Rachelle Lerner

Three Sparks in the “Tinder of Knowing”:

Kenneth Rexroth 1905-1982, Earle Birney 1904-95 , and George
Woodcock 1912-95

    “Why Won’t You Ignite”

    from the sparks of my lan-
    guage delivered to your door

    [James Laughlin, Selected Poems 1935-1985,112]
    “The Spark in the Tinder of Knowing”

    The sea of fire that lights all being
    Becomes the human heart.
    . . .  one burning jewel.

    [Kenneth Rexroth Complete Poems 684-85]

The combustible energies of three second-generation modernists sparked with
subversive productivity during the 1940s and 1950s. American Kenneth Rexroth,
Canadian Earle Birney, and Canadian expatriate George Woodcock, each nearing
middle age, strove for stronger footing in the contemporary literary scene, and to
revolutionize social consciousness. These rugged individualists became literary
champions, keen for inciting new directions, and culturally charged voices:
Rexroth through the New Poetry Center, Birney by founding the Creative Writing
program at University of British Columbia, and The League of Canadian Poets,
and Woodcock through his creation of
Now and Canadian Literature. Vigour, as
Rexroth observed in the
New Republic (1954), was to be found in “the poetic
underground” of the little magazines. [17]

Like New Directions publisher James Laughlin’s tireless advocacy of new and
ignored writers, generous support of writers beyond borders, and readiness to
foster new friendships in an ever-widening network, Rexroth, Birney, and
Woodcock brought younger writers into the spotlight. Ironically, their own literary
standing as poets, critics, and editors was overshadowed. Birney did win two
Governor General Awards early in his career but his work, more often than not,
was rejected, and in 1949, he began to wallpaper his office wall at UBC with
rejection slips. [Cameron 300, 304-5] Late in life, Birney and Woodcock were
honoured for their achievements. But Rexroth has yet to receive his full due, a
reckoning hindered by his irascible temperament, antagonism to academia, and by
a distressing number of his books being out of print. However, the January 2003
first edition of
The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth may help, for it offers in full
sweep his short and long poems, thoughtfully edited to show his development, by
Copper Canyon publisher and poet Sam Hamill and novelist Bradford Morrow,
Rexroth’s literary executor.  

The lives of Rexroth, Birney, and Woodcock intersected during the tumultuous
1940s and 1950s. Initially professional exchanges, all three relationships deepened
through shared political, social, and literary views. More striking was how their
lives mirrored each other’s, with Rexroth and Birney shoring the order of their
writing against chaotic personal relations, and Woodcock, spurred by guilt to
impassioned writing. Personal demons ignited their creativity. Rexroth’s
celebrations of the “sacrament of marriage” and projection of a serene self in his
poetry contradict his personal turbulence as he struggled through four marriages
and countless love affairs. Birney, rebelling against a strict mother, and juggling
prodigious affairs through three marriages, worried that he needed a chaotic life
for inspiration. With the likewise profligate Irving Layton, Birney wondered if
“disorder in his life . . . helped to produce the poem.” [Cameron 402] Woodcock,
while happily married, suffered guilt about his estrangement from his mother,
speculating guilt seemed the catalyst for his creativity, that “creativity flowers
from emotional wounds”. [Twigg 17] While Birney and Woodcock stung from a
strict and stern maternal presence, Rexroth’s mother became almost an archetypal
force, subsequent to her early death in June 1916 when he was age ten, as he noted
to poet Morgan Gibson. [March 20, 1977]. He idealized her, and attributed his love
for women to her. His 1940 elegies for her radiate with sorrow and love: “Delia, . . .
/ Deep in the earth, the white ribs retain / The curve of your fervent, careful breast;
/ The fine skull, and the ardor of your brain”. [219] And: “I guess you were a fierce
lover, / . . . // And I have bought back / . . . The precious consequences / Of your
torn and distraught life”. [284]        

