A version of this paper was presented at “A Poetry Symposium on Kenneth Rexroth: His Visionary
Interactions with Japan,” 6-7 October 2007, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan.

John Solt

WITH A TABLOID BIOGRAPHER
WHO NEEDS AN OEUVRE?

AN UNABASHED APPRECIATION OF KENNETH REXROTH

    Completed on his 100th birthday, 22 December 2005
    Written in the “zuihitsu” (“following the brush”) genre











                                                          











Rexroth's Salon, 1956 (l to r) Kenneth Rexroth, unidentified man, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dr Leland Rather, three
unidentified men, a visiting Korean woman poet speaking with Ruth Witt-Diamant, Marthe Rexroth.



“…by all odds he should have done away with himself a while ago….”
            --
Hamalian on 1961 Rexroth (305) [my italics]


Linda Hamalian’s mostly cannibalizing biography,
A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (NY:
Norton, 1991; all page numbers refer to it), has three conspicuous virtues: she
researched her subject meticulously from a variety of written sources in a number of
locations around the USA; she interviewed dozens of people who knew him, many of
whom have passed away in the many years since the book’s publication; and she
quotes Rexroth (1905-1982) verbatim at times, thereby enabling his voice to rise above
her prose and thinking.

Hamalian describes her first meeting with Rexroth, introduced by Leo, her live-in
boyfriend and future husband: “I was twenty-one… Carol Tinker [and Kenneth] came
to our home after [his poetry] reading for dinner. Rexroth told me how perfectly I had
prepared the broccoli (in a white anchovy sauce)…. I could not believe that this great
poet was commenting knowingly on my green vegetables. When Kenneth and Carol
returned our hospitality by inviting us to their home in Santa Barbara, he entertained
us around a Mongolian hotpot and talked philosophy (mostly Buddhist) and politics
(of the conspiracy theory kind) into the early morning hours. I was convinced he was a
genius, and a very kind man.” (x).

I was one of Kenneth Rexroth’s students at the University of California at Santa
Barbara from 1968, soon after I started writing poetry. After I graduated in 1972,
Kenneth and I became lifelong friends. He was my mentor and the greatest person I
ever met. I knew him from when he was 62-76 years old and I was 18-32. He disdained
the word “guru” and made it clear that he had no successors, but to me he was like a
grandfather, father and brother rolled into one. In other words, I could be myself in
front of him and yet I respected him as a wise village elder.

Incidentally, I was interviewed for Hamalian’s book and am mentioned in it a half-
dozen times. I neither object to anything she wrote about me nor do I wish she had
written more; her treatment was fine and is inconsequential to my review.

Like most people who encountered Rexroth, I was initially bowled over by his
erudition, charisma and compassion. I thought there was no reason a man who was 44
years my senior when I was a teenager should spend quality time mentoring me, and
consequently I felt extremely lucky. I was unaware at the time that it was a tradition of
righteous anarchists and avant-garde artists to mentor young people considered
worthwhile. Unlike some people who encountered Kenneth, I was never disillusioned
or turned off by him, I was simply grateful to be in his presence. And I never tried to
one-up him as, for example, Allen Ginsberg did when crassly declaring himself a
superior poet to Rexroth (246). Ginsberg’s unfortunate but telling lapse occurred after
Rexroth, the elder poet, had come to Ginsberg’s rescue in print—soon after Allen
emerged on the San Francisco scene and was given a cold shoulder by the east coast
lit-crit establishment—and in court, when Ginsberg’s
Howl went on trial in 1957 for
obscenity. At the trial Rexroth had been among the distinguished witnesses and gave
an impassioned defense which helped win the day—and much publicity—for
Ginsberg (267).

I found Kenneth Rexroth not only to be extremely intelligent and witty, but also
exceedingly kind and considerate. Just to cite one example is the time I visited him
and his wife, Carol Tinker, in Santa Barbara with my wife-to-be Sachiko Sekine, a
Japanese woman who had once lived in the USA. Kenneth went shopping and
prepared a delicious roast beef dinner. Sitting in the living room and digesting after
the meal, I said, “Kenneth, I’ve eaten here many times over the years but you had
never cooked a roast beef dinner; you usually cook Asian food.” He smiled faintly and
spoke softly, “I haven’t cooked roast beef in years, but I thought Sachi would prefer
American food.” (Incidentally, the “ko” 子of Sachiko 幸子 is the graph for “child,”
common in women’s names, but feminist Rexroth refused to use it for adults.) The
gracious dinner he served is just a tiny example of his thoughtfulness, a gentleman
with fine-grained sensibility.

