In a reminiscence written for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Kenneth Rexroth's friend and former student Thomas Sanchez portrayed the author as a "longtime iconoclast, onetime radical, Roman Catholic, Communist fellow traveler, jazz scholar, I.W.W. anarchist, translator, philosopher, playwright, librettist, orientalist, critical essayist, radio personality, newspaper columnist, painter, poet and longtime Buddhist." While Rexroth played all these roles, he is best recognized for his contributions to modern American poetry. The length and breadth of his career resulted in a body of work that not only chronicles his personal search for visionary transcendence but also reflects the artistic, cultural, and political vicissitudes of more than half a century. Commented John Unterecker in a 1967 New York Times Book Review: "Reading through all of Kenneth Rexroth's shorter poems is a little like immersing oneself in the literary history of the last forty years; for Rexroth experimented with almost all of the poetic techniques of the time, dealt, at least in passing, with all of its favorite themes."
A prolific painter and poet by age seventeen, Rexroth traveled through a succession of avant-garde and modernist artistic movements, gaining a reputation as a radical by associating with labor groups and anarchist political communities. He experimented amid Chicago's "second renaissance" in the early 1920s, explored modernist techniques derived from the European-born "revolution of the word," played an integral part in the anarchist-pacifist politics and poetic mysticism that pervaded San Francisco's Bay Area in the 1940s, and affiliated himself with the "Beat Generation" in the mid-1950s. Intellectually as well as artistically eclectic, Rexroth scorned institutionalized education and criticism, calling American academics "corn belt Metaphysicals and country gentlemen," as M. L. Rosenthal noted in The Modern Poets. After quitting school in his early teens, the poet pursued a curriculum of self-education that included not only literature from diverse cultures and times but encompassed science, philosophy, theology, anthropology, Oriental thought and culture, and half a dozen languages. William R. McKaye of the Washington Post emphasized: "In an era in which American colleges crank out graduates who seemingly have never read anything, Rexroth . . . [appeared] well on the way to having read everything. And 'everything' is not just the standard European classics in translation: it is the Latins and Greeks in the original; it is the Japanese and Chinese; it is poetry of all kinds; finally, as a sort of spicy sauce over all, it is such . . . curiosities as the literature of alchemy, the writings of 18th and 19th century Anglican divines and the 'Religio Medici' of Sir Thomas Browne."
James Laughlin, founder of the New Directions Publishing Corporation which published and kept in print most of Rexroth's books, agreed that the poet found his mature style in The Phoenix and the Tortoise and The Signature of All Things (1950). "When he hit his true vein, a poetry of nature mixed with contemplation and philosophy, it was magnificent," Laughlin claimed in a tribute written for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982. Published in 1944, The Phoenix and the Tortoise was called by Morgan Gibson in his book Kenneth Rexroth, "much more coherent in style and theme" than Rexroth's earlier work while focusing less on experimentation and politics. Instead, the book initiated a study of "the 'integral person' who, through love, discovers his responsibility for all in a world of war, cold war, and nuclear terror." The true achievement of The Phoenix and the Tortoise and Rexroth's next book, The Signature of All Things, was the emergence of "poems that affirm more convincingly than ever the transcendent power of personal love," Gibson stated. "Read The Signature of All Things," Laughlin urged. "It, how shall I put it, pulls everything in human life together. It is all there, all the things we cherish, all our aspirations, and over it all a kind of Buddhist calm." Reviewing The Signature of All Things in the New York Times,Richard Eberhart outlined both Rexroth's intent and his accomplishment: "Mr. Rexroth's purpose is to make a particular kind of poem which will be classical in its restraint, but without severity; personal, revealing, and confessional, without being sentimental; and it must, according to his bent, eschew symbolism and any kind of ambiguous imagery for a narrative or statement strength based on noun and verb, but not weakened by adjectives."
The form Rexroth adopted in his mature work, which he called "natural numbers," was unrhymed and syllabic rather than metrically regular. Generally varying from seven to nine syllables per line, the structure allowed him to emphasize the "natural cadences of speech," which Gibson pointed out had been important to the poet from the days of his earliest Cubist experiments. Looking back to the 1950s, Karl Malkoff remarked in a 1970 Southern Review: "Rexroth . . . never stopped experimenting with rhythms, which not surprisingly are crucial to the success of his poems. Here his work is most vulnerable; here his successes, when they come, are most striking. When . . . Rexroth hit upon the seven syllable line as a temporary resolution, he was accused of writing prose broken up into lines. . . . Actually, on rereading, Rexroth's ear proves reasonably reliable." When he published his first collection of selected work in 1963, the poet entitled it Natural Numbers: New and Selected Poems, thus reaffirming the importance of an element critics had dismissed earlier as ineffective or unimportant.
