Dec. 22, 2012

Excerpt from "The Dragon and the Unicorn"

by Kenneth Rexroth

All night long
The white snow falls on the white
Peaks through the quiet darkness.
The overland express train
Drives through the night, through the snow.
In the morning the land slopes
To the Atlantic, the sky
Is thicker, Spring stirs, smelling
Like old wet wood, new life speaks
In pale green fringes of marsh
Marigolds on the edges
Of the mountain snow drifts. Spring
Is only a faint green haze
On the high plains, only haze
And the fences that disappear
Over the horizon, and the
Rails, and the telegraph
Poles and the pale singing wires
Going on and on forever.

Excerpt from "The Dragon and the Unicorn" by Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press, 2003. Reprinted with the permission of the author. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (books by this author), born in Alna, Maine (1869). His brother married the woman Robinson had hoped to marry; he was so depressed that he stayed home from the wedding ceremony and wrote a poem about it. Soon he headed off to Harvard, which he loved; but his family's finances collapsed, and his father died, and he was forced to drop out and return home after two years. He worked on his poetry, and self-published his first collection, The Torrent and the Night Before. His mother died of diphtheria a few days before the first copies arrived in the mail. Then his brother Dean died of a drug overdose, and his brother Herman drank himself to death after his business investments failed.

Robinson moved to New York City, where he lived in poverty and became an alcoholic. He published his second book, The Children of the Night (1897). It included his famous poem "Richard Cory," based on the death of his brother Herman; but the book didn't get much notice when it was published. One of Robinson's family friends from Maine, Henry Richards, taught at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts, where President Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit was a pupil. One day Kermit asked Richards for a book recommendation, and Richards recommended The Children of the Night. Kermit loved The Children of the Night and passed it along to his father, who liked it so much that he reviewed it in the magazine Outlook. Roosevelt wrote: "There is an undoubted touch of genius in the poems collected in this volume, and a curious simplicity and good faith, all of which qualities differentiate them sharply from ordinary collections of the kind. [...] It is not always necessary in order to enjoy a poem that one should be able to translate it into terms of mathematical accuracy." Literary critics generally disagreed with the president's enthusiasm, but it didn't matter — finally Robinson's name was known. Roosevelt also found Robinson a job at the New York Customs House, a job that left him plenty of time to write, while also providing a steady income. Robinson said of Roosevelt: "The strenuous man has given me some of the most powerful loafing that has ever come my way."

Robinson went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry three times. His books include Collected Poems (1921), The Man Who Died Twice (1924), Tristram (1927), and King Jasper (1935).

He wrote: "Two kinds of gratitude: The sudden kind / we feel for what we take; the larger kind / we feel for what we give."

It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Rexroth (books by this author), born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). He moved to California when he was 25. He said of San Francisco in those days: "It is the only city in the United States which was not settled overland by the westward-spreading puritan tradition, or by the Walter Scott, fake-cavalier tradition of the South. It had been settled, mostly, in spite of all the romances of the overland migration, by gamblers, prostitutes, rascals and fortune seekers who came across the Isthmus and around the Horn. They had their faults, but they were not influenced by Cotton Mather." The Golden Gate Bridge wasn't built until 1937; the San Francisco poetry scene was almost nonexistent. Rexroth wrote: "We decided to stay and grow up with the town." He became one of the leading poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, and he was considered a sort of father of the Beat movement, although he responded to this label by saying: "An entomologist is not a bug."

He spent his first California summer in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and almost every summer after that for the next 40 years. He 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. Life in the city in the winter seems too full of distractions and busy work. Who said poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility? I don't know about others, but I find most tranquility camped by a mountain lake at timber line."

His books include The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949), In Defense of the Earth (1956), With Eye and Ear (1970), and Saucy Limericks & Christmas Cheer (1980).

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