In the Thirties and Forties English readers – and even English poets – knew surprisingly little about American poets, except for the few, like Pound and Cummings, who set out to make themselves international figures. Thus it was not really surprising that, early in 1943, when I received a letter from a poet named Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco, I knew nothing about his work or about the extraordinary life he had already lived. My ignorance was partly understandable since, though he had been writing poetry for twenty years, Rexroth did not publish his first book of verse – In What Hour – until 1941: but it was also an aspect of the general British ignorance of things American. I was then publishing the literary magazine NOW and was also one of the editors of War Commentary, the anarchist paper of the period, and Rexroth wrote to me because he had established in San Francisco an anarchist circle, consisting of young Californian poets and artists and older Italian and Jewish militants who were veterans of the struggles of Emma Goldman’s and Carlo Tresca’s days.
Our correspondence flourished, Rexroth sent me his early books, and occasionally he would write rather bizarre ‘Letters’ about American affairs for NOW which East Coast radicals, like Dwight Macdonald and Paul Goodman, were always assuring me should be disregarded as entirely mythomaniacal; they were nevertheless extremely entertaining. Reading his poems at the same time as his personal letters and his scurrilous public letters, I soon developed the image of a complex, magnificently inconsistent personality, in many ways more like a traditional English eccentric than an American original.
I did not meet Rexroth until 1951, when I went to live for a while on the Russian River north of San Francisco and would visit him in his North Bay apartment. He was as eccentric as my expectations of him. I remember vividly from those first meetings his air of a decrepit Metro Goldwyn Meyer lion; the extraordinary way his eyes would turn upwards while he was talking until the pupils were lost under the upper lids; his excellent cooking and the elaborate ceremony with which, coughing and puffing, he would prepare the nargileh he liked to smoke when he meant the conversation to be serious. He drank only the best Scotch, which he claimed was good for the ulcers he then suffered from; I later found from experience that he was right. He was courteous in a rather stately Edwardian way, and given to odd primnesses of expression. Describing a homosexual poet to my wife, he remarked, ‘You see, my dear, he doesn’t do it with ladies’ – his talk was spattered with circumlocutions of this absurd kind. He tended to be cantankerous towards the absent, and when he recited his grievances against them, his voice would take on the harsh Mid-Western twang of his Chicago youth, as it did when he decided to embark on some scandalous fragment of autobiography, delivered out of the left-hand corner of his mouth. ‘When I was a boy in Chicago, George, selling small dogs for sexual purposes …’
Relations with Rexroth alternated between times of enthusiastic acceptance and times of harsh rejection, at least with men; towards women he was much more consistently benevolent. Perhaps the reason I never experienced a really embittered encounter with him was that, apart from that one time in California, I was never near him for long periods. We would occasionally meet when he came north or I went south from Vancouver along the Pacific coast, and we corresponded irregularly for nearly forty years. The last I heard from him was a telephone call from Seattle in 1980, not long before the onset of the series of heart attacks and strokes which reduced him to uncharacteristic silence and immobility in his last months and finally killed him. His voice sounded surprisingly thin and gentle, as if his long and intricate life had burnt out all the harshness and the pride, and brought him as an old man to the philosophic serenity that appeared so often in his poems.
Knowing Rexroth first as a fellow anarchist organising his little group of poets and artists on the West Coast gave me an insight into the sense he had of his time as a historic period in literature and of his own role within it. He had the instincts of a great impresario, a kind of Diaghilev of letters, and, more than any other individual, he was responsible for the San Francisco literary renaissance of the Forties and Fifties, though lesser men like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso reaped most of the credit for his endeavours. Indeed, one of Rexroth’s more admirable inconsistencies was that though he could at times seem inordinately paranoiac about what he perceived as conspiracies against him, he was never jealous of another writer, and nobody could have been more assiduous in promoting the younger poets he thought had real promise.
Rexroth became known in the Fifties as the ‘godfather of the Beats’, a title he disdained, though he chaired the occasion on which Allen Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ (which Kenneth incidentally called ‘the confession of faith of a generation’), and recognised the relevance of such poets to their time in a way few other observers did in the beginning. That the works of Ginsberg and his deplorable followers became famous while his own far better poetry was recognised only by the Happy Few was an irony that did not escape Rexroth, though he accepted it with Stendhalian calm, and it did not prevent him from promoting other poets, like Denise Levertov.
