Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982
American poet, translator, essayist, playwright.
Kenneth Rexroth authored a large oeuvre of poetry and translations and was an instrumental figure in two different poetry movements in San Francisco. His early work is difficult, bristling with abstruse literary allusions and abstract imagery when it is not outright Cubist—the sight and sound of words dominating over sense—while his later work is almost unpoetically simple. Some of his poems contain vitriolic political screeds, while others have an extreme serenity, influenced by Buddhism. Rexroth never completed high school, yet he was enormously erudite, and translated poems from French, Spanish, Greek, Chinese and Japanese with great skill and compassion. Though he was associated with the 1940s San Francisco Renaissance and later with the Beat poets, Rexroth was never securely a part of any movement. He was unsparing in his criticism of academics and whatever seemed to him to represent the literary establishment. He always remained an outsider, and his work was not treated seriously outside a small circle during his lifetime, usually overlooked or ignored by anthologies of American poetry. His poetic styles are so disparate that it is difficult to encapsulate the totality of his work. His love poems and his nature poems, which finely render the Northern California landscape, are perhaps his most appealing and accessible, and have received the most critical attention.
Rexroth had a troubled and tumultuous childhood. Born in 1905 in South Bend, Indiana, he spent his early years in Elkhart, Indiana; Battle Creek, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. His tubercular mother died when Rexroth was eleven, and three years later his father died of alcoholism. Rexroth spent his teen years in Chicago, nominally cared for by an aunt, attending courses at the Art Institute and at the University of Chicago. Precocious as both a painter and poet, Rexroth never graduated from high school. By the time he was seventeen he was a chronic truant, at times incarcerated in the Chicago House of Corrections, and, when he was free, was living on his own in a bohemian style, writing, painting, and acting. He traveled across the U.S. and to Europe, working odd jobs such as ship's cook and ranch hand until 1927 when he married his first wife, painter Andree Dutcher, and settled with her in San Francisco. He published his first book of poems, In What Hour, in 1940. Andrée, an epileptic, died after a seizure in that same year. The marriage had been all but officially over for years, and Rexroth soon married his lover, Marie
Kass. He and Marie were avid mountain climbers, camping in the Sierras for weeks at a time, and many of his finest poems were inspired by trips he took with her. His book The Phoenix and the Tortoise was published by New Directions in 1944, and Rexroth began a life-long friendship with New Directions publisher James Laughlin. Rexroth was a well-known figure in San Francisco both for his leftist political work and for his literary soirées, but he had no national reputation. In 1948 he received a Guggenheim fellowship which allowed him to give readings across the country, and then to travel to Europe. After the trip, he divorced Marie and had a child with Marthe Larsen, whom he had married bigamously. (Perhaps to be expected from someone noted for his amorous poems, Rexroth's personal life was complicated and full of entanglements.) Despite the prestige of the Guggenheim award, Rexroth failed to attract much critical attention, and his books continued to be published solely by New Directions. By the mid-1950s, San Francisco was the hotbed of the Beat movement, and Rexroth made himself a mentor or father-figure to many younger poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He published many volumes of translations, new poems, and collections of his earlier poems, including in 1958 The Homestead Called Damascus, a poem he had completed when he was twenty. In 1967 he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant which allowed him to visit Japan. This visit cemented his Buddhist leanings, and heavily influenced his next book, The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart. He had published an important anthology of his earlier work, The Collected Shorter Poems, in 1966, and in 1968 followed it with The Collected Longer Poems. Now the body of his work was in print and could be read as a whole. He continued to write and publish new poems in the 1970s, and also taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He died of a heart attack in 1982.
Rexroth's first major work was The Homestead Called Damascus, which he began writing when he was fifteen and did not publish until 1958, when he was fifty-three. A long, allusive philosophical poem, it shows the intellectual complexities Rexroth wrestled with at a very young age. His other early works are all similarly marked by intellectual force, length, and daring experimentation with language. "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy," completed in 1927 and published in the collection The Art of Worldly Wisdom in 1949, is indicative even by its title of the obliqueness of Rexroth's early poems. The poems of In What Hour, published in 1940, are by contrast startlingly lyrical and direct. One of the best is "Toward an Organic Philosophy," which tells of several nights spent by campfires in the mountains of California. The philosophy of the poem is beautifully contained in the poet's observation of the stars, wildflowers, deer and trees.