The lives of Rexroth, Birney, and Woodcock drew together during the 1940s
through their view of poetry as a social force. This was a decisive change from
Rexroth’s earliest poems, imitations of Ernest Dowson and early W. B. Yeats,
signed with an ornate calligraphic flourish “Kenneth St. Charles Marie Rexroth”:
“her faint heart flowers, an anemone”, and from his early 1930s’ experimental
cubist poems: “cause of a difficulty / trauma of the word / conflicts the eyes”.
[“Epitaph” 17; “In the Memory of Andrée Rexroth” 65] Language was to be used
responsibly to communicate, not obscure, ideas, and to redeem human values and
integrity being “depraved by commercialism”, as Rexroth observed in
1957. [188] Birney’s 1941 “David” offers a muscular, yet allusive
narrative of two friends mountain-climbing, and the one who fell: “David as still as
a broken doll”. [Oxford 112] The poem carries overtones of the biblical story of
David and Jonathan, as well as sexual ambiguities about the friendship, and
suggests how integrity and right choices become difficult in times of crisis. The
friend agonizes when David, after his paralyzing fall, implores him for a push to
immediate death.  

Rexroth, Birney, and Woodcock felt the uncertain, pessimistic pulse of the mid-
century decades. Their poetics required clear communication rather than obscurity
of the ‘seven types of ambiguity’ endorsed by William Empson, and the
impersonal ironies of T. S. Eliot. Rexroth concluded in “They Say This Isn’t a Poem
“: “Of course the ruling / Class of English poetry / Has held that . . . / . . . personal /
Pronouns are never permitted. / If rigorously enough / Applied, such a theory /
Produces in practice its / Opposite.” [597-600, 599] Birney satirized Eliot imitators
for being “darkly vegetational à la
Golden Bough”, and called for a “new colloquial
gusto.” [Cameron 202, 188]

A groundswell of protest against ornate, ambiguous poetry was rising. Editor
Selden Rodman observed in the August 9, 1939
New Republic issue, “Seven Poets of
a Crisis Year”, a poetry that was “defiant” with “little experiment, . . . almost no
symbolism . . . [and] sadness or desperation . . . equally characteristic of the mood
of 1939. As the urgency of social questions has increased, styles have . . . become
more straightforward and even prosaic.” [1-2]
Furioso’s theme in 1946 was “poetry
to be understood.” [5]

Rexroth’s, Birney’s, and Woodcock’s poetry and prose at that time focuses on
civilization in crisis. Woodcock mourns the loss of “the humane dream / Of a
peaceful sky”, and rages in “The Tyranny of the Clock” against this capitalist
instrument for reducing time to a saleable commodity. [Atwood 160; 1-3]
Phoenix and the Tortoise
portrays “the crumbling / Edge of a ruined polity,” as
Rexroth contemplates “what survives and what perishes, / of the fall of history and
waste of fact.” [239-70, 240] Birney experiences dislocation in a hostile society and
environment, watching the wind shape a mountain peak into “an arrowhead /
poised // . . . he could only wait / for the great flint to come singing into his heart.”
[Broadview 612-13] But the term “world crisis” itself was gaining clichéd currency,
and Rexroth discarded the title “The Crisis” in favour of  “In What Hour” for his
1940 collection of poems. These caustic elegies convey dread and foreboding about
an imminent world catastrophe, “a blank total” with no conceivable future. [257]
The collection opens with the call of “From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt
Rebellion” to “Remember now that there were others before this . . . / . . . men’s
bodies burst into torches.” [143] His “Requiem for the Spanish Dead” depicts the
poet “Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco . . . / I am caught in a nightmare, the
dead flesh / Mounting over half the world presses against me.” [148]

Their leftist commitment to political and social dissent, and conviction that
revolutionizing a stricken world required literary forums for debate took voluble
form. Woodcock’s anarchist literary magazine
Now (Freedom Press) declared its
aversion to dogma, with the 1944 editorial entitled: “The Dark Night of the
Intellect”. Birney, calling for “reassertion of heroic values”, aired his political
views in
Canadian Forum (under the pseudonym “Rufus”), sending his editor into a
panic, and so resigned. [Cameron 169-70] In 1937, Rexroth spoke in “Poetry and
Society” of “fluent . . . gaps in the structure of communication . . . through which
the mind of a reader could be assaulted.” [35] Subsequently, Rexroth pronounced
“the written word is a sieve”, and urged blunter tactics, bludgeoning American
society with his intemperate elegy for Dylan Thomas “Thou Shalt Not Kill”: “You
killed him. . . . / . . . You son of a bitch” [“The Reality of Henry Miller” 156; 565].
The obscenity trial of Ginsberg’s
Howl fastened public attention on the role and
influence of poetry in society. Rexroth defended the raw vernacular and blunt
sexuality of
Howl as the “uninhibited lyricism” the Beat poets needed to respond
to their “diagnosis of an absolute corruption” in public speech. [“Disengagement”
327, 331].