In some ways, Rexroth remained a very regionally-minded man, as most anarchists are. He disliked the New York literary establishment, and the dislike was reciprocated; when, in the Forties, he decided to go east and conquer Greenwich Village, he was cold-shouldered and glad to leave. He was never at heart a metropolitan man. Indeed, there was a great deal of the Classical Greek citizen about him. He had emerged as a teenage poet in the days of the Chicago renaissance, when that city was still small enough for everybody in the arts and entertainment and even public life to know each other, like people in an Aristotelian polis. When he became so influential in San Francisco it was just that kind of community, as I remember from my own brief residence there. When San Francisco began to grow into its own kind of metropolis, Rexroth left, and for the first time, in 1968, at the age of 63, became a kind of academic, teaching for four years at the University of California in Santa Barbara; then, finding that too restricting, he gave it up to enter his seventies wandering over the country, giving poetry readings accompanied by jazz musicians, as he had done in his Chicago youth more than fifty years before.
Rexroth may have been anti-metropolitan, but there was nothing narrowly provincial about him, even though I can never think of him as having originated anywhere but in the American Midwest at the one creative time in its history. He developed an enthusiasm for the poetry that was being written in Britain during the later Thirties and the Forties, and in 1949 he published an idiosyncratic anthology, The New British Poets, which set out to show that the lingering image of the Auden-Spender-Lewis generation did not give Americans a true idea of what was happening over the Atlantic. It was a good work of correction, even though Rexroth was somewhat uncritical in his acceptance of the duller minor figures of the era. When he got to London shortly afterwards, he liked its metropolitan culture as little as he did that of New York, and found British anarchists milk-and-water compared with the Chicago Wobblies of his youth.
Rexroth, who was the kind of superb polymath only a self-taught man can be, read enormously widely, and his conversation was full of haphazard erudition, scientific, philological, historical, metaphysical, as well as literary. Out of this reading he developed a sense that all the world’s cultures were in a way inter-related and therefore mutually comprehensible, and that linguistic differences formed a barrier far less formidable than it is generally thought to be. He therefore proceeded on an extraordinary programme of interpreting other traditions to English readers which made him one of the notable translators of poetry in his time.
He knew French well, though I remember his accent was even worse than my own, and his translations from that language were largely a labour of love, for his own verse had been influenced by French poets and particularly by Pierre Reverdy, a selection of whose poetry he rendered into English. His translations from the Greek, the Chinese and the Japanese were quite different – a matter of gaining a general sense of the language, of discussing poems with native speakers, of painstakingly using a dictionary to check the connotations of every word, of making a mosaic of literal elements, and then, by an act of creative imagination, producing a version that would echo the original, to such an astonishing extent that some of the greatest admirers of his translations from the Chinese and Japanese have been poets born to use those languages.
I have always distrusted applying the concept of greatness, which is hard to dissociate from the idea of power, to define a writer. Largeness, which embraces breadth and height as well as profundity, seems to me a much more valid criterion, and Rexroth was certainly large, in his concepts, in his ambitions, in his achievements. The largeness lay most of all in the complexity and scope of his life’s work. But one must go on from Rexroth the cultural impresario, Rexroth the translator of many languages, and Rexroth the public character with his column in the San Francisco Examiner, to Rexroth the poet in order to find the core of that largeness.
I am not sure that Rexroth would have been entirely happy to be remembered mainly as a poet, for he thought of himself as a multiple artist. He was an enthusiastic painter from his boyhood onwards, studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the Art Students League in New York, and gave one-man exhibitions not only on the Pacific Coast but also in New York and Paris, and the extraordinary pleasure he got from this talent tempted him to overestimate it in relation to his other work. Probably no man as intelligent and sensitive as Rexroth who had applied himself with zeal to learning the techniques of an art could be less than competent at it, but pleasant and decorative as Rexroth’s paintings were, I was never moved by them as I have been by his poetry, and I regard them as among the lesser accomplishments of a thoroughly civilised man, the equivalent in reverse of Picasso’s sonnets.
Someone else, I am sure, will soon be writing the exhaustive scholarly treatise on the techniques and derivations of Rexroth’s poetry, but while it is interesting enough to consider his debts to the Surrealists and the Objectivists, to Reverdy and Zukofsky, to William Carlos Williams and W.B. Yeats, and later on to the very Chinese and Japanese and Ancient Greek writers he translated, it is his actual poetry in its autonomous being, with its reflective clarity and its magically deceptive appearance of simplicity, that I prefer to discuss now.
He wrote and published verse steadily over his whole literary career, and when his poems are finally collected they will make up – if one includes the verse dramas – a volume of at least a thousand pages, and a thousand pages of astonishingly consistent quality. The amazing thing is not that he kept it up for so long, writing poems in the Seventies as strong and lucid as those he had written in the Forties, but that he also wrote so well so early, for the autobiographical poem, ‘A Homestead called Damascus’, completed around 1926 when he was 21 but not published until 1957, ranks among the best of his works.