The long poem "The Phoenix and the Tortoise" contains similar sensual descriptions of camping in the mountains, but this more complex poem mingles the speaker's nature observations with pungent political musings and quotations, some distorted, from philosophers and historical figures. This uneasy mixture of bile and lyricism may be as close as anything to the "true" Rexroth. Another long poem, "The Dragon and the Unicorn," from 1952, is a record of Rexroth's travels through Europe. It similarly combines pithily rendered descriptions of hotels and monuments: "The sandstone of the Roman / Road is marked with sun wrinkles / Of prehistoric beaches" with crotchety, dismissive musings: "Lawrence, Lawrence, what a lot / Of hogwash you have fathered. / Etruscan art is just plain bad." Some of his finest short poems are found in the 1956 volume In Defense of the Earth. This volume contains "Seven Poems for Marthe, My Wife," considered his most moving love poems. His later poems stand in great contrast to his early and middle works, as they are marked by Buddhist philosophy and are much simpler and more serene. "The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart" is the most emblematic of the later Rexroth. Toward the end of his life he was more and more interested in Asian poetry, and translated several volumes from both Japanese and Chinese. His One Hundred Poems from the Chinese and One Hundred Poems from the Japanese are perhaps his most popular books. These simple, direct, short poems influenced his style in his original English language poems, to the point where one of his latest works, The Love Poems of Marichiko, only pretends to be a translation of a Japanese woman poet. These, his most erotic poems, Rexroth wrote when he was in his seventies.
Rexroth's reputation while he was alive existed almost exclusively among other poets and literati in the San Francisco area. He scorned the New York literary establishment and anyone in academia, and his work was ignored by most major critics. He did little to court the scholarly community and in fact did much to make enemies of the influential figures in literary circles. Most noteably, poet William Carlos Williams endorsed Rexroth's work, but reviews often tended to be dismissive in nature. Rexroth had a small following in England, and in 1972 an English publisher put out The Rexroth Reader, containing both poetry and prose. But Rexroth never fit neatly into any literary categories of style or historical period, and thus was excluded from many collections of American verse. Since his death, more detailed studies of his work have appeared, and, given time, critics may find much material worth examination in Rexroth's long catalog of works.
In What Hour 1940
The Phoenix and the Tortoise 1944
The Art of Worldly Wisdom 1949
The Signature of All Things 1950
The Dragon and the Unicorn 1952
A Bestiary for My Daughters Mary and Katharine 1955
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese [translator] 1955
Thou Shalt Not Kill: A Memorial for Dylan Thomas 1955
In Defense of the Earth 1956
One Hundred Poems from the Chinese [translator] 1956
Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile [translator] 1956
Poems from the Greek Anthology [translator] 1962
The Homestead Called Damascus 1963
Natural Numbers: New and Selected Poems 1963
The Collected Shorter Poems 1966
The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart 1967
The Collected Longer Poems 1968
The Spark in the Tinder of Knowing 1968
Love in the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese [translator] 1970
Sky Sea Birds Trees Earth House Beasts Flowers 1971
The Kenneth Rexroth Reader (poetry and prose) 1972
One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese [translator] 1974
New Poems 1974
On Flower Wreath Hill 1976
The Silver Swan 1976
The Love Poems of Marichiko 1978
The Morning Star [includes The Silver Swan, On Flower Wreath Hill and The Love Poems of Marichiko] 1979
Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer 1980
Selected Poems 1984
Other Major Works
Beyond the Mountains (verse plays) 1951
Birds in the Bush: Obvious Essays (essays) 1959
Assays (essays) 1961
An Autobiographical Novel (novel) 1966
American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (criticism) 1973
The Elastic Retort; Essays in Literature and Ideas (essays) 1973
World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth [edited by Bradford Murrow] (essays) 1987
SOURCE: "Twenty Years At Hard Labor," in Poetry, Vol. LVII, No. 1, October 1940, pp. 158-60.
