Rexroth Poems (1950s)


For Eli Jacobson
Thou Shalt Not Kill
From A Bestiary
The Bad Old Days
Portrait of the Author as a Young Anarchist
They Say This Isn’t a Poem
Fish Peddler and Cobbler
Homer in Basic





December 1952

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.
In our young days we believed
That as we grew old and fell
Out of rank, new recruits, young
And with the wisdom of youth,
Would take our places and they
Surely would grow old in the
Golden Age. They have not come.
They will not come. There are not
Many of us left. Once we
Marched in closed ranks, today each
Of us fights off the enemy,
A lonely isolated guerrilla.
All this has happened before,
Many times. It does not matter.
We were comrades together.
Life was good for us. It is
Good to be brave — nothing is
Better. Food tastes better. Wine
Is more brilliant. Girls are more
Beautiful. The sky is bluer
For the brave — for the brave and
Happy comrades and for the
Lonely brave retreating warriors.
You had a good life. Even all
Its sorrows and defeats and
Disillusionments were good,
Met with courage and a gay heart.
You are gone and we are that
Much more alone. We are one fewer,
Soon we shall be none. We know now
We have failed for a long time.
And we do not care. We few will
Remember as long as we can,
Our children may remember,
Some day the world will remember.
Then they will say, “They lived in
The days of the good comrades.
It must have been wonderful
To have been alive then, though it
Is very beautiful now.”
We will be remembered, all
Of us, always, by all men,
In the good days now so far away.
If the good days never come,
We will not know. We will not care.
Our lives were the best. We were the
Happiest men alive in our day.





A Memorial for Dylan Thomas


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 men.
They know ten thousand ways to kill them.
Every year they invent new ones.
In the jungles of Africa,
In the marshes of Asia,
In the deserts of Asia,
In the slave pens of Siberia,
In the slums of Europe,
In the nightclubs of America,
The murderers are at work.

They are stoning Stephen,
They are casting him forth from every city in the world.
Under the Welcome sign,
Under the Rotary emblem,
On the highway in the suburbs,
His body lies under the hurling stones.
He was full of faith and power.
He did great wonders among the people.
They could not stand against his wisdom.
They could not bear the spirit with which he spoke.
He cried out in the name
Of the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness.
They were cut to the heart.
They gnashed against him with their teeth.
They cried out with a loud voice.
They stopped their ears.
They ran on him with one accord.
They cast him out of the city and stoned him.
The witnesses laid down their clothes
At the feet of a man whose name was your name —

You are the murderer.
You are killing the young men.
You are broiling Lawrence on his gridiron.
When you demanded he divulge
The hidden treasures of the spirit,
He showed you the poor.
You set your heart against him.
You seized him and bound him with rage.
You roasted him on a slow fire.
His fat dripped and spurted in the flame.
The smell was sweet to your nose.
He cried out,
“I am cooked on this side,
Turn me over and eat,
Eat of my flesh.”

You are murdering the young men.
You are shooting Sebastian with arrows.
He kept the faithful steadfast under persecution.
First you shot him with arrows.
Then you beat him with rods.
Then you threw him in a sewer.
You fear nothing more than courage.
You who turn away your eyes
At the bravery of 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;
The vampire bat seated at the couch head,
Notebook in hand, toying with his decerebrator;
The autonomous, ambulatory cancer,
The Superego in a thousand uniforms;
You, the finger man of behemoth,
The murderer of the young men.


What happened to Robinson,
Who used to stagger down Eighth Street,
Dizzy with solitary gin?
Where is Masters, who crouched in
His law office for ruinous decades?
Where is Leonard who thought he was
A locomotive? And Lindsay,
Wise as a dove, innocent
As a serpent, where is he?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.

What became of Jim Oppenheim?
Lola Ridge alone in an
Icy furnished room? Orrick Johns,
Hopping into the surf on his
One leg? Elinor Wylie
Who leaped like Kierkegaard?
Sara Teasdale, where is she?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.

Where is George Sterling, that tame fawn?
Phelps Putnam who stole away?
Jack Wheelwright who couldn’t cross the bridge?
Donald Evans with his cane and
Monocle, where is he?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.

John Gould Fletcher who could not
Unbreak his powerful heart?
Bodenheim butchered in stinking
Squalor? Edna Millay who took
Her last straight whiskey? Genevieve
Who loved so much; where is she?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.