Rexroth's tetralogy of verse plays in "natural numbers," Beyond the Mountains (1951), proves not only his devotion to the natural patterns of speech but indicates his knowledge of classical Greek and Oriental literature. Gibson claimed in his study that the author's "poetic, philosophical, and visionary powers [reached] their epitome" in the four dramas "Phaedra," "Iphigenia at Aulis," "Hermaios," and "Berenike." While the characters were based in Greek tragedy, Rexroth's style reflected Japanese Noh drama. As Gibson related, an "important quality of Noh found in Rexroth's plays is yugen, a term derived from Zen Buddhism and defined by Arthur Waley as 'what lies beneath the surface'; the subtle, as opposed to the obvious; the hint, as opposed to the statement." Although several commentators felt Beyond the Mountains suffered from obscurity or was more complex than necessary—including R. W. Flint, who wrote in Poetry that the "plotting has been just a shade too ambitious for [Rexroth's] poetic gift"—the renowned poet William Carlos Williams applauded both the work's language and its form. "Rexroth is one of the leading craftsmen of the day," proclaimed Williams in the New York Times. "There is in him no compromise with the decayed line of past experience. His work is cleanly straightforward. The reek of polluted Shakespeare just isn't in it, or him. I don't know any Greek, but I can imagine that a Greek, if he knew our language as we ought to but don't, would like the athletic freshness of the words."
A common concern for poetry as straightforward, spoken language was only one of the links between Rexroth and the Beat Generation. Quoting Jack Kerouac's definition found in Random House Dictionary, Charters defined the term Beat Generation as "'members of the generation that came of age after World War II who, supposedly as a result of disillusionment stemming from the Cold War, [espoused] mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tension.' Emerging at a time of great postwar change, the Beat Generation was more than a literary movement, but at its heart was its literature." Charters and Miller explained how Rexroth came to be connected with the movement: "By the mid-1950s many of the poets who were to become famous as Beat writers—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen—had moved to San Francisco, attracted by the climate of radical poetry and politics, and they were soon part of Rexroth's circle. . . . Considering the diverse aspects of Rexroth's interests in avant-garde art, radical politics, and Eastern philosophy, one can understand why he seemed the perfect mentor for the Beats."
Rexroth occupied a central position in the Bay Area's literary community at the time. Characterized as "anarchopacifist in politics, mystical-personalist in religions, and experimental in esthetic theory and practice" by Gibson, the community revolved around the Pacifica Foundation, with its public arts radio station, and the Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, both of which Rexroth helped establish. As a contributor to Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times, he also wielded a certain critical power across the country. Rexroth used these forums to champion the younger poets' work in articles like his February, 1957, Nation review entitled "San Francisco's Mature Bohemians." Most instrumental in linking Rexroth with the Beats, however, may have been the frequent poetry readings—often to jazz accompaniment—that Rexroth attended or helped organize from 1955 to 1957.
Rexroth considered the readings essential to foment "poetry as voice, not as printing," as he told readers in his American Poetry: In the Twentieth Century (1971). Supporting the Beats morally with reviews and with his presence at their events, including his series of readings at the Cellar jazz club, Rexroth earned the title "Godfather of the Beats." "Kenneth Rexroth seemed to appear everywhere at their side like the shade of Virgil guiding Dante through the underworld," Alfred Kazin wrote in Contemporaries. "Rexroth . . . suddenly became a public figure."
Undoubtedly influencing the Beats more than they influenced him, the poet nonetheless was considered part of the school he instructed by many conservative or academic critics. As such, he often was dismissed or opposed as being part of a nonconformist craze. Some reviewers looked beyond the image, however, to assess the poet's work itself. "Rexroth's In Defense of the Earth  showed him the strongest of West Coast anarchist poets because he is a good deal more than a West Coast anarchist poet," emphasized Rosenthal. "He is a man of wide cultivation and, when not too busy shocking the bourgeois reader (who would like nothing better), a genuine poet." Added Gibson: "Rexroth's book of the Beat period, In Defense of the Earth,. . . is no period piece. . . . These poems of love and protest, of meditation and remembrance, stand out as some of his most deeply felt poems."