[In this review, FitzGerald finds the poems of In What Hour largely derivative and unexciting.]
Examples of Kenneth Rexroth's verse are by now familiar to readers of the literary and poetry journals (who may or may not confuse him with the two other Kenneths—Fearing and Patchen); this, however, is his first book. As an integrated performance it is less than notable; in many of the poems, the time-honored sources—Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Crane, Auden—fairly crackle from the page. Rexroth makes little effort to harmonize these loyalties; the result is a book hag-ridden...
(The entire section is 659 words.)
SOURCE: "An Uncomfortable Humanism," in Poetry, Vol. LXV, No. 5, February 1945, pp.260-62.
[In this review of The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Golffing finds a rift between Rexroth's intelligence and his sensibility.]
Kenneth Rexroth's new volume raises a number of interesting problems with reference to both metrics and the imaginative faculty.
Rexroth's poetic endowment is considerable and it is reinforced by a high degree of humanist culture. Yet the peculiar fusion of intelligence and sensibility, which we call, for convenience, the poetic imagination, is hardly ever completely realized in his work. His sensibility and his intelligence operate...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Art of Worldly Wisdom, in Poetry, Vol. LXXVI, No. 3, June 1950, pp. 156-58.
[In the following review of The Art of Worldly Wisdom, Squires claims Rexroth is held back by adherence to a finicky and zealous formal method.]
It is a matter for wonder when a poet who is scarcely an old-timer chooses to publish a collection of earlier verse which in no way is likely to add to his reputation. And yet I suppose that the province of a review is not that of questioning the prudence of such a choice, but rather that of examining the effect for whatever interest or use it may have.
Written "in a half decade of transition and...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Signature of All Things, in Poetry, Vol. LXXVI, No. 3, June 1950, pp. 159-61.
[In this review of The Signature of All Things, Golffing praises the poems for their combination of cosmic feeling and unclouded judgment.]
When several years ago I reviewed Mr. Rexroth's The Phoenix and the Tortoise for these pages, I entertained certain doubts about the solidity of his poetic procedure. The free verse flowed a little too freely and at times could scarcely be read as verse; the lines, though crisp throughout, tended to become brittle; and there were obvious faults of style—a fondness for abstract catalogues, an unfleshing of the...
(The entire section is 881 words.)
SOURCE: A review of In Defense of the Earth, in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter 1956-1957, pp. 409-11.
[In this review of In Defense of the Earth, Creeley sees Rexroth as moving toward more readable poems.]
In Defense of the Earth is the first more or less substantial collection of Kenneth Rexroth's poems since the publication of his The Dragon And The Unicorn. The latter was a long philosophical travel-poem, so that the book I am reviewing more literally goes back to The Signature Of All Things (1949), and is (as that book was) an accumulation of poems and translations of varying length and determination....
(The entire section is 884 words.)
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth," in Poetry, Vol. XC, No. 3, June 1957, pp. 168-80.
[In the following essay, Lipton takes a hard look at Rexroth's formal and metrical experimentation.]
In the introduction to his anthology, New British Poets, Kenneth Rexroth observed that "On the eve of the second war, the intellectual world generally was still dominated by the gospel of artistic impersonality, inherited from the nineteenth century 'scientific,' 'exact aesthetic,' and the opposed cult of artistic irresponsibility, 'Art for Art's Sake,' Mallarmé, Valéry, Cubism, much Marxism, the dubious 'Thomism' of M. Maritain, T. S. Eliot, Laura Riding, Robert Graves,...
(The entire section is 4317 words.)
SOURCE: "Two New Books by Kenneth Rexroth," in Poetry, Vol. XC, No. 3, June 1957, pp. 180-90.
