Biography of Kenneth Rexroth
an American poet, translator and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and paved the groundwork for the movement. Although he did not consider himself to be a Beat poet, and disliked the association, he was one of the major influences on the Beat generation, and was once dubbed "Father of the Beats" by Time. He was among the first poets in the United States to explore traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku.
Rexroth had two daughters, Mary (who later changed her name to Mariana) and Katharine, by his third wife, Marthe Larsen.
Rexroth was born Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth in South Bend, Indiana, the son of Charles Rexroth, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Reed. His childhood was troubled by his father's alcoholism and his mother's chronic illness. Rexroth was homeschooled by his mother, and by age four he was reading widely in the Classics. His mother died in 1916 and his father in 1918, after which he went to live with his aunt in Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago.
He spent his teenage years as an art student and soda jerk, along with other odd jobs. In 1923—1924 he was imprisoned during a raid on a Near North Side bar that he frequented, allegedly for being partial owner of a brothel. He lived in a decrepit jail cell under the care of four black cellmates until his legal guardian could bail him out.
While in Chicago, he frequented the homes and meeting places of political radicals, quickly identifying with the concerns of an agitated proletarian class and reciting poetry from a soapbox to excited crowds on street corners downtown.
An aborted attempt at a trip around the world with a friend piqued his interest in the American Southwest, and he began a tour through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, moving up and down the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
He moved back east to Greenwich Village and attended The New School for a while before dropping out to live as a postulant in Holy Cross Monastery (West Park, New York). The lifestyle of meditation, silence and artistic creation suited him marvelously, and he later recalled it as the happiest time of his life. However, he felt strongly that he did not have a vocation there, and left with a solidified admiration for the communal rites and values of monasticism.
At age nineteen, he hitchhiked across the country, taking odd jobs and working a stint as a Forest Service trail crew hand, cook, and packer in the Pacific Northwest, at the Marblemount Ranger Station. Later he was able to board a steamship in Hoboken, exploring Mexico and South America before spending a week in Paris to meet many notable avant-garde figures, notably Tristan Tzara and the Surrealists. He considered staying on in Paris, but an American friend urged him not to become just another expatriate and he returned home.
After meeting his first wife, he moved to San Francisco; he would live in California the rest of his life.
Love, Marriage, Sacrament
Rexroth viewed love for another person as a sacramental act that could connect one with a transcendent, universal awareness. In his introduction to his poem The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Rexroth articulated his understanding of love and marriage: "The process as I see it goes something like this: from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility." In other words, love was a key to truly realizing one's existence, something that could be cemented and validated in the long run by wedded union.
Rexroth married Andrée Dutcher in 1927, a commercial artist from Chicago. He claimed to have fallen in love with her at first sight when he saw her in the doorway of the apartment building he was renting. He encouraged Dutcher to pursue non-commercial painting, and she gave him feedback on his writing. The two shared many interests and what Rexroth described as a perfect relationship. Their marriage deteriorated, however, and the couple was divorced near Rexroth's 35th birthday. Andrée died of complications from epilepsy shortly after, in 1940. Her death triggered great sadness in Rexroth, who wrote a number of elegiac poems in her honor.
Within a year of Andrée's death, Rexroth married the nurse and poet Marie Kass. They opened up their home to weekly literary discussions, anti-war protesters, and Japanese-American convalescents avoiding internment. The two separated in 1948.
In 1949, Rexroth traveled to Europe with Marthe Larsen. The two were married in Aix-en-Provence despite Rexroth still being legally married to Marie. When the couple returned to the USA, Marthe was pregnant. They had had two daughters, Mary and Katherine, by 1955, when Rexroth's divorce from Marie finally came through. In 1956, Marthe fell in love with the poet, Robert Creeley, and she later left Kenneth despite his desperate pleas for her to stay. Rexroth later removed all instances of her name from his poetry.
After living in San Francisco for 41 years, Rexroth moved to Santa Barbara in 1968. He taught two courses at UCSB. After a few years, he married Carol Tinker, his longtime assistant. They remained married until Rexroth's death in 1982.
Much of Rexroth's work can be classified as "erotic" or "love poetry," given his deep fascination with transcendent love. According to Hammil and Kleiner, "nowhere is Rexroth's verse more fully realized than in his erotic poetry".
His poetry is marked by a sensitivity to Asian forms as well as an appreciation of Ancient Greek lyric poetry, particularly that of Sappho. Rexroth's poetic voice is similar to that of Tu Fu (whom he translated), expressing indignation with the inequities of the world from an existential vantage.
