Revolutionary Hope along the Mississippi: Kenneth Rexroth’s “The Motto on the Sundial”

By Ben Prostine

One poem to be added to the literary history of the driftless region would have to be Kenneth Rexroth’s “The Motto on the Sundial,” written in McGregor, Iowa, in the late 1930s. Rexroth was born in 1905 in South Bend, Indiana and came of age in Chicago. He never graduated from high school; his education consisted of hanging around the artists, intellectuals, and radicals of Chicago and reading whatever books they mentioned. This led him to political theory, avant garde art and poetry, Christian mystics, mathematical philosophers, and much else. He once noted he liked to read encyclopedias front to back, like a novel. 

By the time he was 25 he was a card carrying member of a revolutionary labor union (Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies) who had spent half a year in a Catholic monastery and a winter in jail for being part-owner of the Green Mask – a “disorderly house” that hosted jazz and poetry readings in Chicago. This may seem highly contradictory, but it was the dynamic of Rexroth: a kind of monastic contemplativeness (later infused with Buddhism) and yet an unwillingness to turn away from the “world outside the window” – war, exploitation, injustice, and the down and out. As the 1920s ended with the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, he had settled in California where he would live till his death in 1982. 

Kenneth Rexroth. Credit: New Directions Publishing.

“The Motto on the Sundial” appears in Rexroth’s first published collection of poems, In What Hour (1940). It may not be one of Rexroth’s best poems, but it isn’t a bad poem either. We can see the beginnings of the kinds of poems Rexroth would later write; a declarative, even conversational, voice where ecology and history, past and present, local and international, mingle together.   

Rexroth’s poems often begin in the landscape and then move into surprising places: the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, German Christian mystics, or the intersections of eroticism and geology. Throughout his life, Rexroth translated Chinese and Japanese poetry and from these traditions, he learned a quiet attention to ecological and seasonal rhythms. He also made many trips to the backcountry and mountains of California (he wrote a book on backpacking in California for the WPA writers program under the New Deal). For Rexroth, natural and human history were not estranged from one another but intertwined. 

“The Motto on the Sundial” begins with a pastoral scene along the upper Mississippi River and ends with prophecies of revolution. Who knows what Rexroth was doing in Iowa, but he was probably hitchhiking to or from California.

The poem begins: “It is September and the wry corn rattles/ Dry in the fields.”  Later, he writes: 

MacGregor [sic], Iowa. I stand on the bluff

Looking out over the river, the water

Oozing past and the smell coming up from it,

Up from the scabby flat where the pigs stumble. 

In Wisconsin smoke blooms overs the forest,

Plumed at first and then flattening slowly. 

I have seen the fog over the lotus beds,

White, curded and thick to the bluff’s edge, the sun

Yellow over Wisconsin and the sky blue,

The air wet and jewelweed in the ravine,

Wet and the colored sandstone like wet sugar. 

McGregor is a driftless river town, a little over sixty miles south of La Crosse. The bluffs above McGregor include Pikes Peak, which overlooks the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers and what is now Wyalusing State Park. The poem begins as a kind of practice in seeing, moving through the minute particulars of the landscape: the fog, sandstone, bluffs, and corn that still evoke this little part of the Middle West that escaped the last glacier. 

Then history enters the poem. The image of smoke in Wisconsin seems to call forth the burning world of the 1930s, on the eve of another devastating war.

The smell of gas has ascended from the streets,

Bloomed from the cartridges, spread from wall to wall,

Bloomed on the highways and seeped into the corn.

It is later than you think, there is a voice

Preparing to speak, there are whisperings now

And murmuring and noises made with the teeth.

This voice will grow loud and learn a language.

They shall sit trembling while its will is made known,

In gongs struck, bonfires, and shadows on sundials.

Once it has spoken it shall never be silenced. 

Petro-based agriculture, automobiles burning gas on the roads, and all the smoke rising from the guns in Europe. A world in crisis and changing fast. 

