Wet Skirts – Brief Poems by Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was born in in South Bend, Indiana, the son of Charles Rexroth, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Reed. His childhood was troubled by his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s chronic illness. He was homeschooled by his mother, and by age four he was reading widely in the Classics. His mother died in 1916 and his father in 1918.  He then went to live with his aunt in Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. He spent his teenage years as an art student and soda jerk, along with other odd jobs. In 1923—1924 he was imprisoned during a raid on a Near North Side bar that he frequented, allegedly for being partial owner of a brothel. He lived in a decrepit jail cell under the care of four black cellmates until his legal guardian could bail him out. In Chicago he  recited poetry from a soapbox to excited crowds on street corners downtown. He live as a postulant in Holy Cross Monastery (West Park, New York) where the lifestyle of meditation, silence and artistic creation suited him marvelously, and he later recalled it as the happiest time of his life. However, he felt strongly that he did not have a vocation there, and left with a solidified admiration for the communal rites and values of monasticism.

At age nineteen, he hitchhiked across the country, taking odd jobs and working a stint as a Forest Service trail crew hand, cook, and packer in the Pacific Northwest, at the Marblemount Ranger Station. Later he was able to board a steamship in Hoboken, exploring Mexico and South America before spending a week in Paris to meet many notable avant-garde figures, notably Tristan Tzara and the Surrealists. He considered staying on in Paris, but an American friend urged him not to become just another expatriate and he returned home. After meeting his first wife, he moved to San Francisco; he would live in California the rest of his life.

Rexroth married Andrée Dutcher in 1927, a commercial artist from Chicago. He claimed to have fallen in love with her at first sight when he saw her in the doorway of the apartment building he was renting. He encouraged Dutcher to pursue non-commercial painting, and she gave him feedback on his writing. The two shared many interests and what Rexroth described as a perfect relationship. Their marriage deteriorated, however, and the couple was divorced near his 35th birthday. Andrée died of complications from epilepsy shortly after, in 1940. Her death triggered great sadness in Rexroth, who wrote a number of elegiac poems in her honour.  Within a year of her death, Rexroth married the nurse and poet Marie Kass. They opened up their home to weekly literary discussions, anti-war protesters, and Japanese-American convalescents avoiding internment. They separated in 1948.  In 1949, Rexroth traveled to Europe with Marthe Larsen. The two were married in Aix-en-Provence despite Rexroth still being legally married to Marie. When the couple returned to the USA, Marthe was pregnant. They had had two daughters, Mary and Katherine, by 1955, when Rexroth’s divorce from Marie finally came through. In 1956, Marthe fell in love with the poet, Robert Creeley, and she later left Kenneth despite his desperate pleas for her to stay. Rexroth later removed all instances of her name from his poetry. After living in San Francisco for 41 years, Rexroth moved to Santa Barbara in 1968. He taught two courses at UCSB. After a few years, he married Carol Tinker, his longtime assistant. They remained married until Rexroth’s death in 1982.

Kenneth Rexroth is still, today, associated with the so-called Beat Poets. With Rexroth acting as master of ceremonies, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen read at the famous poetry-reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Rexroth later served as a defense witness at Ginsberg’s obscenity trial concerning this event. He had previously sent Ginsberg (new in the Bay Area) to meet Snyder, and was thus responsible for their friendship. Lawrence Ferlinghetti named Rexroth as one of his own mentors. Rexroth was eventually critical of the Beat movement. Years after the Six Gallery reading, TIME magazine referred to him as “Father of the Beats.” To this he replied, “an entomologist is not a bug.” He appears in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums as the character Reinhold Cacoethes.

He died in Santa Barbara, on June 6, 1982, of a massive heart attack that blew out the fuse of the electrocardiogram machine that was monitoring him. He is buried on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Cemetery Association overlooking the sea, and while all the other graves face inland, his alone faces the Pacific. His epitaph, one of his late brief poems, reads, “As the full moon rises / The swan sings in sleep / On the lake of the mind.”

 

READING KENNETH REXROTH

I first came across the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth when, in a Dublin bookshop in the 1970’s, I bought a copy of Penguin Modern Poets 9 which contained poems by William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov and Kenneth Rexroth. Williams I already knew and the selection did not add much to my knowledge and appreciation of his work. Levertov I knew from anthologies but the wider work in the Penguin book did not appeal much. However Rexroth was a revelation. He seemed to have a voice that was individual, eloquent and intriguing. One poem haunted me – his brief translation of Akiko

I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.

That poem stuck in my memory for years and when, in 2009, I decided to post brief poems on the Twitter account @poemtoday, it was one of the first poems I printed. Years later, on a visit to Vancouver, I found one of the most eclectic bookstores I had ever visited, MacLeods Books. There I came across a copy of One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. I have borrowed substantially from that book below and I have included, in italics, some of the intriguing and interesting comments Rexroth makes of the poems he has chosen. I hope you enjoy his work as much as I have.

 

THE LOVE POEMS OF MARICHIKO

The Love Poems of Marichiko were originally published as if they had been written by a young Japanese woman in Kyoto and Rexroth had merely translated them. In reality there was no such person as Marichiko — the poems were all written by Rexroth himself, projecting himself into a feminine persona, during the same period that he was translating several volumes of Chinese and Japanese women poets. These, his most erotic poems, Rexroth wrote when he was in his seventies. The text is chronological: in a series of short poems, the narrator longs for, sometimes meets, dreams of and loses her lover, and then grows old. The narrator is defined only in relation to her lover, and of her lover we learn absolutely nothing, including gender. Rexroth gained critical recognition for having conveyed so authentically the feelings of someone of another gender and culture. Linda Hamalian, his biographer, suggests that translating the work of women poets from China and Japan reveals a transformation of both heart and mind. Were they to be written today he would probably be accused of “cultural appropriation” although, in my view, given the sensitivity with which he translated and promoted the work of Japanese women poets, he earned the right to offer his own version of a fictional Japanese female poet who wrote poems that, in their tender eroticism, bore some resemblance to the brief poems of Yosano Akiko whose work he had also translated. If you are interested in responding to these poems, or to the problem of cultural appropriation, you could use the comment box below.