Harry who didn’t care at all?
Hart who went back to the sea?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.

Where is Sol Funaroff?
What happened to Potamkin?
Isidor Schneider? Claude McKay?
Countee Cullen? Clarence Weinstock?
Who animates their corpses today?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.

Where is Ezra, that noisy man?
Where is Larsson whose poems were prayers?
Where is Charles Snider, that gentle
Bitter boy? Carnevali,
What became of him?
Carol who was so beautiful, where is she?
       Timor mortis conturbat me.


Was their end noble and tragic,
Like the mask of a tyrant?
Like Agamemnon’s secret golden face?
Indeed it was not. Up all night
In the fo’c’sle, bemused and beaten,
Bleeding at the rectum, in his
Pocket a review by the one
Colleague he respected, “If he
Really means what these poems
Pretend to say, he has only
One way out —.” Into the
Hot acrid Caribbean sun,
Into the acrid, transparent,
Smoky sea. Or another, lice in his
Armpits and crotch, garbage littered
On the floor, gray greasy rags on
The bed. “I killed them because they
Were dirty, stinking Communists.
I should get a medal.” Again,
Another, Simenon foretold
His end at a glance. “I dare you
To pull the trigger.” She shut her eyes
And spilled gin over her dress.
The pistol wobbled in his hand.
It took them hours to die.
Another threw herself downstairs,
And broke her back. It took her years.
Two put their heads under water
In the bath and filled their lungs.
Another threw himself under
The traffic of a crowded bridge.
Another, drunk, jumped from a
Balcony and broke her neck.
Another soaked herself in
Gasoline and ran blazing
Into the street and lived on
In custody. One made love
Only once with a beggar woman.
He died years later of syphilis
Of the brain and spine. Fifteen
Years of pain and poverty,
While his mind leaked away.
One tried three times in twenty years
To drown himself. The last time
He succeeded. One turned on the gas
When she had no more food, no more
Money, and only half a lung.
One went up to Harlem, took on
Thirty men, came home and
Cut her throat. One sat up all night
Talking to H.L. Mencken and
Drowned himself in the morning.
How many stopped writing at thirty?
How many went to work for Time?
How many died of prefrontal
Lobotomies in the Communist Party?
How many are lost in the back wards
Of provincial madhouses?
How many on the advice of
Their psychoanalysts, decided
A business career was best after all?
How many are hopeless alcoholics?
René Crevel!
Jacques Rigaud!
Antonin Artaud!
Robert Desnos!
Saint Pol Roux!
Max Jacob!
All over the world
The same disembodied hand
Strikes us down.
Here is a mountain of death.
A hill of heads like the Khans piled up.
The first-born of a century
Slaughtered by Herod.
Three generations of infants
Stuffed down the maw of Moloch.