[In his review of In Defense of the Earth and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, Williams defends Rexroth's unpoetic meter and diction, and lavishly praises his translations.]
The technical problem of what to do with the modern poetic line has been solved by Kenneth Rexroth by internal combustion! Whether that can be said to be activated by atomic fission or otherwise is immaterial. The line, in Rexroth's opinion, is to be kept intact no matter if it may be true, as the painters have shown, that any part of a poem (or painting) may stand for the poem if it is...
(The entire section is 3054 words.)
SOURCE: "Lyrical 'Rage,'" in The Saturday Review, Vol. XL, No. 45, November 9, 1957, p. 15.
[In this review, Rukeyser praises In Defense of the Earth.]
The fineness of Kenneth Rexroth's In Defense of Earth depends on several virtues. They are virtues which are rare in this year but which are apparent in almost every one of the Rexroth poems: a lyric-mindedness that has been prepared by many disciplines to summon up its music; a learning that eats the gifts of the world, knowing (like the laboratory baby before the food) how many cultures must be drawn on to make human fare; and that quality which has been talked about so much in speaking of Kenneth Rexroth and...
(The entire section is 896 words.)
SOURCE: "The Voice of a Poet: Kenneth Rexroth," in The Minnesota Review, Vol. II, No. 3, Spring 1962, pp. 377-84.
[In this essay, Foster analyses a body of Rexroth's work, and finds him a fine lyric poet, especially in his love poems.]
When a couple of years ago my pleasure in reading through Kenneth Rexroth's first collection of essays, Bird in the Bush, led me to take an attentive look at his poetry, I was struck by the anomaly that so good a poet had been so ostentatiously ignored by the ruling literary culture of his time. Until I looked into Bird in the Bush I had known Rexroth only as a name connoting a poetry that had never grown up to Auden, a...
(The entire section is 2742 words.)
SOURCE: "Calling the Heart to Order," in The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1967, p. 8.
[In this review of The Collected Shorter Poems, Unterecker finds a self gradually more revealed through the course of Rexroth's career.]
Reading through all of Kenneth Rexroth's shorter poems is a little like immersing oneself in the literary history of the last 40 years; for Rexroth experimented with almost all of the poetic techniques of the time, dealt, at least in passing, with all of its favorite themes.
One moves through imagist lyrics, Chinese and Japanese forms, surreal constructions, poems intended to be read against the improvisations of jazz...
(The entire section is 1284 words.)
SOURCE: "Poetry of Vision, Poetry of Action," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring 1970, pp. 572-79.
[In the following review of The Collected Shorter Poems, Malkoff finds Rexroth a minor poet in the best sense of the word.]
Kenneth Rexroth creates a world that has much in common with May Swenson's. Both poets see the universe, and themselves as part of it, as intricate combinations of essentially meaningless monads; both return insistently to sensuous, frequently sensual, modes of perception with which to penetrate the abstractions the human mind imposes upon reality; both use poetry as the means of exploring and coming to terms with being. But...
(The entire section is 1117 words.)
SOURCE: "New Poems," in The New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1975, p. 2.
[In this brief review of New Poems, Leibowitz finds the poems exquisitely serene.]
Kenneth Rexroth's New Poems, almost exclusively lyrics like "spindles of light," are concerned with "the ecology of infinity." "The endless dark, however, is not a terrifying interstellar hole dwarfing man. Things though in motion are in place. Rexroth's poems are composed of a flash or revelatory image and silent metamorphoses:
Spring puddles give way...
To young grass.
In the garden, willow catkins
Change to singing birds.
(The entire section is 319 words.)
SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth, Poet," in The Ohio Review, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 1976, pp. 54-67.
[This wide-ranging essay spans Rexroth's career, but concentrates on The Phoenix and the Tortoise as an exemplary 20th century work.]