 

Brief Poems by Kenneth Rexroth

Translations from the Greek

… about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .

Sappho 

***

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.

Sappho

***

Time’s fingers bend us slowly
With dubious craftsmanship,
That at last spoils all it forms.

Krates

***

Pass me the sweet earthenware jug,
Made of the earth that bore me,
The earth that someday I shall bear.

Zonas

***

Neither war, nor cyclones, nor earthquakes
are as terrifying as this oaf
who stares, sips water and remembers
everything we say.

Antipatros  

***

Translations from the Japanese

This world of ours,
To what shall I compare it?
To the white wake of a boat
That rows away in the early dawn.

Shami Mansei

***

As I watch the moon
Shining on pain’s myriad paths,
I know I am not
Alone involved in Autumn.

Ōe No Chisato

…believed to have lived about 825 A. D.  Nothing else is known of her, although  this poem is one of the most famous in Japanese literature.

***

When I gathered flowers
For my girl
From the top of the plum tree
The lower branches
Drenched me with dew.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro

***

A strange old man
Stops me,
Looking out of my deep mirror.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro

***

My girl is waiting for me
And does not know
That my body will stay here
On the rocks of Mount Kamo.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro

This poem is Hitomaro’s death poem.

***

I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.

Yamabe No Akahito

***

The mists rise over
The still pools at Asuka.
Memory does not
Pass away so easily.

Yamabe No Akahito

***

Imperceptible
It withers in the world,
This flower-like human heart.

The Poetess Ono No Komachi.

She is the legendary beauty of Japan. She is supposed to have lost her beauty in old age and become a homeless beggar. This may be true, but it is improbable and is most likely derived from her poems, many of which deal with the transitoriness of life and beauty.

***

Have you any idea
How long  night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

The Mother of the Commander Michitsuna

According to legend, she gave this poem to her husband when he came home very late one night, as he habitually did.

***

I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Ariwara No Narihira

***

Out in the marsh reeds
A bird cries out in sorrow,
As though it had recalled
Something better forgotten.

Ki No Tsurayuki

***

The deer on pine mountain,
Where there are no falling leaves,
Knows the coming of autumn
Only by the sound of his own voice.

Onakatomi No Yoshinobu

This is the first Japanese poem I ever translated; I was fifteen years old. It is still one of my favorites.

***

Someone passes,
And while I wonder
If it is he,
The midnight moon
Is covered with clouds.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu

She is the greatest figure in Japanese literature, the author of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s greatest books, of a diary and of numerous poems.

***

Autumn evening —
A crow on a bare branch.

Bashô

***

An old pond —
The sound
Of a diving frog.

Bashô

…describes a monk’s retreat in the forest, so still that the only sound is the splash of a frog as the visitor approaches.

***

On this road
No one will follow me
In the Autumn evening.

Bashô

***

Summer grass
Where warriors dream.

Bashô

…paralleled by hundreds of Western poems from the Greek Anthology and the Bible to Carl Sandburg. It describes a battlefield.

***

I can see the stones
On the bottom fluctuate
Through the clear water.

Shiki

***

Frozen in the ice
A maple leaf.

Shiki

***

Shitting in the winter turnip field
The distant lights of the city.

Shiki

***

Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.

Yosano Akiko

***

Left on the beach
Full of water,
A worn out boat
Reflects the white sky
Of early autumn.

Yosano Akiko

 

 

 

from The Love Poems of Marichiko

IV

You ask me what I thought about
Before we were lovers.
The answer is easy.
Before I met you
I didn’t have anything to think about.

VII

Making love with you
Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
Until nothing can slake my thirst
But to drink the entire sea.

IX

You wake me,
Part my thighs, and kiss me.
I give you the dew
Of the first morning of the world.

XII

Come to me, as you come
Softly to the rose bed of coals
Of my fireplace
Glowing through the night-bound forest.

XV

Because I dream
Of you every night,
My lonely days
Are only dreams.

XVI

Scorched with love, the cicada
Cries out. Silent as the firefly,
My flesh is consumed with love.

XVIII

Spring is early this year.
Laurel, plums, peaches,
Almonds, mimosa,
All bloom at once. Under the
Moon, night smells like your body.

XXIX

Love me. At this moment we
Are the happiest
People in the world.

XXXIV

Every morning, I
Wake alone, dreaming my
Arm is your sweet flesh
Pressing my lips.

XXV

Your tongue thrums and moves
Into me, and I become
Hollow and blaze with
Whirling light, like the inside
Of a vast expanding pearl.

XLIV

The disorder of my hair
Is due to my lonely sleepless pillow.
My hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks
Are your fault.

 

A brief poem by Kenneth Rexroth

As the full moon rises
The swan sings
In sleep
On the lake of the mind.

This poem is engraved on Kenneth Rexroth’s tombstone in the Santa Barbara Cemetery  in Santa Barbara, California.

***

LINKS

A biography on the Poem Hunter site

A wide variety of translations by Kenneth Rexroth,

A wide variety of poems by Kenneth Rexroth

Seven Poems on the All Poetry site.

The Kenneth Rexroth page on the Poetry Foundation site.

 

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