The centuries have changed little
in this art,
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 summery of the essence of Taoism
also reflected his philosophy of life:
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:
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:
Rexroth was always enthusiastic about ethical world-affirming mysticism, always quick to encourage the joining of contemplation and community;
What is taken in
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.