EarthSaint: Kenneth Rexroth

Introduced by David Landis Barnhill 
Issue #25, Spring 1997, p 16-17

"See Life steadily, see it whole," Kenneth Rexroth was fond of stating.  In pursuing this ideal, he lived a life of radical religion, politics, and art in which nature was a central and centering force.  Born in 1905 in the midwest, as a teenager he dropped out of school and hopped a freight train to the West Coast in order to cultivate the art of being a "perceiving organism and moral agent."  Settling in San Francisco, he camped often in the Sierras, developing a mystical vision of nature and love that is reflected in his poetry, his many essays, and a play in verse.
Part of the depth of Rexroth's vision arises from his insistence on turning the contemplative gaze on the depravations of society as well as the beauty of nature.  Darkness enriches his vision of light, and illumination is found in a night-bound world. In Time Is the Mercy of Eternity, he stands at the edge of a Sierra cliff looking at the San Joaquin Valley below:
Far away the writhing city
Burns in a fire of transcendence
And commodities. The bowels
Of men are wrung between the poles
Of meaningless antithesis.
The holiness of the real
Is always there, accessible
In total immanence.
Rexroth had two principal religious influences: Catholicism and Buddhism.  He despised Catholicism's history of authoritarianism, dogma, and complicity with the state, but he was drawn ineluctably to its sacraments and contemplative tradition.  All of life is sacramental, and he once defined a poet as "one who creates / Sacramental relationships / That last always."  The Christian mystical tradition shaped his vision of divine light, which he cultivated especially in nature and in sexual love.  His reflection on Boehme in the title poem to his collection The Signature of All Things evokes a contemplative gaze that can purify an individual's life and the abiding evil of the world.
As Rexroth grew older, Buddhism became an increasingly prominent part of his life.  In the "Spring" section of his poem Aix en Provence, he renders with great subtlety the Buddhist vision of nature as a shifting set of interrelationships that transcends our intellect and imagination.  The poem is the finest evocation I know of Buddhist "suchness."  Things are not seen as concepts, images, or even singular perceptions; they are experienced directly as relationships in flux.  An almond tree is not a "tree," bud a node of relationships with the night, the house, the woods -- with everything -- within the constant movement of the day and season.
While he was a practicing Catholic with a Buddhist vision, he also was influenced by Quakerism.  In his long poem The Dragon and the Unicorn, he once quotes George Fox at length and then adds the most remarkable description of the founder of Quakerism I have encountered:
George Fox was a bloody man, 
A ranter who went naked.
Out of his violent heart 
Peace poured through his skin like dream
Like a moonlight around him.
In The Heart's Garden he asks pointedly, "If thee does not turn to the / Inner Light, where will thee turn?"  He articulated a pacifism grounded in this-worldly mysticism, an ideal of maximizing the responsibility of all, and an anarchism based on agape -- a vision that helped lead me to Quakerism.  As one of our great nature poets, Rexroth is a significant but neglected resource for the ongoing development of a Quaker ecological spirituality.

David Landis Barnhill teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

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