid Texts.”17 While academic poets followed Eliot’s pseudoclassical doctrine that poetry should be “impersonal,” Rexroth was writing poems that are classical in the truest sense, mature personal responses to the real issues of life — right in the tradition of Sappho, Petronius, Hitomaro, Tu Fu and the other classic poets he translated so superbly.

Rexroth sometimes played down his essays as mere “journalism” written to pay the rent while he pursued his primary work as a poet, but that is one point on which I have never taken him seriously. He is certainly one of my favorite poets, but as an essayist I think he is in a class by himself. I don’t know any other so lively and so sane, so large-minded, so pithy and so bracing. He titles one of his collections Assays to recall Montaigne’s original sense of the word essai: trial, test, experiment, attempt to come to grips with reality. One of the essays in that volume celebrates another writer he resembles in more ways than one: “Those guffawing, tobacco-spitting travel books that made Mark Twain’s reputation in the first place and that gave Van Wyck Brooks fainting spells are fundamentally right. Always Mark Twain points out the human meaning of St. Peter’s or the pyramids or the Pantheon.”18 This is just what Rexroth does. He is more sophisticated than Twain, and less corny, but he has the same gusto, the same worldly-wise irony, the same wry, skeptical, down-to-earth outlook he sums up in his essay on American humor:

These are the key words of great — classic — epic — Homeric — humor. A sense of the consistent principle of incongruity on which Nature, for all our science and philosophy, really operates. The realization that the accepted, official version of anything is most likely false and that all authority is based on fraud. The courage to face and act on these two conclusions. The appreciation of the wonderful hilarity of the processes of human procreation and elimination. The acceptance of the prime fact that nobody made it that way — it just happened. . . . Life is all a great joke — but only the brave ever get the point.19

I don’t want to give the impression that he was merely a crackerbarrel philosopher. Most self-educated people have a lot of blind spots, but Rexroth seems to have explored just about all the areas of human endeavor systematically, many of them deeply. The range of his reading was truly astonishing — histories, cookbooks, nature guides, geology surveys, ethnology reports, political polemics, theological treatises, the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica . . . He reviewed several thousand books over KPFA alone, and that was only a public-service sideline (a half-hour program every week for twenty years).

Yet he does not seem at all bookish. Whether he is writing about ancient Chinese science or American Indian songs or Van Gogh’s paintings or “Rimbaud as Capitalist Adventurer,” all this erudition is digested, connected, and grounded in personal experience. His essays on jazz [see Some Thoughts on Jazz and Five More Articles on Jazz], for example, reveal a sound knowledge of its technical aspects (comparisons with classical music, etc.), but above all he zeroes in on its human history, its social roles, the lives of its creators, the conditions of its performance. He may reminisce about dancing at jazz clubs in the twenties, or recount a conversation with Charlie Parker or Charlie Mingus to debunk the Beats’ jazz mystique, or (discussing the connection of music with the rhythms of sex and dance and work) throw in a passing remark like “Anybody who has ever worked on the range knows that not only does the true cowboy ballad swing in ‘horse time,’ but that you can change the pace of your horse by changing the rhythm of your song.”20

Once in a while, particularly in the more ephemeral articles that he dashed off at the last minute, he will come out with some extravagant or even preposterous pronouncement. But by and large I think his opinions are pretty well founded. You won’t agree with all of them (many are in any case just matters of taste), but what he says is almost always provocative. Criticizing the superficiality of Ionesco’s satires, he says: “A satirical art which beats only dead dogs . . . leaves the audience with comfortable feelings of amused superiority.”21 Rexroth is more likely to puncture one of your own illusions and leave you realizing all you’ve still got to learn.

He said he tried to write like he talked, and he did. His autobiography and many of his essays were in fact not really “written” at all, but spoken ad lib, recorded and transcribed with minimal editing. Yet however he seems to digress, to hop around spontaneously from topic to topic, when he is done you realize how unerringly he has gotten to the heart of the matter. In his essay on Marcus Aurelius he wants to convey how far philosophy has declined since it related to real issues of life. Look how he brings this home in one droll, unforgettable image: “If a college student’s mother died, his girl got pregnant, he acquired a loathsome disease, or he decided to become a conscientious objector, would he go to his philosophy professor for advice?”22 He always brings things back to basics. His gist can usually be understood at first reading, even if you are unfamiliar with the books and ideas and events to which he refers; but there is always plenty more to sink your teeth into, and lots of intriguing hints for further explorations. I’ve read some of his essays so many times I practically know them by heart, yet each time I go back I discover things I hadn’t noticed before. Even when his topic is something in which I have no particular interest, I still find him hard to put down. It’s not just that he has an engaging style, it’s that his breadth of vision puts whatever he is dealing with in a fresh perspective.

