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Friday, April 15, 2011

Number 126: Kenneth Rexroth "GIC To HAR"


It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.

-- Kenneth Rexroth

Hap Notes: Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) is known for his sensual erotic poems which encompass his view of the male-female relationship as divinely sacred and his political views which were called "anarchistic" but were more Buddhist than anything else. But here we have Rexroth doing what he does so well; seamlessly melding several observances into a poem packed with meaning that no-one can fail to understand. The "simple" wording of the poem relates a giant wallop of ideas and experiences in a short poem.

Rexroth was the consumate autodidact and is said to have read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover every year, as he said "Cover to cover, like a novel." He was reading Greek and Roman classics at an age most kids are still watching Sesame Street. His mother taught him to read when he was four years old and he consumed books with a passion. He was born in South Bend, Indiana but his family frequently moved around the upper Midwest until his father (who had an alcohol problem) and mother died and he lived with an aunt in Chicago. He went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago, was expelled, had a variety of odd jobs and was arrested in 1923 for being part owner of a brothel. This was all before the age of 19.

After he got out of prison he traveled around the U.S., then lived in a monastery for a while (which he loved) and then he hitchhiked around the country, worked another bunch of odd jobs, got on a steamship, saw Mexico and Paris, and then moved to San Francisco and later Santa Barbara. I'm tired just thinking about all the energy it took to do all this. Sheesh!

Rexroth was a key figure in bringing the "Beats" to prominence, hosting readings (like the first legendary Ginsberg "Howl" reading) and Ferlinghetti claims Rexroth as an influence. Rexroth was NOT a beat poet and when asked about it would say "An entomologist is not a bug." Rexroth felt that the Beats did not fully grasp the Buddhist philosophies they claimed to adhere to (thank you, Kenneth!) but appreciated their spirit and intensity. "Howl," by the by, is heavily inspired by Rexroth's poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (which in my estimation is a better poem, just my opinion,now. Maybe we'll do that one someday- it's awesome and probably too long for our purposes. After you read it, you'll see the influence it had on Ginsberg, though.)

I can't possibly do justice to Rexroth's life here so let's go on to the poem. First of all I have an example of the rose-breasted grosbeak:
I think the example will tell you why such a site and sound would transfix anyone as Rexroth describes it in his poem. He does a wonderful job of describing the feel and the smell of coming home after a swim in a creek, doesn't he? And now the creek is full of rejectamenta and the poet is feeling a bit like that creek, eh? The world is decidedly not a very friendly place for people who think and want to write poetry and love life and people. Hmmm. Why is that? Why do we pollute our swimming creeks that want to just flow and fill with life?

The European starling, by the by, is not native to North America but was introduced to America in 1890. Rexroth is not complaining about immigrants, he's making a statement about the natural world.

Here's a good Rexroth quote (and there are many. He wrote some wonderful essays and prefaces to poetry collections. His essay on Van Gogh's letters show he really understood the artist. Best piece I've ever read on him.): "The basic line in any good verse is cadenced... building it around the natural breath structures of speech."

and: "It takes great labor to uncover the convincing simple speech of the heart. Poetic candor comes with hard labor, so even does impetuosity and impudence."

I rarely do this but this will give you a glimpse of his genius – some selected quotes :

You can find more Rexroth poetry here at the Bureau of Public Secrets:

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