Selected Poems: Selected Poems
by Kenneth Rexroth
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
All of us have a few books -- a short stack, say -- that we consider to be seminal in our lives, foundational to our understanding of ourselves, both as ourselves and in relation to others and to the world. As poet John Haines put it, "a few books well read and understood so that they become part of us, that is what matters." One of the books in my pile is Kenneth Rexroth's Selected Poems.
Published by New Directions in 1984, and since superseded by Copper Canyon's elegant Complete Poems, Rexroth's Selected Poems remains a genuinely great book. Editor Bradford Morrow's selection of poems, ranging from Rexroth's early cubist-inspired work, to his latter-day poems influenced by Buddhism and Japanese and Chinese verse, is superb. Morrow's introduction is fascinating. How could it not be, considering the thoroughly fascinating life of its subject?
Rexroth was a polymath and self-taught man. He read voraciously, and travelled widely throughout his life. In his youth, he traversed Europe, South America, and the United States by freight and tramp steamer; at one point he and his wife hiked from Seattle to San Francisco. Rexroth spent the bulk of his life in the latter, influencing the local poetry and arts scene, as well as contributing to the local radical community.
Rexroth was a philosophical anarchist and a conscientious objector during World War II (he spent the war years doing alternative service in a psychiatric hospital). He was also a dedicated outdoorsman, escaping the city whenever possible to hike, camp, and rock climb.
Perhaps the chief joy of Rexroth is that he is so readable. He wrote consciously in a colloquial manner, and his poems are simultaneously philosophically profound, metaphysically complex, and readily accessible. His poems celebrate love and sensuality, and our deep immersion in the natural world. At the same time, they can be jeremiads against tyranny and injustice, and eloquent portrayals of the emotional and spiritual heights of which humans are capable. Sometimes they're all of the above in one rich brew.
Take, for example, these lines from a poem called "Andree Rexroth." The selection is from the section titled "Kings River Canyon:"
My sorrow is so wide
I cannot see across it;
And so deep I shall never
Reach the bottom of it.
The moon sinks through deep haze,
As though the Kings River Canyon
Were filled with fine, warm, damp gauze.
Saturn gleams through the thick light
Like a gold wet eye; nearby,
Antares glows faintly,
Without sparkle. Far overhead,
Stone shines darkly in the moonlight—
Lookout Point, where we lay
In another full moon, and first
Peered down into this canyon.
How effortless! How beautifully the poet ties together the interwoven strands of loss, connection to the natural world, and a deep and abiding love.
This is from one of his blatantly political poems, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," which was written as 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.
Morrow, in his introduction, intimates that this poem may have been the inspiration for Ginsberg's "Howl." In fact, Rexroth was one of the chief influences on the Beat Generation, a connection he later disavowed with the now famous statement, "an entymologist is not a bug."
One of the keys to understanding Rexroth is to see him as a religious poet. His view of humankind's place in the world is deeply sacramental. We are in relationship with all that is, and there is a profound responsibility to act in the holy nexus of that understanding.
This world of ours, before we
Can know its fleeting sorrows,
We enter it through tears.
Do the reverberations
Of the evening bell of
The mountain temple ever
Totally die away?
Memory echoes and reechoes
Always reinforcing itself.
No wave motion ever dies.
The white waves of the wake of
The boat that rows away into
The dawn, spread and lap on the
Sands of the shores of all the world.
For Rexroth, the bell never dies away. For his readers, this is the generous testament that he leaves us. Buy this book, savor it; take it with you on trips, read it on the plane, in the canoe, to your loved one before the fire. This is truly the gift that keeps on giving.