Selected Poems

Selected Poems

Selected Poems

Selected Poems

Synopsis

The late Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) is surely one of the most readable of this century’s great American poets. He is also one of the most sophisticated. Like William Carlos Williams, he honed his writing to a controlled and direct language. His intellectual complexity matches Wallace Stevens, his polymath erudition Ezra Pound. He is first among our nature poets. His love poems and erotic lyrics are unsurpassed. Rexroth’s Selected Poems brings together in a single volume a representative sampling of sixty years’ work. Here are substantial passages from his longer poems: The Homestead Called Damascus (1920-1925), begun while the poet was in his teens; the cubist Prolegomenon to a Theodicy (1925-1927); the philosophical masterpiece The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1940-1944) and The Dragon and the Unicorn (1944-1950); and the meditative The Heart’s Garden, The Garden’s Heart (1967). The shorter poems were originally gathered in In What Hour (1940), The Art of Wordly Wisdom (1949), The Signature of All Things (1950), In Defense of the Earth (1956), Natural Numbers (1964), New Poems (1974), and The Morning Star (1979).

Excerpt

In H. G. Wells' prologue to Kenneth Rexroth's favorite childhood book, The Research Magnificent, the idealistic, brilliant, and rather unbalanced protagonist, William Porphyry Benham, is described as a man who was led into adventure by an idea. This idea took possession of Prophyry's imagination "quite early in life, it grew with him and changed with him, it interwove at last completely with his being." The idea was simple. Life, he thought, must be lived nobly and to the utmost limits; a man must realize something out of his existence: "a flame, a jewel, a splendour." To the precocious thirteen-year-old Rexroth what a heady and marvelous blueprint for life this must have been. Unlike Porphyry, however, whose lifelong research was left crammed in bureau drawers and dozens of patent boxes, as an "indigestible aggregation" of notes for an unwritten book, Rexroth spent the nearly six decades that followed his first reading of The Research Magnificent amassing a polymath knowledge that would surpass that of any other American poet of the century (Pound included), while at the same time honing his writing to a simple and direct style that most resembled his own everyday speech (like Williams). As a result he is one of our most readable and yet complex poets. And, like William Porphyry Benham, there was little that didn't interest him enough to at least attempt to master it.

Peripateticism and a spirit free of prejudice, rather than a focus on the local, are the twin bases of Rexroth's fundamentally American personality. (It is a combination that would in the 1950s influence members of the Beat generation who gathered around Rexroth in San Francisco and made of him that Movement's unwilling father figure.) Born in South Bend, Indiana, on December 22, 1905, and raised in Chicago, Elkhart, Battle Creek, and Toledo, it would have been very natural for him to have developed an art whose themes derived from a pure Midwestern upbringing. But, if we are to believe the exuberant portrait of his youth set out in his An Autobiographical Novel, his precocity and a bohemian attitude toward life were already in full blossom by the time he was in his teens.

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