For me, the verse plays contained in Beyond the Mountains (1951) have always occupied a special place in Rexroth’s oeuvre (a view which, incidentally, he shared with me), mainly because they show so many of his poetic resources brought together. They are plays that revise Greek myths, as in ‘Iphigenia’ and ‘Phaedra’, or, as in ‘Berenike’ and ‘Hermaios’, delve into one of the most obscure areas of Classical history, that of the Bactrian Greek kingdoms in the Hindu Kush which came to an end when the precarious reign of Hermaios was overwhelmed by the Parthians somewhere about 30 BC. Since Greece itself was already in the hands of the Romans, the Bactrians were the last free Greeks for many centuries. Rexroth wrote his two Bactrian plays in a dance drama form that combines elements of Attic tragedy with elements of Noh; given that he published his first translations from the Japanese only four years later, I suspect he was working from some knowledge of original Noh plays, though he seems also to have accepted some hints from Yeats.
Only a few coins that survive enable us to construct a bare outline of the reign of Hermaios and his Queen Kalliope, boxed into the last refuge of the Kabul valley by their enemies; we do not know how or exactly when Hermaios died. Rexroth fills our scanty history with invention: there is a re-enactment of the Agamemnon legend when Hermaios is killed by his brother with Kalliope’s complicity and his son Menander comes to wreak vengeance before all are submerged by the invading ‘Huns’, as Rexroth loosely terms them, and the chorus intones:
Is all gone for the Greeks now …
I wonder if
Plato and Aristotle
in all their wisdom foresaw
Greece ending in these far-off
Mountains, in this freezing night.
Beyond the Mountains showed the extraordinary ability to absorb and adapt the qualities of alien forms that served Rexroth so well in his translations: the clear imagery of Far Eastern verse, the oracular dignity of Greek verse, have both had their influence on these plays and on his verse in general. The Bactrian plays also exemplified the mystique of mountains that played such a great part in Rexroth’s life and which, combined with his experience and sensitive observation of the American Cordillera, has made him one of the finest nature-and-landscape poets of our age. But not merely a nature-and-landscape poet, any more than Wordsworth was, for there is a deep philosophic strain running through so much of Rexroth’s poetry: obtrusive in his earlier work but in his later poems splendidly subsumed into the lyrical structure and deriving – as the later philosophy of the Bactrian Greeks did – from a combination of the Greek and the Asian, the combination which in the valleys of the Hindu Kush produced that strange dialogue between the Greek king Menander and the Buddhist sage Nagasena, the Milindapanha. The strain is repeated in poems like ‘Golden Section’ in the Collected Shorter Poems (1966). This had originally been part of Rexroth’s longest narrative poem, an account of post-war travel in Europe, The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952). Like many other travellers, Rexroth found the peak of his journey in the series of temples of golden stone at Paestum – the Posidonia of the Greeks – south of Naples.
An elegiac tone is present throughout Rexroth’s poetry – regret for a world betrayed by human folly, regret for youth, regret for those who are loved and dead – and combines with the poet’s grave recording of natural beauty to become a celebration of existence as splendid but doomed, so that in his own way he seemed in his Californian detachment to be writing ‘beyond the mountains’ – a spiritual descendant of his own King Hermaios waiting philosophically for the Huns.
But the poet of philosophy and nature, elegiac and pessimistic, has never been the only Rexroth. There is the other persona, the angry, intolerant and often unfair man, the ex-Wobbly, the San Francisco anarchist, with his memories of a bizarre adolescence in the bohemian Chicago of the early Twenties and a hard youth among migrant workers in the Western mountains, who then settled to the long and difficult years of establishing himself as a writer from what was then the rather hostile outpost of San Francisco. Much of that past is celebrated or at least hinted at in the poems that tell of his high-living Edwardian parents, of his early radical years, of his formative time as a poet, but the book that embraces it all is An Autobiographical Novel, a title that allowed for the heightening of colour and tension, and the free way with facts, that are qualities of this curious and intriguing book. An Autobiographical Novel might just as appropriately be entitled ‘The Education of Kenneth Rexroth’, since it is all about learning from life, and it shows the voracity for experience, the passion for knowledge and justice and formal beauty, that kept Rexroth spinning so productively into his eighth decade.
But, for all its enormous sense of life, even An Autobiographical Novel, which was never completed by a sequel dealing with Rexroth’s half-century on the Pacific coast, is also an elegiac book, a threnody for a splendid past – pre-Great War Europe, the Midwest of the Twenties, of which Rexroth says:
It is a terrible thing to see a world die twice,
The first time as tragedy,
The second time as evil farce.
