Prefaces to Rexroth’s Poetry

The Phoenix and the Tortoise
The Art of Worldly Wisdom
The Signature of All Things
Beyond the Mountains
The Dragon and the Unicorn
In Defense of the Earth
Collected Longer Poems




The Phoenix and the Tortoise

The poems in this book might be considered as developing, more or less systematically, a definite point of view. That development proceeds genetically or historically. The classical paraphrases come first. They are mostly from Hellenistic, Byzantine and Late Roman sources, and from Martial. I have tended to select those that best show forth a sense of desperation and abandon in the face of a collapsing system of cultural values. In contrast, there are other epigrams of resignation, the famous Clito epitaph for instance.

Other paraphrases occur in the main body of shorter poems. They are put there because they are more freely treated, and because they provide a transition to the main theme of the poems with which they are associated — the discovery of a basis for the recreation of a system of values in sacramental marriage. The process as I see it goes something like this: from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility — from the Dual to the Other. These poems might well be dedicated to D.H. Lawrence, who died in the attempt to refound a spiritual family. One of the poems is a conscious paraphrase of one of his.

The Phoenix and the Tortoise is an attempt to portray the whole process in historical, personal and physical terms. I have tried to embody in verse the belief that the only valid conservation of value lies in the assumption of unlimited liability, the supernatural identification of the self with the tragic unity of creative process. I hope I have made it clear that I do not believe that the Self does this by an act of Will, by sheer assertion. He who would save his life must lose it.

If the shorter poems might well be dedicated to Lawrence, The Phoenix and the Tortoise might well be dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, the man who, in our time, preeminently has realized the dream of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo died impotent and broken, all his projects half done. He proved that the human will is too small a door for the person to force through into universality. Schweitzer is an outstanding example of a man who found that door which is straight and smaller than a needle’s eye, but through which the universalization of the human soul, the creation of the true person, comes freely, as a guest.




The Art of Worldly Wisdom

These poems have been published in Blues, Pagany, Poetry (USA), the Objectivists’ Anthology, New Masses, Fantasy, Nativity, Morada, Accent, New Directions, and a couple of ephemerids whose names I have forgotten. I wish to make the usual acknowledgments, and particularly to thank Mr. James Laughlin, Mr. Charles Henri Ford, Mr. Louis Zukofsky, Mr. Horace Gregory, and Mr. Malcolm Cowley for their editorial insight and concern, diversely and severally expressed, but nonetheless helpful and intelligent.

Most of these poems were written in a half decade of transition and foreboding — 1927-1932. I have withheld them from permanent publication until the time which produced them was no longer an element in the judgment of their value.

My poetry today, though it employs a more accepted idiom, does not differ fundamentally. These poems are not in quest of hallucination. They owe nothing to the surrealism which was coming into fashion when they were being written. One poem is a sort of polemic by example against two leaders of surrealism. They are intended to be directly communicative, but communicate by means similar to those employed by the cubists in the plastic arts or by Sergei Eisenstein in his early great films — the analysis of reality into simple units and the synthesis of the work of art as a real parallel to experience. With the exception of a few philosophical witticisms and a few polysyllables which I would probably not use today, these poems are built of and articulated around elements which are as simple, sensuous, and passionate as I could find. The ultimate intent is not merely expressive, or even constructive, but communicative, even didactic. The long poem is the second of the series of philosophical elegies which have occupied me off and on for years and differs only technically from Ice Shall Cover Nineveh, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, and The Dragon and the Unicorn. Its theme is the problem of good and evil, act and destiny.

Technically, I suppose most of these poems represent about as advanced a position as American poetry has taken. I can think only of the poems of Walter Arensburg, Gertrude Stein, Walter Lowenfels, and Louis Zukofsky to compare with them. Of course, similar French poetry has long been accepted by all literate people. They are not “difficult” poems in the sense that the Neo-Metaphysical verse of the Reactionary Generation which came after them is difficult. There are no Seven Types of Ambiguity lurking in them. Their elements are as simple as the elementary shapes of a cubist painting and the total poem is as definite and apprehensible as the finished picture.

In prosody, and in certain devices of syntax, they owe much to primitive songs — American Indian, Melanesian, Negro, Negrito, Eskimo, Bushman, etc., and to the study of languages least like the Indo-European group — subjects which greatly interested me then and from which I hoped much new blood could be transfused into English poetry. Medieval Latin poetry, especially the great sequences — in particular of Adam of St. Victor and of Abelard — is another metrical influence.



