“Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas”

by Kenneth Rexroth (1955)
   “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” written in 1953–54, is a long, elegiac poem mourning the death of the charismatic Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1917–53), who drank himself to death during his last orgiastic poetry tour of the United States. It is also much more: a prophetic poem of enraged protest denouncing the destruction of many poets in the worldwide culture of power, violence, and death and tragically affirming the creative, artistic imagination. By combining diverse poetic techniques, forms, and traditions kenneth rexroth—who was not himself a Beat but strongly influenced the Beat movement—produced this unique poem, which he performed with the accompaniment of a live jazz band. Indeed, Rexroth was a pioneer, with Kenneth Patchen (1911–72) and others, of performing poetry with musical accompaniment (some commercially recorded). This ferocious poem helped to mobilize the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance in which Beat poetry was born in the 1950s, a decade of cold war, the Korean War, the black struggle against racism, and the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation.
   The poem begins, “They are murdering all the young men” all over the world: Youth are being destroyed as ruthlessly as, for example, early Christian martyrs who prophetically denounced the lies and oppression of their society:
   They are stoning Stephen . . .
   He did great wonders among the people,
   They could not stand against his wisdom.
   You are broiling Lawrence on his gridiron,
   When you demanded he divulge
   The hidden treasures of the spirit,
   He showed you the poor.
   You are shooting Sebastian with arrows.
   He kept the faithful steadfast under persecution.
   Who is guilty of murdering men of prophetic vision?
   Rexroth accuses the reader or listener of participating in the “social lie” of coercion and destruction:
   The hyena with polished face and bow tie . . .
   The vulture dripping with carrion,
   Carefully and carelessly robed in imported tweeds . . .
   The jackal in double breasted gabardine . . .
   In corporations, in the United Nations,:
   The Superego in a thousand uniforms;
   You, the finger man of behemoth,
   The murderer of the young men.
   Behemoth, the monstrous demon of the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, is an influential precurser of Moloch in Allen Ginsberg’s “howl,” which seems influenced by Rexroth’s poem in terms of subject, themes, prophetic rhetoric, and righteous passion. Rexroth even writes in Part III of this poem: “Three generations of infants / Stuffed down the maw of Moloch.”
   In Part II Rexroth laments the untimely deaths of more than many American poets, each succinctly memorialized. Each stanza, whose theme and form are derived from those in “Lament for the Makeris” by the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar, ends with a Latin line meaning “The fear of death disturbs me.”
   In Part III Rexroth’s vision expands in a series of terrifying anecdotes of the destruction of individual poets of many nations in two World Wars:
   Here is a mountain of death.
   A hill of heads like the Khan piled up,
   The first-born of a century
   Slaughtered by Herod.
   In the final part, which focuses on the death of Dylan Thomas—“The little spellbinder of Cader Idris”—Rexroth denounces the murderers in the culture of death, one by one:
   There he lies dead,
   By the iceberg of the United Nations.
   There he lies sandbagged,
   At the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
   The Gulf Stream smells of blood.
   The poem has been unfairly denounced as crudely rhetorical, motivated by self-righteous insanity. In this intense, far-reaching, and complex poem, did Rexroth explode from his own success in the deadly culture that he attacked? Aesthetic and ethical controversies concerning this important poem, which explored in such critical studies as those listed below, have crucial implications for Beat poetry in general.
■ Gibson, Morgan. Kenneth Rexroth. New York. Twayne Publishers, 1972.
■ ———. Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom. Hamden Conn.: The Shoe String Press, 1985.
■ The Expanded Internet Edition (2000) containing Rexroth’s Letters to Gibson (1957–79) is available on Karl Young’s Light & Dust site at http://www. thing.net/{“}Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas{”}grist/ld/rexroth/gibson.htm.
■ Hamalian, Linda. A Life of Kenneth Rexroth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
■ Knabb, Ken. The Relevance of Rexroth and Rexroth Archives. The best work on the political meaning of Rexroth’s work. Much work by and about Rexroth is available online from the Bureau of Public Secrets at http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth.
■ Rexroth, Kenneth. The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. Edited by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
   Morgan Gibson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Cultural depictions of Dylan Thomas — Dylan Marlais Thomas, (1914 – 1953) was a Welsh poet and writer who has along with his work been remembered and referred to in various media. Contents 1 In literature 2 In music 3 In Film 4 On television …   Wikipedia

  • Rexroth, Kenneth — (1905–1982)    Popularly known as “the godfather of the Beats,” Kenneth Rexroth criticized them as wisely as he inspired and promoted them. Born a generation before allen ginsberg, gary snyder, michael mcclure, philip lamantia, and philip whalen …   Encyclopedia of Beat Literature

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