Kenneth Rexroth: Selected Poems (and Prose)

edited by Aoki Eiko,* Taguchi Tetsuya and John Solt

translated into Japanese by Katagiri Yuzuru, Kitasono Katue, Shiraishi Kazuko, et al

Kaigai shijin bunko (“Library of Foreign Poets”) published by Shichōsha**, Tokyo, 2017


* Japanese names are given in the customary order of surname first.

** The Shichōsha series of world poets currently includes William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Charles
Baudelaire, W. H. Auden, Walt Whitman, Paul Verlaine, e.e. cummings, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Ezra
Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, and Fernando Pessoa.
Significantly, Kenneth Rexroth (volume 17) is now standing shoulder to shoulder with his literary peers in Japan
before he has gained similar recognition in the U.S.A. Also significant is that he precedes any Beat poets in the
ongoing series.


Introduction by Tetsuya Taguchi


1. Preliminaries

20th century USA gave birth to Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82), who was a great poet,
painter and thinker. He was a dyed-in-the-wool, non-violent anarchist. He wasn’t
simplistically anti-establishment, but he rebelled thoroughly against the coercive means
of linguistic expression of the societal system and was an embattled artist. The first poem
included in this selection, “Portrait of the Author as a Young Anarchist” [1956] ends with
the seven lines:

 There were two classes of kids, and they
 Had nothing in common: 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.
 
I don’t suppose such a poem would find its way into school textbooks. Because poetry
from the outset has had the hidden capacity of subversion, in a work like the one above
in which the political message is extremely explicit and the establishment recognizes it as
subversive, it’s no wonder were it to get entwined in the net of censorship.

Rexroth’s development as an artist and thinker cannot be divorced from the historical
development of the Modern West. For Japanese readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of
that history, rather than rattle off a string of proper nouns associated with that history, I
will introduce Rexroth’s relationship with Japan. Japanese might feel indebted to him in a
number of ways. The efforts he exerted for Japan were definitely not those of the
superficial literary merchant whose interest in the foreign cultures is calculatingly based
on exploiting it for his own profit. Rather, Rexroth’s more genuine understanding is based
on how he envisions the world that will emerge after the fall of Western civilization as we
know it.

Ezra Pound’s immersion in Confucianism is well known, but Rexroth, unlike Pound, could
actually read and write Chinese and Japanese. Although by no means perfect, Rexroth
nevertheless had a working ability to converse in Japanese.

From early on, Rexroth was apprehensive about the inevitable destruction that he felt
ultimately would be wrought on the earth as a consequence of the capitalism and
individualism ushered in by the Modern West. One could make a case that his longtime
interest in Asian cultures was because Japan provided him with the possibility of
pursuing his idealized “community of love.”


2. Rexroth and Japan

Rexroth first went to Japan in 1967 and stayed in Kyoto. He had first become interested
in Japanese culture already in childhood, and that influence is already evident in his
1944 book of poems
The Phoenix and the Tortoise. His well-known book of translations,
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, was published in 1955, twelve years prior to
his first Japanese trip, but according to the correspondence in
Kenneth Rexroth and
James Laughlin: Selected Letters
, the anthology was already completed in 1947.

The 1940s, especially the first half, were especially horrible for Japan-US relations.
Nevertheless, as Morgan Gibson has pointed out, not only did Rexroth maintain his
defiant “conscientious objector” status throughout the war, but he overtly and covertly
aided his Japanese-American friends who were sent to internment/concentration camps
by safekeeping their valuables that would have been confiscated. According to Kodama
Sanehide, author of
American Poetry and Japan, Kenneth was a tad inconvenienced
when asked to hold several Buddhist ancestral altars (
butsudan) of friends, but he rose
to the occasion. (Japanese Americans were allowed to take only what they could carry
on their backs.)

Rexroth’s interest in Japan wasn’t limited to the classical poetry but extended to his
contemporaries. In particular, he was fond of and corresponded with Kitasono Katue, and
they met in Tokyo. Incidentally, Kitasono’s art and poetry have been experiencing a
resurgence of interest in the USA in recent years, and in 2013 there was a solo exhibit of
his work at LACMA. In 1978 a joint poetry reading was held with Kenneth Rexroth and
Shiraishi Kazuko at the Kyoto coffee shop Honyaradō (which burned down in 2015), with
Katagiri Yuzuru as MC. At that reading Rexroth mentioned in passing that Kitasono and
he were longtime friends and, regardless of the reason, Rexroth found it regrettable that
Kitasono’s excellent poems were no longer being read and appreciated at that time.

