Rexroth’s “The Advantages of Learning?

As much as I appreciate Rexroth’s erotic poetry, I might enjoy the ironic poems even more, particularly when the two meet as in the following examples taken from volumes from 1944 and 1949. Hopefully, they suggest a natural progression in his life as he aged.

I nearly chose the first one as my favorite poem in the early section but appreciated it even more once I read the later poem:


I am a man with no ambitions
And few friends, wholly incapable
Of making a living, growing no
Younger, fugitive from some just doom.
Lonely, ill-clothed, what does it matter?
At midnight I make myself a jug
Of hot white wine and cardamon seeds.
In a torn grey robe and old beret,
I sit in the cold writing poems,
Drawing nudes on the crooked margins,
Copulating with sixteen year old
Nymphomaniacs of my imagination.

After reading this, one might wonder if there really are any advantages to learning. Personally, I’d rather be in bed with someone I love than writing poetry in the cold and drawing nudes in the margin. Still, it’s nice to know that when all fails we can always use our imagination, or web porn sites, to sustain us when we’re alone and worried about our fate.

It’s comforting, though, to know that Rexroth eventually found something more comforting than sixteen year old nymphomaniacs:


One day in the Library,
Puzzled and distracted,
Leafing through a dull book,
I came on a picture
Of the vase containing
Buddha’s relics. A chill
Passed over me. I was
Haunted by the touch of
A calm I cannot know,
The opening into that
Busy place of a better world.

Now I know I was justified in responding to students’ complaints about how dull books were, with “I don’t think it’s the book that’s dull.? If a dull book can produce enlightenment like this, imagine what effect a good book might have.

I also found it interesting that Rexroth managed to touch on two of the main mantras of the Beats in these two poems. No wonder Gary Snyder offered a tribute to Rexroth in his poetry.