If I had deliberately set out to manufacture a collector’s item with this book, I could not have done better. In 1948 the Decker Press asked me if I had any manuscripts seeking publication on a regular contract basis. They were anxious to get away from the quasi-vanity publishing they had been doing, and put out books for which the authors did not have to pay. I gave them what might be called my later Juvenilia — poetry written between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. Then I went to Europe. Meanwhile all sorts of things took place with the publishers. Ultimately, the man who was running the business was murdered. When I got back to this country, I received from the executor a few copies of the book, all defectively bound, and most of the sheets. As far as I can make out, between one and two hundred copies had been bound; some went to reviewers, a few to bookshops, and the rest were defective. Possibly fifty altogether got into circulation.

As you can see by the appended errata sheet, there are a number of serious mistakes, and one poem has been cut in half and added to another. Because of the way the pages fall on the sheets, this could not be corrected without unwarranted expense. The errors have all been noted, the title page redesigned, and the binding greatly improved.

In answer to a common criticism of my first preface, I am quite well aware that no art, poetry least of all, “advances.” The word might have been in quotes, and was used in a mildly ironic sense. Let us say that the bulk of these poems represent one of the earliest and most ambitious attempts to use in English the kinds of syntax developed in France since Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire. Again, I am aware that each of them wrote in a distinct idiom. But succeeding poets did synthesize these idioms into one — today the current, accepted speech of poetry over there.

Why did I stop writing this way? I discovered that neither my possible readers nor my colleagues were prepared to bother to try to comprehend. By this I mean not the general public, but the avant-garde who now think these poems are amongst my best work. I feel that in this time, when the world is mortally ill, poetry, as a symbolic criticism of values, should reach as many people as possible, and speak as clearly as possible, without compromising its intent.

Then, too, in the years following the writing of these poems, official American poetry fell into the hands of a generation of political and literary reactionaries who still dominate the quarterlies and the academic world. For me at least, it has been necessary to speak clearly and forcibly against them and all their ways in terms which any literate person not could, but was prepared to try to, understand. I do not think the poems in The Art of Worldly Wisdom are difficult. They are never purposely so, like the work of the Cambridge and Cornbelt Metaphysicals, the Southern Colonels, and the Post-Trotskyites. Published so many years later, these may be the last expression of the generation of Revolutionary Hope, when we really thought we were going to change the world — before Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Bolshevism and Anti-Bolshevism, blacked out twentieth-century culture.

I do not believe that the extension of the sensibility obtained by what is after all largely a revolution in syntax and logical structure is sufficient to warrant isolating oneself from all but a remote future — a future which now we know is unlikely to happen at all. With sufficient hard work, identical results can be obtained by accepted and acceptable methods. If you really do the things the academic nitwits persuade others and sometimes themselves they are doing, your poetry will be quite adequately revolutionary. If you write like the Great Dead, you will expose and destroy the pretensions of the Trivial Living. Homer is fully as revolutionary as Mayakofsky.

Again, a difficult poet runs the danger of being confused with, or even in his old age being taken over by, the enemy. I write for one and one only purpose, to overcome the invincible ignorance of the traduced heart. My poems are acts of force and violence directed against the evil which murders us all. If you like, they are designed not just to overthrow the present State, economic system, and Church, but all prevailing systems of human collectivity altogether. So I have no wish to be confused with, let alone accepted by, the lickspittles, popinjays, toadies, and academicians who read and write for the Vaticide Review, the Ku Klux Klenyon, and Puddle, a Magazine of Piddle. I wish to speak to the youth who have to endure, and are too often destroyed by, the college courses of these gentry, after they have survived being officered by them. I wish to speak to and for those who have had enough of the Social Lie, the Economics of Mass Murder, the Sexual Hoax, and the Domestication of Conspicuous Consumption.

This book was written by a youth, in intervals between soapboxing, organizing harvest stiffs, being beaten up by the Law, and fighting the crumbs in various lockups. It is written for the same kind of youth, even if they aren’t doing the same kind of things, and I hope a few will find it and read it.

The book is dedicated to my first wife, a brave young revolutionary artist who died fighting. If this edition should bear a new dedication, I offer it to Kenneth Patchen, a brave revolutionary artist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil are trying to kill. I feel more kinship with him than with any other living American poet, and he has gone on to develop and extend the techniques I abandoned with this book. Maybe he is right. Maybe I too will come back to them some day, now that he has done the hard work of making them acceptable.



