American poet, writer, anarchist, academic and conscientious objector
- I write for one and only one purpose, to overcome the invincible ignorance of the traduced heart. My poems are acts of force and violence directed against the evil which murders us all. If you like, they are designed not just to overthrow the present State, economic system, and Church, but all prevailing systems of human collectivity altogether... I wish to speak to and for all those who have had enough of the Social Lie, the Economics of Mass Murder, the Sexual Hoax, and the Domestication of Conspicuous Consumption.
- Preface to the second edition (1953) of The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949)
- Simone Weil was one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth, or indeed of any other century. I have great sympathy for her, but sympathy is not necessarily congeniality. It would be easier to write of her if I liked what she had to say, which I strongly do not. …I think Simone Weil had both over- and under-equipped herself for the crisis which overwhelmed her — along, we forget, immersed in her tragedy, with all the rest of us. She was almost the perfectly typical passionate, revolutionary, intellectual woman — a frailer, even more highly strung Rosa Luxemburg. … She made up her own revolution out of her vitals, like a spider or silkworm. She could introject all the ill of the world into her own heart, but she could not project herself in sympathy to others. Her letters read like the more distraught signals of John of the Cross in the dark night.
- When the newspapers have got nothing else to talk about, they cut loose on the young. The young are always news. If they are up to something, that's news. If they aren't, that's news too.
- "The Students Take Over," The Nation (1960); later printed as "Beginnings of a New Revolt", Assays (1961)
- Don Quixote, The Tale of Genji, The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Satyricon, these are the world's major works of prose fiction.
- "Moll Flanders", in With Eye and Ear (1970), p. 13
- St. Francis is not only the most attractive of all the Christian saints, he is the most attractive of Christians, admired by Buddhists, atheists, completely secular, modern people, Communists, to whom the figure of Christ himself is at best unattractive. Partly this is due to the sentimentalization of the legend of his life and that of his companions in the early days of the order. Many people today who put his statue in their gardens know nothing about him except that he preached a sermon to the birds, wrote a hymn to the sun, and called the donkey his brother. These bits of information are important because they are signs of a revolution of the sensibility — which incidentally was a metaphysical revolution of which certainly St. Francis himself was quite unaware. They stand for a mystical and emotional immediate realization of the unity of being, a notion foreign, in fact antagonistic, to the main Judeo-Christian tradition.
“I am that I am” — the God of Judaism is the only self-sufficient being. All the reality that we can know is contingent, created out of nothing, and hence of an inferior order of reality. Faced with the “utterly other,” the contingent soul can finally only respond with fear and trembling.
- "Eckhart, Brethren of the Free Spirit" from Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (1974), ch. 4
- The influence of Meister Eckhart is stronger today than it has been in hundreds of years. Eckhart met the problems of contingency and omnipotence, creator-and-creature-from-nothing by making God the only reality and the presence or imprint of God upon nothing, the source of reality in the creature. Reality in other words was a hierarchically structured participation of the creature in the creator. From the point of view of the creature this process could be reversed. If creatureliness is real, God becomes the Divine Nothing. God is not, as in scholasticism, the final subject of all predicates. He is being as unpredicable. The existence of the creature, in so far as it exists, is the existence of God, and the creature’s experience of God is therefore in the final analysis equally unpredicable. Neither can even be described; both can only be indicated. We can only point at reality, our own or God’s. The soul comes to the realization of God by knowledge, not as in the older Christian mysticism by love. Love is the garment of knowledge. The soul first trains itself by systematic unknowing until at last it confronts the only reality, the only knowledge, God manifest in itself. The soul can say nothing about this experience in the sense of defining it. It can only reveal it to others.
- "Eckhart, Brethren of the Free Spirit," from Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (1974), ch. 4
In Defense of the Earth (1956)Edit
- The holiness of the real
Is always there, accessible
In total immanence. The nodes
Of transcendence coagulate
In you, the experiencer,
And in the other, the lover.
- "Time Is the Mercy of Eternity" - The title of this poem is derived from a line by William Blake : "Time is the mercy of Eternity; without Time's swiftness Which is the swiftest of all things, all were eternal torment.")
She Is AwayEdit
- All night I lay awake beside you,
Leaning on my elbow, watching your
Sleeping face, that face whose purity
Never ceases to astonish me.
