The Relevance of Rexroth (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1991)

Monday, June 30, 2008



The Relevance of Rexroth is the best introduction to Kenneth Rexroth I have seen. It's a tiny little book that shouldn't cost you more than a dollar or two, but it provides a succinct overview of Rexroth's poetry, essays and criticism and the unique spirit in them that is worth getting to know.

Posted by St. Drogo at 2:15 PM  

17 comments:

P. 2 - on San Francisco - "He said he liked it because it was accessible to the Western mountains, remote from New York cultural domination, and virtually the only major American city that was not settled by puritans, but by 'gamblers, prostitutes, rascals and fortune seekers.'"

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:07 PM  

P. 12 - "To my taste Rexroth's philosophical reveries are much more interesting than the comparable works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound - two poets he heartily disliked and whose influence he combated all his life. At their best they may be 'greater' poets (though even that is debatable), but Rexroth is certainly a saner and wiser one. He has none of Eliot's snobbery or neurotic prissiness, and even at his crustiest he is far less cranky, obsessive and self-indulgent than Pound. You can take his reflections seriously without having to make allowances for some absurd reactionary ideology."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:07 PM  

P. 14 - "These are the key words of great - classic - epic - Homeric - humor. A sense of the consistent principle of incongruity on which Nature, for all our science and philosophy, really operates. The realization that the accepted, official version of anything is most likely false and that all authority is based on fraud. The courage to face and act on these two conclusions. The appreciation of the wonderful hilarity of the processes of human procreation and elimination. The acceptance of the prime factthat nobody made it that way - it just happened ... Life is all a great joke - but only the brave ever get the point."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:07 PM  

P. 15 - "Criticizing the superficiality of Ionesco's satires, he says: 'A satirical art which beats only dead dogs ... leaves the audience with comfortable feelings of amused superiority.' Rexroth is more likely to puncture one of your own illusions and leave you realizing all you've still got to learn."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:08 PM  

P. 19 - "The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it. Without this hidden conspiracy of good will society would not endure an hour."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:08 PM  

P. 20 - "Literature is a social defense mechanism. Remember again when you were a child. You thought that some day you would grow up and find a world of real adults - the people who really made things run - and understand how and why things ran ... Then, as the years went on, you learned, through more or less bitter experience, that there aren't, and never have been, any such people anywhere. Life is just a mess, full of tall children, grown stupider, less alert and resilient, and nobody knows what makes it go - as a whole, or any part of it. But nobody ever tells."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:08 PM  

P. 28 - "It is the courage to endure the inevitable 'ruin of all bright things', to face the fact that 'love does not last forever, friends betray each other, beauty fades, the mighty stumble in blood and their cities burn.' The 'message' of Homer, as Rexroth approvingly paraphrases it, is that the universe has no inherent meaning, everything is ephemeral, the only values are those that people create in relation with each other: 'The thing that endures, that gives value to life, is comradeship, loyalty, bravery, magnanimity, love, the relations of men in direct communication with each other. From this comes the beauty of life, its tragedy and meaning, and from nowhere else."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:08 PM  

P. 30 - "What is taken in / In contemplation is poured out / In love."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:08 PM  

P. 31 - "Whoever wrote the little psalms of the Tao Te Ching believed that the long calm regard of moving water was one of the highest forms of prayer ... Many sports are actually forms of contemplative activity. Fishing in quiet waters is especially so. Countless men who would burst out laughing if presented with a popular vulgarization of Zen Buddhism, and who would certainly find it utterly incomprehensible, practice the contemplative life by flowing water, rod in hand, at least for a few days each year. As the great mystics have said, they too know it is the illumination of these few days that gives meaning to the rest of their lives."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:09 PM  

P. 34 - "Rexroth's work seems to reveal a significant Zen influence, but actually he was quite critical of many aspects of Zen and professed a greater affinity with other forms of Buddhism. He lambasted popularized Western Zen as an irresponsible, pretentious fad, but he also criticized traditional Japanese Zen for its complicity with military regimes, from the samurai to World War II, and he seems to have had little taste for the cultism and guru worship too often found in Zen as well as in other Oriental religious disciplines ... Buddha's last words are said to have been: 'The combinations of the world are unstable by nature. Monks, strive without ceasing.' Rexroth, in a more Taoist frame of mind, advises: 'The combinations / Of the world are unstable / By nature. Take it easy.'"