Despite the vehement support Rexroth expressed for the birth of the Beat Generation, he became disillusioned when he saw the movement's more prominent members become "hipsters." Miller and Charters state that the poet "seemed to have become jealous of [the Beats'] success and widespread attention from the national press. He had fought for many years for his own recognition as a Poet," they pointed out, "and as [the Beats'] popularity increased, his growing hostility toward [them] was expressed in a series of articles over the next several years." Nevertheless, Rexroth remained supportive of certain aspects of some Beat writers' works while condemning the movement as a whole. Several critics now note this point, attributing both Rexroth's animosities and his preferences to an individual integrity not influenced by blind allegiance—or enmity—to any literary collective.
Rexroth's position as a central yet independent figure in American literature was further strengthened by a personal account of his youth, entitled An Autobiographical Novel. According to Dean Stewart, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the 1966 work "did most to enhance [Rexroth's] image as a living historical personality; his essays in book form and spreading reputation as a keen social critic and insightful philosopher also helped." Yet, while his role as the "outsider's insider" in the literary world became widely acknowledged, serious attention to his own poetry seemed to receive secondary consideration. Commented Stewart: "For a poet who has constantly said he 'only writes prose for money,' Rexroth rivals H. L. Mencken as a terse and cogent critic. But like Mencken, the largely forgotten lexicographer, little-read essayist and much remembered personality, Rexroth may share a similar descending fame from poet to translator to essayist to personality."
Gibson emphasized that in order to appreciate the importance of what Rexroth presents in An Autobiographical Novel the reader must understand Rexroth's world view as it evolves through all his works. Integral to the development of the poet's vision were his translation of foreign verse (both contemporary and ancient) and his study of Oriental thought. Rexroth felt an artistic kinship with the Greeks and Romans of classical times and with Japanese and Chinese writers. As Peter Clothier pointed out in a Los Angeles Times review of Rexroth's last Japanese translations: "The sharpness of focus and the directly experiential quality of. . .[Oriental] poets are close to Rexroth's own aesthetic. . . . Rexroth has long championed this directness and simplicity of diction in poetry, a clarity of image and emotion clearly compatible with the Japanese aesthetic." Although, as Gibson commented, literary critics have yet to explore the relationships between Rexroth's translations and his own poetry, it has been generally recognized that his later poems are characterized by a serenity and quiet intensity that reflect Oriental art and philosophy.
The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart (1968), New Poems (1974), and The Morning Star (1979)—Rexroth's major poetry collections published after his autobiography—illustrate both his involvement with Oriental culture and his final resolutions of philosophical and technical concerns. Rexroth was, stated Victor Howes in the Christian Science Monitor, looking "for a sort of day-to-day mysticism." It was "a poetry of direct statement and simple clear ideas," the critic continued. "A poetry free of superfluous rhetoric. One might call it a poetry of moments." Agreed Richard Eberhart in Nation, "Rexroth . . . settled down to the universal validity of stating simple and deep truths in a natural way." "Though he [had] always been a visionary, he spent more than three decades searching for a philosophical rationale for his experience, for history, and for nature. In the 1960s he seems to have abandoned that kind of quest in favor of pure visionary experience," Gibson summarized. "[ The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart], an extended Buddhist-Taoist meditation written in Japan, shows the depths of his resignation and enlightenment."