When Rexroth made a short visit to Japan for a PEN International Conference at which
he gave a talk, he was pleasantly surprised to see how monuments and traces from the
classical literature still remained in the present. He then returned with his wife for a full
year in Kyoto, and thereafter they made a few more trips to Japan.

For Rexroth’s life and the footprints left in his work after going to Japan, I refer you to
Morgan Gibson’s explanation and Aoki Eiko’s “Chronology.” Rexroth’s encounter with
living Japan left a number of passionate poems that are included in
New Poems and The
Morning Star
. The Love Poems of Marichiko translated by Kenneth Rexroth (1978) is a
collection of short poems by a young, uninhibited Japanese who sings in the first person
the joys of sexual love. It turned out to be a hoax not translated but written by Rexroth
himself. That’s why Katagiri Yuzuru’s famous translation of it into Japanese was billed
not as a “translation” but with the forced expression “an experimental reconstruction”
(
fukugen no kokoromi), which sounded so odd that it let the cat out of the hoax bag.

Rexroth was well versed in Tachikawa Shingon (Tantric Buddhism), and he attempted to
show the extreme of combining mysticism and love in this polished series of poems.
Moreover, at Nawate-Shijō in Kyoto and Ueno in Tokyo there are unusual temples that
are rooted in remnants of the original Indian, Buddhist teachings regarding the goddess
Marichi. In former times Marichi was known as the protector of prostitutes and samurai,
and later generations went there to console the souls of their ancestors.

Rexroth introduced in English many Japanese poets, mostly women, including Shiraishi
Kazuko, Yoshihara Sachiko and Ishigaki Rin. Shiraishi’s
Seasons of Sacred Lust and the
book of translations co-edited with Atsumi Ikuko,
Women Poets of Japan, among others,
are still widely read today, and these translations comprise yet another major
accomplishment by him. Rexroth was an active supporter of women poets his whole life,
and in Japan he established at his own expense the “Kenneth Rexroth Poetry Prize for
Women Poets,” which was awarded by a committee from 1975 until 1981.

Rexroth’s book of translations,
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, was well
received and a follow-up volume was issued,
One Hundred More Poems from the
Japanese
. These two books, along with One Hundred Poems from the Chinese and One
Hundred More Poems from the Chinese,
were so popular that they were given as
Christmas presents. Harvard professor emeritus Howard Hibbett, who met Rexroth in
Tokyo, considered his translations of classical Japanese poetry among the best English-
language versions. As a translator, Rexroth’s achievements include poetry from various
languages, including Greek, Spanish, Italian and French. It seems fitting that Rexroth,
who translated and introduced so much Japanese poetry into English, should have a
selection of his own fine verse published in Japanese.


3. Kenneth Rexroth: A seminal literary figure in the USA

Rexroth was a “self-made man” and autodidact. He was born in South Bend, Indiana and
spent his adolescence honing his sensibilities in Chicago, which was even at that time a
preeminent center of progressive culture. His action-packed Chicago life is vividly
recounted in detail in his
An Autobiographical Novel (1964). Rexroth used to read the
whole, authoritative
Encyclopedia Britannica once a year to refresh his memory, a feat
difficult to imagine in the age of Google search and Wikipedia. Incidentally, he penned
the
Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “The Art of Literature,” in which he traversed
unrestrainedly the literary terrain worldwide from ancient to modern times. This survey
has continued to be a must-read for literary scholars.

An article by Robert Kirsch (1922-80) attests to the extensive erudition of Rexroth. Kirsch
wrote a book-review column for the
Los Angeles Times from 1952 until his death. He
described Rexroth as follows: “I have never mentioned a name, no matter how obscure,
in Albanian or Zulu literature which did not bring forth an informed response or tasty
anecdote from Ken. These matters are never trivial, never banal. They are always
connected. That is his triumph as a poet and a critic, the sense of interaction between life
and words, people and places, why his sensibility is complex and interesting.”

Furthermore, this knowledge wasn’t gained from a public education; rather, he was self-
taught in the American tradition of the
self-made man. In Japan, there has been the
enduring tendency to belittle the self-educated, but according to author Koyama
Shun'ichi, the essence of learning is in being self-taught, because one is not stymied
within a framework, whereas the result of free conceptualizing is the accumulation of
surprisingly vast knowledge with practical application.

