A Life of Kenneth Rexroth Essay - Critical Essays

A Life of Kenneth Rexroth

Linda Hamalian provides an engrossing portrait of the poet often considered one of the father figures not only of the San Francisco renaissance of the 1950’s but also of the West Coast counter culture in the 1960’s. With his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry, his learned essays on other cultures, and his staunch anti-war, pacifist activities, Rexroth provided a model future generations followed and to which they paid homage.

Rexroth spent a stormy, delinquent youth in Chicago, impatient with conventional schooling and the conservative strictures of society. Inspired by poets such as Carl Sandburg, he concerned himself with democratic socialism and pacifism (he spent World War II doing alternative service in a mental hospital) while developing an extraordinary feeling for nature often evoked in free verse, which is often coupled with love lyrics. An autodidact, Rexroth compiled a huge library, impressing not only his fellow poets but also scholars who assumed his encyclopedic knowledge was the product of a formal education.

Hamalian honors Rexroth’s role as a precursor of such poets as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Although Rexroth sometimes resented the way younger poets overshadowed him, his main impulse was to promote their work on his radio book review program, in his newspaper column, and in countless essays and reviews written for important periodicals such as THE NATION and THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW.

Hamalian does not stint the personal side of Rexroth’s career, beautifully capturing his remarkable first marriage to a gifted painter and his other marriages and affairs, in which he unfortunately showed a penchant for violence in flagrant contradiction of his lifelong principles.

Sources for Further Study

Bloomsbury Review. XI, June, 1991, p. 2

Booklist. LXXXVII, February 15, 1991, p. 1173.

Chicago Tribune. April 28, 1991, XIV, p. 6.

Choice. XXIX, October, 1991, p. 280.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, February 1, 1991, p. 153.

Library Journal. CXVI, April 1, 1991, p. 121.

Los Angeles Times Book Review May 5, 1991, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, January 25, 1991, p. 42.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, April 14, 1991, p. 4.