CA. Other Poets and Works

13. Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82). Poems and verse drama, 1944-49 (images 1951-1991).

  A transitional figure in this study. Image of Rexroth: .  

Rexroth is a transitional figure in this study. His most engaging confrontation with Japanese subjects and techniques takes place after 1950 (see 14 and 14d), and may be associated with the so-called San Francisco Renaissance and the link established in the post-war years between the west coast of the United States and Kyoto, by Ruth Fuller Sasaki (1893-1967, founder of the First Zen Institute of Kyoto, at Ryôsen-in inside the Daitokuji complex), the poets Gary Snyder (see 14e), Cid Corman (see 14a), Philip Whalen (see especially Scenes of Life at the Capital [1970; enlarged ed, Bolinas, Cal.: Grey Fox, 1971), Rexroth himself, and others. Rexroth precedes and anticipates much of this, however, in several early works. In much of Rexroth’s prose, early and late, furthermore, may be found reference to his understanding of the importance of the Japanese tradition. See also A29, 43, 48, 49, BK194, and BL100.

a. THE PHOENIX AND THE TORTOISE. In The Phoenix and the Tortoise (and other poems). Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1944. This meditative forty-one page work is the first English poem to weave into the fabric of the verse particular poems from Japanese tradition. The text does not call attention to this, but Rexroth acknowledges the fact years later in Excerpts of a Life (ed. Ekbert Faas, Santa Barbara: Conjunctions, 1981), noting that though the poem is ‘based ultimately on the Mahayana Buddhist Sutra, the Kegon Kyo’, it is ‘strung on quotations from the Hyakunin-isshu’ (Ap). Both Kodama (in A59) and Morgan Gibson (in Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom [Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String, 1986]) identify translations of tanka ‘half concealed’ in the verse, and at least seven of these appear as discrete poems identified as translation in Rexroth’s later One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (New York: New Directions, 1955).

b. The Signature of All Things. New York: New Directions, 1949. Rexroth’s incorporation of Japanese materials is more straightforward in this lyrical and widely influential work than in THE PHOENIX AND THE TORTOISE. In introduction he suggests that the religious stance in the poems owes something to D. T. Suzuki (D28), and acknowledges among stylistic influences the Japanese folksong, to which might be added the syllabic counts of Japanese verse. Two poems rely explicitly on Japanese materials for their subject matter. YUGAO describes a speaker’s thoughts of himself and his sleeping lover as he walks outside at night, and reverberates throughout with images of the demonic possession and death of the character Yûgao in the fourth chapter of Genji monogatari and the nô YUgao; and HÔjÔki, like its twelfth-century precursor of the same title, by Kamo no Chômei, relies on the Buddhist understanding of the transience of life and takes as its subject the seasons and the natural landscape around the poet’s ‘ten foot square hut’.

c. Beyond the Mountains. New York: New Directions, 1951. Rexroth’s plays in verse appeared first in journals between 1946 and 1949. Phaedra, Iphigenia, Hermaois, and Berenike are ‘dance plays’ in the tradition of Yeats’s adaptations of the nô, and borrow freely from Yeats’s experiments, the nô itself, and classical Greek convention. Like the nô, these works rely on a setting in the distant past, moral and religious themes derived from Buddhism, a bare stage, masks and musicians, and are rich with allusions to classical poetry, in this case the Greek. Rexroth’s chorus is closer to the Japanese progenitor than Yeats’s ‘cloth bearers’ (see especially BL12), and as in the nô does not take a part in the action but engages in dialogue with, and sometimes speaks for, the principle characters. Rexroth’s plays are not as well known as those of Yeats, but no serious account of the ways the nô has been adapted to the Western stage may responsibly overlook them. The fullest study is Sakurai’s ‘The Noh Plays of Kenneth Rexroth’ (BL204), which emphasises their derivation as much from Yeats as from the Japanese form itself.





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