These are the earliest poems of mine to survive and they have met with considerable critical confusion. The poems of the second section, “The Thin Edge of Your Pride,” were written to my first great love, Leslie Smith, a woman some years older than me and now many years dead. The title is taken from a booklet of her sister’s (Maureen Smith) published by Monroe Wheeler, with an introduction by Yvor Winters, and comes from a poem:

The thin edge of my pride
has cut the shroud that bound me
and I have come forth flawless.

Critics have called the poems of the rest of my book “Surrealist.” They are in fact the opposite of Surrealism and the poem “Fundamental Disagreement with Two Contemporaries” is written in an ironic parody of their respective styles, and is exactly what it says: a fundamental disagreement. The long poem “A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy” is also exactly what it says. It is the second of a series of long poems. The first was A Homestead Called Damascus, which I originally discarded from the series, until I was visited in middle age by Lawrence Lipton who, I discovered, knew it all by heart. All of my long poems could be called a theodicy and an attempt to answer the question “why does anything exist?” Theodicy you can find in the dictionary and I use all of its meanings, but most especially “whyness.” The style and mental syntax are cubist and parallel the poetry Pierre Reverdy was writing in those days. My own translations of Pierre Reverdy are prefaced with an explanation of what cubist verse is and how it means.




The Signature of All Things

Hitherto my work has followed, in publication, a regular pattern — a long meditative, more or less philosophical poem, and a collection of lyric and elegiac shorter poems, and epistles. This was true of my early work, of In What Hour, and of The Phoenix and the Tortoise. The Signature of All Things contains no long poem. I have been working on one for several years, but it is not ready for publication. Meanwhile, I have found it interesting to subject my philosophical opinions to the test of dramatic speech. At present, you can read in periodicals and anthologies the series Phaedra, Iphigenia at Aulis, Beyond the Mountains, Noh plays on classical themes in which I hope some of my ideas have found a more direct expression than philosophical elegy affords. This series of plays is still being written, I have no idea how many there will be, but eventually they should make a fair sized book.

Neither are there any poems to heroes and martyrs of social conflict this time, and few directly socially critical or exhortative poems. These are all simple, personal poems, as close as I can make them to integral experience. Perhaps the integral person is more revolutionary than any program, party, or social conflict. At least I have come to think so. And I have little doubt but that he — the irreducible man — is the great enemy of the fools and rascals who are destroying the world.

The point of view is, as in all my work, a religious anarchism which I hope I have made sufficiently, where necessary, explicit or implicit, as the case may be. For better statements, I refer you to the work of Martin Buber, Albert Schweitzer, D.H. Lawrence, Boehme, D.T. Suzuki, Piotr Kropotkin, or, for that matter, to the Gospels and the sayings of Buddha, or to Lao Tze and Chuang Tze.

As the years go on, my stylistic influences, as far as I can recognize them, are less and less contemporary. The translations are a partial indication of poetic kinship — but primarily, at our house, we sing poetry, American, English, Negro, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian folksongs; primitive songs — African and Amerindian; the songs of the Middle Ages, Latin, Provençal, Old French, Old High German; Renaissance songs, especially English songs from Tudor to Caroline times; and Scots songs and ballads. The poets we read most are all melodic, and directly communicative — Burns, Landor, Blake, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson — and for some of their poems I have written music, as I have for many of my own.

I have been asked about my prosody. Most of these poems are in syllabic lines. (Sometimes after the poem is cast in syllabic lines it is broken up into cadences.) Against this is counterpointed a rhythm primarily of quantity, secondarily of accent. In addition, close attention is paid to the melodic line of the vowels and to the evolution of consonants (p-b-k, m-r-l-y, etc.). In most cases a melody was written at the same time as the poem.




Beyond the Mountains

These plays are all concerned, as will be obvious on reading them, with the same root types, the same dramatic figures; with the relation of the person to the world of occurrence — of what might and what does happen. They portray the interaction of varying degrees of overcoming and immersion in the tangle of thought, will, and chance.

The first two plays do not culminate in dramatic resolution or climax; rather an atmosphere is created, a general situation developed, and dramatic realization occurs as a sort of precipitate crystal from the saturated solution of dramatic tensions — not a kind of happening, but a state of being. Iphigenia marches straight to transcendence. Phaedra and Hippolytus achieve transcendence but are destroyed by impurity of intention. In Hermaios and Berenike all the characters are caught in the web of cause and effect, and the reader will have to judge for himself who achieves transcendence, how, and to what degree.

