Fine Young Animals: Kenneth Rexroth

View of Banner Peak (with Mt Ritter behind) fr...

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Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was the quintessential bohemian homeschooler. His mother had him reading the classics as a small boy, and he never lasted too long in any school, though eventually he became a popular teacher at a university. His parents died when he was still a little kid, and he went to live with relatives in Chicago. After dropping out of high school, he spent some time in a monastery. He loved the lifestyle–quiet, solitude, and plenty of time to pursue his poetry–but did not feel he had a calling. After that, he jumped into life with both feet, becoming a champion of leftist politics and poetry. He settled in California, where he helped Japanese-Americans avoid internment camps, fell in love a few times, and hosted the beat poets on his radio show.

Rexroth remained a mystic at heart. He’d spend months camping in the Sierra Nevadas, and judging by its content, he wrote a lot of his poetry during these stays. His poems are also engrossed with love and lovemaking, which he regarded as a sacramental act.

As I read a dozen or so of his poems, certain ideas and words kept cropping up: mountains, snow, lips, mist, campfires, thighs. I’m guessing his mystical mind found in these a means for exploring Heaven, while politics made a nice microcosm for Hell. He said, “Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust.”

Here’s one of Kenneth Rexroth’s poems, titled Another Spring:

The seasons revolve and the years change
With no assistance or supervision.
The moon, without taking thought,
Moves in its cycle, full, crescent, and full.

The white moon enters the heart of the river,
The air is drugged with azalea blossoms,
Deep in the night a pine cone falls,
Our campfire dies out in the empty mountains.

The sharp stars flicker in the tremulous branches,
The lake is black, bottomless in the crystalline night,
High in the sky the Northern Crown
Is cut in half by the dim summit of ta snow peak.

O heart, heart, so singularly
Intransigent and corruptible,
Here we lie entranced by the starlit water,
And moments that should each last forever

Slide unconsciously by us like water.

* * *
My following poem doesn’t really have a title. I guess we’ll call it Shop Girl:

After five days off work,
I believe I’m starting to look like a writer.
Maybe it’s the pajamas stained with microwave coffee,
Or that ravioli with wine and garlic bread I ate at noon,
Or the battered glasses and the idle, nappish hair.

Ten chapters in the bank. I look like hell.
I’m almost frightened enough to apply eyeliner,
to try on the skinny jeans (just making sure that still works).
It’s almost enough to make me rant at the mirror:
Don’t make me get out the hairspray!

But no, today I’ll settle for contact lenses and a scarf.
I’ll go out in the yard to divide the perennials,
Turn the compost, look for poems hiding in the weeds.
I’ll go on looking like a writer,
And, with any luck, write like a shop girl.

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