Sachi and I named Ken, our first son, after Kenneth. Around the time Ken first stood
up, Kenneth observed him, tickled him and out of the blue declared that Ken would
become a scientist. Oddly enough, a quarter century after Kenneth’s death, Ken is a
scientist. Kenneth had a sixth sense about people (James Laughlin also noticed it in
relation to animals [Kobe, Japan:
Electric Rexroth #1, 1992, ed. Tetsuya Taguchi]). He
was perceptive in x-raying psyches and hearts and catching the contours of people’s
vibrations as if he were on a psychedelic, although he had arrived at this intuitive
sense by meditating in nature for long stretches and by living fearlessly at all times.

Hamalian’s initial experience was similar to mine, but the difference is that my wholly
positive first impression lasted and deepened over the fourteen years I knew him.
Whenever I left Kenneth and Carol’s house after staying a few days, I experienced a
heady contentment as if walking on air, and my gratitude has increased incrementally
over the years. They say a mentor is always with you, and I suppose it’s true. Most
writers on Rexroth get caught up in the polemics of the man and there is nothing
wrong with that, but they tend to overlook that he was a classy guy. By ignoring that
aspect, more often than not they end up misinterpreting him and exposing their own
tunnel vision.


JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

When I first held Hamalian’s hardback in my hands, I wondered why there is a photo
resembling a mug shot used on the book-jacket cover, a disheveled Kenneth Rexroth
with a cigarette dangling from his lips. His unkempt appearance in the present age of
outlawing cigarette smoke is already a turn-off for most readers. Is this the idea of a
Bohemian as seen by the jacket-designer, Chris Welch? How many photos did he sift
through to choose this particular one? It’s a curious design decision, because another
camping photo, the frontispiece, is far more attractive, if indeed a camping photo is
the most appropriate for a biography of a poet. Rexroth was a great nature poet and
even wrote a brilliant, unpublished book ca. 1939 on the ins and outs of camping,
Camping in the Western Mountains (http://www.bopsecrets.org), but the dangling
cigarette shot remains an odd choice.

Surely more relevance should be attached to the fact that Rexroth was one of the first
poets to read with jazz and that he kept performing for thirty years with various
musicians and instruments from East and West. A more obvious cover photo would
be him reading poetry (one is included in the book [248], among one of Kenneth
speaking into the ear of a donkey [252], and others). That choice would have grounded
the pre-reading viewer to note that the book will be the biography of a performance
poet, presumably an innovative and influential figure.

Such an approach would have dovetailed well with Hamalian’s repeatedly stating that
Rexroth’s poetry readings in old age, despite his frailty, were superb. She notes that
although over 70 years old and with multiple ailments, he was always energetic,
“When Rexroth performed, he was very well received.” (358). She quotes Sam Hamill,
“the poems were magnificent…his delivery was perfect” (363); Joe Bruchac, “his body
old, but his spirit still as young as the lovers in those poems”; (363), and Joyce
Jenkins, “magnificent, so full of knowledge and life.” (364). Instead of the persona of
the performance poet, which Rexroth pioneered and that has since become standard
fare, we get an unattractive shot on the jacket cover of an unwashed Bohemian who is
supposed to metamorphose into a Beat and proto-Hippy. Incidentally, when asked if
he was indeed the “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth retorted, “An entomologist is not a
bug.”