The general ideas which have guided me in writing these plays are also discussed in my long poems, A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, and especially in my recent work, The Dragon and the Unicorn (New Directions XII). The plays and The Dragon and the Unicorn complement each other and could be read profitably together.

Five crucial lines of Berenike can be found in a somewhat similar form in the play of a contemporary on the same subject. Since I have been working on these plays for ten years, the discovery of this coincidence — something like the sort of thing which happens sometimes in the sciences — tremendously upset me at first. However, I have been assured that there is only a superficial resemblance. Certainly our ideas and purposes in choosing this plot seem to be completely antagonistic.




The Dragon and the Unicorn

This is the latest of a series of long, more or less philosophical poems which have occupied me off and on all my adult life. It is a sequel to “The Homestead Called Damascus,” “A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy,” “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh,” and “The Phoenix and the Tortoise.” My book of plays, Beyond the Mountains, also deals with similar material. Reading over these other things, the first dating back to my adolescence, I do not see any radical change in basic philosophy, or life attitude. I hope age has brought increasing richness, depth, complexity and irony.

I don’t know about uncrowned legislators, but I do feel that the poet is most important socially and artistically when he speaks in his vatic role, even though he may do so in the guise of a quatrain to his mistress’s eyes. For this reason I believe it the first duty of the poet to communicate. So there is nothing unconventional about this poem. What technical subtleties it possesses are discreetly veiled under a simple syllabic prosody. Some aspects of its subject are complex and difficult, some are new, at least to those likely to read the book. But they are stated as clearly as possible. The form is that of the travel poems of Samuel Rogers and Arthur Hugh Clough. The general tone is not far removed from that expressed by other American travelers abroad, notably Mark Twain. As for the philosophy, it is only a development of that idealistic anarchism which has been characteristic of American thought since its beginnings and which is identified with many of the political ancestors whose shades are so often impiously invoked by fools and rascals amongst the bunting and from the hustings. It may be unfamiliar to some, because in this day of capitulation to Stalinism and American fascism by default it seldom gets into print. Therefore it is certainly salutary to restate it at intervals.




In Defense of the Earth

Many of these poems deal with similar locations and events, seeking over and over again for the changing forms of an unchanging significance in stars, insects, mountains and daughters. They do not of course try to answer, “Why am I here?” “Why is it out there?” — but to snare the fact that is the only answer, the only meaning of present or presence. Others are of a kind once called “social.” I am neither a professor nor a neo-conservative, so I am still free to speak out against a society which grows daily more depraved and destructive. I am sorry for those who no longer feel able to do so, but I am sure that the poet is always called upon to play his role of prophet, in the Biblical sense, whatever else he may be about.

Some have objected to my epigrams and discursive pieces as “not poetry.” I think this is a parochial point of view. I for one am more sure about Martial’s poetry than I am about most corn belt metaphysicals and country gentlemen. Some of these poems were written for jazz orchestra. I wish more would be used so. The forty-six Japanese poems are not leftovers from my 100 Japanese Poems. They have been done since. Many of them can be found in Bonneau’s “Yoshino” volumes. I have made my own rendering from the Japanese, sometimes very different from his French. However, his is a work I urge everyone to read. There is nothing else as good.

“The Bestiary” has been published as a portfolio by Bern Porter, facsimiles of my holograph and drawings. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was published as a pamphlet by Goad Press. No magazine publication in English was authorized by me. Other poems have been published in Miscellaneous Man, Goad, Golden Goose, Coastlines, Perspectives U.S.A., Poetry, New World Writing, and various French, Japanese, German, Italian, Indian, Philippine, and Greek magazines — to all of whose editors I make the customary acknowledgments.




Collected Longer Poems

“The Homestead Called Damascus” was written before I was twenty years old. The two final pieces, addenda to “The Heart’s Garden, The Garden’s Heart,” were finished after the book had gone to the publisher. Written between five and ten years apart, all the sections of this book now seem to me almost as much one long poem as do The Cantos or Paterson. The plot remains the same — the interior and exterior adventures of two poles of a personality. The brothers Sebastian and Thomas are still, really, arguing with each other right to the last page, and the third figure — the anonymous observer — is still making wry comments. Partly, each of the separate long poems is a philosophical revery — but a revery in dialogue in which philosophies come and go. The sections in “The Phoenix and the Tortoise” and “The Dragon and the Unicorn” which expound a systematic view of life are dramatic dialogue, not the sole exposition of the author, and always they are contradicted by the spokesman for the other member of the polarity. If there is any dialectic resolution, it occurs each time in the unqualified, transcendent experience which usually ends each long poem. The ending of “A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy” may be more conventionally mystical, but after this the lesson has been learned, the ladder has been climbed, and so is kicked away. The recurring word is, “visions are a measure of the defect of vision.”