He is dead.
The bird of Rhiannon.
He is dead.
In the winter of the heart.
He is Dead.
In the canyons of death,
They found him dumb at last,
In the blizzard of lies.
He never spoke again.
He died.
He is dead.
In their antiseptic hands,
He is dead.
The little spellbinder of Cader Idris.
He is dead.
The sparrow of Cardiff.
He is dead.
The canary of Swansea.
Who killed him?
Who killed the bright-headed bird?
You did, you son of a bitch.
You drowned him in your cocktail brain.
He fell down and died in your synthetic heart.
You killed him,
Oppenheimer the Million-Killer,
You killed him,
Einstein the Gray Eminence.
You killed him,
Havanahavana, with your Nobel Prize.
You killed him, General,
Through the proper channels.
You strangled him, Le Mouton,
With your mains étendues.
He confessed in open court to a pince-nezed skull.
You shot him in the back of the head
As he stumbled in the last cellar.
You killed him,
Benign Lady on the postage stamp.
He was found dead at a Liberal Weekly luncheon.
He was found dead on the cutting room floor.
He was found dead at a Time policy conference.
Henry Luce killed him with a telegram to the Pope.
Mademoiselle strangled him with a padded brassiere.
Old Possum sprinkled him with a tea ball.
After the wolves were done, the vaticides
Crawled off with his bowels to their classrooms and quarterlies.
When the news came over the radio
You personally rose up shouting, “Give us Barabbas!”
In your lonely crowd you swept over him.
Your custom-built brogans and your ballet slippers
Pummeled him to death in the gritty street.
You hit him with an album of Hindemith.
You stabbed him with stainless steel by Isamu Noguchi,
He is dead.
He is Dead.
Like Ignacio the bullfighter,
At four o’clock in the afternoon.
At precisely four o’clock.
I too do not want to hear it.
I too do not want to know it.
I want to run into the street,
Shouting, “Remember Vanzetti!”
I want to pour gasoline down your chimneys.
I want to blow up your galleries.
I want to bum down your editorial offices.
I want to slit the bellies of your frigid women.
I want to sink your sailboats and launches.
I want to strangle your children at their finger paintings.
I want to poison your Afghans and poodles.
He is dead, the little drunken cherub.
He is dead,
The effulgent tub thumper.
He is Dead.
The ever living birds are not singing
To the head of Bran.
The sea birds are still
Over Bardsey of Ten Thousand Saints.
The underground men are not singing
On their way to work.
There is a smell of blood
In the smell of the turf smoke.
They have struck him down,
The son of David ap Gwilym.
They have murdered him,
The Baby of Taliessin.
There he lies dead,
By the Iceberg of the United Nations.
There he lies sandbagged,
At the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
The Gulf Stream smells of blood
As it breaks on the sand of Iona
And the blue rocks of Canarvon.
And all the birds of the deep sea rise up
Over the luxury liners and scream,
“You killed him! You killed him.
In your God damned Brooks Brothers suit,
You son of a bitch.”





for my daughters, Mary and Katherine


The lion is called the king
Of beasts. Nowadays there are
Almost as many lions
In cages as out of them.
If offered a crown, refuse.

Someday, if you are lucky,
You’ll each have one for your own.
Try it before you pick it.
Some kinds are made of soybeans.
Give it lots to eat and sleep.
Treat it nicely and it will
Always do just what you want.

The raccoon wears a black mask,
And he washes everything
Before he eats it. If you
Give him a cube of sugar,
He’ll wash it away and weep.
Some of life’s sweetest pleasures
Can be enjoyed only if
You don’t mind a little dirt.
Here a false face won’t help you.

The trout is taken when he
Bites an artificial fly.
Confronted with fraud, keep your
Mouth shut and don’t volunteer.

Uncle Sam
Like the unicorn, Uncle
Sam is what is called a myth.
Plato wrote a book which is
An occult conspiracy
Of gentlemen pederasts.
In it he said ideas
Are more nobly real than
Reality, and that myths
Help keep people in their place.
Since you will never become,
Under any circumstances,
Gentlemen pederasts, you’d
Best leave there blood-soaked notions
To those who find them useful.

St. Thomas Aquinas thought
That vultures were lesbians
And fertilized by the wind.
If you seek the facts of life,
Papist intellectuals
Can be very misleading.

Let Y stand for you who says,
“Very clever, but surely
These were not written for your
Children?” Let Y stand for yes.





Lying here quietly beside you,
My cheek against your firm, quiet thighs,
The calm music of Boccherini
Washing over us in the quiet,
As the sun leaves the housetops and goes
Out over the Pacific, quiet --
So quiet the sun moves beyond us,
So quiet as the sun always goes,
So quiet, our bodies, worn with the
Times and the penances of love, our
Brains curled, quiet in their shells, dormant,
Our hearts slow, quiet, reliable
In their interlocked rhythms, the pulse
In your thigh caressing my cheek. Quiet.





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.




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.






All that is is a harmony,
Otherwise it would not endure.
Harmony of the parts with the whole
Is the definition of goodness.
Therefore all that is is good.
Man is part of all that is, so
He is part of its harmony.
Therefore he is by nature good.
Insofar as he knows what is,
He knows it because he is
Within himself a harmony
Of parts in a whole, of the same
Kind as all that is. Therefore,
The harmony of all that is
Without man can unite with
The harmony of all that is
Within man as a knowable
Good, an inner moral good.
But if this good is known within
By one party, man, it must
Also be known by the other
Party, All That Is, hence he who
Is in perfect accord with All
That Is can act upon It
Without effort, with a kind
Of reciprocity, like acts
Of the mutual love of friends.
How beautiful and specious
And how stinking with the blood
Of wars and crucifixions.


