Here is another in our series of articles on people who have been cultural "bridges," helping humanity to enjoy the diversity of cultural expression.
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;
Kenneth Rexroth, an American poet often considered a father figure to the Beat poets of the 1950 San Francisco scene, was also a world citizen who blended the influences of Japan and China, of failed revolutionary movements like the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt in Russia, along with a deep sense of the beauty of nature. He was largely self-taught, having dropped out of secondary school. He read widely but was always mistrustful of academic trends in poetry, finding most of it “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.”
In the late 1960s when US universities tried to calm student agitation by having courses that were “relevant” to their interests, Rexroth taught some courses at San Francisco State College. Nevertheless, he had a dim view of academic teaching. “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?”
Rexroth’s model was Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass. Whitman envisions “a social order whose essence is the liberation and universalization of selfhood…participants in a universal creative effort in which each discovers his ultimate individuation…Today we know that it is Whitman’s vision or nothing.” Like Whitman, Rexroth stressed an ethical mysticism, citing other major influences. “For better statements I refer you to the work of Martin Buber, D.T. Suzuki, Piotr Kropotkin, or for that matter, to the Gospels and the saying of Buddha, or to Lao Tze and Chung Tze.”
His references to D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen thought to the USA and to the Chinese Taoists Lao Tze and Chung Tze are a sign of his affinity to Taoist and Buddhist thought. His short summary of the essence of Taoism also reflected his philosophy of life:
Of the world are unstable
By nature. Take it easy.
But Rexroth’s Taoism had an activist tone to it. His “take it easy” is an echo of Pete Seeger’s trade-union organizing song Talking Union which ends “Take it easy, but take it.”
As in many of the great Chinese and Japanese poems, the outer landscape corresponds to the inner one, the macrocosm to the microcosm:
My wife has been swimming in the breakers,
She comes up the beach to meet me, nude
Sparkling with water, singing high and clear
Against the surf. The sun crosses
The hills and fills her hair, as it lights
The moon and glorifies the sea
And deep in the empty mountains melts
The snow of Winter and the glaciers
Of ten thousand years.
Rexroth especially appreciates the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva. “A bodhisattva, in case you don’t know, is one who, at the brink of absorption into Nirvana, turns away with the vow that he shall not enter final peace until he can bring all other beings with him.” And Rexroth puts into poetic structure the words of the American Socialist leader Eugene Debs who had spent years in prison for his opposition to World War I:
While there is a lower class,
I am in it. While there is
A criminal element,
I am of it. Where there is
A soul in jail, I am not free.
Yet he always rejected the notion that the arts should be subordinated to political demands. He felt that lyrics that communicate genuine personal vision are ultimately more subversive than explicit propaganda. He called erotic love “one of the highest forms of contemplation” and he stressed its intensity in a Japanese style:
Making love with you
Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
Until nothing can slake my thirst
But to drink the entire sea.
Rexroth was always enthusiastic about ethical world-affirming mysticism, always quick to encourage the joining of contemplation and community;
What is taken in
In comtemplation is poured out
For Kenneth Rexroth’s early life until he moved to California in 1927 see his An Autobiographical Novel (New York: Doubleday, 1966)
Most of his poetry is in two collections: Collected Shorter Poems (New York: New Directions, 1966) and Collected Longer Poems (New York: New Directions, 1968)
For an analysis of his bridge-building efforts with Asian culture, see Morgan Gibson.
Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom (Archon, 1986)