Titles of literary magazines of the time convey the urgent political and social tenor,
for example:
The Ark, Furioso, New Masses, the New Republic, Now, the Partisan
and Anvil, Retort, Voices. The socialist-anarchist-pacifist underground
'movement' was taking shape in discussion circles and literary magazines.
Woodcock disseminated anarchist principles in
War Commentary and Now. Rexroth
fostered anarchist thought through the San Francisco Libertine Circle, which
became the magazine
Circle. Rexroth’s 1944 dramatic cover design features a red
circle with a block of black-lettered “Circle” superimposed at the top left of the
Circle carried Rexroth’s series “Les Lauriers sont Coupés” on writers he felt
deserved greater attention. But with typical volatility, Rexroth feuded with the
editors George Leite and Sanders Russell, and broke connections in 1947.

The impoverished backgrounds of Birney, Woodcock, and Rexroth (as a state ward
at age fifteen) clearly influenced their taking a leftist political stance, and their
abhorrence of a moneyed privileged class. As Rexroth recalled in his 1956  
“Portrait of the Author as a Young Anarchist”: “There were two classes of kids, . . .
/ . . . the rich kids / Who worked as caddies, / and the poor kids / Who snitched golf
balls. / I belonged to the / Saving group of exceptionalists / Who, after dark, and on
rainy days, / Stole out and shat in the golf holes.” [596]

Poverty deprived Woodcock of a university education, for he declined a
scholarship that required his becoming a minister. Rexroth also did not earn a
degree, a point of insecurity perhaps, for he railed against academia all through
his life. Both were impressive autodidacts, prolific readers with a breathtaking
range of subjects. Woodcock’s writings on political theories and his biography of
George Orwell became authoritative texts. Rexroth mastered Greek, Latin, French,
Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, and published creative translations of poems in
each language. Birney managed to attend university due to much scrimping and
sacrifice by his parents, along with his working and saving, but his education was
interrupted several times by impecunious circumstances.

Rexroth became an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World during
the twenties, and in the early thirties, joined the Party, as did Birney and
Woodcock, all attracted to a vision of socialist internationalism. The three
immersed themselves in reading political theories. Birney observed that his
“anarchical or communistic prejudices” were fuelled by reading: Carpenter,
Bertrand Russell, Kropotkin, Bukunin, Wells, and Shaw. [Cameron 56] They
became disillusioned by the proletariat party lines in the late thirties. For Rexroth
and Woodcock, pacificist anarchism was the sane choice. Woodcock’s social circle,
Alex Comfort, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Herbert Read, and Derek Savage,
confirmed his socialist, anarchist convictions. Rexroth, through Woodcock, met
and corresponded with Comfort, Read, and Savage; the latter he praised in
Dragon and the Unicorn
(1944-1950) for his “passionate talk. How good / To meet
someone in this world / With his own convictions and / Careless of gossip and
fashion.” [344] Birney, however, having exhausted himself with furious efforts to
organize Trotskyist cells, withdrew in 1940, though maintaining his leftist beliefs:
“I have broken with POLITICS . . . . I still think the ultimate choice is socialism or
barbarism. But . . . my spare time . . . is going to be writing.” [193]

