Part of this essay-review comes out of a lecture I prepared for a literature class in poetry,
which included the recent, posthumous collection of Kenneth Rexroth’s work,
In the
Sierra: Mountain Writings
. But my desire is more of a tribute to the fact that Rexroth
remains a single author library I have read and reread for over forty years. I could easily
say I went to the University of Rexroth and learned more as a dedicated reader of his
collected works and the ones he refers to in
Classics Revisited and other essay
collections than I did as a somewhat eager returning student to the institutions where I
was educated.

The book at hand,
In the Sierra: Mountain Writings, edited by Kim Stanley Robinson,
makes a significant contribution to Rexroth scholarship. The purpose is clear and
effective at establishing an understanding of Rexroth’s sensibility: direct experience with
wilderness is synonymous with the contact of interior wilderness necessary to maintain a
process of self-renewal. His poems are built on passionate speech, the cadences are
those of the speaker’s emotions directly combined with the speaker’s voice, and the
content of meaning is dependably clear. How is this different from other major poets
understood in a similar fashion of interpretation? I would say there is an ethical chord
running through the consciousness behind Rexroth’s language that distinguishes the
results, and this abiding ethical dimension has a utopian quality: the contemplative and
inter-personal epiphanies he recounts in
Mountain Writings are individual reflections of
larger societal standards he abides by, themselves part of the ongoing counter-culture.
That is, in a non-acquisitive society access for time in contemplation would be unlimited;
the fact that society is structured in opposition to the self-renewing process derived from
contemplation creates a reflexive ethical critique of itself and its capital-gobbling
institutions. Rexroth’s poetry and essays maintain the intellectual’s values of being lucid,
engaged, and exact. The language of the dominant society is everything but––unless we
include the lexicon of propaganda and advertising. Less apparent ethical codes in
Rexroth’s poems, particularly the erotic ones with their descriptions of flowers, their
colors, scent and texture, and the merging perception within the images, evoke the
Tantric ethic of individual transcendence, and mutuality in the combining orgasm or
thereabouts. The poems selected by Kim Stanley Robinson for
In the Sierra: Mountain
, present most of these topics. The book gathers over forty poems including
Chinese translations, all of them related to contemplative experiences in mountain
campsites or cabins. One of Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner could
serve as a preface to the poems:

“I have always felt I was most myself in the mountains. There I have done the bulk of
what is called my creative work. At least it is in the mountains that I write most of my
poetry […]. There whatever past emotion and experience I choose to recollect and write
down, take on most meaning and depth” (147-48).

Many of the remarks contained in the selected newspaper columns are revelatory about
a variety of pressing ecological, economic, and social issues. But Rexroth’s comment
about the environmentally threatened places where he completed his creative work
doesn’t merely situate him in the role of the socially conscious eco-poet. Yes, he writes
with intense concern about the endangered environment, including actual environmental
and species destruction. And the historical significance of the state executions of the
anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti recollected in two separate poems represents the
malicious and murderously willing sensibility of the state. Socially conscious writings of
this kind are understood in the context of humane ethics and working-class
consciousness. Some of Rexroth’s ethical foundation derives from Marx and Kropotkin,
but for Rexroth it is simply the ongoing and unstoppable betrayal and ruin of our most
basic pre-Industrial value systems, from Family Economy, Limited Production, and
Agricultural Autonomy to the contemplative ecstasies of Shamanism, Yoga, and the
compassionate vows of the Buddhist Bodhisattva. The struggle is the condition. The
totalitarian militancy of international leadership has rigidified into the eternal economy for
the malignant minority. It is doubly paradoxical to write under the siege of consciously
orchestrated destruction, because it is a fact of our species. And the fact that dissidence
is not common sense undermines the actual existence of the majority of people alive
today.  In the grip of our condition we can appreciate the psychological complexity of a
poet like Rexroth composing his relation to the wilderness, and its parallel, from wild
perception to the sensory experiences built into his poems. We are intrinsically imperiled
for our lack of such appreciation, especially when you consider the condition of what
happened to us is so dumbfounding we need a Theater of the Absurd to remind us of it.

Poems are simultaneously sensory derivatives and sensory commemorations. They are
sometimes written when the effects of self or social alienation have been filtered through
stages of sympathetic integration with the natural environment, the self, or the intimate
other. But not always.  In “Boating Through a Gorge,” the Sung Dynasty poet Yang Wan-
Li wrote : “Here the turtles turn back/, and even the crabs are worried. / But for some
reason poets risk their lives/ to run these rapids and swirl past these rocks” (39). The
heroic code in the psychology of these lines provides an ironic narrative definition of
paradox. What is this life that the poet risks, what are the dangers the metaphorically
occurring condition in the “rapids” refer to, and what is the indefinite line poets cross for
the sake of imaginative experience? The notion itself is complex because of the danger
involved. Going into the wilderness of the Sierra Mountains is synonymous with going
into the wilderness of the self, the raw facts and circumstances of one’s own personality.
The ritual mountain journey to find such inward contact, and the renewing practice to
maintain it, sustained Rexroth’s creative life and informed his poems. It also informs his
essays on the contemplative-naturalist experiences of Isaac Walton and Gilbert White, or
others such as the
Tao Te-Ching and Martin Buber’s I-And-Thou, respectively
recounting contemplative or inter-personal experiences, those which he stated were part
of “experience beyond qualification” (
The Elastic Retort 9).

