Kenneth Rexroth

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,245 words.)