Many readers have difficulty in disengaging Rexroth as poet from Rexroth as social critic, Rexroth as man of letters, Rexroth as poetic warrior carrying on a vendetta with those who do not see the world of poetry as he does. One distinguished writer remarked scornfully in my presence that he did not consider Rexroth a poet but a politician. In the interests of dinner table decorum I didn't bother to press him to a clearer definition, but...
(The entire section is 4863 words.)
SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth and His Poetry," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 47, November 23, 1980, pp. 9, 43-4.
[In this essay, Hall encapsulates Rexroth's career, sketching his poetic preoccupations, and speculating on his lack of critical acceptance.]
In December of this year, Kenneth Rexroth will turn 75. Among his lesser accomplishments, he has appeared as a character in two famous novels: James T. Farrell put him into Studs Lonigan, a kid named Kenny who works in a drugstore; with more creative denomination, Jack Kerouac called him Rheinhold Cacoethes in The Dharma Bums, that 1958 Beat Generation testament, where he is the figure we...
(The entire section is 1927 words.)
SOURCE: "Natural Supernaturalism: The Nature Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth," in The Literary Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, Spring 1983, pp. 405-18.
[In this excerpt, Gutierrez discusses Rexroth's nature poetry.]
"The clarity of purposively realized objectivity is the most supernatural of all visions."
Kenneth Rexroth, Introduction to D.H. Lawrence's Selected Poems
"As long as we are lost in the world of purpose we are not free."
Kenneth Rexroth, The Dragon and The Unicorn
Probably there is little nature verse of any value that is simply about nature. Nature-meditation verse is perhaps a more accurate description...
(The entire section is 4176 words.)
SOURCE: "The Community of Love: Reading Kenneth Rexroth's Long Poems," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Winter 1989, pp. 17-31.
[In this excerpt, Bartlett traces the development of the quest theme through all of Rexroth's long poems.]
James Wright has written that Rexroth "is a great love poet during the most loveless of times," and indeed over the past sixty years Rexroth has written some of the most moving and durable American verse of our century. Undoubtedly, Rexroth's most well-known and accessible poems are his lyrics and his translations. Additionally, however, he wrote five long "philosophical" poems; these comprise his 1968 volume, The...
(The entire section is 4758 words.)
SOURCE: "The Threading of the Year," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vols. 18 & 19, Nos. 2 & 1, 1993, pp. 277-88.
[In the following excerpt, Barber contends that Rexroth's most poised and mature poetry was influenced by his direct observation of the Northern California landscape.]
Although it's evident that Rexroth's radical disaffection from the centers of official culture made the Bay Area an appealing base of operations, it's also plain that his embrace of the California hinterlands stemmed from impulses at least as elemental as ideological. An avid and delicate alertness to his adopted region's natural history, a charged responsiveness to its open sprawl...
(The entire section is 3825 words.)
SOURCE: "The Holiness of the Real: The Short Poems of Kenneth Rexroth," in Breaking Through to the Other Side: Essays on Realization in Modern Literature, Whitston Publishing Company, 1994, pp. 133-36.
[In this excerpt, Gutierrez discusses Rexroth's erotic Love Poems of Marichiko.]
The Love Poems of Marichiko represents an order of love verse strikingly different in some ways from all Rexroth's other love verse and remarkable for a man in his late sixties. Marichiko is a sequential verse narrative of sixty short verses (supposedly written by a Japanese "poetess" named Marichiko) that Rexroth claims to have translated in Japan during the 1970s. Actually,...
(The entire section is 1190 words.)
SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth," in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, eds. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, Macmillan, 1995, pp. 97-101.
[In this excerpt, Evans explicates the influence of Buddhist philosophy on Rexroth's work, particularly in the poem "On Flower Wreath Hill."]
In the Avatamsaka Sutra (Avatamsaka means 'flower wreath', the inspiration for Rexroth's poem "On Flower Wreath Hill") occurs the image of the "Jewel Net of Indra", in which reality is likened to a net, each knot of which can be compared to a "jewel" or the perspective of an individual human being, which is reflected in all the other "jewels" or perspectives. Our separate perspectives are thus...
(The entire section is 1856 words.)