A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I know I should have heard of Kenneth Rexroth, but I hadn’t. When I first heard a few lines of his read out, a translation of a Latin verse, I didn’t even know whose translation it was. So I did some digging, and found this important literary figure who was wholly unknown to me, but whose work I now greatly admire. The main claim to wider fame of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) seems to be that he was the master of ceremonies at the famous first reading by Allen Ginsberg of Howl at The Six Gallery in San Francisco on 7 October 1955. But he was by then already an established poet, critic and artist, and an encourager of poets who supported the group of writers who came to be known as the Beats, and was influential in the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’. Rexroth is known to have been a formative influence on Ginsberg and an early reader of Howl in draft. In fact, he may have paved the way for Howl in his own furiously angry poetic harangue on the death of Dylan Thomas Thou Shalt Not Kill (if you are feeling strong, read it here.) However, he drew apart from the Beat generation, remaining broadly supportive, but preferring to go his own way.
As well as writing his own poetry, along with criticism and essays, he loved the challenge of translation. He was fascinated by the Greek and Roman poets and also by those of China and Japan. West Coast to his core, Rexroth looked even further westward across the Pacific for his inspiration. Translation fascinates me too, as a reader – especially when, as with Rexroth, a writer takes on the challenge of applying a secure poetic technique to an original that is prosodically intricate. The verses he tackles in his Poems From The Greek Anthology are in many cases a particular sort of elegiac epigram, with a prosodic structure that is as precise as a haiku. Some of the syntactical tricks of the original Greek are impossible to render in English, so the translator must choose a poetic method that fits the sense and is as lapidary in its own way as the original. I am in no way skilled enough to work out for myself the technical challenges the poet has overcome to produce the charming, moving, witty fragments here, so I am indebted to David Mulroy’s elegant and informative introduction to this collection – as well worth reading as the poems themselves.
The Greek Anthology in question dates from the Byzantine age, collected in the 10th century AD by one Cephalas, and is an anthology of earlier anthologies. Out of its fifteen volumes Rexroth selects a handful of verses that appeal to him. He intended to create a companion anthology of translations from Latin writers, but he abandoned the scheme, and added to the expanded edition of this work some gloriously hedonistic and bitingly sarcastic verses from, respectively, Petronius and Martial.
The themes of the verses are those at the very heart of human life: subsistence, food, physical love, friendship, enmity, seasons, possessions, joy and loss. Together they seek to give a glimpse of the mindset of people centuries old, distilling what we would recognise and respond to in those who do not share our cultural baggage but whose lives had the essentials in common with ours. They are joyous and refreshing – like sips of wine.
They can be as simple as ever can be:
Here is Klito’s little shack.
Here is his little corn patch.
Here Klito spent eighty years.
They can be sensual (and funny with it); this one reminds me, as do others, of the Metaphysical Poets, who doubtless drew on this tradition. Instead of the ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’, these lovers are disturbed by a dawn cockerel:
What have you got to crow about,
Beating yourself with your red wings?
[…] Go back to bed,
Or we will mourn this maidenhead
With a chicken dinner.
Women’s voices are there, with the inclusion, as well as Sappho, of two other women poets otherwise completely overlooked, Anyte, and Nossis: (“Nothing is sweeter than love. | Every bliss takes second place. | Even honey I spit out of | My mouth.” I, Nossis, say this.) Strong women’s voices are heard in the poems by men too – often taking charge, taking the initiative, making choices. One unfaithful wife sneaks away to her lover at night and takes him to task: And now, are we going to | Sit around, and not get down | To business […] And love like lovers ought to do? But my favourite female voice is that of the wonderful Bitto, who hands back her loom comb to Athena, in the lines of Antipatros of Sidon:
“Hail, goddess, take it back.
A widow of forty, I
Abandon your gifts, and turn
Instead to the business of
Love. Desire is stronger than age”.
There are verses of mourning too, including a version of the one poem that I had the slightest knowledge of before – Heraclitus, by William Cory from the original of Kallimachos, as set to music for SATB chorus by Stanford and a warhorse of the choral tradition. Rexroth’s version, as Cory’s, looks beyond death and loss to what will survive of the genius of Heraclitus, in memory and the written word:
Where are you now? Long, long ago
Ashes. But your “Nightingales” still
Live. Death snatches everything, but
He shall not lay his hand on them.
I could carry on quoting and quoting from these elegant verses, but there are few enough of them, and I must stop here. That these were a labour of love for Rexroth he makes perfectly clear in his Foreword: They [the Anthology and the lyric poets of Greece], and the Chinese, have shaped me for better or worse as a poet, and they have given me whatever philosophy of life I have – along with life itself. I cannot account for the obscurity of Rexroth, compared to the other Beat generation writers – why his name does not come up routinely with those of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs and Cassady, I can only imagine, is because he ploughed so very much his own furrow. But he is still revered as a poet, thinker and cultural commentator, and his works are preserved and made available by his admirers. One admirable website, The Bureau Of Public Secrets, keeps an unofficial archive of some of his writings and works about him, and is a great starting place for finding out more about this counter-cultural renaissance man. There is so much more to him than the translator of these verses.
One of the pleasures of reading poetry for me lies in the beauty of poetry editions, and this is no exception. Re-published by the University of Michigan in its Ann Arbour Paperback series, it is a joy to read, one tiny verse per cream-coloured page. The introduction by David Mulroy is a splendid short essay not just on the translations, but also the tradition of the originals. But if you just want to dip in and get a flavour of this collection, the BOPS has a selection to read online.
So, how did I find my way to these poems? A review for another day – I found this via an online anthology The Love Book (also published in book form). More layers of pleasure to add to poetry (and in a good cause – Save The Children) – this is a collection of love poems, some of which in the online app version are beautifully read by actors. One verse attributed to Petronius, in a reading by Tom Hiddleston, is just the purest hedonism – erotic, tender, satiated physical love in seven lines. Petronius, okay – but who turned the Latin lines into such incendiary English free verse? Once I had re-gathered my wits I was very curious, and it took me some googling to discover that the translator of this verse was the mysterious Kenneth Rexroth. So, I have to thank Mr Hiddleston not only for caressing my ears with his reading, but also for leading me to discover this fascinating poet and man of letters.
Kenneth Rexroth, Poems from The Greek Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. 152pp
ISBN 13: 9780472086085
First published 1962.