Charles Belbin

Kenneth Rexroth:

The San Francisco 100th Birthday Celebration

      The San Francisco 100th Birthday Celebration of Kenneth Rexroth, presented by the SFSU Poetry Center, which Rexroth helped found, and Mariana Rexroth took place at the Café Royal at 800 Post Street and Leavenworth on the slopes of Nob Hill in San Francisco on December 22, 2005. To this attendee the urban café cum bar, nightclub, cabaret location had interesting overtones. Up the hill a few blocks is French Gothic Grace Cathedral which happens to have two labyrinths, one indoors and one outdoors. The thought of walking a replica of the Chartres Cathedral’s labyrinth of 1220 and the ancient meditative practice of walking labyrinths rang Rexrothian chimes. And down the hill a few blocks is Polk Street, the fictional setting for Frank Norris’s novel, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco from which the director Erich Von Stroheim made a long silent movie entitled Greed. Both novel and film center on the theme of the lust for gold. And thus this setting, at least in one mind, seemed quite appropriate for some of the concerns and dilemmas of Rexroth’s life. Von Stroheim’s film opens with a passage from Norris’s book:

I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn't like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now.
                                                               —Frank Norris.
      So, located between ancient mysticism and modern literary courage, the event commenced.

      The ubiquitous Kush, archivist of all things poetic in San Francisco, was there with his recording equipment, eye and ear, heart and soul. David Meltzer was there and Jack Hirschman, who the next month would become the new poet laureate of San Francisco. Hirschman read a Proclamation from the Board of Supervisors declaring the day Kenneth Rexroth Day.

      This poor reporter begs your indulgence for not knowing everyone there as he shyly hangs on one the end of the bar nursing his espresso and contemplating the poetry of the scene and of necessity presents the scene from his limited perspective. He deeply wishes he knew the names of all the interesting looking gray beards and silver haired ladies as well as the intense looking literary folks. The age range covered youth to old age. One stout fellow playing soprano sax with a much younger guitarist turned out to be the downstairs neighbor at Rexroth’s old Scott Street apartment. They did nice bluesy jazz and backed up Meltzer and Hirschman in a duo reading of Rexroth’s ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ This was nicely done poetry and jazz and the two voices amplified the rush and outrage of that poem.

      ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is a lament for the death of Dylan Thomas and a frontal attack on bourgeois hypocrisy. How many contemporary poets remind us that the Judeo-Christian commandment which we so proudly feel is a foundation of our modern civilization contains no hedges. That greed, theft, murder are our everyday modus operandi. That this hypocrisy destroys sensibilities. Although this poem is notorious for outraging the smug bourgeois it is also complex and constellated in Rexroth’s unique manner. It is, among other things, a true lament. Rexroth always leads you someplace, enlarges your scope. The refrain of the second section, Timor mortis conturbat me (‘the tremors of death confound me,’ in one rendering) is from the Scottish poet William Dunbar (146-1520) specifically from his poem ‘Lament for the Makers’ which has been described as taking the “form of a prayer in memory of the medieval Scots poets.” And this reminds us that poetry is a making—that, in fact, whatever we do we make our world—and poetry allows us to reflect on what we are doing, if, as Rexroth laments in the poem, we will. This also gives a deep reverberation in English poetry to the knell of the refrain for the memory of Dylan Thomas. A sensibility that could write, as Thomas did in his own ‘Lament,’

Chastity prays for me, piety sings,
Innocence sweetens my last black breath,
Modesty hides my thighs in her wings,
And all the deadly virtues plague my death!
      It is the loss of such sensibilities that drove Rexroth to such outrage in his poem.

      Gary Gach brought greetings from the Chinese poetry translator and old Rexroth friend, C. H. Kwock, who is now in his eighties and doesn’t go out in the evenings anymore. Gach said when he first came to San Francisco in the sixties it was Rexroth who inspired him to read Tu Fu. Gach then read some fine translations from the Chinese by him and C. H. Kwock.

      The high point of the evening was definitely Mariana Rexroth’s reading, in a good strong voice, of ‘A Sword in a Cloud of Light,’ which was written for her. She said it wasn’t exactly written for an occasion like this but she thought it would fit. She read from the New Directions edition of the Shorter Collected Poems and pointed to her younger self in the photo on the front cover. It is a beautiful poem and it was a privilege to hear her read it. In fact, the reading in a woman’s clear, reflective voice of a little girl’s experience was an instantiation and reverberation of the reality the poem reflected on.


