Dec. 22, 2006


by Kenneth Rexroth

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Poem: "Snow" by Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Low clouds hang on the mountain.
The forest is filled with fog.
A short distance away the
Giant trees recede and grow
Dim. Two hundred paces and
They are invisible. All
Day the fog curdles and drifts.
The cries of the birds are loud.
They sound frightened and cold. Hour
By hour it grows colder.
Just before sunset the clouds
Drop down the mountainside. Long
Shreds and tatters of fog flow
Swiftly away between the
Trees. Now the valley below
Is filled with clouds like clotted
Cream and over them the sun
Sets, yellow in a sky full
Of purple feathers. After dark
A wind rises and breaks branches
From the trees and howls in the
Treetops and then suddenly
Is still. Late at night I wake
And look out of the tent. The
Clouds are rushing across the
Sky and through them is tumbling
The thin waning moon. Later
All is quiet except for
A faint whispering. I look
Out. Great flakes of wet snow are
Falling. Snowflakes are falling
Into the dark flames of the
Dying fire. In the morning the
Pine boughs are sagging with snow,
And the dogwood blossoms are
Frozen, and the tender young
Purple and citron oak leaves.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of two famous trials: the obscenity trial of the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, and the treason trial of a French military officer that became known as the Dreyfus Affair.

It was on this day in 1964 that comedian Lenny Bruce was sentenced to four months in jail after the longest and costliest obscenity trial in history. It went on for six months, and it ended Bruce's career. He became obsessed with it, and he began to read court transcripts to his audiences. He died in 1966 of a heroin overdose, still waiting to hear an appeal of his case. It wasn't until 2003 that Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon.

It was on this day in 1894 that a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in a trial that became one of the most divisive events in European history. Everybody involved in the case knew that Dreyfus had been convicted without any evidence, but nobody spoke out until Émile Zola, the most famous writer in France, published an open letter to the president on the front page of one of the major newspapers in France, detailing all the evidence upon which Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted. The headline for the article was "J'accuse," which means "I accuse." It's been called the most famous front page in the history of newspapers. A total of 300,000 copies were sold in one day. The article was reprinted in newspapers throughout France and around the world.

It's the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, (books by this author) born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). 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. Roosevelt told him, "I expect you to think poetry first and customs second." 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 in. This sustained him until he started to write poetry that won some praise; finally, in his fifties, he won the Pulitzer Prize the first year it was awarded.

Even 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. He was one of the most popular poets of his lifetime, but 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."

It's the birthday of the bohemian poet Kenneth Rexroth, (books by this author) born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). His father was a wholesale drug salesman, and Rexroth was offered a position in the business and that would have eventually made him one of the top executives. He spent a couple days thinking about that job offer and finally decided that he'd rather try to go off and become some kind of artist.

He wasn't sure what kind of artist he wanted to be, but in the 1920s 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.

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 said, "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."

The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth came out in 2002.

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