The order of the universe
Is only a reflection
Of the human will and reason.
All being is contingent,
No being is self-subsistent.
All objects are moved by others.
No object moves itself.
All beings are caused by others.
No being is its own cause.
There is no perfect being.
Being has no economy.
Entities are multiplied
Without necessity. They
Have no sufficient reason.
The only order of nature
Is the orderly relation
Of one person to another.
Non-personal relations
Are by nature chaotic.
Personal relations are
The pattern through which we see
Nature as systematic.
Homer, and all sensible
Men since, have told us again
And again, the universe —
The great principles and forces
That move the world — have order
Only as a reflection
Of the courage, loyalty,
Love, and honesty of men.
By themselves they are cruel
And utterly frivolous.
The man who yields to them goes mad,
Kills his child, his wife or friend
And dies in the bloody dust,
Having destroyed the treasured
Labor of other men’s hands.
He who outwits them survives
To grow old in his own home.





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.”





Rainy, smoky Fall, clouds tower
In the brilliant Pacific sky.
In Golden Gate Park, the peacocks
Scream, wandering through falling leaves.
In clotting nights in smoking dark,
The Kronstadt sailors are marching
Through the streets of Budapest. The stones
Of the barricades rise up and shiver
Into form. They take the shapes
Of the peasant armies of Makhno.
The streets are lit with torches.
The gasoline drenched bodies
Of the Solovetsky anarchists
Burn at every street corner.
Kropotkin’s starved corpse is borne
In state past the offices
Of the cowering bureaucrats.
In all the Politisolators
Of Siberia the partisan dead are enlisting.
Berneri, Andreas Nin,
Are coming from Spain with a legion.
Carlo Tresca is crossing
The Atlantic with the Berkman Brigade.
Bukharin has joined the Emergency
Economic Council. Twenty million
Dead Ukrainian peasants are sending wheat.
Julia Poyntz is organizing American nurses.
Gorky has written a manifesto
“To the Intellectuals of the World!”
Mayakofsky and Essenin
Have collaborated on an ode,
“Let Them Commit Suicide.”
In the Hungarian night
All the dead are speaking with one voice,
As we bicycle through the green
And sunspotted California
November. I can hear that voice
Clearer than the cry of the peacocks,
In the falling afternoon.
Like painted wings, the color
Of all the leaves of Autumn,
The circular tie-dyed skirt
I made for you flares out in the wind,
Over your incomparable thighs.
Oh splendid butterfly of my imagination,
Flying into reality more real
Than all imagination, the evil
Of the world covets your living flesh.





Always for thirty years now
I am in the mountains in
August. For thirty Augusts
Your ghosts have stood up over
The mountains. That was nineteen
Twenty seven. Now it is
Nineteen fifty seven. Once
More after thirty years I
Am back in the mountains of
Youth, back in the Gros Ventres,
The broad park-like valleys and
The tremendous cubical
Peaks of the Rockies. I learned
To shave hereabouts, working
As cookee and night wrangler.
Nineteen twenty two, the years
Of revolutionary
Hope that came to an end as
The iron fist began to close.
No one electrocuted me.
Nothing happened. Time passed.
Something invisible was gone.
We thought then that we were the men
Of the years of the great change,
That we were the forerunners
Of the normal life of mankind.
We thought that soon all things would
Be changed, not just economic
And social relationships, but
Painting, poetry, music, dance,
Architecture, even the food
We ate and the clothes we wore
Would be ennobled. It will take
Longer than we expected.
These mountains are unchanged since
I was a boy wandering
Over the West, picking up
Odd jobs. If anything they are
Wilder. A moose cow blunders
Into camp. Beavers slap their tails
On their sedgy pond as we fish
From on top of their lodge in the
Twilight. The horses feed on bright grass
In meadows full of purple gentian,
And stumble through silver dew
In the full moonlight.
The fish taste of meadow water.
In the morning on far grass ridges
Above the red rim rock wild sheep
Bound like rubber balls over the
Horizon as the noise of camp
Begins. I catch and saddle
Mary’s little golden horse,
And pack the first Decker saddles
I’ve seen in thirty years. Even
The horse bells have a different sound
From the ones in California.
Canada jays fight over
The last scraps of our pancakes.
On the long sandy pass we ride
Through fields of lavender primrose
While lightning explodes around us.
For lunch Mary catches a two pound
Grayling in the whispering river.
No fourteen thousand foot peaks
Are named Sacco and Vanzetti.
Not yet. The clothes I wear
Are as unchanged as the Decker
Saddles on the pack horses.
America grows rich on the threat of death.
Nobody bothers anarchists anymore.
Coming back we lay over
In Ogden for ten hours.
The courthouse square was full
Of miners and lumberjacks and
Harvest hands and gandy dancers
With broken hands and broken
Faces sleeping off cheap wine drunks
In the scorching heat, while tired
Savage eyed whores paraded the street.





