Restoring and preserving: the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth

A few months ago Kenneth Rexroth passed on. A man of greatly diversified talents, he is remembered here in his specific role as a poet.

Five or six years ago I was in a record store in Mountain View, California, looking through stacks of new releases by musicians I admired - James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jackson Browne. On the back of Jackson Browne's album ''The Pretender'' was a poem: ''Brown and Agile Child,'' by Pablo Neruda, translated by someone named Kenneth Rexroth. Brown and agile child, the sun which forms the fruit And ripens the grain and twists the seaweed Has made your happy body and your luminous eyes And given your mouth the smile of water. The language of the first verse is slow and luxurious, absolutely faithful to the occasion the poem celebrates. Although I was familiar with Neruda's work, I didn't know this particular poem; yet the English was so engaging, without a trace of awkwardness, that I immediately found myself admiring it. The last stanza captured me: My somber heart seeks you always, I love your happy body, your rich, soft voice, Dusky butterfly, sweet and sure Like the wheatfield, the sun, the poppy, and the water.

With its vivid, gentle English, this stanza took the commonplace idea of seeking after the pleasures and freedoms of childhood and made it meaningful once again. At this point I knew it was time to find out who Kenneth Rexroth was.

In retrospect it seems right that I learned of Rexroth from the jacket of a record album. He was a prolific poet, translator, and essayist. The arcane world of a T.S. Eliot was not for him. He relished politics and the events of the day, and saw no need - in fact, no possibility - of separating them from the incisive commentary of poetry. He wanted to broaden the acceptance of poetry - to launch poetry beyond an academic level.

By the 1950s, his San Francisco flat was the scene of weekly soirees gathering some of the brightest stars of the West Coast literary world as well as visiting artists - poets such as William Everson, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia. In addition, he corresponded widely, and helped numbers of young poets find their place in the literary world. A volume of poems and memoirs in tribute to Rexroth, published in 1980, includes the appreciations of ninety-six individuals - younger poets whom he helped, older ones who were his colleagues and fans.

During the years from the '20s to the mid-'60s, Rexroth published eight books of poetry, nine books of translations, and eight books of literary criticism and essays. Although in search of a wider audience than is often associated with poetry, he was in no sense a trivializer of his subjects. An able student of a number of languages, including Japanese and Chinese, he was also well read in the fields of art, philosophy, and political history, as well as in some of the sciences - notably astronomy and geology. His essays particularly reveal this wide learning, and the wide range of interests behind it. They range, for example, from a discussion of ''classic'' American humor (Huck Finn-style) to an extended reflection on the theology of Martin Buber to a pioneering call for civil rights in America.

Because space is so limited, we have room here to discuss only two of Rexroth's poems - one a translation, and the other an original poem. As anyone who has tried it knows, translation can be a vexing art, precisely because the translator is both scribe and artist. He is bound (or should be bound) to represent faithfully the original text; yet, to do this in his own language without awkwardness, he must constantly choose among the sometimes conflicting interests of vocabulary, syntax, and cadence. In the poem by the early twentieth-century poet Antonio Machado, Rexroth makes a series of excellent choices. Although the original poem rhymes, Rexroth chooses to preserve the general musicality and assonance of the original. For example, in the third and fourth stanzas, he plays on the consonant sounds ''m'' and ''s,'' as well as on the vowel sounds ''a'' and ''o'': ''enigma,'' ''face,'' ''recreates,'' ''mirror, '' ''mystery,'' ''loving voice.'' ''Face'' and ''voice'' are also very close to rhyming. The overall effect of the English is certainly similar to that of the Spanish; for in addition to the rhymes in Spanish, the repeated vowel and consonant sounds are extremely important - ''sino,'' ''misterio,'' ''restro,'' ''fijos,'' and ''ojos,'' for example.

Rexroth is adroit at balancing the need for musicality and fluent English with the need for faithfulness to the Spanish text. At the end of the first stanza, for example, he chooses to translate ''?con quien hablo?'' as ''Who do I speak to?'' rather than the awkward, literal ''With whom do I speak?'' Without sacrificing the meaning, he keeps the conversational power of the original. In the third stanza, he strays a bit from the literal meaning with ''What does it matter who I am?'' ''What does it matter?'' is implied rather than stated in the Spanish; the line raises the issue of identity that Rexroth prefers to state more boldly. Rexroth's choice here is clearly a matter of taste. But it does not violate the spirit of the original, and works extremely well in English.

Rexroth's ''A Singing Voice'' is in itself so clear and moving that it needs little commentary. What is most important here is simply the poet's enchantment with the transformation of the commonplace. At any given moment, a set of possibilities can combine to give any person a taste of something especially delicious - some especially rich, restorative quality of life. Furthermore, this restorative quality can return, again and again, in memory, as a reminder of the vibrancy bound up with the everyday world. Particularly in his later books, Rexroth becomes a master at discovering this latent vibrancy. It is as if the Machado poem points toward his own fulfillment; for one can feel, in his later poems, those ''diamond eyes'' of the ''muse of portents'' fixed on him.

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