Written as Rexroth celebrated his sixtieth birthday, The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart did not "aim at giving answers to final questions that have none," explained Luis Ellicott Yglesias in the New Boston Review. "Instead it is a meditation on a handful of central images that have been treasured for centuries because they have the virtue of clarifying experience to the points of making it possible to relinquish life with the facility of a ripe apple dropping from its branch." Woodcock, who recognized in Rexroth's earlier works a dialogue between the poet's "conceptualizing mind" and his "experiencing sensibility," felt the two were reconciled in the volume. Out of the fusion "there appears a unique contemplative intensity," the critic stated in New Leader. "What has been forged is a supercharged imagism in which every physical object, every scene, every picture the poet creates, is loaded with burdens of meaning that cannot otherwise be expressed." This reconciliation of the immediate and the enduring continued in New Poems, which Herbert Leibowitz said were composed "of a flash or revelatory image and silent metamorphoses." Describing what he saw as Rexroth's achievement, Leibowitz continued in the New York Times Book Review: "Syntax is cleared of the clutter of subordinate clauses, that contingent grammar of a mind hesitating, debating with itself, raging against death and old age. The dynamics of his poems are marked piano—even storms are luminous rather than noisy." The quietness, as well as a vital eroticism, carried over to Rexroth's volume of verse The Morning Star. Containing three previously published collections, including the sequence that Rexroth pretended was translated from the Japanese ( The Love Songs of Marichiko), the book offers a "directness and clarity" not usually associated with Western art, according to David Kirby in the Times Literary Supplement. "How different this is from the Rexroth of The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944), who sounds like Lawrence and Pound and Whitman, or the one who wrote [ Thou Shalt Not Kill] in In Defense of the Earth. . . . Now he appears to belong, or to want to belong, at least as much as a publishing writer can, to the Buddhist bodhisattvas [or other Eastern religions]."
Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters offers letters exchanged between 1937 and 1982 between Rexroth and James Laughlin, the founder of the New Directions publishing house. The letters reveal the friendship between the men as well as their ongoing professional relationship; Laughlin published most of Rexroth's important poetry collections, while Rexroth in turn led a number of influential writers to Laughlin and New Directions. "Rexroth is often preoccupied with his own financial need in his letters to Laughlin. Most often his tone is accusatory," noted John Tritica in Western American Literature. Indeed, Rexroth often castigated Laughlin for not supporting him sufficiently or for not publishing authors that he thought deserved to be published. "More than anything, the letters testify to the forbearance and patience of James Laughlin as a friend," remarked Gerald Nicosia in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
"Revolutionary and conservative, worldly and spiritual, Asian and western ideas from traditions that may seem irreconcilable were uniquely harmonized in Rexroth's world view as expressed [throughout] his philosophical poetry and essays," Gibson wrote in his study Kenneth Rexroth. Concluded Douglas Dunn in Listener: "Insufficient credit has been granted to Rexroth's identity as an old-fashioned, honest-to-God man of letters of downright independence of mind. . . . His temper [was] too independent, too scholarly, for cut-and-dried allegiances. He [turned] his back on Eliot and Pound. He [had] the irritating habit—for the mediocre, that is, the literary side-takers—of liking some but not all of certain poets or movements. Like all good examples in modern poetry, he has been seen as a figure instead of as a creator; as a representative rather than as a participant. That he is all four of these persons at once comes as a sweet discovery from a reading of his work instead of from side-glances at other people's estimates of his reputation."
The memory of Kenneth Rexroth goes back into my distant past. I had been aware of him since the 1940s but with renewed interest during the 1950s and the emergence of the San Francisco Renaissance and that early Beat Generation for which he was an older spokesman. With David Antin and others, circa 1958, I was coming into contact with poets outside of our immediate neighborhood and, as with Kenneth, outside of our own generation.
I think our first meeting with him was under the pretext of doing an interview for Chelsea Review, during its early period, when Robert Kelly and George Economou were among the cofounders and editors. I have a memory too of having caught up with Rexroth at the CBS Studios in New York, to watch him being interviewed by Mike Wallace, but David seems not to have been a part of that. Afterwards, we agreed to meet and do our own interview at the Five Spot, a popular jazz club in what would later be called the East Village, where Kenneth was performing nightly with Pepper Adams’s quintet.
In that ambience the interview we did was secondary, but the chance to watch Kenneth was something I felt as memorable from the outset. By that I mean Kenneth talking and Kenneth doing jazz and poetry, all of it with an outrageous zest and for the moment at least with a belief in his own presence and power as a public person and a man who had the real goods and could well display them.
Our interview was never published, but I retained a copy of the manuscript and have recently dug it out of my papers and manuscripts at the New Poetry Archives of the University of California, San Diego. In 1958, it’s clear, there was no tape recording to fall back on, but I was busily writing down notes in a weird kind of shorthand that I had picked up while working for a sometimes questionable New York outfit called Writers Service. I can still hear his voice as I read through it, and I’m aware now, as I was then, of how much he was trying to dazzle us. We took it all in stride, including the irritability and impatience he displayed toward other poets, and learned later that it was a part of any encounter with Kenneth.
