Born in South Bend in 1905, Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth grew up in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. His ancestors were scholars, peasants, and religious and political dissenters from Germany and Ireland, along with native and black Americans, and pioneers, all of whom enriched his unique personality. His parents were sophisticated travelers who took him on his first European tour when he was seven. After they died a few years later, he became independently active in Chicago as a precocious and revolutionary painter, poet, actor, and journalist—appearing as a character inJames T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan (1934). After exploring Europe, Mexico, and the West Coast, he moved to San Francisco in 1927, where he made his home until moving to Santa Barbara in the late 1960’s. Eastern and Western contemplative practices affected the visionary orientation of his poetry, painting, and philosophy. During World War II, he was a conscientious objector, working in a psychiatric hospital where he was severely injured by a patient. He also assisted interned and otherwise harassed Japanese Americans, and his friendships with Asians deepened his lifelong interest in Asian culture, especially Buddhism, which harmonizes in his work with an ecologically based sense of universal community.
Rexroth was married to Andrée Dutcher, an anarchist painter, from 1927 until her death in 1940; to Marie Kass, a nurse, from 1940 until their divorce in 1948; and to Marthe Larsen, a member of the Libertarian Circle, from 1949 until their divorce in 1961. Two daughters, Mary and Katherine, were born to them in 1950 and 1954 respectively. In 1974, he married the poet Carol Tinker, and they spent a year in Kyoto before returning to their home in Montecito. Rexroth also toured Asia in 1967, 1972, 1978, and 1980. He died on June 6, 1982.
Kenneth Rexroth was a polymathic genius, learned in literature, politics, music, languages, art, and religion. Rexroth was born December 22, 1905, in South Bend, Indiana, the son of Charles Rexroth and Delia Reed Rexroth. His mother, who passed on her strong feminist convictions to her son, died of complications of tuberculosis in 1916. Two years later, Charles Rexroth, whose pharmacy business had failed, died as a result of alcoholism. Kenneth was raised by his aunt on Chicago’s South Side. He attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago. When he was only sixteen years old, he worked his way to the West Coast and back. Later, he shipped out to Europe, then, on his return, once again worked his way west and then south to Mexico before returning to Chicago.
Rexroth was married four times. His first wife, Andrée Dutcher, died in 1940, and in the same year he married Marie Cass. They were divorced in 1948. In 1949 Rexroth married Marthe Larsen, with whom he had two daughters, Mary in 1950 and Katherine in 1954, before the couple were divorced in 1961. In 1974 poet Carol Tinker became Rexroth’s fourth wife.
Rexroth’s activity between the world wars was largely political, though he did produce two long philosophical poems that were not published until later, The Homestead Called Damascus and The Art of Worldly Wisdom. One of his first published works was In What Hour, a book of poems that appeared in 1940, when Rexroth was almost thirty-five. The Phoenix and the Tortoise soon followed, and thereafter Rexroth published some fifty volumes of poetry, criticism, translations, and autobiography.
The Collected Shorter Poems, The Collected Longer Poems, New Poems, and The Morning Star contain all Rexroth’s original verse. These books, individually and together, display the wide range of Rexroth’s interests, from anarchism to Buddhism, from the environment to the Orient. Rexroth’s early artistic enthusiasm for cubist painting, which he practiced, translates into the Objectivism of his early poems, a style he shared with William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. The Collected Shorter Poems includes love poems such as “The Thin Edge of Your Pride,” political poems such as “From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion,” nature poems such as “A Lesson in Geography,” social poems such as “Thou Shall Not Kill,” travel poems such as “Vicenza,” and translations. Various poems are dedicated to different contemporaries, from the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara to the Welsh bard Dylan Thomas. The net effect of reading these poems is a sense of both breadth and depth, range of subject and style combined with profundity and intensity of feeling.
Rexroth’s translations are equally impressive. With his long-standing interest in Eastern culture, he was largely responsible for making Chinese and Japanese poetry available to a broad American audience. Of special note in this respect are One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Rexroth also translated poetry from Greek, Latin, Spanish, and French, including the work of French cubist poet Pierre Reverdy. In return for his interest in Japanese culture and literature, three books of Rexroth’s poems have been rendered into Japanese by translators.
An Autobiographical Novel chronicles the first twenty-one years of Rexroth’s life. Begun as a set of tapes made to inform his young daughters about their father’s ancestors and early life and subsequently broadcast over the Pacifica radio stations, the book was transcribed and edited by further dictation to preserve its oral quality. In it Rexroth describes with factual detachment his early experiments in abstract painting, his adoption of the bohemian lifestyle, his political activism, his spiritual odyssey, and his conservationism.
Rexroth’s essays are pointed, trenchant, and individualistic. He brings his wealth of knowledge to bear in criticism that regularly shatters idols such as T. S. Eliot, undermines repressive authority such as that of the New Critics, reorganizes the traditional poetic canon to include forgotten poets such as Mina Loy, attacks the literary academy for superficiality and laziness, and generally enforces his vision that literature should be imaginative, international, innovative, and intelligent. From his position as outsider, and given his extremely articulate—even arrogant—voice, Rexroth as a critic speaks the unspeakable and recognizes the unrecognizable, leading often to insights that explode prejudice, cut through cant, and refresh his readers’ judgment, even when they do not agree with him.
In 1956 Rexroth gained special notoriety as the father of the San Francisco poetry renaissance, a flowering of creative activity in the Bay Area that corresponded to the rise of the Beat movement in New York. It was Rexroth who acted as master of ceremonies for the famous Six Gallery reading in 1956 at which Allen Ginsberg first performed “Howl.” That Rexroth subsequently rejected—and was in turn rejected by—some of the writers he initially supported is testimony to his integrity. As soon as he perceived that some of the new poets were encouraging a formulaic approach to literature, and so to life, he rejected them.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Rexroth won many prizes for his poetry and translations and taught sporadically in various universities. In 1967 a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled him to travel around the world. Subsequently, his growing belief that the world is doomed to destruction by runaway technology started him on a new spiritual quest that led through Buddhism to Episcopalianism and finally to Roman Catholicism. The publication of The Orchid Boat and The Burning Heart in the 1970’s, translations of Chinese and Japanese women poets respectively, fueled the growing interest in literature written by women. At about the same time Rexroth produced a radical social history, Communalism, from the Neolithic to 1900. Rexroth was baptized in the Catholic church in 1981, about a year before he died of heart disease in Santa Barbara, California.