Monday, December 23, 2013

"Father-figure" Poet

Selected PoemsSelected Poems 
by Kenneth Rexroth

“The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, takes responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and avoids it. Without the hidden conspiracy of goodwill, society would not endure an hour.”  ― Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth was a poet, translator and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and paved the groundwork for the movement. Although he did not consider himself to be a Beat poet, and disliked the association, he was one of the major influences on the Beat generation, and was once dubbed "Father of the Beats" by Time. He was among the first poets in the United States to explore traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku.
His first volume In What Hour appeared in 1940, in which spiritual tranquility and moral anguish appeared together like testaments to both the beauties of the cosmos and the horrors of human history. Many of his early poems employ the language of direct statement, the straightforward, if heightened, conversational speech of an unselfconscious first person, that of a man who would later claim to “have spent my life striving to write the way I talk”. Readily accessible, it was to become Rexroth’s characteristic poetic voice.
In What Hour was followed by a regular succession of volumes, and in 1952 The Dragon and the Unicorn, a book-length philosophical poem, with a narrative spine provided by his travels around Europe. As a result of this substantial body of published work, by the 1950s he was widely known and admired as a leading figure in the emerging alternative culture, whose effective capital was San Francisco. There he was something of a father-figure to the many younger poets and writers who had emerged from, or converged upon the city over the previous decade, among them Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg. He presided over their gatherings, participated in their readings, sometimes to jazz accompaniment, and boosted their work over his weekly radio book review program. 
His poems, in large part due to the "accessible voice" have always been among my favorites. Here is one that combines a classic of the literary canon with a personal moment.

Proust’s Madeleine

Somebody has given my 
Baby daughter a box of 
Old poker chips to play with. 
Today she hands me one while 
I am sitting with my tired 
Brain at my desk. It is red. 
On it is a picture of 
An elk’s head and the letters 
B.P.O.E.—a chip from 
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip 
It idly in the air and 
Catch it and do a coin trick 
To amuse my little girl. 
Suddenly everything slips aside. 
I see my father 
Doing the very same thing, 
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,” 
His breath smelling richly 
Of whiskey and cigars. I can 
Hear him coming home drunk 
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart 
Indiana, bumping the 
Chairs in the dark. I can see 
Him dying of cirrhosis 
Of the liver and stomach 
Ulcers and pneumonia, 
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of 
Crooked cards and straight whiskey, 
Slow horses and fast women. 

Kenneth Rexroth

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Brian Joseph said...

I like that poem a lot.. It is powerful but as you say, very accessible.

If this work is typical, I can see why he is one of your favorites.

James said...

The connection with Proust elevates the everyday.