Rexroth’s The American Century?

I’m much fonder than I thought I’d be of Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry, despite, or perhaps because of, Mike’s urgings that I read him. I must have bought his Collected Poems in 1966, since the price at the University Bookstore was $5.25. I’m not sure why I didn’t read the poetry then, but I was in the Army and before long was in Vietnam, without any poetry books. Perhaps I was put off by the early poems, poems I’m still not particularly fond of. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for the Chinese-influenced later poems.

No matter the reason, I’m quite fond of his later poems now. I like far too many of them to include here, but this one:

THE AMERICAN CENTURY

Blackbirds whistle over the young
Willow leaves, pale celadon green,
In the cleft of the emerald hills.
My daughter is twenty-one months old.
Already she knows the names of
Many birds and flowers and all
The animals of the barnyard and zoo.
She paddles in the stream, chasing
Tiny bright green frogs. She wants
To catch them and kiss them. Now she
Runs to me with a tuft of rose
Gray owl’s clover. “What’s that? Oh! What’s that??
She hoots like an owl and caresses
The flower when I tell her its name.
Overhead in the deep sky
Of May Day jet bombers cut long
White slashes of smoke. The blackbird
Sings and the baby laughs, midway
In the century of horror.

is fairly representative of the poems I like best, concrete poems that quickly capture a particular moment, and, in turn, reveal Rexroth’s world view, a view that I largely identify with, though it’s certainly a socialist view has gone out of style.

This particular poem reminds me that though my personal, direct experience of the world has been largely joyous, the violence and greed that surrounds us has always haunted me.

How can one live fully without being shattered by the realization that most people in the world do not share that joy? How can one look at that other world without worrying about our own complicity in exploiting others?

Some of Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poems, particularly this one by Tsung Ping, also rank high on my list of favorites:

When I am old and infirm
I fear I shall no longer
Be able to roam among
The beautiful mountains.
Clarifying my mind,
I shall meditate on mountain
Trails which wander in vision.

I can’t quite imagine not being able to hike the mountains, but I’ve already had to curtail my backpacks because I don’t have the endurance I once had. When you love something as much as I do the mountains, you have to wonder how you will be able to do without them when you get older.

What do you think?