- Towards the end of the night, as trucks rumbled
In the streets, you stirred, cuddled to me,
And spoke my name. Your voice was the voice
Of a girl who had never known loss
Of love, betrayal, mistrust, or lie.
- Now I know surely and forever,
However much I have blotted our
Waking love, its memory is still
there. And I know the web, the net,
The blind and crippled bird. For then, for
One brief instant it was not blind, nor
Trapped, not crippled. For one heart beat the
Heart was free and moved itself. O love,
I who am lost and damned with words,
Whose words are a business and an art,
I have no words. These words, this poem, this
Is all confusion and ignorance.
But I know that coached by your sweet heart,
My heart beat one free beat and sent
Through all my flesh the blood of truth.
The Great Nebula of AndromedaEdit
- In the star-filled dark we cook
Our macaroni and eat
By lantern light. Stars cluster
Around our table like fireflies.
- Late at night the horses stumble
Around the camp and I awake.
I lie on my elbow watching
Your beautiful sleeping face
Like a jewel in the moonlight.
If you are lucky and the
Nations let you, you will live
Far into the twenty-first
Century. I pick up the glass
And watch the Great Nebula
Of Andromeda swim like
A phosphorescent amoeba
Slowly around the Pole. Far
Away in distant cities
Fat-hearted men are planning
To murder you while you sleep.
Rothenberg and Antin interview (1958)Edit
- Interview with Kenneth Rexroth (April 1958), by Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin, published in Rothenberg's A Book of Witness (2003)
- What I try with my own stuff is to work the poem to a slow climax through a series of quiet painful dissonances.
- With my own group I like to keep it loose. They have to counter rather than go with me. When they stop I like to be moving.
- Referring to the jazz musicians who performed along with his readings
- I have no interest in Kerouac whatsoever. I've done my stint for him. As far as I'm concerned, Kerouac is what Madison Avenue wants a rebel to be. That isn't my kind of rebel.
- The basic line in any good verse is cadenced... building it around the natural breath structures of speech.
- You can’t become a saint by taking dope, stealing your friends’ typewriters, giving girls chancres, not supporting your wife and children, and then reading St. John of the Cross. All of that, when it’s happened before, has typified the collapse of civilization … and today the social fabric is falling apart so fast, it makes your head swim.
Classics Revisited (1968)Edit
- Page numbers as in New Directions editon, ISBN 0-8112-0988-1
- There have always been those who, though they see tragedy as the outcome of freedom, will nevertheless judge that tragedy is not too high a price to pay.
- Herodotus: History (p. 45)
- No one was required to believe in the gods as Christians believe in their creeds. Socrates had always been scrupulous in observance of every accepted principle and practice of community life. However, from his questioning he had developed a civic and personal morality founded on reason rather than custom. He envisioned it as subject to continuous criticism and revaluation in terms of the ever-expanding freedom of morally autonomous but cooperating persons, who together made up a community whose characteristic aim was an organically growing depth, breadth, intensity of experience — experience finally of that ultimate reality characterized by Socrates as good, true and beautiful.
The accusers were right. This is a new religion which bears scant resemblance to the old. Civic piety is founded on the recognition of ignorance and the nurture of the soil until it becomes capable of true knowledge — which is a state of being, a moral condition called freedom. The Greek city-state, not to speak of the tribal community, knew nothing of freedom in this sense, but only the liberty that distinguished the free man from the slave.
- Plato: The Trial and Death of Socrates (pp. 50-51)
- The modern sensibility attempts to drain the contents of experience; these Greek poets strive to state the fact so poignantly that it becomes an ever-flowing spring — as Sappho says, "More real than real, more gold than gold."
- The Greek Anthology (p. 59)
- The moral issues with which Marcus struggles would be, as he points out, unchanged whether the universe were mechanical and devoid of meaning or value or ruled by deity or Providence; whether the will were in fact free or determined; whether there were or were not a future life, or any even fugitive rewards and punishments at all.
- Marcus Aurelius: The Meditations (p. 82)
- Poetry has ceased to be a public art and has become, as Whitehead said of religion, "What man does with his aloneness."