Even in its relation to Rexroth’s revolutionary politics, the tone of An Autobiographical Novel is still elegiac: it is the tragic presence of Sacco and Vanzetti that most haunts the book. Rexroth sees their fate as in some fundamental way marking the end of the strange innocence which accompanied the vitality and even the brutality of the world he had been describing. He ends with an account of how he and his first wife Andrée (whose memory inspired some of his most deeply moving poems) arrived in San Francisco and ‘decided to stay and grow up in the town’: ‘At that time, during the third week of our stay in San Francisco, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. A great cleaver cut through all the intellectual life of America. The world in which Andrée and I had grown up came for ever to an end.’ In the poems, too, one gets the sense of an age – the age of pure revolutionary ideals – as having died with Sacco and Vanzetti. It emerges in the 1952 poem ‘For Eli Jacobsen’, significantly another elegy, and a lament for the withering of the true cause.
There are so 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 …
Admittedly, ‘For Eli Jacobsen’ was written in the depressing Fifties, and in the Sixties Rexroth was hailing – in essays which appeared in books like The Alternative Society (1970) – the renewed poetic and political vigour of the young. ‘Today there is growing up throughout the world an entirely new pattern of life. For years I have called it the subculture of secession, but this is now more – it is a competing civilisation, “a new society within the shell of the old”.’ Rexroth goes on here to talk in enthusiastic terms of ‘a time of wholesale overturn, a transvaluation of values at least comparable with the revolutionary years around 1848 …’ But there is another side of him that pulls up short to question whether the outcome will necessarily be good. The dark forces, also, are more powerful than ever:
Man has lost control. What is accelerating is not the breakdown of civilisation, but the breakdown of the species as such. Unless the processes now operating are reversed, and when reversed, are still able to win out, man is a failure. The species has failed … Man has not just been crowded out of his ecological niche; he has destroyed everybody’s ecology. The changes that have taken place already in this generation are greater than those postulated to account for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
We are living in times when eschatologies have renewed significance; the End of Things has become a proximate and an appalling possibility, whether we see it apocalyptically as the reign of Antichrist or plainly as the destruction of life on earth. The situation has by a bitter irony been brought about by too happy an acceptance of what once seemed the anti-eschatological doctrine of the inevitability of continued progress. It is here that the apparently paradoxical attitude one finds in Rexroth, and in so many other anarchists, acquires deepest meaning and loses its seeming contradictions. For, alone among the Left of 19th and early 20th-century Europe and the Americas, the anarchists refused to accept uncritically the faith in universal and constant material progress that sprang from a misinterpretation of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Until very recently, socialists of all schools regarded open-ended material progress as a viable goal; in contrast to such uncritical optimism, the attitude of the anarchists can fairly be described as one of critical pessimism, by which I mean, not resignation to the worst as inevitable, but a state of mind that accepts the worst as a threatening option and goes beyond it to assess realistically the possibilities of evasion. This means one does not accept the future as necessarily better than present or past: indeed, one can look back, as Rexroth does, to Greek antiquity, for example, or certain ages in China, when men lived fuller and more harmonious lives than we do, and one may be instructed by the looking back. It means that one does not regard affluence or luxury as valid criteria of the good life; a rough cabin in the mountains, as Roxreth’s Cordillera poems so eloquently demonstrate, can be the centre of wealth of another kind if one is prepared for it. It means that one recognises the presence here and now, in every society, of elements of mutual aid, of potentials for freedom and responsibility, that are waiting to be achieved; there is no need for a transitional period to achieve a revolutionary society, for such a society already exists in men’s hearts and instincts, and to realise it all we have to do is to challenge and defeat the values of a society based on the contradictory myths of progress and authority. This, as Rexroth contends, is the role of the artist, among others. ‘All important works of art, from the middle of the 18th century, have rejected all the distinguishing marks of the civilisation that produced them.’
The first poem by Rexroth I ever read, more than thirty years ago, was the little suite of mountain pieces, ‘Towards an Organic Philosophy’. Worked into the concluding lines is the central thought of Kropotkin as well as of Tyndall, but also the core of ecological thought which the anarchists and their allies, like Patrick Geddes and Aldous Huxley, so significantly anticipated. Inescapably present as well is the mountainscape and the life it shelters, the poet’s concrete world, and beyond it the world of thought, ‘beyond the mountains’ where old kings and old poets defend the last vestiges of cultures, ‘the last moments of Greece’, the terminal agony – if one accepts the existence if not the inevitability of such an option – of civilisation.
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