But he does have an engaging style, always recognizable yet as variegated as his topics. He can be free and easygoing (“a lot of Mozart sounds like a country boy whistling along his way to the swimming hole”)23 or as hard-boiled as Hammett or Chandler, of whose work he says: “The secret of this kind of writing is that it isn’t buying anything and it isn’t selling anything.”24 In a phrase he can evoke the Yiddish world of Isaac Singer (“those passionate arguments that used to sprinkle the whiskers with sour cream”)25 or epitomize the mordant, cynical style of Tacitus (“a style like a tray of dental instruments”).26 But he knows that “style never is just a matter of style, but the outward sign and garb of an inner spiritual state.”27 If he discusses a poet’s prosody, it is not a mere academic exercise: he will show how it reflects a way of looking at things, a response to life. Denise Levertov’s, for instance, is “a kind of animal grace of the word, a pulse like the footfalls of a cat or the wingbeats of a gull. It is the intense aliveness of an alert domestic love — the wedding of form and content in poems which themselves celebrate a kind of perpetual wedding of two persons always realized as two responsible sensibilities.”28 You never read very far in his aesthetic discussions without coming upon some worldly-wise social or moral or psychological connection. “The interiority of the characters [in Defoe’s novels] is revealed by their elaborately presented outside. When they talk about their own motives, their psychology, their morals, their self-analyses and self-justifications are to be read backwards, as of course is true of most people.”29

As a debunker of the imbecilities of mass culture Rexroth can be as entertaining as H.L. Mencken —

This stuff [Maoist “proletarian literature”] is ridiculous and resembles nothing so much as nineteenth-century Sunday school stories of the little Roman boy who helped his sister escape from the lions, defied the minions of the emperor, ran errands for St. Paul and went to heaven.30

And just as scathing —

Television is designed to arouse the most perverse, sadistic, acquisitive drives. I mean, a child’s television program is a real vision of hell, and it’s only because we are so used to these things that we pass them over. If any of the people who have had visions of hell, like Virgil or Dante or Homer, were to see these things it would scare them into fits.31

At his crustiest he in fact seems like nothing so much as a deeper and more radical Mencken. But while Mencken delighted in virtually indiscriminate verbal assaults for their own sake, Rexroth’s debunking is always in the context of a positive vision. However outraged or pessimistic he may sometimes be, he is a world apart from that modern glib cynicism that has gotten so out of touch with any human fulfillment that it has nothing left but a dependent love-hate relation to the most delirious manifestations of cultural alienation. Always he relates to the real human life that goes on behind the façade of the inhuman system:

Every day all states do things which, if they were the acts of individuals, would lead to summary arrest and often execution. . . . Most people except politicians and authors work out for themselves, in secret, ways of living which ignore organized society as much as possible. . . . What is called “growing up,” “getting a little common sense,” is largely the learning of techniques for outwitting the more destructive forces at large in the social order. The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it. Without this hidden conspiracy of good will society would not endure an hour.32

Whether or not most people do this, Rexroth is clearly implying his own personal ethic. He’s been around enough to see through what he calls the Social Lie or the Great Fraud — to know that the “official version of anything is most likely false and that all authority is based on fraud.” “An appreciable number of Americans really do believe the Great Fraud of the mass culture, what the French call the hallucination publicitaire. They only know what they read in the papers. They think it is really like the movies. . . . The art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies.”33

This is one of Rexroth’s basic touchstones. Those who do read between the lies are at least to that extent his allies, whatever their other faults. “There is a lot of bullshit in Lawrence, Miller, or Patchen — but their enemies are my enemies.”34 He laughs at Henry Miller as a would-be deep thinker or visionary, but he appreciates him as a great picaresque autobiographer with an instinctive immunity to the Social Lie:

Can you remember when you first started to read? Doubtless you thought that some day you would find in books the truth, the answer to the very puzzling life you were discovering around you. But you never did. If you were alert, you discovered that books were conventions, as unlike life as a game of chess. The written word is a sieve. Only so much of reality gets through as fits the size and shape of the screen, and in some ways that is never enough. . . . Most of the real difficulty of communication comes from social convention, from a vast conspiracy to agree to accept the world as something it really isn’t at all. . . .
        Literature is a social defense mechanism. Remember again when you were a child. You thought that some day you would grow up and find a world of real adults — the people who really made things run — and understand how and why things ran. . . . Then, as the years went on, you learned, through more or less bitter experience, that there aren’t, and never have been, any such people, anywhere. Life is just a mess, full of tall children, grown stupider, less alert and resilient, and nobody knows what makes it go — as a whole, or any part of it. But nobody ever tells.
        Henry Miller tells. Andersen told about the little boy and the Emperor’s new clothes. Miller is the little boy himself. He tells about the Emperor, about the pimples on his behind, and the warts on his private parts, and the dirt between his toes. Other writers in the past have done this, of course, and they are the great ones, the real classics. But they have done it within the conventions of literature. They have used the forms of the Great Lie to expose the truth.35

I’ve never seen any other literary critic write anything quite like that. Rexroth is more knowledgeable and reliable than Miller, but he has the same innocent eye, the same lack of reverence for “Literature-with-a-capital-L,” whether he is reviewing modern writers or reassessing key works of the past.

