I was astonished at first that newspaper obituaries for Kenneth Rexroth ran no longer than a few inches. At his death at 76 in California a few days ago, he was nearly all that an intellectual should be: poet, essayist, literary critic, cultural historian, painter, a translator of Japanese, Chinese and classic Greek poetry. He won some of our major literary awards, lectured at leading universities on theology and philosophy, earned grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was thanked by his every reader for the countless fine phrases that gave splendor to the language.
But he had bristly ways. The obituary writers apparently looked at those, and less at the depth and range, and decided that Rexroth was somewhere above an unswatted gadfly but beneath a misunderstood genius, and therefore not worth a lengthy send-off.
It will be left to magazines that Rexroth wrote for--The Nation, Commonweal, Saturday Review, Poetry--to provide the full appreciations that he deserves.
For most of his career, beginning in the 1930s, he was a writer who wrote on the side for money. At the core, he was in the profitless trade of dispensing ideas that couldn't be hawked by the middlemen who secure fat book contracts for authors of thin mind. His collected poems and essays were published as books by small houses such as New Directions or Herder and Herder.
Before turning 30, Rexroth knew the feeling of being an outsider rejected by outsiders. He sought membership in the Communist Party, but Chairman Earl Browder rejected his application on the ground that he was too much the anarchist to remain loyal to the party for long.
Rexroth's form of anarchy, he wrote in "The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World," sprang from a philosophy of "mutual affection, respect, interest, loyalty, and simple physical touch--agape, the love of comrades in a spiritual adventure."
That might be too sentimental an explanation, he knew, so he took another crack at defining his form of anarchy, this time a droll definition. He recounted a conversation with a pompous professor--a "Good Gray Doktor" --who was on a faculty with Rexroth: He "asked me, 'How do you enforce discipline (among the students) with theories like yours?' 'I don't.' 'But who is responsible?' 'We all are.' 'I can't understand that. What is the principle behind it?' 'I would say, agape.' I could see his mind running over the index to Krafft-Ebing's 'Psychopathia Sexualis' which he doubtless knew by heart, unable to locate the word between aberrations and annilinctus."
True to his anarchy based on love, Rexroth was a war resister. During the Vietnam War, he gave moral support and critical praise to antiwar poets such as Denise Levertov. He was protective of the peaceful instincts of lesser poets, including those in his classes in California in the 1960s. When their life styles were attacked by the righteous Gov. Ronald Reagan, he defended them: "Do they loaf and write poetry on welfare or unemployment payments--in other words on the taxpayers' money? What's wrong with that? Better write poetry with the taxes than what any current administration is doing with them. One bomber destroyed while attacking a bamboo bridge or burning up babies costs more than it would cost to keep all the poets in America for a year."
Rexroth had his orthodoxies. After mingling with the Beat poets in the late 1950s, he lost his taste for their "vulgarized hobo Buddhism." He resented the drug culture that advanced the idea that jazz musicians-- who play "the only music we have which anybody outside the country takes seriously"--perform better when pumped with heroin or cocaine. Whether in Harlem or San Francisco, he wrote, "most of the musicians I know are devoted artists--interested primarily in their work, in their wives and children, and, like all of us, in the hard job of keeping a home going" in spite of forces in society to destroy it.
The theme of Rexroth's writing, from his examination of "The Holy Kabbalah" to the poetry of the Sung Dynasty, was that 20th-century man had received great gifts from the past. He cherished those who cherished the gifts: "Things are looking up. Voices are being raised. We may painfully crawl over the lump into semicivilization yet."