- Tu Fu: Poems (p. 91)
- Harvey, Galileo, Copernicus do not seem occult to us, but they did so to their contemporaries, hierophants of the mysteries of Natural Law, revealers of the secrets of a New Order of the Ages. After all, the movement eventually came to be called the Age of Enlightenment.
- Shakespeare: The Tempest (p. 132)
- Men who live like Casanova are seldom interested in themselves; their egocentricity does not give them time for egotism.
- Casanova: History of My Life (p. 153)
- The poet, says Baudelaire, is a decipherer, a Kabbalist of reality, a decoder. Ordinary life, if it is not a message in code, a system of symbols for something else, is unacceptable. It must be a cryptogram; it can't be what it seems. The poet's task is to decode the incomprehensible obvious. His life becomes a deliberately constructed paranoia, as Rimbaud, Breton, Artaud were to say generations later.
As we read him, we discover that Baudelaire believes in the charm, the incantation, the cryptogram, but he ceases to believe in the secret. The spirits have not risen. The code says nothing. This is the mystery concealed by the disorder of the world. The visionary experience ends in itself; the light of the illuminated comes only from and falls only on himself.
- Baudelaire: Poems (p. 175)
- As we turn over the pages of nineteenth century literature, we are constantly confronted with the question of alienation. Baudelaire, Marx, Kierkegaard, Chateaubriand, Cardinal Newman — it does not matter whether the voice comes from the Left or the Right; all are agreed in their rejection of the values of the prevailing ethic. Yet we never get a clear definition of alienation: what is man alienated from, and why? Perhaps it is precisely the democratic society, the growing affluence and education, that have revealed the natural state of man — much as the development of medicine has enabled greater accuracy of diagnosis, with the resultant tremendous increase in the record of certain diseases. Perhaps the discovery of human self-alienation was simply a statistical refinement made possible by the spread of the privileges of culture to the middle classes.
- Gustave Flaubert: A Sentimental Education (p. 187)
- Any talented decadent can make unreality believable. To make reality convincing is another matter, a matter for only the greatest masters.
- Tolstoy: War and Peace (p. 192)
- Huckleberry Finn sets the tone and pattern for hundreds of American novels after it. No other civilization in history has been so totally rejected by its literary artists. Mark Twain is far more at odds with the values of his society than Stendhal, Baudelaire or Flaubert, and yet he is far more a part of it. In many ways he was the typical educated — self-educated, usually — American male of his day. He was also enormously successful, one of the most popular American writers who has ever lived. Significantly, his hack work was less popular than Huckleberry, and even his blackest, bitterest books sold very well — and still do. Perhaps the typical American male is secretly far less the optimist than he would have the world believe; but the lies he rejects and myths he believes are still those whose contradictions tortured Mark Twain.
- Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn (p. 206)
- Prior to 1918 the word “communism” did not mean Left Social Democracy of the sort represented by the Russian Bolsheviks, a radical, revolutionary form of State socialism. Quite the contrary, it was used of those who wished in one way or another to abolish the State, who believed that socialism was not a matter of seizing power, but of doing away with power and returning society to an organic community of non-coercive human relations. They believed that this was what society was naturally, and that the State was only a morbid growth on the normal body of oeconomia, the housekeeping of the human family, grouped in voluntary association. Even the word “socialism” itself was originally applied to the free communist communities which were so common in America in the nineteenth century.
- People who believe in libertarian communism can be grouped roughly under three general theories, each with its old masters, theoreticians, leaders, organizations, and literature. First there are the anarchists in a rather limited variety: communist-anarchists, mutualists, anarcho-syndicalists, individual anarchists, and a few minor groups and combinations. Second, the members of intentional communities, usually but by no means always religious in inspiration. The words “communalism” and “communalist” seem to have died out and it would be good to appropriate them to this group, although the by now too confusing word “communist” actually fits them best of all. Third, there are the Left Marxists, who prior to 1918 had become a widespread movement challenging the Social Democratic Second International. It was to them the Bolsheviks appealed for support in the early days of their revolution. Lenin’s The State and Revolution is an authoritarian parody of their ideas. They in turn have called it “the greatest pre-election pamphlet ever written: ‘Elect us and we will wither away’.” Against them Lenin wrote Leftism: An Infantile Disorder. There is a story that, when the Communist International was formed, a delegate objected to the name. Referring to all these groups he said: “But there are already communists.” Lenin answered: “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them nobody ever will.” Today these ideas are more influential than they ever have been.
