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Poet, translator, essayist, and voracious reader––Kenneth Rexroth was an omnivore in the fields of literature. The brief, radiant essays of Classics Revisited discuss sixty key books that are, for Rexroth, “basic documents in the history of the imagination.” Ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Huckleberry Finn, these pieces (each about five pages long) originally appeared in the Saturday Review. Distinguished by Rexroth’s plain, wide-awake style, Classics Revisited presents complex ideas in simple language, energized by the author’s air of talking eye-to-eye with his reader. Elastic, at home in several languages, Rexroth is not bound by East or West; he leaps nimbly from Homer to The Mahabharata, from Lady Murasaki to Stendhal. It is only when we pause for breath that we notice his special affinities: for Casanova, lzaak Walton, Macbeth, Icelandic sagas, classical Japanese poetry. He has read everything. In Sterne, he sees traces of the Buddha; in Fielding, hints of Confucius. “Life may not be optimistic,” Rexroth maintains in his introduction, “but it certainly is comic, and the greatest literature presents man wearing the two conventional masks; the grinning and the weeping faces that decorate theatre prosceniums. What is the face behind the mask? Just a human face––yours or mine. That is the irony of it all––the irony that distinguishes great literature––it is all so ordinary.”
About the Author
Poet-essayist Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was a high-school dropout, disillusioned ex-Communist, pacifist, anarchist, rock-climber, critic and translator, mentor, Catholic-Buddhist spiritualist and a prominent figure of San Francisco's Beat scene. He is regarded as a central figure of the San Francisco Renaissance and is among the first American poets to explore traditional Japanese forms such as the haiku.
…to define strangeness with no strain is the peculiar province of art; and it is as a master of this great art that Kenneth Rexroth defines and defends our earth for us.
— Dudley Fitts