Your hand in mine, we walk out
To watch the Christmas Eve crowds
On Fillmore Street, the Negro 
District. The night is thick with
Frost. The people hurry, wreathed
In their smoky breaths. Before
The shop windows the children
Jump up and down with spangled
Eyes. Santa Clauses ring bells,
Cars stall and honk. Streetcars clang.
Loud speakers on the lampposts
Sing carols, on juke boxes
In the bars Louis Armstrong
Plays “White Christmas.” In the joints
The girls strip and grind and bump
To “Jingle Bells.” Overhead
The neon signs scribble and
Erase and scribble again
Messages of avarice,
Joy, fear, hygiene, and the proud
Names of the middle classes.
The moon beams like a pudding.
We stop at the main corner
And look up, diagonally
Across, at the rising moon,
And the solemn, orderly
Vast winter constellations.
You say, “There’s Orion!”
The most beautiful object
Either of us will ever
Know in the world or in life
Stands in the moonlit empty
Heavens, over the swarming
Men, women, and children, black
And white, joyous and greedy,
Evil and good, buyer and
Seller, master and victim,
Like some immense theorem,
Which, if once solved would forever
Solve the mystery and pain
Under the bells and spangles.
There he is, the man of the
Night before Christmas, spread out
On the sky like a true god
In whom it would only be
Necessary to believe
A little. I am fifty
And you are five. It would do
No good to say this and it
May do no good to write it.
Believe in Orion. Believe
In the night, the moon, the crowded
Earth. Believe in Christmas and
Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
Believe in all those fugitive
Compounds of nature, all doomed
To waste away and go out.
Always be true to these things.
They are all there is. Never
Give up this savage religion
For the blood-drenched civilized
Abstractions of the rascals
Who live by killing you and me.

      Sitting at the end of the metal, silver-colored bar contemplating the poem, the bartendress comes by with her ministration, thank you, my dear, and these thoughts come. An interpretive ideogram which shouldn’t be thought of as linear.

An amazingly simple poem and yet one could argue the whole history of western poetry—Hesiod’s description of the gods of nature—indeed, of world poetry—the Paleolithic appreciation of the great forces of nature—are in it! Orion, ‘The most beautiful object/[Any] of us will ever/Know in the world or in life.’

A five-year old little girl holding her father’s hand looking up at the stars, at Orion, at the great natural processes seen in familiar human terms, animals and huntsman.

We are invited to communion in this ‘savage religion.’

Rexroth pointed out that every revival of poetry in China down through all the dynasties started out with a return to the Shi Jing, the Book of Songs, that classic collection of folk songs. His plain style has that simple and deep quality of folk song. In fact, it is a maxim of Chinese writing that for the most profound thoughts, use the simplest language.

The poem presents a simple, detailed scene of a winter solstice celebration in a contemporary society with the particulars of cultural artifacts and class relations but then Rexroth reaches all the way back over the span of the species, making all mankind contemporary, as he invokes one of the great objects of contemplation for mankind, stars and their configurations.

The age-old longing for knowledge that would explain human suffering (‘[Orion]/Stands in the moonlit empty/Heavens…/Like some immense theorem,/Which, if once solved would forever/Solve the mystery and pain…’) but here, on the street, amid ‘the swarming/Men, women, and children, black/And white, joyous and greedy,/Evil and good, buyer and/Seller, master and victim…Under the bells and spangles.’

Just a shading of Platonic Number (‘immense theorem’) to give this poem of hard-nosed, clear-eyed immanence even more depth.

Rexroth doesn’t just make allusions he constellates his poems; and this can be seen as the ideographic method, which he got from Pound, and transformed to his own uses—the bringing together of concrete examples or instances to present a configuration of meaning, as does the Chinese ideogram.

Rexroth’s use and mastery of the ideogrammatic method is like one’s own calligraphy; once the characters are mastered, one’s calligraphy has a flowing, energetic, internal dynamic intensity and lassitude, ebb and flow, integrity and individuation all one’s own.

And this is the beauty of the ideographic method: things are brought together partly by the poet’s composition and partly by the nature of the things themselves. So that the poem is a composing in conjunction with the nature of things.

Rexroth’s poetry invites reflection. Perhaps because his is a poetry of reflection. In the series of poems—‘The Lights in the Sky are Stars,’ dedicated to young Mariana—that includes this poem, he is reflecting on a classic theme of all poetry, the passage of time. Reflecting on this poem—looking up Orion—an amazing fact jumps out: the configuration of this constellation of stars, from the viewpoint of the earth, formed about a million and a half years ago, roughly paralleling the span of our species, and will last about another couple of million years.

The particular Buddhist insight into the nature of things—their transience—which Rexroth expresses explicitly in Buddhist terms in other poems he express here in terms of classic Western poetry, sic transit gloria mundi,‘…those fugitive/Compounds of nature, all doomed/To waste away and go out.’

The human need to see the great forces of nature in human terms (‘Believe in Orion.’) This projection is easily abused when human arrogance tries to assume the power of nature to itself and commits hubris which tendency Rexroth deals with here (‘…the blood-drenched civilized/Abstractions of the rascals/Who live by killing…’) as well as in the other poems which constellate this series, and more explicitly in such other of his work as ‘They Say This Isn’t A Poem,’ context within context, galaxies amid constellations.

Natural, everyday mysticism from the streets, the depth of things are always there, accessible: the stars which constitute Orion's sword are seen against the Orion Nebula, the ‘cloud of light’ which adds to the depth and beauty of this ‘most beautiful object’ and instantiates the ideogrammatic composition of a poem in conjunction with nature.

      Chocolate cake and champagne were served all around. And we held our glasses to the beauty of the poetry, to a life well lived and to the memorial of the work done.


Resolution Declaring December 22, 2005
Kenneth Rexroth Day in San Francisco