I would like to mention in passing that I was also disappointed with the cover chosen
by Copper Canyon Press when it published the otherwise fine compilation
The
Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth
(eds. Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow, 2003).
These two leading Rexroth specialists opted for a 1963 painting of a torso by Leo
Kenney titled “Relic.” I don’t see a connection between that painting and Rexroth, and
whoever made that decision neglected a rare opportunity to tie Rexroth’s poetry and
painting into an organic whole. Why wouldn’t the editors have chosen a painting by
Rexroth? Maybe Copper Canyon had a reason to choose Leo Kenney, but that chance
won’t come again easily (mirroring the mostly wasted effect of Hamalian’s flawed
biography). As publisher, Morrow had aptly put a photograph of a Rexroth painting
on the cover of the poet’s
 Excerpts From A Life (NY: Conjunctions, ed. Ekbert Faas,
1981). Therefore, the omission of a painting on
The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth
is doubly puzzling, because Morrow already had used the idea—he merely needed to
recall it.


BEAR MUTILATION

The “mugging” of Rexroth continues unabated inside the book. Since Rexroth has told
his own story in
An Autobiographical Novel (NY: Doubleday, 1966) and Excerpts from A
Life
, one wonders why Hamalian titles hers A Life of Kenneth Rexroth, until we fill in the
blank later and realize her intended title is “A Wife-Beating Life of Kenneth Rexroth.”
Surely Rexroth deserves better, especially since the book was published after his
death when he could no longer defend himself. It’s a shame he isn’t around, because
he could write an erudite review listing the great authors whose reputations were
done irreparable harm by third-rate biographers. I don’t have such a list, but I know
Hamalian has veered off track in hunting down her subject only to have him elude
her, despite her quoting him left and right. We could reconstruct a very different
portrait of Rexroth merely by extracting some of the same quotes she presents and
interpreting them, depending on what issue we wish to highlight. To make better
sense of the poet and his work I needed to read his quotes against the grain of her
continuous bashing him for sexual infidelities. I extracted a selection of those quotes
and placed them at the end of this article to give a flavor of his thinking.

Hamalian gets entangled in psychologizing Rexroth as if she were defense attorney
for his ex-wives who had turned into hungry ghosts because of his maltreatment. She
sounds shriller and shriller, interposing herself like a spurned lover. More telling for
me than her superficial analysis is the fact that Kenneth’s second wife, Marie, who
also apparently alleged mistreatment, remained a devoted lifelong friend of his for
over 50 years. Whatever occurred between them, Marie seemed to have forgiven him,
but Hamalian can’t. In her self-righteousness she castigates Marie for being weak, but
Hamalian doesn’t deal with the issue in depth (perhaps believing that Marie was
suffering from the Stockholm syndrome). I kept wondering what accounts for
Hamalian’s intractability and vicarious intrusiveness, but of course she never turns
her psychologizing inwards. Why should readers be subjected to Hamalian’s
dredging up of negativity for its own sake? Incidentally, Rexroth hung a 1935 portrait
he had painted of Marie (123) on his dining room wall in Santa Barbara, and it
remained there for the rest of his life.

Japanese have a proverb—“Fuufu genka wa inu mo kuwanu,” 「夫婦喧嘩は犬も食わ
ぬ」 which means, “Even a dog won’t eat a husband and wife’s quarrel,” the point
being that marital spats are usually temporary flare-ups and after harmony is
restored, the meddling outsider will be ostracized.

Perhaps Hamalian’s evangelical defense of all women allegedly wronged by Rexroth
was sheer opportunism—trying to ride the wave of the feminist movement in a timely
manner. Unfortunately, her one-pointed attitude clouds her judgment and she has
difficulty reading poems even at face value, let alone with any insight. For example,
she quotes Rexroth’s series of six poems titled
Hojoki 「方丈記」(which she says
means “‘Monk’s Record’ or ‘Record of a Monk’s Hut,’” but more accurately means
“Record of a 4.5 mat room”):

    I am startled until I
    Realize that the beehive
    In the hollow trunk will be
    Busy all night long tonight

