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.