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:09 PM  

P. 42 - "The future is long gone by / And the past will never happen / We have
only this / Our one forever / So small so infinite / So brief so vast / Immortal as our hands that touch / Deathless as the firelit wine we drink / Almighty as this single kiss / That has no beginning / That will never / Never / End"

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:09 PM  

P. 45 - "Any art which has a happy ending in reserve in Infinity is, just to that degree, cheating ... It seems to me that the fullest realization of the self comes in the acceptance of the limits of contingency. It is harder, but more ennobling, to love a wife as another human being, fugitive as oneself, than it is to carry on imaginary conversations with an imaginary Absolute.'"

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:09 PM  

P. 48 - "But a farseeing compassion ultimately implies opposing the social system that prevents it from being fulfilled. Rexroth adds a modern supplements to the bodhisattva vow: 'While there is a lower class / I am in it. / While there is / A criminal element, / I am of it. Where there is / A soul in jail, I am not free."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:10 PM  

P. 49-50 - "Rexroth grew up in the final years of the old revolutionary movement. World War I not only demonstrated the bankruptcy of the old social order, it revealed the superficiality of the movement against it, as virtually all the supposedly antiwar and international leftist organizations rallied to their respective nation-states. The end of the war brought a wave of upsurges in Europe, but all were soon crushed or neutralized. The one apparent exception, the 1917 Russian revolution, ultimately turned out to be the most disastrous defeat of all. The Bolsheviks took over, repressed the libertarian forces that had made the revolution, and imposed a new variant of the old system: bureaucratic state capitalism. The 'Communist' bureaucracy became the new ruling class; the state became the sole, all-owning capitalist. 'Bolshevism is not communism or even socialism in any sense in which those words were understood before 1918. It is a very primitive form of state capitalism. It is a method of forcing a backward, semi-colonial country through the period of capital accumulation which the major capitalist nations went through in the early years of the 19th century.' The Bolshevik counterrevolution was not only a disaster for Russia; its example poisoned and ultimately destroyed the entire international revolutionary movement for decades to come. The Bolsheviks' power and prestige as the supposed leaders of the only 'successful' revolution enabled them to dominate, manipulate and sabotage radical movements everywhere else 'until there was no one left who was not centered on the Kremlin, either as a mindless Stalinist hatchet man or a psychopathic anti-Bolshevik. Many thousands turned to reaction, religion or plain folly because to them Socialist revolution meant Bolshevism.'"

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:10 PM  

P. 53-54 - "The state is basically a protection racket. The fact that it incidentally provides a few beneficial services merely camouflages its essential role as enforcer of the money-commodity economy, without which most of the artificially maintained conflicts of interest that now provide a pretext for the state would lose their rationale. 'The state does not tax you to provide you with services. The state taxes you to kill you. The services are something which it has kidnapped from you in your organic relations with your fellow man, to justify its police and war-making powers.'"

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:10 PM  

p. 56 - "Rexroth and the other San Francisco Renaissance poets are themselves sometimes loosely called Beats, but as he emphetically reiterated in numerous articles, neither he nor most of the others had much in common with the media-created beatnik stereotypes. His critiques of Jack Kerouac's sentimentality, self-indulgence and general mindlessness were particularly caustic. (In retaliation, most of the current spate of memoirs, biographies and histories of the 'Beat Era' dismiss Rexroth with a few snide remarks or spiteful rumors; while academia generally continues to treat him as a nonperson contemptuously pigeonholed as 'the father of the Beats'."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:10 PM  

p. 67 - "Rexroth sees his alternative society as a 'new society within the shell of the old,' but he never envisions just jow it might break the shell and actually supersede the old society. He seems only to have a vague hope that a 'saving remnant' of people quietly practicing authentic community in the interstices of the doomed system might somehow keep the flame alive. Even if this offers little chance of averting thermonuclear or ecological apocalypse, he feels that it's the most satisfying way to live while you're waiting for it. 'If the alternative society becomes a society of Bodhisattvas we will have reached the final confrontation - mutual aid and respect for life, full awareness of one's place in the community of creatures - these are the foundations for an alternative society ... They're not likely to win; the time is gone, but at least they can establish a Kingdom in the face of Apocalypse, a garrisoned society of the morally responsible which will face extinction with clean consciences and lives as happily lived as possible."

St. Drogo said...
July 12, 2008 at 1:11 PM  

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