All three had communist wives, with a curious dimension for Rexroth and Birney.
Popular myth held that communist, or socialist tenets included liberal ideas about
sex;  marriage did not require sexual fidelity. Rexroth and his first wife, Andrée,
split up in the early thirties, according to Rexroth in
Excerpts from a Life, because of
her proposed “menage à quatre” with Dorothy van Ghent and her companion
Roger, though it appears that Rexroth and Dorothy had already become lovers. [33-
4] Birney’s second wife, Esther, tolerated Birney’s countless love affairs with a
‘Griselda’s’ patience, though he repeatedly complained of her jealousy. [Cameron
327] In 1947
Harper’s, Mildred Edie Brady described “The New Cult of Sex and
Anarchy” in which women were second-class citizens who “play the role of the
quiet and yielding vessel through which man finds the cosmos.” [319] Indeed,
Rexroth and Birney felt no constraints on their extramarital activities. Their
expectations of their wives reflect the gender biases of the time –  women were to
serve. Rexroth expected Marie, later Marthe, then Carol, to type manuscripts, write
letters on his behalf, and mail provisions to him on his hiking and fishing
expeditions, duties that Birney, in turn, expected of Esther. Rexroth envied Savage
for his self-sacrificing helpmate: “Connie / Savage an educated Kate Blake”. [344]
Woodcock appears to have been the exception; his love poems to his wife late in
life convey an enduring passion.    

Rexroth and Birney excelled at projecting a confident public serenity that belied
their chaotic personal lives. So Birney’s impressions of Rexroth’s life in 1960 are
oblivious to Rexroth’s troubles. His comments to poet Louis Dudek suggest
Rexroth’s promptings: “Rexroth is Big Time now, is speaking his autobio, without
notes or script, over a local radio station. . . . He is also going on a reading tour . . . ,
alternatively at campuses and night clubs, at $350 a crack. I wrote Irving [Layton]
suggesting you boys might know of a Montreal patron . . . or something that might
pay Rexroth up there.” [412-13] Of course, the reason that Rexroth could ‘speak’
his autobiography “without notes” was that he had dictated it into a tape recorder.
And Rexroth was not commanding that kind of money; he had asked Frederick J.
Hoffman for a reading fee of $350 at the University of Wisconsin, which Hoffman
angrily declined. [July 18, 1958, letter to Marthe] He did, however, secure a
guaranteed minimum of $600 for twelve nights of readings. [April 14, 1958]

Rexroth and Birney yearned for a sense of order to reconcile their restless erotic
energies with their longing for an ideal life partner. Late in life, each made
‘January-May’ marriages, a passionate one for Birney, but not for Rexroth. At age
sixty-nine, Rexroth married thirty-three year old Carol Tinker, who had become his
live-in secretary in response to his advertisement ten years earlier. Birney, also
sixty-nine, fell in love with Wailan Low, a twenty-two year old student, and several
years later, he divorced the long-suffering Esther. Both marriages were a catalyst
for a renewed surge of creative productivity. Among Rexroth’s late work is
Love Poems of Marichiko
, which he presented as translations of a Japanese woman
poet: “Scorched with love, the cicada / Cries out. Silent as the firefly, / My flesh is
consumed with love.” [720] In fact, he was Marichiko, assuming a female persona
for expressing tender lyrics. This was a characteristic wile, for in earlier years, he
had salted his Asian translations with haiku of his own composition under a
pseudonym. Birney likewise wrote love poems for Wailan, featured in
: “She holds me / with evergreen / devotion.” [78]

Along with Rexroth’s and Woodcock’s later love poems are those still saturated
with political convictions, but in a more elegiac, intimate manner. In “Time is the
Mercy of Eternity” (1964), Rexroth muses on: “What can you say in a poem” and
then on “the writhing city / [that] Burns in a fire of transformation / And
commodities.” [544-45] Again, in the “Fish Peddler and Cobbler”: “We thought we
were the forerunners / of the normal life of mankind . . . / . . . that soon all things
would / Be changed . . . / . . . Nobody bothers anarchists anymore.” [605-6]
Woodcock’s political vision similarly darkens, as in the 1975 “Paper Anarchist
Addresses the Shade of Nancy Ling Perry”: “Why you, not I, enter that violent
dark / And I look on, appalled, ashamed, and mourn / Terrible children, comrades,
enemies.” [161]  