Glitter of Nausicaä’s
Embroideries, flashing arms,
And heavy hung maiden hair;
Doing the laundry, the wind
Brisk in the bright air
Of the Mediterranean day.
Odysseus, hollow cheeked,
Wild eyed, bursts from the bushes.
Mary sits by the falling
Water reading Homer while
I fish for mottled brook trout
In the sun mottled riffles.
They are small and elusive.
The stream is almost fished out.
Water falls through shimmering
Paneled light between the red
Sequoias, over granite
And limestone, under green ferns
And purple lupin. Time was
I caught huge old trout in these
Pools and eddies. These are three
Years old at the very most.
Mary is seven. Homer
Is her favorite author.
It took me a lifetime of
Shames and wastes to understand
Homer. 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
Gods.” Like the ability
To paint, she will probably
Outgrow this wisdom. It too
Will wither away as she
Matures and a whole lifetime
Will be spent getting it back.
Now she teaches Katharine
The profound wisdom of seven
And Katharine responds with
The profound nonsense of three.
Grey haired in granite mountains,
I catch baby fish. Ten fish,
And Homer, and two little
Girls pose for a picture by
The twenty foot wide, cinnamon
Red trunk of a sequoia.
As I snap the camera,
It occurs to me that this
Tree was as big as the pines
Of Olympos, not just before
Homer sang, but before Troy
Ever fell or Odysseus
Ever sailed from home.




Thou Shalt Not Kill. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died November 1953. Rexroth discusses him in Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation. It would be too tedious to annotate all the people mentioned in this poem. Some are well known (“Ezra, that noisy man” is Ezra Pound and “Old Possum” is T.S. Eliot), many are not. Suffice it to say that most of them were poets who killed themselves, whether quickly or slowly (e.g. by drinking themselves to death, as Thomas did), or who went insane or came to other unpleasant ends (Max Jacob and Robert Desnos, for example, both died in Nazi concentration camps), or who ended up giving in to despair and resignation. Stephen, Sebastian, and Lawrence were martyred saints, but “Lawrence” is probably also intended to suggest D.H. Lawrence. Timor mortis conturbat me (the Latin refrain from William Dunbar’s 16th-century lament for dead poets) means “The fear of death torments me.” Rexroth did a powerful reading of this poem with jazz accompaniment which originally appeared on Poetry Readings in the Cellar (Fantasy Records, 1959) and which has recently been reissued as a CD, available here.

The Bad Old Days. The Jungle (1906) is Upton Sinclair’s famous novelistic exposé of the Chicago meat-packing industry. The Research Magnificent (1915) is a novel by H.G. Wells.

Noretorp-Noretsyh is a response to the Russian army’s crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. The title is an inversion of “hysteron-proteron” — a figure of speech in which the usual or logical order of terms is reversed. In the case of Hungary, the former revolutionary forces have evolved into a new force of oppression, making necessary a new rebellion. Rexroth imagines yet more turnabouts, with all the vanquished rebels of the past returning to carry on the struggle. The anarchist Camillo Berneri and the revolutionary Marxist Andrés Nin were both murdered by the Stalinists in Barcelona in May 1937; Carlo Tresca and Julia (Juliet) Poyntz are both thought to have been murdered by American Stalinists; the radical Russian poets Mayakofsky and Essenin both committed suicide; etc. More detailed explanations and illustrations of the historical references can be seen here.

Fish Peddler and Cobbler. See the 1930s selections for two other poems on Sacco and Vanzetti.

Copyright 1956, 1963 Kenneth Rexroth. Copyright 2003 Copper Canyon Press. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press and New Directions Publishing Corp.

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