She interprets, “These six tightly structured poems are particularly informative
because they reveal so well an inner peace that contradicted the tenor of Rexroth’s
worldly, personal life.” (310). This becomes one of her central arguments. It seems to
me peripheral to invoke his so-called contradictory personal life as to what is
“particularly informative” about the poem. Why shouldn’t he feel the stirrings of
nature? After all, he went to meditate and write poetry precisely to get away from his
mundane city existence, that’s a given. It seems that Hamalian is goading here,
wanting to deny him any happiness. Should he have stayed home? Would she have
been placated had he written a poem in the woods about marital discord? Is his
“inner peace” only informative of his lack of inner peace? Is that the import of the
poem? If so, we are reading in an upside-down mirror, Linda in Wonderland. Her line
of inquiry begs the question of why readers get immense pleasure from Rexroth’s
nature poetry. As a professor of English and American literature with Rexroth as her
preeminent credential, her appreciation of the literary seems skewed and superficial.
Can’t we expect analysis beyond stating that the poems are hiding something that the
poet doesn’t think belongs there in the first place? Even if we bracket the poet’s
intention as unknowable and irrelevant, why should her intention for his poem be
privileged as significant? If Rexroth’s poems indeed have the potential to enact a
displacement of his emotional turmoil into sublime art, is the purpose of the critic to
reactivate the displacement backwards in time from the poem to the emotional stress
that was supposedly masked by the release of language into the poem? If that is the
role of the critic, then I prefer to stick with reading the poetry and foregoing the
analysis.


MEANINGLESS PRAISE, MEANINGFUL CRITICISM?

Here’s another typical example of Hamalian’s miniscule powers of interpretation and
relentless whipping of the dead white man (despite her noting that in 1965 Rexroth
was declared officially by the Oakland Mayor’s Office “an honorary Negro.” [319]).
First she introduces a special event honoring the subject of her biography, no doubt
one of the peaks of Rexroth’s career up to that time, earned after forty years of being
relatively neglected but having persevered and written prolifically nonetheless.

“When the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him $2,500 in May 1964, he
did not fly to the ceremony. Malcolm Cowley made the presentation of the award, and
praised the absent Rexroth for ‘maintaining under difficult circumstances, the
integrity of the arts, and for communicating his understanding of experience with
lucid candor, energy and compassion. Memorably and movingly he presents both
minute particulars and the large vistas opened by his secular religiosity.’” (316).

Cowley packs a lot into his brief and straightforward encomium. First, he mentions
“integrity… under difficult circumstances.” Among other struggles, Rexroth had been
a conscientious objector, housed and aided Americans of Japanese descent as well as
Japanese nationals in California when they were rounded up during World War II,
was a freethinker during McCarthyism, and became the subject of investigation by J.
Edgar Hoover’s notorious F.B.I. more once. Such integrity is always significant but
especially so during times of strife and war. Cowley then praises Rexroth for his talent
at “communicating his understanding of experience.” Those who are familiar with
Rexroth’s oeuvre realize that Cowley is referring in part to the poet’s mystical
experiences. Without entering into paradox, Cowley alludes to Rexroth’s uncanny
talent at seemingly conveying the ineffable, as well as his more mundane experiences.
Cowley’s use of the words “lucid candor, energy and compassion” are worthy of
pondering by the biographer or general reader. The “lucid candor” reflects back to the
aforementioned “integrity of the arts,” and “energy” to his sustaining a lofty and
disciplined tone throughout book-length poems. (Charles Olson commented, “That
long poem of his,
The Dragon and the Unicorn, that’s really something! He gets the
whole thing down there.” [227]).

Cowley’s reference to “compassion” is important. Hamalian may not make the
connection between Rexroth’s activist Buddhism which implied an engaged
compassion towards the poor and downtrodden and his relentless denunciation of
what he termed the Social Lie (Peter Tosh referred to it as the “Shitstem”). Rexroth’s
religiosity and politics were in synch, and central to his humanity was his
“compassion,” a virtue that Cowley found in Rexroth’s work. Cowley ends by praising
Rexroth’s poetry for its “minute particulars and large vistas.” One can ask of which
poets alive in the USA today the same could be said—that they “memorably and
movingly present” the micro and macro to the extent of anything close to Rexroth’s
achievement? Then to the depth and vastness add the aforementioned compassion
and integrity, and how many would be left standing? I have parsed Cowley’s
statement to make the simple point that it is a very positive introduction that is
worthy of pondering and maybe even commenting on. How does Hamalian deal with
these statements by Cowley about Rexroth’s poetic work? Directly following her quote
of Cowley, she writes:

“For those people in the audience who were familiar with the turmoil of Rexroth’s
private life, Cowley’s remarks regrettably underscored the split between the poet’s
persona and the man himself.”