- Introduction : The Libertarian Tradition
- As concentration and depersonalization increase in the dominant society, as the concentration of capital increases with the takeover of ever larger businesses by conglomerates and international corporations, as more and more local initiative is abandoned to the rule of the central State, and as computerization and automation narrow the role of human initiative in both labor and administration, life becomes ever more unreal, aimless, and empty of meaning for all but a tiny elite who still cling to the illusion they possess initiative. Action and reaction — thesis and antithesis — this state of affairs produces its opposite. All over the world we are witnessing an instinctive revolt against dehumanization.
- Introduction : The Libertarian Tradition
- The contemporary world is being pulled apart by two contrary tendencies — one toward social death, one toward the birth of a new society. Many of the phenomena of the present crisis are ambivalent and can either mean death or birth depending on how the crisis is resolved.
The crisis of a civilization is a mass phenomenon and moves onward without benefit of ideology. The demand for freedom, community, life significance, the attack on alienation, is largely inchoate and instinctive. In the libertarian revolutionary movement these objectives were ideological, confined to books, or realized with difficulty, usually only temporarily in small experimental communities, or in individual lives and tiny social circles. It has been said of the contemporary revolutionary wave that it is a revolution without theory, anti-ideological. But the theory, the ideology, already exists in a tradition as old as capitalism itself. Furthermore, just as individuals specially gifted have been able to live free lives in the interstices of an exploitative, competitive system, so in periods when the developing capitalist system has temporarily and locally broken down due to the drag of outworn forms there have existed brief revolutionary honeymoons in which freer communal organization has prevailed. Whenever the power structure falters or fails the general tendency is to replace it with free communism. This is almost a law of revolution. In every instance so far, either the old power structure, as in the Paris Commune or the Spanish Civil War, or a new one, as in the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, has suppressed these free revolutionary societies with wholesale terror and bloodshed.
- Introduction : The Libertarian Tradition
More Classics Revisited (1989)Edit
- [New Directions, ISBN 0-8112-1083-9]
- It takes great labor to uncover the convincing simple speech of the heart. Poetic candor comes with hard labor, so even does impetuosity and impudence.
- Catullus (p. 28)
- It is a commonplace that Racine is untranslatable. This is not because his verse is difficult, but because it is not.
- Racine: Phèdre (p. 54)
- Perhaps this is what really happens in life to most good men. They are not crucified. They simply pass through life and then die, and their passing influences just a few people to make them just a little happy.
- Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (p. 102)
- The characteristic paranoias of youth — the attribution of intention and duplicity to almost all human behavior. The young suffer terribly from the belief that the people they encounter are most of them up to something and that something has some relation to themselves. Actually, of course, most people just bobble along like apples in a stream. Usually it takes many years of experience to realize this.
- Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (p. 102)
- Victorian society was homogeneous without being homogenized. It was, to paraphrase the epigram about Parliament, a society of extreme eccentrics who agreed so well that they could afford to differ.
- Arthur Conan Doyle: "Sherlock Holmes" (p. 120)
An Autobiographical Novel (1991)Edit
- Originally published in 1966, with an additional chapter included in 1978 and further recollections published as Excerpts from a Life in 1981. A posthumous edition, incorporating all of this material, was then printed by New Directions in 1991
- Any writer, reading over the typescript of a book for the last time before sending it off to the publisher, must wonder what all the effort was for. An autobiography is specially in need of justification to its author. It is a work of self-justification which itself needs justifying. Why have I written this book? Why have I written it the way I have? What does it mean to me? What do I hope it will mean to others?
Each human being has at the final core of self a crystal from which the whole manifold of the personality develops, a secret molecular lattice which governs the unfolding of all the structures of the individuality, in time, in space, in memory, in action and contemplation. Asleep there were just these dreams and no others. Awake there were these actions only. Only these deeds came into being.
- Each of us is a specific individual, that one and no other, out of billions. I think each of us knows his own mystery with a knowing that precedes the origins of all knowledge. None of us ever gives it away. No one can. We envelop it with talk and hide it with deeds.