Most of his essays on the latter are collected in his two-volume Classics Revisited.36 This is certainly a more relevant selection than most choices of the “hundred greatest books.” To mention only one significant difference, most such lists are limited to Western works — a provincialism that is ridiculous in this day and age. Rexroth revisits most of the recognized Western classics, but he also introduces the reader to a number of others that are just as interesting, including basic Oriental works like the Mahabharata, the Tao Te Ching, and what he considers the world’s two greatest novels, Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji and the Chinese Dream of the Red Chamber.

The ancient Middle Eastern story of Gilgamesh (“the first conscious self”), Herodotus’s History, the Bhagavad Gita, the Finnish Kalevala (“the most ecological of epics”), the poetry of Tu Fu, the essays of Montaigne (“the inventor of the empiric ego”), Don Quixote, The Tempest, the memoirs of Casanova (“natural man living at the highest pitch”), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (“the first black comedy”), War and Peace and Huckleberry Finn are just a few of the other “basic documents in the history of the imagination” whose pertinence Rexroth reveals in these amazingly pithy little essays. East or West, ancient or recent, he cuts across historical and cultural distances to make the most far-ranging connections. Catullus’s sensibility “is the material of the lyrics of Bob Dylan.” The characters in Njal’s Saga “are adult in a fashion unknown to Homer’s Agamemnon or Proust’s Swann.” “Most of the great British ballads could be turned into Nô plays and vice versa.” Baudelaire, of all people, arrives at a vision “not unlike Buddhism in its starkest form.”

Part of the interest of these works is of course precisely their contrast to the present, the revelation of how people in other times and places lived and thought. But Rexroth always points out the things that remain the same amid all the differences: “Kerouac’s On the Road differs vastly from The Satyricon in lack of insight, irony, and literary skill, but its characters are all drawn from the same unchanged class.” Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses “assumes a world like our celebrities, our international Jet Sets. . . . It is a description of people we know.”

Some writers directly foreshadow our present condition: William Blake “could diagnose the early symptoms of the world ill because he saw them as signs that man was being deprived of literally half his being. . . . He is in fact concerned with the epic tragedy of mankind as it enters an epoch of depersonalization unequalled in history.” Baudelaire “is the founder of the modern sensibility . . . . Some learn to cope with this sensibility. He was at its mercy, because he embodied it totally. He lived in a permanent crisis of the moral nervous system. His conviction that social relationships were one immense lie was physiological.”

In other cases there may be no direct connection, but an illuminating parallel: “During the long war with Sparta, Athenian life became widely neurotic. A new type of interpersonal sickness came into being. The organs of reciprocity were crippled. Words for human relationships lost their meanings and turned into their opposites. Thucydides describes this derangement of communication at length in one of his greatest passages, a diagnosis of the internalization of madness of war which sounds like a description of contemporary America.”

On the other hand, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ostensibly a celebration of the America of his time, actually envisions “a social order whose essence is the liberation and universalization of selfhood.” His people “all seem to be working for ‘nothing,’ participants in a universal creative effort in which each discovers his ultimate individuation. . . . Today we know that it is Whitman’s vision or nothing.”

Whether a work represents a turning point of the past or envisions a potential future, Rexroth’s ultimate test is whether it remains true to the perennial human realities, whether it really “tells.” Reviewing some new translations of the Greek tragedies, he says:

They say our civilization is based on the Bible, Homer and the Greek tragedians. For my taste, the Bible is a dangerous book, because it can be, and with few exceptions has been, interpreted to give guarantees to life that life in fact never offers. Here in these plays, as in Homer, is life as it really is, men as we really are, when we beat our wives or cheat our grocer or plan our perfect societies or run for office or write our poems — but projected against the empty and splendid heavens, and made noble. Take away the costumes and the grand language, it is the same pride, the same doom haunting Orestes that haunts every Certified Public Accountant, every housewife, every automobile salesman. How much nicer people, and how much happier, they’d all be if they only knew it. Here is their chance to learn.37


Chapter 1 of Ken Knabb’s The Relevance of Rexroth (1990). Reprinted in Public Secrets.

This text as a whole is not copyrighted. However, all the quotations from Kenneth Rexroth are copyrighted. Click the “Notes” link below for details.

[Contents of this book]
[Chapter 2: Magnanimity and Mysticism]
[Chapter 3: Society and Revolution]
[Notes and Bibliography]