For David and me there would be other meetings with Kenneth down the years — not too many, but all of them comradely and without rancor. He was incredibly supportive of the work I did with ethnopoetics and with an avantgardism for which he was often an interested but skeptical supporter. We only found out, after his death, that our connection with New Directions — the poetry rather than the poetics — was largely of his doing. That he had never called this to our attention is something I find as moving as the support itself.
What follows, then, is an unedited version of our interview with him, scribbled by hand at the Five Spot.
As Rexroth sat down, a well-dressed woman over at the side pointed him out to a group of friends, speaking in an audible, almost passionate tone: “That’s him, that’s the poet, the PO-ET!”
Kenneth Rexroth: Feed him some peanuts (Laughter).
Jerome Rothenberg & David Antin: How are things here?
Rexroth: Not bad … This isn’t the best town for what we’re doing. Too many other things to pull the crowds away.
R&A: Better audiences here?
Rexroth: I don’t think so. I find a New York audience is less sophisticated. They miss all the better lines. I mean, I like to throw out some patter before we start, to relax them. You do it here and they’ll sit right below the bandstand and never crack a smile … all the music and literary references go right by them.
R&A: What are the differences outside of New York?
Rexroth: Well, we draw bigger there. We pack in crowds in some places they would never dream of here. You can’t match the enthusiasm. This is a big cultural event for a lot of those people. They’re quick to respond. Like in St. Louis I said, “We want to pay tribute to St. Louis’s two greatest citizens, Jimmy Blanton and Karl Schurz,” and some guy got up and applauded … Wouldn’t happen here.
R&A: In the Jazz-Poetry itself, what are you trying to achieve? What effects do you go after?
Rexroth: You don’t always get what you want, of course, but we’re learning … What I try with my own stuff is to work the poem to a slow climax through a series of quiet painful dissonances. They (the musicians) aren’t dissonant enough for me. There’s too much funkiness. On a tour like this you can’t expect too much, playing with different groups.
R&A: What’s the trouble?
Rexroth: A lot of the boys just don’t want to practice. I have some of my own Chinese translations in the book, and I try to get them to listen to tapes of Chinese music and build the jazz around it. There’s a tendency for it to come out like 42nd Street chop-suey music. It's not a bad effect altogether, but it isn’t what I want.
R&A: Have you tried any Japanese waka or haiku?
Rexroth: I’ve managed some really good, short things with that, but there the Japanese music is essential. A lot of the boys are good instrumentalists, you know, but without imagination for this. It seems to me as if the 1958 bop style is swinging back to the old K.C. sound brought up to date — with harmonies invented by Beethoven. The funkiness always bugs in.
R&A: Does any of this interfere with your poetry?
Rexroth: That question always depends on who you are. I find I’ve learned a hell of a lot about my poetry and poetry in general. Actually only about half the things in our book are my own. Then I read Durrel, Neruda, early Sandburg, a lot of other people.
R&A: In what way does your approach to Jazz-Poetry differ from, say Patchen’s or Ferlinghetti’s?
Rexroth: Well, Larry came to it late and didn’t really know much about jazz to start with. But he’s a good foil for me. We work well together. I’ve been around jazz and jazz musicians most of my life. In my teens I ran a joint in Chicago. Dave Tough was a very good friend of mine. He was a great musician and a really good poet too. I knew them all back in Chicago.
R&A: He’s got some really top musicians there.
Rexroth: There’s six men, but they double in everything under the sun. Some of their climaxes come out sounding like the Pines of Rome. With my own group I like to keep it loose. They have to counter rather than go with me. When they stop I like to be moving.
R&A: Like cross rhythms?
Rexroth: That’s right. You have the voice moving free across the bar line. It’s something like a solo riff. Kenneth’s arrangements are a lot tighter. I think they’ve got it worked out to the hemi-semi-demi-quaver.
R&A: Do you think it’s all heading somewhere?
Rexroth: Sure, it’s the only way you can return poetry to its audience.
R&A: What are the chances of this developing into something like drama?