Yet we always hope that somehow the others will know it is there, that a mystery in the other we cannot know will respond to a mystery in the self we cannot understand. The only full satisfaction life offers us is this sense of communion. We seek it constantly. Sometimes we find it. As we grow older we learn that it is never complete and sometimes it is entirely illusory.
- Today we hear a great deal about Organizational Men, Mass Culture, Conformity, the Lonely Crowd, the Power Elite and its Conspiracy of Mediocrity. We forget that the very volume of this criticism is an indication that our society is still radically pluralistic. Not only are there plenty of exceptionalists who take exception to the stereotyping of the mass culture — but that very string of epithets comes from a series of books that have been recent best-sellers, symptoms of a popular, living tradition of dissent from things as they are.
- The classics of Socialist and Anarchist literature seem at mid-century to speak a foolish and naïve language to minds hardened by two generations of realpolitik.
It was not just the sophisticates and the reformers who had no belief in the validity or endurance of the system. Everybody in what they used to call the master class, from the Pope to William Howard Taft, believed in his bones that the days of his kind were strictly numbered and found wanting. What happened instead of apocalypse and judgment was a long-drawn-out apocalypse of counterrevolution against the promise and potential of a humane civilization. It began with the world economic crisis of 1912, and the First and Second World Wars and the Bolshevik Revolution have been episodes, always increasing in violence and plain immorality, in the struggle of our civilization to suppress its own potential.
- The free, creative, loving people who shine so brightly in my memory of studios and coffee shops have become models for a huge section of the population. If they in turn can just stay alive in the face of power and terror, they may become the decisive section.
- In America we have nothing that takes the place of the gods and goddesses and heroes and demigods of the ancient world. There is nothing to connect us with the soil. We have no mythology. It has never been possible to construct one.
- "Home Schooling and Indian Lore"
- I remember the first time I ever saw otter play and slide down a slippery bank into the water. Old Billy knew where they were and took me to them. We sat down silently behind some bushes on the bank of an Indiana stream and pretty soon out came a family of otter and climbed up on the bank and slid down the mud slide over and over again like little children. Nothing looks funnier than an otter having a good time, unless it’s a sea otter, which looks even more cherubic.
- "Home Schooling and Indian Lore"
- You learn nothing if you carry with you a journalistic system of values, which is invented to save reporters from experience.
- All my life I have been attracted by Catholicism. But what attracted me was not its Christianity, but its paganism. The Scholastic Philosophers entertained me not because they were apologists for Jesus but because they were refinements of Aristotle. The liturgical life of the Church moved me because it echoes the most ancient responses to the turning of the year and the changing seasons, and the rhythms of animal and human life. For me the Sacraments transfigured the rites of passage, the physical facts of the human condition — birth, adolescence, sexual intercourse, vocation, sickness and death, communion, penance. Catholicism still provides a structure of acts, individual and at the same time communal, physical responses to life.
- The dumping of the mentally ill, full of these new psychiatric drugs, into the streets is a scandal. It’s been carried furthest in New York, where whole sections of the decayed Upper West Side are being filled with pensioners and psychotic patients on stelazine, lithium carbonate, and everything else under the sun. They can’t diagnose the patient, so they give him the whole psychiatric pharmacopoeia at once, and he walks around in a psychotic trance beautifully painted all over with petrochemicals.
- Ex-cons always say, "You never know what makes the wheels go round until you’ve done time in the joint." This is even more true of psychiatric hospitals. It is a perfect mass hypostatization of society, the organization of the Social Lie.
- "Pysch Ward"
- Marriage is the last sacrament available to modern man, and with the terrible destruction of interpersonal relations by capitalism and its war-making State, it is not very available, nor is it surely enduring. But then, vision does not come with guarantees.
- I was giving a reading at some university. Down in the front row of the auditorium was a young lady in a leather microskirt and a leather microbolero, tied with a leather bootlace, and nothing else whatever. I said, "I have an extremely wide repertory. What would you like — sex, revolution, or mysticism?" She looked up and said quietly, "What’s the difference?"
- "The Libertarian Circle"
- EarthSaint: Kenneth Rexroth
- Introduction to Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth
- Kenneth Rexroth Archive, an impressive collection of works by and about Rexroth
- Kenneth Rexroth, from the Anarchist Encyclopedia
- Communalism, Seabury 1972, e-text
- Blue Neon Alley - Kenneth Rexroth directory