Having considered political and psychological affinities in the life and work of
Rexroth, Birney, and Woodcock, I will close by mapping out the intersections of
their relationships. Rexroth’s and Birney’s began in August 1941, sparked by
Laughlin’s referral of Birney to Rexroth, having declined “David” for the annual
New Directions; he anticipated friendship due to their mutual love of mountain
hiking, and that Rexroth’s contacts would be helpful. Their discussions ranged
through hiking, their earlier socialist activities, and discovering friends in
common. They met in England and Aix-en-Provence in 1949, and again in 1959,
followed by Birney coming to San Francisco to read at the New Poetry Center, and
Rexroth coming to UBC for a reading arranged by Birney. Their exchange of letters
ends in 1960, right after Birney’s San Francisco reading, perhaps because of the
personal turmoil each was experiencing: Birney’s complicated itinerary of love
affairs and widening fissures in his second marriage; Rexroth’s collapsing third
marriage, and fractious relations with the Beats and other writers he had mentored
(Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan). His behaviour became paranoid
and erratic after the affair between his wife Marthe and poet Robert Creeley
(whom Rexroth had also mentored).

Rexroth’s and Woodcock’s correspondence in the early 1940s on political and
literary matters led to a lifelong professional and personal relationship.
Woodcock, quite taken with the lively diagnostic quality of Rexroth’s 1947 letter,
immediately published it as “Letter From America” in his anarchist magazine
Now. Rexroth included Woodcock  in his 1949 anthology The New British Poets;
Rexroth hailed this writing’s neo-romantic celebration of enduring human values.
They met in 1951 in California, near Sebastopol, a place favoured by anarchists.
[Hamalian 400] A year after Rexroth’s death in 1982, Woodcock reflected on the
“rage and serenity” that drove Rexroth’s life and work, that his “relationship with .
. . Rexroth, . . . was so largely within the context of the politics of the unpolitical
that . . . I did not realize how largely implicit in his poetry [is] . . . the expression of
his . . . “idiosyncratic but completely authentic kind of anarchism.” [Hatlen 73]
Woodcock’s “An Elegy for an Anarchist” also paid tribute.        

The enduring friendship of Birney and Woodcock began in 1950 after Woodcock
and his wife immigrated to Vancouver (in 1949), drawn by the Christian anarchist
idealism of the Doukhobors to Sooke, on Vancouver Island, where the Woodcocks
tried and failed to earn a living as market gardeners.[Cameron 325] Birney secured
him teaching posts at University of Washington in 1955 and then at the UBC, from
1956 on. [376, 325] They collaborated on the literary magazine
Canadian Literature,
the first Canadian journal to explore and celebrate Canadian writing, which
Woodcock founded in 1959,  jointly encouraging distinctly Canadian voices.

Rexroth, Birney and Woodcock were “three sparks in the tinder of knowing” –
literary champions for new poetic voices and political-social reforms. Rexroth,
always determined to support new writing and accessible resources, willed his
house and massive home library to the Jesuits to operate as a free research centre;
unfortunately, this did not materialize, though his library has been reconstructed
in a Japanese university. Birney founded the Canadian League of Poets, realizing
his dream of a guild for writers. Woodcock, late in life, created an emergency fund
to help Canadian writers in need. Their generous nurturing of new and neglected
writers requires tribute. I will conclude with three, by Canadian poets William. H.
New and Al Purdy, and British-turned-American poet Denise Levertov.   

W. H. New, who took up the editorial reins for
Canadian Literature in 1977, points
to Woodcock’s “passionate intellectual commitment to the ideas of creativity and
freedom” , his “continuing to tune in to the voices of the new, and . . . those
writers eager to say their minds.” [5, 7] The late ‘people’s poet’ Al Purdy
underlines Birney’s social conscience: “Birney’s poetry . . . indicates . . . he takes
responsibility in both life and literature. Social responsibility . . . exemplified by
his friendship and admiration for Leon Trotsky.” [xiii] And Denise Levertov
offered her appreciation in 1997 of Rexroth:

    I was always amazed and grateful . . . how he continued through the years
    to bring my name positively into even irrelevant writings – I mean I was
    irrelevant but he mentioned me anyway. . . . Due to him . . . New
    Directions took me on in the beginning. I owe him a lot. . . . His faith in
    my work influenced the course of my life. [letter to me, September 26,


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