The essays of Kenneth Rexroth
July 3, 2011 8:53 PM   Subscribe

The poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth, one of the central figures in the San Francisco Renaissance, only wrote prose for money. But he did it very well. (way previously)

Each time I put down The Iliad, after reading it again in some new translation, or after reading once more the somber splendor of the Greek, I am convinced, as one is convinced by the experiences of a lifetime, that somehow, in a way beyond the visions of artistry, I have been face to face with the meaning of existence. Other works of literature give this insight, but none so powerfully, so uncontaminated by evasion or subterfuge. If the art of poetry is a symbolic criticism of value, The Iliad is the paramount classic of that art. Its purity, simplicity, definition, and impact reveal life and expose it to irrevocable judgment, with finality and at the beginning of European literature.

Daniel Defoe:
The narratives of Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana are intended to affect us as though we had discovered them in an old trunk in the attic that had come down through the family, a bundle of papers that cracked as we opened them, written in a long out-of-date hand and tied with ribbons that disintegrated at our touch. We are supposed to be put in direct encounter with persons, a specific man, two specific women. Everything is stripped to the bare, narrative substance, and it is this that reveals the psychology or morality of the individual. The most significant details are purely objective, exterior. The interiority of the characters is revealed by their elaborately presented outside. When they talk about their own motives, their psychology, their morals, their self-analyses and self-justifications are to be read backwards, as of course is true of most people, certainly of any bundle of letters we might find in the attic. This is true even of autobiographers who are famous for their sincerity. If we believe everything that Amiel and Marie Bashkirtseff say about themselves, we are going to start off in life with misleading and sentimental ideas of human nature. It is the naïveté of his critics that has led to Defoe’s reputation for superficial or nonexistent psychology.
Ford Madox Ford:
Many critics down the years have pointed out that almost all anti-war novels and movies are in fact pro-war. Blood and mud and terror and rape and an all-pervading anxiety are precisely what is attractive about war — in the safety of fiction — to those who, in our overprotected lives, are suffering from tedium vitae and human self-alienation. In Parade’s End Ford makes war nasty, even to the most perverse and idle. There is not a great deal of mud, blood, tears, and death, but what there is is awful, and not just awful but hideously silly. No book has ever revealed more starkly the senselessness of the disasters of war, nor shown up, with sharper x-ray vision, under the torn flesh of war, the hidden, all-corrupting sickness of the vindictive world of peace-behind-the-lines. It is not the corporate evil, the profits of munitions makers, the struggles of statesmen, the ambitions of imperialists that Ford reveals at the root of war, but the petty, human, interpersonal evil of modern life, what once was called wickedness. Grasping leads to hallucination and hallucination leads to death, hate kills and compassion redeems — this is the thesis of so many great novels. In a sense Parade’s End is The Tale of Genji transposed to a totally different system of coordinates, but the human equation comes out the same in the end, the pattern of the curve of life against the curve of death.
Henry Miller:
Although Miller writes a lot about his kinship with D. H. Lawrence, he has very little of Lawrence’s abiding sense of the erotic couple, of man and woman as the two equal parts of a polarity which takes up all of life. This again is Brooklyn, pre-suffragette Brooklyn. And I must admit that it is true, at least for almost everybody. A real wedding of equals, a truly sacramental marriage in which every bit of both personalities, and all the world with them, is transmuted and glorified, may exist; in fact, some people may have a sort of talent for it; but it certainly isn’t very common. And the Great Lie, the social hoax in which we live, has taken the vision of this transcendent state and turned it into its cheapest hoax and its most powerful lie. I don’t see why Miller should be blamed if he has never found it. Hardly anybody ever does, and those who do usually lose it in some sordid fashion. This, of course, is the point, the message, if you want a message, of all his encounters in parks and telephone booths and brothels. Better this than the lie. Better the flesh than the World and the Devil. And this is why these passages are not pornographic, but comic like King Lear and tragic like Don Quixote.
posted by Trurl (8 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
His evolving take on Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet is funny:

"Durrell is a brilliant parodist of 'fine writing'!"

