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Poet of the Week: Kenneth Rexroth (In the Sierra)

Due to popular demand, and as a concession to common sense, we’ve decided to put poems here on our website — one poet per week.

Wow, it’s been a while since I posted one of these. Too long. Sorry about that.

As you likely know, April is National Poetry Month. Not coincendtally, we just published two new collections of poetry: Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito and a collection of mostly poetry by one of our most beloved backlist authors — Kenneth Rexroth. In his introduction to In the Sierra: Mountain Writings, editor Kim Stanley Robinson says, "Though no single book of Rexroth’s was devoted to the Sierra alone, he wrote about it often enough over the years that a book’s worth of pages accumulated. This is that book; it contains most of what Rexroth wrote about the Sierra Nevada."

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Rexroth himself one said, “I have always felt I was most myself in the mountains. There I have done the bulk of what is called my creative work. At least it is in the mountains that I write most of my poetry… There whatever past emotion and experience I choose to recollect and write down, take on most depth and meaning.”

Climbing Milestone Mountain, August 22, 1937

For a month now, wandering over the Sierras,
A poem had been gathering in my mind,
Details of significance and rhythm,
The way poems do, but still lacking a focus.
Last night I remembered the date and it all
Began to grow together and take on purpose.
            We sat up late while Deneb moved over the zenith
And I told Marie all about Boston, how it looked
That last terrible week, how hundreds stood weeping
Impotent in the streets that last midnight.
I told her how those hours changed the lives of thousands,
How America was forever a different place
Afterwards for many.
                                       In the morning
We swam in the cold transparent lake, the blue
Damsel flies on all the reeds like millions
Of narrow metallic flowers, and I thought
Of you behind the grille in Dedham, Vanzetti,
Saying, “Who would ever have thought we would make this history?”
Crossing the brilliant mile-square meadow
Illuminated with asters and cyclamen,
The pollen of the lodgepole pines drifting
With the shifting wind over it and the blue
And sulphur butterflies drifting with the wind,
I saw you in the sour prison light, saying,
“Goodbye comrade.”
                                       In the basin under the crest
Where the pines end and the Sierra primrose begins,
A party of lawyers was shooting at a whiskey bottle.
The bottle stayed on its rock, nobody could hit it.
Looking back over the peaks and canyons from the last lake,
The pattern of human beings seemed simpler
Than the diagonals of water and stone.
Climbing the chute, up the melting snow and broken rock,
I remembered what you said about Sacco,
How it slipped your mind and you demanded it be read into the record.
Traversing below the ragged arête,
One cheek pressed against the rock
The wind slapping the other,
I saw you both marching in an army
You with the red and black flag, Sacco with the rattlesnake banner.
I kicked steps up the last snow bank and came
To the indescribably blue and fragrant
Polemonium and the dead sky and the sterile
Crystalline granite and final monolith of the summit.
These are the things that will last a long time, Vanzetti,
I am glad that once on your day I have stood among them.
Some day mountains will be named after you and Sacco.
They will be here and your name with them,
“When these days are but a dim remembering of the time
When man was wolf to man.”
I think men will be remembering you a long time
Standing on the mountains
Many men, a long time, comrade.

The last section of the book contains various prose — newspaper columns, sections from a WPA guide that was never published, portions of his autobiography, among other pieces — and a few letters. Below is a pair of letters between Rexroth and James Laughlin, New Directions’ founder, editor, and all-around adventurer. As Robinson says, "The correspondence is mostly taken up with discussions of the business and politics of literature and publishing. The way Rexroth continually badgers and insults Laughlin shows that he is comfortable saying anything to his old mountain friend, and is suggestive of a rough campside humor. Laughlin is wonderfully skillful at deflecting these frequent attacks, but his later published comments about Rexroth are a little ambivalent and barbed, as if the frequent insults and his own easygoing replies had eventually taken their toll on him (see Laughlin’s Byways for an example where he is “getting even” with Rexroth). Rexroth lost many friends over the years who could not abide his temper, but possibly the mountain trips with Laughlin made them deeper friends; some of the letters in their exchange make it clear they were very close. In the end, Laughlin paid for the private nursing Rexroth needed after his last strokes."

Laughlin to Rexroth, June 15, 1937

Dear Rexroth,

In spite of your last letter saying that you are going up into the Sierras before my arrival I still hope that you will break a toenail or something and will be still in San Francisco when I get there. . . .

Rexroth to Laughlin, October 21, 1939

. . . . How far away the mountains seem. Even more so when one is in them these days. I have been doing a lot of climbing this fall — every piton I drive in is like a fond kiss at the station as
the troop train pulls out. Still, good climbing technique should be handy in and around Leavenworth. Unfortunately, I am not good enough with my flutterkick to ever get away from Alcatraz. Marie
and I have talked seriously of going to Bolivia, where we want to go anyway — but I am afraid I am too deep in this thing to take a powder. I would let down too many people. . . .

One last note: for those of you in the San Francisco area, there are two In the Sierra events scheduled in May. All of the details are here.