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Kenneth Rexroth:In Defense of the Earth
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Kenneth Rexroth:
In Defense of the Earth

In Defense of the Earth , by Kenneth Rexroth. New York: New Directions, 1956.

In Defense of the Earth is the first more or less substantial collection of Kenneth Rexroth's poems since the publication of The Dragon and the Unicorn . The latter was a long philosophical travel-poem, so that the book I am reviewing more literally goes back to The Signature of All Things (1949), and is (as that book was) an accumulation of poems and translations of varying length and determination.

Many of these deal with similar locations and events, seeking over and over again for the changing forms of an unchanging significance in stars, insects, mountains and daughters. They do not of course try to answer, "Why am I here?" "Why is it out there?"—but to snare the fact that is the only answer, the only meaning of present or presence . . .

[Foreword to In Defense of the Earth , by Kenneth Rexroth]

Reading a book, or reviewing it—one comes to ask, what does the book have, for its ideas; and, how clearly are those ideas made evident? Rexroth's title demonstrates the area of his concern, large though it surely is, and open as well to the pitfalls of an overzealous generality. But one can, as he does, begin there.

The opening poems are for his wife, Marthe, and his daughter Mary. Those for his wife have, among them, some of the book's best writing.

New Mexico Quarterly , Winter 1956–57.


. . . What do I know now,
Of myself, of the others?
Blood flows out to the fleeing
Nebulae, and flows back, red
With all the worn space of space,
Old with all the time of time.
It is my blood. I cannot
Taste in it as it leaves me
More of myself than on its
Return . . .

This is the first idea. It is as well a broadening, in effect a deepening of something, such as:

. . . Just born to die
Nobody will ever know anything about it
And I have nothing more at all to say.

Which is taken from The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949), a book which marked the last large instance of Rexroth's experimentation in poems akin (as he notes) to those of Stein, Lowenfels, Arensberg, and Louis Zukofsky. After that time he made clear his intention to write in more "common" forms, and to give up at least the intensity of his concern to that point with syntactical formation, personally based. Perhaps my own statement here is unclear, but what was meant seems simply this: he became concerned with a poetry which people, in a half-hoped for generality, might be able to read, as put against that which apparently they could not—or at least this was not to be the concern of the writer.

This is the second idea, clear in this book—that people, who are being loved, attacked, or subjected to the varying attitudes of the writer, be obliged to hear that concern. The poem "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (for the memory of Dylan Thomas, who was himself proposed as a common voice) speaks like this:

I want to run into the street
Shouting, "Remember Vanzetti!"
I want to pour gasoline down your chimneys.
I want to blow up your galleries.
I want to burn down your editorial offices.
I want to slit the bellies of your frigid women.
I want to sink your sailboats and launches.
I want to strangle your children at their finger paintings.
I want to poison your Afghans and poodles.
He is dead, the drunken little cherub.


He is dead,
The effulgent tub thumper.
He is Dead . . .

But—one knows what one 'speaks,' or else not. Put too blandly, such address is perhaps only equalled by the equal exhortations, to buy this bread, that butter, and to eat it all. More reasonably—the addition of "launches" to "sailboats" belies the echoing tiredness of the man writing, it may be, with the whole 'idea.'

More quietly (less 'common'):

What can you say in a poem?
Past forty, you've said it all.
The dwarf black oak grows out of
The cliff below my feet. It
May be two hundred years old,
Yet its trunk is no bigger
Than my wrist, its crown does not
Come to my shoulder . . .

I read the book making notes, so that I should not be overly embarrassed, coming to write of it. Which was my dilemma, but these poems are marked as follows: "Seven Poems for Marthe, My Wife" ("Positions of love—physical—loneliness. Images of possible loss—flat line. Praise.") "The Mirror in the Woods" ("Good—fairy story quality. Mirror."); "For Eli Jacobsen" ("Good—old-timers, liberals, workers—the good old days—won't come again. Courage—makes taste & feelings better. Ok."); "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity" ("Philosophical—'on poetry.' Up in the mts. Images of moments: description. Clear. Alone . All strips away to 'knowledge '"), etc., etc.

Perception, inside or out, is 'earth,' equally to be defended. In the "Japanese Translations" at the book's end, there is this one (by Ishikawa Takuboku):

I do not know why
But it is as though
There were a cliff
Inside my head
From which, every day,
Clods of earth fall.


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