"Huh. Maybe he wasn't being parodic after all."
posted by darth_tedious at 9:11 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I dunno. From Rimbaud as Capitalist Adventurer:
The neuroses the treatment of which now consumes so much of the budget of the more fashionable members of the American upper middle class are actually, by and large, palpitations of behavior due to unsatisfied bourgeois appetites and lack of life aim.
Clunk, clunk, clunk. But I haven't finished reading it yet.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:17 PM on July 3, 2011

Some fun reading in here, thanks Trurl!
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:29 PM on July 3, 2011

I stumbled across Rexroth's One Hundred Poems from the Chinese in the stacks at Wayne State College (the Nebraska one, not to be confused with the Indiana institution with a respectable reputation) a decade or so ago, and nothing has ever been quite the same since. He was a poet of extraordinary capacities, and his essays have affected me more than anything I've read outside of Montaigne.

"Clunk, clunk, clunk" if you like, but you might get something out of sticking with it.
posted by brennen at 11:22 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry, I wanted to like these, but this is not great writing. Or even fine writing. Were I an editor, I would have thrown a lot back at him for rewrite.

On Steven Runciman (a genuinely wonderful prose writer, though somewhat idiosyncratic as an historian)

"...he has combined the writing of history as literature (“historiography” in academic argot) and the study of history as a scholarly discipline, if not an exact science.

Henry Adams, Francis Parkman, Prescott, Gibbon, Froissart, Tacitus, Thucydides, Ssu-ma Ch’ien — for many centuries the Muse of History was one of the chief of the minor goddesses and history was a major art."

For one thing, that ain't the definition of historiography. And the rest of the sentence is just clumsy.

" of the chiefs of the the minor goddesses"? How many chiefs, how many Indians? That needs recasting.

He is also sloppy with the use of "it". Too often it is unclear what, if anything, the it is referring to, if anything.

That said, I intend to read them all, as the subject matters interest me. But I would not encourage any writer to pattern himself on this stuff.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:01 AM on July 4, 2011

What a nice find. Like brennan, I've loved Rexroth's translations since finding them at a college bookstore; they've had an outsize influence on my literary sensibility, such as it is.

Rexroth, if I recall correctly, is one of the few translators for whom Eliot Weinberger has some kind words in his 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.
posted by cobra libre at 7:16 AM on July 4, 2011

His explanation of jazz is also a little clunky for my tastes, and kind of misses the point. First of all, Rexroth says that "It usually has a limited and very characteristic harmonic and melodic structure which it shares with blues and spirituals." This is hardly the case with Monk, Bird and Mingus, whom he seems to enjoy the most. The harmonics of bop and its melodies, both the charts and the improvisational lines, are hardly simple!

Also, he tries very hard to define "swing" as a defining element of jazz by calling it an "organic" rhythm (true enough) and by linking it (a bit overmuch) to dancing and sex. But not once does he mention African music! Swing is a pretty natural result of African polyrhythms, especially the simplest of them all, the overlaying of a 3/4 beat on a 4/4 beat.

Rexroth does cover some pretty interesting aesthetic and cultural areas of interest, though.
posted by kozad at 8:44 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, I wanted to like these, but this is not great writing. Or even fine writing. Were I an editor, I would have thrown a lot back at him for rewrite.

As I understand it, most of the critical essays and An Autobiographical Novel were dictated straight to tape and transcribed (usually by a long-suffering wife/secretary). That process combined with his tendency to make sweeping pronouncements of staggering certainty probably explain a lot of what rubs people the wrong way.

'course, I do think they're often great writing - flawed, frequently arrogant, sometimes just plain wrong, but great all the same.

The mileage, she certainly do vary.
posted by brennen at 1:51 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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