Monday, November 3, 2008

The Relevance of Rexroth

Walking in Greenwich Village a few years ago, I saw a small historical plaque affixed to the building where Dylan Thomas died, having drank himself into oblivion. What was one poet's reaction? The poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill".

Has anything changed? Today Brooklyn, home to Whitman, is a bastion for writers. Denver, too, is home to writers and the magazines that promote them; no longer does it bear Ginsberg’s “Denver Doldrums.”

Chicago, too, is experiencing a renaissance--at least if one can measure it via the poets circulating through, orbiting poets like Joshua Marie Wilkinson whose Rabbit Light Movies film many of these poets passing through. Aside from Poetry magazine and Carl Sandberg, even beyond the Chicago Review and other presses, who knows the literary history of Chicago?

Read An Autobiographical Novel, a stunning text by Kenneth Rexroth and an invaluable document of the era just before the Depression in Chicago. Rexroth writes about the urban Midwest with so much detail, with such panache, it’s been said his book will make your own life seem morbidly dull.

In its heyday, Chicago was home to anarchists, communists, agitators, artists, and writers. Rexroth throws around names no one would recognize today. Sure, he lived in New York, too, and beneath Hart Crane’s apartment no less, where young “Rex” could hear Crane playing his blues records while writing White Buildings. But Chicago! Who would have known how much had happened there in theater, in painting, and in the response of labor movement crowds to poems read on street corners and soapboxes?

Jacket Magazine features a tribute issue to Rexroth, including an essay by Sam Hamill, a excellent introduction to a profound influence on an entire generation of poets, especially “the Beats” whom he had little patience for. Rexroth’s influence in San Francisco is what we generally attribute to him, especially acting as MC for the Six Gallery Reading, and also for his “basement readings” with Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Aside from a recent issue of Chicago Review devoted to him, and the release of his collected poems by Copper Canyon Press (edited by Hamill and Bradford Morrow), and even a website, the Bureau of Public Secrets, featuring generous portions of his work, is his legacy somewhat neglected? Perhaps not.

Having read nearly all of his books—which include not only poems but his magnanimous essays—I’d like to suggest a return to a deeper study of his formidable intellect, his model of the life well-lived, his astounding recollections of American history, and the deep and compassionate understanding of the human condition.

(See a video of Rexroth reading his poetry here and another blog entry here.)

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