Kenneth Rexroth was a man of many parts—highly regarded second-generation modernist poet, renowned translator, critic, inspiration and central figure of the 1940’s and 1950’s avant-garde San Francisco Renaissance, and considered by many the father of that new movement in poetry that emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s called the Beats, which included Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many others. He promoted their poetry as well as that of Philip Whalen, Denis Levertov, William Everson, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and many others on the radio station KPFA. He organized a weekly salon and invited friends and other poets to come and share their philosophical and poetic theories. He organized and emceed the legendary Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955, at which Ginsberg introduced his great poem, “Howl.”
He wrote a“Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review and through it and his anthologies, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, brought attention to world literature. In 1964 he was given an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He went on to publish collections of his shorter poems and longer poems in 1967 and 1968, respectively. In 1975 he received the Copernicus Award from the Academy of American Poets in recognition of a poet’s lifetime work and contribution to poetry as a cultural force.
Rexroth believed that the east-coast “literary establishment” and a cultural bourgeois taste in art was corrupting American poetry, and fought against it. He was an iconoclast all his days.
Rexroth had a high view of love, viewing it as sacramental and transcendent. Much of Rexroth’s work can be classified as “erotic” or “love poetry,” and Sam Hamill, one of his best critics and the editor of the excellent The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (Copper Canyon Press, 2003), has said that “nowhere is Rexroth’s verse more fully realized than in his erotic poetry.” In his introduction to The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Rexroth said: “The process as I see it goes something like this: from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility.” The poem under discussion, “Floating,” is from The Phoenix and the Tortoise.
Our discussion is here: Talk About Poetry, Kenneth Rexroth’s “Floating.”
The poem is here:
Our canoe idles in the idling current
Of the tree and vine and rush enclosed
Backwater of a torpid midwestern stream;
Revolves slowly, and lodges in the glutted
Waterlilies. We are tired of paddling.
All afternoon we have climbed the weak current,
Up dim meanders, through woods and pastures,
Past muddy fords where the strong smell of cattle
Lay thick across the water; singing the songs
Of perfect, habitual motion; ski songs,
Nightherding songs, songs of the capstan walk,
The levee, and the roll of the voyageurs.
Tired of motion, of the rhythms of motion,
Tired of the sweet play of our interwoven strength,
We lie in each other’s arms and let the palps
Of waterlily leaf and petal hold back
All motion in the heat thickened, drowsing air.
Sing to me softly, Westron Wynde, Ah the Syghes,
Mon coeur se recommend à vous, Phoebi Claro;
Sing the wandering erotic melodies
Of men and women gone seven hundred years,
Softly, your mouth close to my cheek.
Let our thighs lie entangled on the cushions,
Let your breasts in their thin cover
Hang pendant against my naked arms and throat;
Let your odorous hair fall across our eyes;
Kiss me with those subtle, melodic lips.
As I undress you, your pupils are black, wet,
Immense, and your skin ivory and humid.
Move softly, move hardly at all, part your thighs,
Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
As the river slides beyond this lily bed,
And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
In our mortal, timeless flesh.