During the 1970s Rexroth, along with the scholar Ling Chung, translated the notable Sung Dynasty poet Li Ch'ing-chao and an anthology of Chinese women poets, titled The Orchid Boat.
With The Love Poems of Marichiko, Rexroth claimed to have translated the poetry of a contemporary, "young Japanese woman poet," but it was later disclosed that he was the author, and he gained critical recognition for having conveyed so authentically the feelings of someone of another gender and culture. Linda Hamalian, his biographer, suggests that, "translating the work of women poets from China and Japan reveals a transformation of both heart and mind".
Rexroth's poetry, essays and journalism reflect his interests in jazz, politics, culture, and ecology.
The Beat Generation
With Rexroth acting as master of ceremonies, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen read at the famous poetry-reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Rexroth later served as a defense witness at Ginsberg's obscenity trial concerning the event. Rexroth had previously sent Ginsberg (new in the Bay Area) to meet Snyder, and was thus responsible for their friendship. Lawrence Ferlinghetti named Rexroth as one of his own mentors.
Rexroth was eventually critical of the Beat movement. Years after the Six Gallery reading, TIME magazine referred to him as "Father of the Beats." To this he replied, "an entomologist is not a bug."
Rexroth appears in Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums as the character Reinhold Cacoethes.
Rexroth wrote a large body of literary and cultural criticism, much of which has been compiled in anthologies. His incisive views of topics ranging from D. H. Lawrence to gnosticism testify to his familiarity with the world and extensive self-education.
In 1973, Rexroth wrote the Encyclopædia Britannica article on "literature".
Despite the value of his critical prose, he dismissed these works as being financially motivated. In the introduction to Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, he wrote that "practicing writers and artists notoriously have very little use for critics. I am a practicing writer and artist. ... Poets are very ill advised to write prose for anything but money. The only possible exceptions are anger and logrolling for one’s friends."
A notable exception would appear to be his long association with KPFA, the Berkeley listener-supported, non-commercial FM station. Prior to its going on the air in 1949, its founder Louis Hill outlined his plans to a gathering of San Francisco artists and writers who met in Rexroth's apartment. For years Rexroth presented "Books", a spasmodic half-hour weekly program of reviews which he ad libbed into a tape recorder at home. Much of his prose writing, including his Autobiography, began as KPFA broadcasts.
Rexroth was a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1968 to 1973. He became famous among students—and infamous with the administration—for his witty and inflammatory remarks on trends of anti-intellectualism and laziness on campus.
His classes were quite popular amongst his students, and they usually began with him expounding good-naturedly on whatever subject took his fancy at the time, Rexroth taking the mantle of favored Uncle to a collection of appreciative "nieces and nephews". Students were encouraged to write their own poetry and then recite it. One incident during his class was fairly explosive, however. A male student started to recite his own work, a jumbled, jokey misogynistic piece exulting in violence towards women. Rexroth stopped the reading, mid-stream, angrily eviscerated the student to the astonishment of others in the class, and banished the offender from ever setting foot in his class again. Such was Rexroth's respect and dedication to the idea of transcendental love between a man and a woman.
As a young man in Chicago, Rexroth was heavily involved with the anarchist movement (and was active in the IWW), attending and participating in politically charged readings and lectures. He was a regular at meetings of the Washington Park Bug Club, a loose assemblage of various intellectuals and revolutionaries. Such relationships allowed him to recite poems by other writers as well as gain experience with the political climate and revolutionary currents of the day.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled that Rexroth self-identified as a philosophical anarchist, regularly associated with other anarchists in North Beach, and sold Italian anarchist newspapers at the City Lights Bookstore.
His ideas later fermented into a concept of what he termed the "social lie:" that societies are governed by tactics of deception in order to maintain a hierarchy of exploitation and servitude. He saw this as pervasive in all elements of culture, including popular literature, education, and social norms.
Rexroth, a pacifist, was a conscientious objector during World War II and was actively involved with helping Japanese-American internees.
Rexroth died in Santa Barbara in 1982. He had spent his final years translating Japanese and Chinese women poets, as well as promoting the work of female poets in America and overseas. He is buried on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Cemetery Association overlooking the sea, and while all the other graves face inland, his alone faces the Pacific. His epitaph reads, "As the full moon rises / The swan sings in sleep / On the lake of the mind." According to association records, he is interred near the corner of Island and Bluff boulevards, in Block C of the Sunset section, Plot 18.
Kenneth Rexroth's Works:
In What Hour? (1940)
Another Spring (1942)
The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944)
The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949). Prairie City, Il: Decker Press
The Signature of All Things (1949). New York: New Directions
Beyond the Mountains: Four Plays in Verse (1951). New York: New Directions Press
Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (1959) New York: New Directions
Assays (1961) New York: New Directions
Classics Revisited (1964; 1986). New York: New Directions.
Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems (1991)
Collected Shorter Poems (1966). New York: New Directions.
Collected Longer Poems (1968). New York: New Directions.
The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World (1970). Herder & Herder.
American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971). Herder & Herder.
The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas (1973). Seabury.
Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (1974). Seabury.
The Morning Star (1979) New York: New Directions
Selected Poems (1984). New York: New Directions
World Outside the Window: Selected Essays (1987). New York: New Directions
More Classics Revisited (1989). New York: New Directions.
An Autobiographical Novel (1964; expanded edition, 1991). New York: New Directions
Kenneth Rexroth & James Laughlin: Selected Letters (1991). Norton.
With Eye and Ear (1991). Herder & Herder.
Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems (1997). Copper Canyon Press.
Swords That Shall Not Strike: Poems of Protest and Rebellion (1999). Glad Day.
Complete Poems (2003). Copper Canyon Press.
(in chronological order)
Fourteen Poems by O. V. de L.-Milosz. (1952), San Francisco: Peregrine Press. Translated by Kenneth Rexroth, with illustrations by Edward Hagedorn. Second edition. (Port Townsend, WA): Copper Canyon Press, (1983). Paperbound. Issued without the Hagedorn illustrations.
30 Spanish Poems of Love and Exile (1956), San Francisco: City Lights Books.
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese (1955), New York: New Directions.
One Hundred Poems From the Chinese (1956), New York: New Directions.
Poems from the Greek Anthology. (1962), Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks: The University of Michigan Press.
Pierre Reverdy: Selected Poems (1969), New York: New Directions
100 More Poems from the Chinese: Love and the Turning Year (1970), New York: New Directions.
100 Poems from the French (1972), Pym-Randall.
Orchid Boat (1972), Seabury Press. with Ling Chung; reprinted as Women Poets of China, New York: New Directions
100 More Poems from the Japanese (1976), New York: New Directions.
The Burning Heart (1977), Seabury Press. with Ikuko Atsumi; reprinted as Women Poets of Japan, New York: New Directions
Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi. (1978), (New York): New Directions.
Complete Poems of Li Ch’ing-Chao. (1979), (New York): New Directions.
Poetry Readings in the Cellar (with the Cellar Jazz Quintet): Kenneth Rexroth & Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1957) Fantasy #7002 LP (Spoken Word)
Rexroth: Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk (1958) Fantasy #7008 LP (Spoken Word)
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Kenneth Rexroth Poems
Gic To Har
It is late at night, cold and damp The air is filled with tobacco smoke. My brain is worried and tired. I pick up the encyclopedia,
Our canoe idles in the idling current Of the tree and vine and rush enclosed Backwater of a torpid midwestern stream; Revolves slowly, and lodges in the glutted
I don’t mind the human race. I’ve got pretty used to them In these past twenty-five years. I don’t mind if they sit next
Thou Shalt Not Kill
I They are murdering all the young men. For half a century now, every day,
I pass your home in a slow vermilion dawn, The blinds are drawn, and the windows are open. The soft breeze from the lake
The Bad Old Days
The summer of nineteen eighteen I read The Jungle and The Research Magnificent. That fall
Between Two Wars
Remember that breakfast one November — Cold black grapes smelling faintly Of the cork they were packed in, Hard rolls with hot, white flesh,
Somebody has given my Baby daughter a box of Old poker chips to play with. Today she hands me one while
Falling Leaves And Early Snow
In the years to come they will say, “They fell like the leaves In the autumn of nineteen thirty-nine.” November has come to the forest,
Yin And Yang
It is spring once more in the Coast Range Warm, perfumed, under the Easter moon. The flowers are back in their places.
Under your illkempt yellow roses, Delia, today you are younger Than your son. Two and a half decades – The family monument sagged askew,
Lyell’s Hypothesis Again
The mountain road ends here, Broken away in the chasm where The bridge washed out years ago. The first scarlet larkspur glitters
It is the dark of the moon. Late at night, the end of summer, The autumn constellations Glow in the arid heaven.
There are sparkles of rain on the bright Hair over your forehead; Your eyes are wet and your lips Wet and cold, your cheek rigid with cold.
A thing unknown for years,
Rain falls heavily in June,
On the ripe cherries, and on
The half cut hay.
Above the glittering
Grey water of the inlet,
In the driving, light filled mist,
A blue heron
Catches mice in the green
And copper and citron swathes.
I walk on the rainy hills.
It is enough.