DIVORCE JUICE

Rexroth experienced a wrenchingly sad divorce from Marthe Larsen, his third wife and
the mother of their two children, Mary and Katherine, the former born when he was
already 44 years old. Rexroth was devoted to them, especially Mary, with whom he was
able to spend more time. Near the end of their marriage, he wrote reassuringly to
Marthe:

“Dearest Marthe, surely you must know that I love you devotedly and want only to see
you happy and would do anything to help you. Never be afraid to let me know if you
need me. I will always respond. Certainly I need you always in every way. I love you.”  
(306).

Tender, compassionate and in a melancholy mood, Rexroth was assuring her that she
could count on him through thick and thin. Even if they were apart, he was aware that
they shared two children and should remain friends, and he expressed his feelings in
an eloquent, seemingly heartfelt manner.

Kenneth and Marthe thereafter sought the counsel of a therapist, Steven Schoen.
Marthe quickly divorced Rexroth and married Schoen. Hamalian doesn’t probe if
there is a question of ethics regarding a couple sharing their most vulnerable secrets
with a counselor who then compromises and betrays their trust in an unprofessional
manner for selfish gain. Rather, Hamalian brushes the incident off, “In the process of
therapy, Schoen, who himself was married with three children, and Marthe fell in
love.” (305). Was Rexroth ripped off? As a reader, I find it extraordinary that the
author has become so disillusioned with her subject that she injects such a noticeable
bias in her chilly assessment. She doesn’t seem to exhibit a shred of compassion for
him under what must have been exasperating circumstances.

Marthe “sued him for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty” (305), and in the
settlement Kenneth gave her their $6,000 savings and paid her $275 monthly alimony
and child support (307). He was noticeably shattered by this turn of events, because
he had a lot invested emotionally in their relationship, so he decided to replace
Marthe’s name with the anonymous “she” when reprinting the moving love poems he
had written to her. Hamalian finds fault with Rexroth for doing this, but wouldn’t an
empathetic biographer (or reader) find it understandable if he felt bitterness attached
to the name and exchanged it to recover his poems? Was Rexroth so out of line in his
behavior? Here follows Hamalian’s judgment with her psychological spin:

“Such editorial changes indicate that Rexroth felt humiliated and betrayed not only by
Marthe, but also by his own dreams and self-delusions.” (313). Did he necessarily feel
“humiliated,” or did he just want to keep the poems without keeping the dedication
to a woman whom he felt—whether mistakenly or not—had betrayed his love? For
Hamalian the problem seems to be in deleting the name. And why is it “self-
delusion” to rescue the poems as art? She seems to mean that his act was calculating
and willful, which would sound correct, but “self-delusion” implies that he was
fooling himself, and I don’t find that element indicated by the “editorial changes.”
And to insist further that he was “betrayed by his… self-delusions” turns the analysis
into cloak-and-dagger psychobabble. If Hamalian never has experienced writing a
poem that she was proud of and dedicating it to someone whom she later had a
falling out with, then she could at least have tried to empathize with that point of view
instead of treating the act as the deceptiveness of a cruel man.

She then hobbles along harping, “All eight poems indicate that Rexroth was reaching
a point where the women in his life had become a single Woman.” (314).

Incidentally, I remember a professor of Spanish I had in college, Gavin Hyde, who
told me that in middle age he realized in a mystical sense that all women are one
woman and all men are one man. I don’t imagine Hamalian is suggesting that Rexroth
couldn’t differentiate the personality of individual women whom he knew, so what is
she suggesting? She seems not to distinguish between his anti-bourgeois values and
her own thoroughly bourgeois outlook towards marriage and sex. He was a self-
proclaimed Anarchist (he used to specify Anarcho-Pacifist not to be misunderstood)
who came from a distinguished tradition of free-thinkers. Hamalian is not a free-
thinker and cannot catch his drift or import whatsoever. She acts like a gleeful but
twisted Mother Superior exposing a masturbator.

                                                                                             
page 2          page 3
photo courtesy of Ruth Witt-Diamant & family