To comprehend Rexroth’s literary work, it is important to grasp the specific
characteristics of this very American phenomenon. Rexroth’s true-to-life image vividly
emerges in the record of the poetry reading “Kenneth Rexroth at Honyaradō,” organized
and recorded by Katagiri Yuzuru. At a reading in the USA, Rexroth once said to the
audience, “My poems are about revolution, sex and mysticism. Which of the three would
you like to hear?” Without missing a beat, a woman shouted out, “What’s the
difference?” Rexroth was impressed and repeated the story on occasion when giving
readings. That atmosphere remains in the Honyaradō transcript.

Rexroth lived through 1920’s and 1930’s Chicago, where he participated in a range of
artistic and political experimentation. He found himself in the midst of Anarchism and
Syndicalism [workers controlling the means of production], which were not fringe
movements. In Japan the rapid urbanization, industrialization and expansion of capitalism
exposed the contradictions in the society. Taishō (1912-1926) democracy gave birth to
Ōsugi Sakae (1885-1923)—a rare Japanese anarchist—and murdered him in a
gruesome manner. In a somewhat parallel way, Rexroth and the workers in the IWW felt
an upsurge of angry emotion at the betrayal in the case of anarchists Sacco and
Vanzetti, an event that symbolized “The Social Lie” he had discovered. If you search the
web for “Sacco and Vanzetti,” you will arrive at a video of Rexroth reading the fierce
words of his protest poem.

From the Paris Commune of the late 19th century through the anti-war movement during
the 20th century USA invasion of Vietnam, revolution of the masses was considered a
real possibility. Rexroth extolled the praises of revolution and free love, which are
crystallized in his poems. Through these poems we can also experience revolution and
free love, albeit vicariously.

Rexroth, who used to refer to universities as “fog factories,” probably was not holding his
breath for his poems to gain acceptance into academic classrooms and textbooks. Why
do academia and the lit-crit establishment not hold Rexroth’s achievements in as high a
regard as one would expect? Nobody until now has clearly explained the reason for this
lapse. Perhaps they fear that if the kernel of his thought were to be transmitted to the
next generation and widely diffused, it would produce an unpalatable outcome.

In 1978, I attended Rexroth’s poetry reading at Honyaradō, the abovementioned cafe,
considered the sacred hub of the anti-establishment, which was located in Kyoto near
the Imadegawa campus of Dōshisha University. Right at the start Rexroth said, “Most of
my left-wing friends and comrades in the workers’ movement were stuffed in concrete,
and they sunk to the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.” I was blown away by the vitality
of his words. In the 1960’s Rexroth spoke out publicly with no holds barred about police
corruption, and, as a result, he lost three freelance jobs, including his popular column in
the Hearst newspaper, the
San Francisco Examiner. John Solt’s article describes
Rexroth’s clash with the authorities at the University of California at Santa Barbara,
where the poet taught, and their attempts to dismiss him. Rexroth was noble-minded, and
over his lifetime he patiently endured both the oppression of blatant authoritarianism and
the rigors of poverty. He came to represent what remained of the USA’s frayed
conscience.

One of the reasons that Rexroth currently is not evaluated as highly as he should be is
that the direct and intimate connection Rexroth and others had developed between writer
and reader has since dissipated. Putting to use the technology that continues to develop
at an alarming pace and magnitude, explanations appear at an astronomical rate, pass
through the enormous media network and are swept away just as quickly. With incessant
marketing and advertising, we have reached a state in which it becomes difficult to grasp
the structural system, what Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) referred to as “cultural
hegemony.” The problem is that if this newest stage of Western civilization’s
overpowering market economy alters and subjugates nature to an irreversible degree
and then disallows any human check on the market economy, because the decisions
would be thereafter left to algorithmic logic, it has become abundantly clear that the
market economy is a “ghost” that gobbles up everything in its path, and in the end the
human environment will be fated to destruction. Rexroth already in 1956 published
In
Defense of the Earth
(New Directions). He would often seclude himself in the mountains
for months on end. What he learned from the experiment of coexisting in nature was
especially important to him.

Rexroth didn’t fall into the characteristically simplistic thinking of “either you or I,” the
absolutist dogma of “communists,” namely the ideology emanating from the lineage of
Russian Marxists. Why was Rexroth adept at unreservedly elucidating the huge
contradictions in capitalist society?

In his
An Autobiographical Novel, which I referred to previously, there is a thought-
provoking episode. Rexroth managed a nightclub when he was 16 years old and,
because he was underage, the Chicago police arrested him and put him in jail. Without
heat and to stave off the intense cold, Rexroth huddled for human warmth with African-
American prisoners in their cell. In his 1961 newspaper column, “The Black Muslims,”
Rexroth expressed his unequivocal solidarity with African-Americans. Considering the
white supremacist thinking that was rampant in the USA during the early 1960’s and
again today, his conspicuous courage is indeed startling.