For Rexroth, imaginative expression originates its own imagery in such places and
through such rituals. Yet the experience is not entirely peaceful communion. The
untamed interior is at least divided between enhancing forces of the imagination and the
polluting abyss of self-alienation. Intruding forces. There are experiences of social
alienation and personal trauma or crises that cannot be purged, you might elude them
but not without passing through their effects. Solitude also embodies the potential for the
abrupt instance when isolation turns into drastically fragmented “contact.” The poet in
the mountain refuge is not always emptied from erosive conditions related to urban
experience, labor, or the personal vicissitudes which Rexroth refers to as “the shames
and wastes” of an individual’s life. In “Lyell’s Hypothesis Again,” he states that
      This ego, bound by personal
      Tragedy and the vast
      Impersonal vindictiveness
      of the ruined and ruining world,
      pauses in this immortality,
      As passionate, as apathetic
      As the lava flow that burned here once;
      And stopped here; and said, “This far
      And no further.” And spoke thereafter
      In the simple diction of stone. (40-41)

All prolonged experiences of solitude, but especially solitude in remote wild places, are
metaphors of confrontation with our emotions and their complicated relationships to our
circumstances, what we conjure, or the unconscious conjures for us if we don’t notice.  
Still, Yang Wan-Li’s desire to “swirl past [those] rocks” is to arrive emptied from
“personal tragedy” and the “ruined and ruining world,” hopefully with a sense of
contemplative quiet; and, at least briefly with no other distraction.  Rexroth, in a 1966
article from the San Francisco Examiner, wrote that

      Contact with the environment from which he came is strong medicine for the
preservation of the species of man, it recreates him in the true sense, and it may well be
essential for his survival […] A virgin redwood forest, an unpolluted Lake Baikal, may be
like hormones, tiny particles of the face of the globe, without which we cannot go on
living (170).

On the level of his notion of “experience beyond qualification” the nature of Rexroth’s
descriptions of the natural world carry a type of impressionism; they always contain inter-
related meanings, ethically embedded connotations, and insight. The inherence of his
sense of “contact” and the metaphorical effect of it containing a type of “medicine” is
immediate in the poem “Blues.”  Here the poetic embodiment of experiencing wilderness
as reciprocity, and the fact that the “hidden senses” he refers to are part of the
contemplative’s undocumented system of perception and awareness, whether we are
aware of it or not, provides the moment the speaker lives to be in contact with:
      The tops of the higher peaks
      Of the Sierra Nevada
      Of California are
      Drenched in the perfume of
      A flower which grows only there––
      The blue Polemonium
      Soft, profound blue, like the eyes
      Of impregnable innocence;
      The perfume is heavy and
      Clings thickly to the granite
      Peaks, even in violent wind;
      The leaves are clustered,
      Fine, dull green, sticky, and musky.
      I imagine that the scent
      Of the body of Artemis
      That put Endymion to sleep
      Was like this and her eyes had the
      Same inscrutable color.
      Lawrence was lit into death
      By the blue gentians of Kore.
      Vanzetti had in his cell
      A bowl of tall blue flowers
      From a New England garden.
      I hope that when I need it
      My mind can always call back
      This flower to its hidden senses.

In this posthumous selection of his poems and non-literary journalism and prose, the
poetry section from
In the Sierra: Mountain Writings remains the most satisfying. In
“Toward an Organic Philosophy,” the poet says that
      The glow of my campfire is red and flameless,
      The circle of white ash widens around it.
      I get up and walk in the moonlight and each time
      I look back the red is deeper and the light smaller. (1-4)

Rexroth was in the middle of his life when he wrote these lines. They are connected to a
quietude we have almost entirely lost in our now typical strapped-to-the-dollar man-made
technological existence. In the four lines quoted above, the speaker’s “organic” tone
could be nothing else, alone in spring moonlight in the Sierra Mountains, possibly at
Kings Canyon.  You can sense the man grasping that life deepens as the light softens
into dimness, and more. Darkness, not the end but the enigma of the earth’s rotation at
that place, in what we call time, in what we understand as the gravitational relationship
with what we have named the sun. The entire net of these forces is the definition of
enigma––forming an attachment to the processes that drive it, Rexroth brings together
the one-time midlife metaphor of smoldering heat and ineluctable reduction into
perceptible form. In his conception of an Organic Philosophy and the crucial midlife
event, the entire experience is a ritual of ripening perception, a self-renewing practice.
You cannot know but you might intuit how the experience will sustain you through the
later deteriorating stages. For the poet on the other side of the “rapids” it was an
incidental awareness of what precedes wilderness and what is ongoing within it, and––
he made a poetic note of it.
collage: D. Robbins   photo: L. Janakos
Doren Robbins

Adding To Our

Kenneth Rexroth
In the Sierra: Mountain Writings

Ed: Kim Stanley Robinson
New York, New Directions Publishing, 2012
ISBN 9780811219020