Rexroth: You can’t tell yet. Actually out on the coast very soon, there will be a performance of my Phaedra to jazz accompaniment. It’ll be jazz with sort of modal harmonies. My wife called me on this from out there, and I told them to hold everything till I got back. The essence of all these plays is in the absolute starkness, as in Noh drama or Yeats. Did you know I staged the first performance in America of At the Hawk’s Well ? Well, in the Phaedra also the staging is bare. You have two choruses — four people sitting at the sides who are also the musicians, and the main chorus, a beggar and a prostitute, sitting on a sort of step in front. They narrate what the characters are doing and also pick up their lines and speak for them in their own voices. Now originally I had this scored for flute and percussion and something like a guitar. That’s pretty far away from the new version, and I want to make sure it doesn’t get loused up. When they put this on in New York back in the forties, it was one of the great disasters in the history of drama. Thank God I wasn’t there. Later I heard they played it in orgone boxes …
R&A: What’s your present view of that which is called “the Beat Generation”?
Rexroth: Oh hell! Do you know what I said about that? It’s all a Madison Avenue gimmick that’s going to go out with the Fall book list.
R&A: Just sticking to the writers around San Francisco …
Rexroth: Those two (Kerouac and Ginsberg) aren’t from San Francisco, they’re from the San Remo. I mean, I think Allen Ginsberg is a very good poet. Don’t get me wrong. I said and I still feel that he has great potential as a really popular and hortatory poet.
R&A: How about Kerouac? Have you changed your mind about him?
Rexroth: I have no interest in Kerouac whatsoever. I’ve done my stint for him. As far as I’m concerned, Kerouac is what Madison Avenue wants a rebel to be. That isn’t my kind of rebel. I mean, I’ve been an anarchist all my life, and I know a lot more about Greek and Latin than Allen Tate.
R&A: What’s your opinion of Howl?
Rexroth: I’ve gone through it very carefully. It’s a skillfully put-together poem, if you understand what he’s doing. I mean Allen handles a colloquial line — of the type of Sandburg before he imagined he was Abe Lincoln — very well.
R&A: Does the “hipster” vocabulary bother you there?
Rexroth: I don’t think it’s inherent in the verse line. It’s part of the content, but that’s something different. What I was talking about was the rhythm of the line … the use of a natural speech line. Allen works very hard at it. He’s really a poet.
R&A: And Kerouac?
Rexroth: No! I think that Jack busted the crust of custom, and as far as that went I was for it. At least he made all the right enemies.
R&A: In your own poetry it’s not just the natural speech line, is it? You use syllabics …
Rexroth: Oh yes … mostly. But the syllabic structure is just a device, and behind it there’s the organization in terms of rhythms. Eluard did that also. Or you find it in Laughlin, where you have to know what he’s playing it off against … the jazz feeling behind it. Do you know this? (Leaning over and chanting)
Met you in the supermarket
And gee you were nice.
R&A: Is that what you mean by cadenced verse?
Rexroth: The basic line in any good verse is cadenced … building it around the natural breath structures of speech.
R&A: What about Williams’s claim to have discovered a new type of American prosody?
Rexroth: Well, Bill I think is a very great poet, but I’m afraid he’s created such an elaborate smoke screen about his discoveries that he’s come to believe them. It reminds me of the story of the painter who went through a big show of stirring his paints very carefully, and someone asked him what the secret was, and he said, “It’s all in the mureatic acid.” Bill just got to believe the hoax.
R&A: You wrote, in the Prairie Schooner I think, that most of the San Francisco people, except Denise Levertov, were “uncivilized.” Did you mean anything special by that?
Rexroth: No; just that Denise is the product of an old and rich culture … her family is grounded in the humanistic tradition. I don’t think it’s that important. I mean, there are a lot of different kinds of people on the San Francisco scene. And I’m not talking about Kerouac. He doesn’t belong there. I don’t think he’s been in Frisco more than three months in his life.
R&A: This Marie Ponsat is quite different than the others, isn’t she? More like Lowell, or someone in the Donne tradition?
Rexroth: Oh sure, there’s just the widest variety out there. Josephine Miles, Robert Duncan — all of them are different. You can’t call this a movement.
R&A: You wouldn’t want this to tighten into a single poetic point of view?
Rexroth: No; when I was teaching a workshop course there, the only thing I tried to impress on my class was certain fundamentals of any writing — directness and clarity of observation, and fidelity of the poetic situation. Not any special forms or styles.
R&A: How do you take to people who work in more or less traditional metrics, like Richard Wilbur?
Rexroth: No, I’m just not interested. It bores me. What would you call the now — the neo-alexandrianization of the baroque tradition? I mean, I can still read Callimachus, but not Eratos. I draw the line there … no interest whatsoever. You can fall into the same thing by modeling your work around Saintsbury’s Minor Caroline Poets.
