Dec. 22, 2005

Lute Music

by Kenneth Rexroth

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Poem: "Lute Music" by Kenneth Rexroth from Sacramental Acts. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.

Lute Music

The Earth will be going on a long time
Before it finally freezes;
Men will be on it; they will take names,
Give their deeds reasons.
We will be here only
As chemical constituents—
A small franchise indeed.
Right now we have lives,
Corpuscles, Ambitions, Caresses,
Like everybody had once—

Here at the year's end, at the feast
Of birth, let us bring to each other
The gifts brought once west through deserts—
The precious metal of our mingled hair,
The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
Let us celebrate the daily
Recurrent nativity of love,
The endless epiphany of our fluent selves,
While the earth rolls away under us
Into unknown snows and summers,
Into untraveled spaces of the stars.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). He is remembered for a few short poems, which he said were "pickled in anthological brine," including "Richard Cory," "Miniver Cheevy," and "Mr. Flood's Party."

Unlike many poets, who have to work all manner odd jobs in order to support themselves, Robinson rarely did anything in his life other than write poetry. Before he made a name for himself as a poet, he was known in his hometown as an idler and a failure, writing poetry that attracted little attention. But somehow, his poetry made it into the hands of Theodore Roosevelt, who became a big fan. He got Robinson a job at a Customs House to help him earn a living while he wrote. All he had to do was show up at his desk, read the morning newspaper, and leave it on his chair to prove he had been there.

He went on to become one of the most popular poets of his lifetime. After he began to support himself with his poetry, he didn't get married, he didn't travel, he didn't teach or give public readings.

It's the birthday of the bohemian poet Kenneth Rexroth, born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). In the 1920's he was drawn to the artistic community in Chicago's West Side, where speakeasies with names like the Dill Pickle Club and the Wind Blew Inn were full of politics, theater, jazz and poetry. It was there that Kenneth Rexroth became one of the first poets to try reading his poetry to the accompaniment of jazz music.

Then he got involved in left-wing politics and traveled around the country, speaking from soapboxes for the International Workers of the World, supporting himself horse-wrangling, sheep-herding, and selling pamphlets that promised a cure for constipation.

He eventually settled in San Francisco, and California changed the way he wrote poetry. His early poems had been full of references to Greek mythology and philosophy, but after his arrival in California, he began to write poems about camping trips and fly fishing and love affairs, in addition to politics.

Kenneth Rexroth published more than fifty more books of poetry and criticism in his lifetime, including The Signature of All Things (1950) and Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (1980). The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth came out in 2002.

Kenneth Rexroth said, "Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust." And "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life."

It was on this day in 1894 that a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason. He'd been accused of passing secrets to the German government. Back in Paris, a number of officers soon realized that the actual traitor was a man named Esterhazy, and Dreyfus that had been framed, in large part because he was Jewish.

The Dreyfus Affair, as it became known, tore France apart. Everyone in the country felt as though they had to choose sides. The affair caused rifts within families. People fought duals over it. There was talk of civil war. Anti-Semitic groups led riots and smashed Jewish shop-fronts, attacked synagogues, and desecrated Jewish graveyards. There were artists and writers on both sides of the debate. Manet, Pissarro, and Monet were for Dreyfus. Cézanne, Rodin, Renoir and Degas were all against. Marcel Proust, Anatole France and Mallarme were among the writers for Dreyfus. Valery and Jules Verne were against.

Eventually, Dreyfus was called back from exile for a second trial, and it was the most thoroughly reported event ever at that point in history. 300 journalists attended the trial, six telegraph wires were installed in Paris for foreign correspondents, and on the first day of the trial 650,000 words were transmitted over the telegraph wire. Dreyfus was convicted again in his second trial, but the President gave him a pardon. The French army didn't publicly acknowledge his innocence until 1995.

This episode of The Writer's Almanac has been corrected. Arthur Rimbaud was not associated with either side of the Dreyfus Affair; he passed away 4 years prior to the events surrounding Alfred Dreyfus.

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