When Rexroth received the California Book Award's Silver Medal for
In What Hour
(1940), he was so poor that he needed to borrow a suit to attend the ceremony. What did
being in such financial straits mean to him? In the Lee Bartlett-edited book of his
correspondence with James Laughlin, there are various incidents depicted. During his
San Francisco years, he lived in the African-American part of town. There are vignettes
showing the variety and breadth of Rexroth’s behavior and his interaction with different
classes, such as in the following letter from 1947:

You’d love the night I saw Zorina! First, I spent till 3:30 eating cheese sandwiches in a
depressing restaurant and talking—she being very much like most highbrow girls—but
still—beneath it all—a really great person. Then—my head in a whirl—I went for a walk.
This most dismal she-tramp stopped me and told me—while having a violent fit of
shakes—that she had been hit over the head, raped and her purse stolen—and she had
no place to sleep. This was all probably true—her back was covered with dirt, she had
two handsome eggs on the back of her melon, and she had no purse. Since she was in
no state to carry the banner and refused to go to hospital—I set out to find her a room in
the Tenderloin. The town sure had changed. It took me about an hour of trudging around
and trying to persuade night clerks. At last I roused an old madam I know, who took her
in for $1.75. I then noticed, in her hotel, a light through the door of a girl I know and,
being very tired by all this, paid her a call. She is not very young—is half
Chinoise
though she looks full blooded Chinese—and has only recently kicked a son of a bitch of
a habit. We sat on the bed & talked—she in her negligee, her body spotted like a
leopard from shooting
gen shi (scrapings of opium pipes, which leave a small ulcer, and
then a scar like a bluish vaccination mark). If you put it in a book—nobody would
believe it—I suppose there do not exist 3 more dissimilar women. I really do lead a
strange life—or rather—I certainly know a strange assortment of people….

The following story is from the heyday of the Beats. A reporter showed up at Rexroth’s
door to write a cover story for
Time magazine featuring the poet who was dubbed the
“Father of the Beats.” [Rexroth disowned the moniker, famously claiming, “An
entomologist is not a bug!”] The reporter up to that time hadn't been especially versed in
radical politics, ideological issues or Asian culture. After listening to Rexroth, he was
deeply affected, realizing what fruitless drudgery his job had been. The reporter then quit
his job at
Time and became a Beatnik. Rexroth lost forever the opportunity of being on
the cover of the prestigious magazine. He wasn't discouraged at all. Rather, he was
delighted that he had changed someone’s life for what he considered the better.

In
An Autobiographical Novel, Rexroth relates how he felt uncomfortable when offered
substantial sums of money for his paintings. He questioned the materialistic values of
capitalism. Rexroth was oftentimes economically overwhelmed by the system, but he
created in its place artistic values as a by-product that helped enable the development in
the reader of an elementary sense of esthetics. By doing so, he led away from sheepish
choices towards more reasonable directions.

Finally, I would like to say a few words about the principles involved in editing this
volume. Included is a historically significant translation of a Rexroth poem by Kitasono
Katue. However, most of the poems in the selection were translated by Katagiri Yuzuru,
whom Rexroth knew well and completely trusted. Katagiri was also one of the few poets
in Japan who had experienced first-hand the Beat scene in San Francisco. From Rexroth
and Katagiri’s witty banter—like rock stars on the stage at Honyaradō—we get a sense
of how much fun and how engaging poetry and poets can be. Also, we have included
Rexroth’s most representative poetry from his early to late years, the latter a ripe period
when his works reveal a deep connection to Japan.

Aoki Eiko selected and translated five of Rexroth’s newspaper columns, which
demonstrate various aspects of his far-ranging interests. From these columns we can
apprehend a critical mind about societal issues that are still extremely fresh and relevant
in the contemporary world. People who can read English should avail themselves of the
many prose works left by Rexroth that are obtainable either in print or in the “Kenneth
Rexroth Archive” at Ken Knabb’s website, www.bopsecrets.org. To round out aspects of
the poet and his works, we solicited articles from Shiraishi Kazuko, John Solt and other
poets, scholars and journalists who had a deep connection to Rexroth. The humanities
require a determined reading of texts. If texts become incomprehensible—no matter how
pleasing the literary works may appear to be—as with profound, philosophical pools, they
will merely vanish from the face of the earth. Even if they encounter dark ages, they
survive without decaying. I would hope that readers who take this book in hand might
experience from Rexroth a kind of torchlight transmission of what amounts to a flickering
of the wisdom of the species.


                                                              
translated by John Solt