R&A: Does that hold for Lowell too?
Rexroth: I don’t think Lowell’s like that.
R&A: He writes a stanza like Drayton’s …
Rexroth: Yes, but there’s a personal element here. I’ve always felt with him a considerable violence and bettering of form. But even so, he’s not one of the people I like best.
R&A: Who would you consider the rating American poets?
Rexroth: I don’t know … Williams. He’s one of the very few we have in the general European tradition. All these quarterlies and all that exist in the backwash of the English tradition … something apart from the modern movement. Williams is the peer of the Europeans — a world poet.
R&A: How about Pound?
Rexroth: Well, as a poet I find his verse soft and mellifluous … a limp soft line. It’s not what I’m looking for at all. The difference is like that between Wyatt and Surrey. And he’s beneath the backwash also. I just don’t think it’s very fruitful.
R&A: Which European poets do you prefer?
Rexroth: Mostly French, though I read the Italians also. Reverdy and Apollinaire in particular.
R&A: Any younger French poets?
Rexroth: I don’t care for the post-war ones in general, though I did translate some of [Oscar] Milosz. I like the sentiment. I’m in favor of that.
R&A: How about post-war Germans?
Rexroth: Those I don’t know. Is there anything there? See if you can find some.
R&A: Back to the French, what about Rene Char?
Rexroth: Well, don’t forget that he’s a sort of A.E. Housman in a modern idiom … in the same way that Prevert is really their New Yorker poet, which shows how much ahead of us they are. Larry [Ferlinghetti] always thought he’d modeled himself on Prevert, but I think he’s got a much harder line, more like Queneau.
R&A: Are there any older poets to whom you return?
Rexroth: Those I read continuously are Burns and Landor. Simple, stark quatrains … things my little girls can enjoy.
R&A: There’s been a growing interest in oriental verse recently, in which you played a part. What do you think of it?
Rexroth: In California — not Los Angeles but in Frisco — there’s direct contact. They’re open to the sea, so that something of the real flavor comes across. And Frisco, remember, is full of Buddhist churches. Mary, my little girl, was confirmed in a Buddhist temple. She saw the Life write-up on Buddhism, with pictures of the ceremony, and she said she wanted to be confirmed there because she only liked Jesus as a kid. She was a little disappointed in him when he grew up. But anyway, the orientalism in Frisco isn’t all the ten cent incense burner variety. A lot of us — Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, myself — read the languages.
R&A: Do you include the current Zen craze in this?
Rexroth: Oh, I don’t much care for that. Do you know what the Japanese call it? Buddhism for white people. It’s too easy, something set up for a popular market.
R&A: Do you think of yourself as a Buddhist?
Rexroth: Not really … or if I am, if I am a Buddhist, I’m a Buddhist of a very primitive sort — not a Rhys Davids Oxford Hinayana Buddhist. If I have any religious belief at all, I suppose I believe in the primacy of religious experience. In Buddhism the religious experience is purely empirical.
R&A: Do you mean they’re continually searching, but nobody gets to Nirvana … like the laughter of the Buddha and the Bodhisatvas about the path?
Rexroth: It’s like what you find in the statues — the bored look on the face of the Buddha — or the Bodhisatva’s vow made out of a kind of good-humored indifference or insouciance. But I’m not a Buddhist anyway. I’m an aetheist.
R&A: That searching for the path isn’t like Kerouac’s search for God’s face, is it?
Rexroth: Look, that’s all a lot of talk. You don’t become a saint until you lead a good life whether in Tibet or Italy or America. When the hipster picks this up, he cheapens it. I don’t like hipsters. The hipster is a louse on jazz … a mimic of jazz and Negroes who believes the Negro is born with a sax in his mouth and a hypodermic in his arm. That’s despicable. In jazz circles it’s what they call Crow Jimism.
R&A: And in religion?
Rexroth: I just don’t know where they drag the saints into this. You can’t become a saint by taking dope, stealing your friends’ typewriters, giving girls chancres, not supporting your wife and children, and then reading St. John of the Cross. All of that, when it’s happened before, has typified the collapse of civilization … and today the social fabric is falling apart so fast, it makes your head swim.
[Originally published online in Jacket 23, August 2003.]