Thursday, September 16, 2010

California Elegiac –– Part One

Speaking of forgotten California poets, I’ve always admired many of the poems of Kenneth Rexroth, to the consternation of several of my more learned friends. Although I have reluctantly to agree with Anselm Hollo, who told me once years ago in Iowa City that he found much of Kenneth’s verse “woolly,” I’m struck nevertheless by the sheer integrity of so many of his poems, and by none more so than those he wrote upon the death of Andree, his young wife, in 1940.

Rexroth lamented her loss in four poems for over eighteen years, always with an intensity of emotion that seems white-hot, too hot to handle, too personal for any outsider to approach, making ordinary sentimentality seem like exactly that: ordinary sentimentality. And in each of the Andree poems there is always just the one action––a man walks his way alone outdoors in the hills of California or Oregon.

Perhaps you do have to be a committed outdoorsman or a hiker to really understand this poem. People who love to hike on Tamalpais or in the East Bay Park System will know what I mean. Even then, how many of us similarly inspired could describe a buckeye tree in Spring, recognize the call of a thrush or a bittern, or identify the tracks of a raccoon beside a stream? As for “The days we thought would not come for us are here,” readers of a certain generation in San Francisco will I'm sure think almost automatically of the AIDS epidemic.

I can’t begin to imagine how young readers under thirty would see this poem, in the unlikely event that one of them might stumble across it somewhere. All this subjectivity! And the language is so unimaginative, so, so... unmanipulated! And just think, there’s not one single metaphor here, not one symbol, not one poetic device or image, not one pop-cultural allusion, nothing implied nor explained nor anything that points to somewhere else. It’s all just what-you-see-is-what-you-get... yet for me at least that's exactly the source of its aesthetic appeal.


Disclaimer. This poems adheres to standards suggested by the California School of Perceptual Palpability.


  1. Many more of Rexroth's poems (and other writings) are online at


  2. Many more of Rexroth's poems (and other writings) are online at


  3. I don't think the language is un-manipulated. Consider the grace and energy of the first two lines. Consider too how Rexroth delays -- and when and why -- he repeats, the poem's first word.

    I will add regarding the first two lines, that ever since I first read this poem -- and it has been decades -- I marvel EVERY early spring / late winter at how exactly perfect Rexroth got the description of the first showing of the Buckeye trees' green leaves, without ever using those two words!

    That's masterful manipulation of language!

  4. You're absolutely right, by manipulation I was thinking of something along the lines of bending or twisting the meaning of words out of shape, a semantic shift with no real purpose. I see I need to refine my vocabulary.

  5. I find it very hard to articulate, or even figure out in my mind, why many poems of this kind -- and many poets use this approach, whatever one calls it -- only work one time, the first time, they are read, but Rexroth's best ones -- and this poem here is a prime example -- never get old. Always seems fresh. Can be re-read time and again.

    What is it that causes that here?

    Depth of feeling? Skill in language and structure? Acuity of perception? Carefulness of the presentation of details? All the above, probably, and probably more that I can't put down here. But there are thousands of similar poems, yet relatively few like this.