In my Collected Shorter Poems are some that are long but not “longer” which well could go in temporal sequence with those in this book. “The Thin Edge of Your Pride,” the story “When You Asked for It Did You Get It,” “Organon,” “Ice Shall Cover Nineveh,” and even “Past and Future Turn About,” a pendant to “The Phoenix and the Tortoise,” just as sections of the long poems, especially of “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” stand as “shorter poems” in their own right. Most poets resemble Whitman in one regard — they write only one book and that an interior autobiography.

Besides the triad of witnesses, there are other members of the cast, other personae of the person. Most important, of course, are the girls and women who come and go, the polarity to which the dialectic of the Twins and their commentator together form a pole. From Leda’s eggs sprang not only Castor and Pollux, divine and human, but Helen and Clytemnestra, innocence and power. Marichi, an avatar of the Shakti of Shiva, has three heads: a sow, a woman in orgasm and the Dawn. “Goddess of the Dawn,” as Westerners call her, her chariot drawn by swine, she haunts “The Homestead Called Damascus” and comes back as a beautiful Communist girl in “The Heart’s Garden” — as does Vega, the jewel in the Lyre, the Weaving Girl who weaves and ravels and weaves again.

Sebastian returns in another martyrdom in “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” And in the verse plays, Beyond the Mountains, the same cast of characters deals even more explicitly with the same themes. In the plays the women take over the consequences of the men in the longer poems as the descendants of Genji’s friend Tojo no Chujo take over the Bodhisattva perfume from Genji. Who stands for who? The vicarity is ambivalent. Who blinds who on the road to Damascus with all-illuminating light? Lux lucis et fons luminis — the threads are still weaving in Kyoto, Mount Calvary above Santa Barbara in California, at the Cowley Fathers by the Charles and on the loom set up across the Hudson at Holy Cross in the opening of “The Homestead.”

The political stance of the poems never changes — the only Absolute is the Community of Love with which Time ends. Time is the nisus toward the Community of Love. One passage is a statement in philosophical terms of the IWW Preamble, another of the cash nexus passage in The Communist Manifesto. “The State is the organization of the evil instincts of mankind.” “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” “Property is robbery.” And similar quotations from Tertullian, St. Clement, Origen, St. Augustine. It is easy to overcome alienation — the net of the cash nexus can simply be stepped out of, but only by the self-actualizing man. But everyone is self-actualizing and can realize it by the simplest act — the self unselfing itself, the only act that is actual act. I have tried to embody in verse the belief that the only valid conservation of value lies in the assumption of unlimited liability, the supernatural identification of the self with the tragic unity of creative process. I hope I have made it clear that the self does not do this by an act of will, by sheer assertion. He who would save his life must lose it.

“What endures, what perishes?” The permanent core of thought could perhaps be called a kind of transcendental empiricism — “the ‘ineluctable modality’ of the invisible.” The real objects are their own transcendental meaning. If reality can be apprehended without grasping, the epistemological problem vanishes. The beginning of experience is the same as the end of it. The source or spring of knowing is the same as the fulfillment of it — experience begins and ends in illumination. The holy is in the heap of dust — it is the heap of dust. Beyond the object lies a person — objects are only perspectives on persons. But the experience of either is ultimately unqualifiable. Epistemology is moral. There is no “problem.” Visions are problems. Vision is the solution that precedes the problem. It is precisely the thing in itself that we do experience. The rest is reification. So too the I-Thou relationship is primary. The dialogue comes after. Everything else is manipulation — reification again — and so, illusion. It is love and love alone . . . as it says in the old popular song.

“Thus literally living in a blaze of glory.” True illumination is habitude. We are unaware that we live in the light of lights because it casts no shadow. When we become aware of it we know it as birds know air and fish know water. It is the ultimate trust.

“If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, where will thee turn?”



These are all of the prefaces that Kenneth Rexroth wrote for his books of poetry (including his collection of verse plays, Beyond the Mountains). He did not write any for his first book, In What Hour (1940), nor for Natural Numbers (1964) or Collected Shorter Poems (1966), nor for any of the small later volumes that were eventually collected in Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems (1991).

Most of these poetry volumes were published by New Directions. The prefaces are copyrighted on their respective dates and reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. and the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Selections from Rexroth’s Poems