Last night Saturday December 10 I saw the centenary celebration for poet Kenneth Rexroth, the man most responsible for creating current California culture, at Beyond Baroque. The event was the best reading held in Los Angeles this year. What was wonderful was to see an audience ranging in age from 18 to 88 to celebrate Rexroth: he was a superb poet,, scholar, translator, editor; he was a teacher for generations; he was instigator for the San Francisco poetry renaissance; he was inspirer of California counterculture; and he was a creator of our populist culture in California.
Many read Rexroth’s radical verse, and he was always a rebel, from his youth supporting the Wobblies, the West’s most radical worker’s organization; to being a conscientious objector to World War II; to his life-long belief in anarchism; to his long commitment to Buddhism and fighting prejudice against Asians in California; to his being one of the great poets for the environment in the United States. Michael C. Ford, the Los Angeles beat poet, did a great job as organizer and m.c. of the reading as well as read Rexroth’s poem elegy on the death of Dylan Thomas with the refrain “they kill the young man” which was both a lament for all the 20th century artists who died too young as well as for the young men and women who are dieing in Iraq.
I first connected with Rexroth by reading his wonderful books of translations of Chinese and Japanese women poets: he introduced me as well as many others to 2,000 years of women’s poetry. I think one of Rexroth’s great contributions is sharing his knowledge and translations of Japanese and Chinese poetry and his commitment to Buddhism first with small group of San Francisco poets and then inspiring the West Coast’s counterculture’s interest in Asian literary, religion and culture. Whenever I see young Californians studying yoga I think Rexroth in some way influenced them.
Rexroth was an advocate of reading poetry with jazz, so poet Uri Hertz read one of Rexroth’s fine anarchist poems in support of the Hungarian rebels of 1956 to a jazz duo of piano and bass. Bonnie Tamblyn and a young TV actress performed selections from Rexroth’s bestiary poems about animals with Tamblyn singing and playing her guitar while the young actress performed the poems.
As a young man Rexroth and his first wife Andre camped and hiked throughout California; his poetry is both a celebration of our forests, foothills, mountains, and coastline as well as advocacy for their preservation. He surely inspired Gary Snyder who followed in Rexroth’s footsteps first as a forest ranger and then as a ecological poet: the two men helped awaken a generation to awareness of the environment.
Rexroth was working class, a poor orphan who dropped out of high school; he spent a little time studying at Chicago’s Art St Institute, but was really self-educated, knowing more about poetry than almost any person in the United States. He taught himself French, Spanish, Chinese, Greek, and Japanese, and translated poetry from all these languages. In the reading poet Eloise Klein Healey read from Rexroth’s wonderful translations of the Greek poet Sappho while Chicano musician Ruben Guevera read from Rexroth’s fine translations of Spanish-language poets Neruda and Alberti’s wonderful poets of exile and love. I think Rexroth’s an inspiration for any young high school dropout struggling now in California to make a career and a life of themselves: Rexroth did it and so can they.
Early in Rexroth’s life he worked as a fruit picker, a forest ranger, a factory worker, and an orderly at mental institutions but after his literary reputation grew this high school dropout wound up teaching at UC Santa Barbara. One person read an outstanding poetic eulogy Rexroth wrote to an old political comrade lamenting the many defeats they had suffered in their lifelong rebellion. But despite these many defeats, Rexroth had great generosity and caring for the younger generation. Cari Tomlinson, one of Rexroth’s students at UC Santa Barbara, shared how he was a mesmerizing and generous teacher. Also Lewis McAdams told how as a young poet of about 20 he knocked on Rexroth’s door in San Francisco; the older man generously welcomed him into San Francisco’s poetry scene.
Two of the last reeaders were Rexroth’s daughter Mariana Rexroth who shared to us wonderful poems about the stars he so loved that he wrote for her when he was a little girl and then his widow Carol Tinker. After the reading Mariana caught up the huge cake, so each member of the audience could have a piece and join in this celebration of a wonderful man, a brilliant poet, and a great Californian.