If the beginning of the poem suggests the tradition of Chinese landscape poetry, the end suggests the prophetic books of the Old Testament adapted by a Wobbly agitator. A sundial is an old device for telling time by sun and shadow and it’s often accompanied by the inscription of a motto. “It is later than you think” is the translation of the Latin sundial motto Serius est quam cogitas. The Latin motto originally referred to human mortality; here it may suggest revolutionary change: “All that is solid melts into air…”  Or, as Rexroth often put it, revolutionary hope. 

Today, one might consider the earnestness of this poem naïve. But that would lead us away from any understanding of the historical moment. Over thirty years later, in the postlude to his autobiography, Rexroth would write: 

“Up until well after the First World War, no one, and I mean nobody, not the Pope, not J.P. Morgan, not Calvin Coolidge, had any belief that the capitalist system would outlast the century, or even that it would last another generation. Beginning about 1912 with the mounting of the counterrevolution that came in 1914 to be called the First World War, the ruling classes, the state, and the economic system felt continuously threatened and endangered. On the other side intellectuals, workers, artists, writers, all sorts of people, were confident that things were going to change completely. Everything was going to change, dress, the game of chess, the relations between the sexes, race relations, everything would change completely and the world would be different by the middle of the twentieth century. It didn’t happen.”

Throughout In What Hour, we can already observe Rexroth wrestling with this tension: a world that would be changed completely and a world that would have to be painfully endured. If “The Motto on the Sundial” is full of revolutionary hope, other poems reference revolutionary tragedy: the massacre of the Paris Commune and the Kronstadt Rebellion, the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War, and the suppression of strikers in Seattle and California. 

During the war, Rexroth was a conscientious objector and worked in the psych ward of a hospital. He also helped numerous Japanese-Americans avoid relocation and incarceration at concentration camps on the West Coast, bulking up his FBI file in the process. For Rexroth, the dropping of the atom bomb, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the Holocaust further eroded any belief in revolutionary change. Following the war, the U.S. established a permanent military apparatus, suburbs spread, radicals were blacklisted under McCarthyism, and Jim Crow persisted in the South; it was clear the injustices of capitalism would have to be endured for a while yet. 

In the Cold War years of the 1950s, he would write the poem “For Eli Jacobson,” an elegy for not only a comrade, but also the revolutionary movement between the two world wars.  

There are few of us now, soon

There will be none. We were comrades

Together, we believed we

Would see with our own eyes the new

World where man was no longer

Wolf to man, but men and women

Were all brothers and lovers

Together. We will not see it.

Rexroth offers a necessary perspective on political defeat. He suggests how political struggle and solidarity can transform daily life, even if it comes to nothing else. Food and wine taste better and the sky is bluer for the “brave and happy comrades.” One only has to read Vivian Gornick’s recently reprinted oral history, The Romance of American Communism, to know Rexroth was far from alone in this assessment. Rexroth was highly critical of the American Communist Party (he identified with anarchism, specifically what he referred to as anarcho-pacifism); but if there was disagreement over political means among radicals, there was a shared expectation of revolution that vivified life, consciousness, and political organizing.  

“For Eli Jacobson” ends with the following: 

If the good days never come,

We will not know. We will not care.

Our lives were the best. We were the

Happiest men alive in our day.   

The motto here: to work for a world we may never see because the work itself is good and real –  even if it comes to nothing else but stories and memories. It is an antidote to one of the most profound and persistent effects of the capitalist system: alienation – alienation from earth, alienation from the work we must do to survive, alienation from one another and ultimately alienation from one’s own self. The long work of revolt, the preservation of historical memory, a solidarity that crosses the lines of race, sexuality, gender, borders, species – these remain our antidotes. 

It is worth remembering that we are entering the second decade of a new period of uprisings, all following the financial crisis of 2008. A short list would include the Arab Spring, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, climate revolts, the gilets jaunes in France, the struggle for dignidad in Chile, and now the George Floyd rebellions and the continued resistance to the military-police bloc in Portland and Seattle.

In this context, it’s worth taking the long view from the bluffs of the Mississippi, across the land, across time, and into the world. As Martín Espada writes in a recent poem, borrowing a line from Whitman: “Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.”

Top image by Dana Scheffen shows the Mississippi from Pikes Peak above McGregor. Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

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