Kenneth Rexroth 1905–1982
American poet, translator, critic, essayist, editor, dramatist, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents an overview of Rexroth's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 6, 11, 22, and 49.
Associated with various avant-garde movements throughout his career, notably Cubism and the Beat Generation, Rexroth's highly regarded meditative poetry incorporates eclectic elements of Judeo-Christian, classical, modernist, and Eastern influences. A skilled translator in several languages, noted literary critic, and outspoken political dissenter, Rexroth's radical libertarianism and mystical orientation produced a controversial confluence of ideas in his work. Though marginalized by East Coast literary critics and academics during much of his life, Rexroth's evocative depiction of the natural world and erotic love is now widely praised for its visionary spiritual awareness and universality. Much of his best known verse appears in The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949), The Signature of All Things (1950), In Defense of the Earth (1956), The Homestead Called Damascus (1963), and The Collected Shorter Poems (1966). A poet of remarkable range and ability, Rexroth's distinct prophetic voice, iconoclastic appropriation of disparate literary traditions, and devotion to the craft of poetry and translation attracted international critical attention and exerted an important influence on contemporary American literature.
Born Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth in South Bend, Indiana, Rexroth was the only son of Charles, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Rexroth; their travels to New York City and Europe exposed the young Rexroth to modern art and fostered his lifelong interest in painting. After moving to Indiana and then Michigan, the family settled in Chicago where the Rexroths' marriage deteriorated due to Charles' alcoholism and philandering. Delia, a loving mother who encouraged Rexroth's creativity, died of gangrene in 1916, and Charles succumbed to liver disease two years later. Orphaned at age thirteen, Rexroth was taken in by an aunt in Chicago; he eventually dropped out of high school and attended the Chicago Art Institute, where he immersed himself in the bohemian art and intellectual scene of the Chicago Renaissance. During the early 1920s, Rexroth entered into a love affair with his social worker, Lesley Smith, whom he followed to Smith College in New York City. While in New York, Rexroth attended the New York Art Students League and worked for several radical leftist publications. When his relationship with Smith ended, Rexroth began a vagabond existence, hitchhiking to the West Coast, back again to Chicago in 1924, and then traveled to Europe, the American Southwest, and Mexico. In 1927 Rexroth married Andrée Deutcher, an artist, and moved to San Francisco where he became increasingly active in leftist politics during the Depression. Rexroth's first published poems appeared in Blues, a small literary magazine, in 1929, but he remained unrecognized until his poem "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy" appeared in Louis Zukofsky's Objectivist Anthology in 1932. He was awarded the California Literature Silver Medal for his first two books of poetry, In What Hour (1940) and The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944). After his first wife died in 1940, Rexroth married Marie Kass, a nurse, whom he divorced in 1948. That same year, Rexroth returned to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship and, the next year, published a third volume of poetry, The Art of Worldly Wisdom. In the 1950s Rexroth emerged as a leading figure of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance and mentor for Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg. He produced additional volumes of poetry, notably The Signature of All Things and In Defense of the Earth, as well as verse drama in Beyond the Mountains (1951), and collections of translated French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese poetry. Rexroth received the Chapelbrook Award and Eunice Teitjens Award from Poetry magazine in 1957, a Shelley Memorial Award and Amy Lowell Fellowship in 1958, and a Longview Award in 1963. During the 1960s and 1970s, Rexroth maintained a prolific output of poetry, including The Homestead Called Damascus and The Morning Star (1979), more translations of Asian poetry, and essays on society and literature. Rexroth's third marriage to Marthe Larsen produced two daughters and ended in divorce in 1961. He was awarded a grant from the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964 and subsequently taught at San Francisco State College, the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. In 1967 he received a Rockefeller grant on which he travelled to Europe and Japan. Rexroth relocated to Santa Barbara in 1968, and married his fourth wife, poet Carol Tinker, in 1974. He resided in Santa Barbara until suffering a fatal stroke in 1982. He was presented with the Academy of American Poets' Copernicus Award in 1978 in recognition of his lifetime achievement.
Rexroth's large and remarkably varied body of work stems from a core of artistic, political, and literary preoccupations centered largely upon communion with the natural world, non-violent protest, and transcendental philosophy. In What Hour contains Rexroth's early attempts to unify personal and humanitarian concerns in verse about the execution of Sacco and Venzetti, the Spanish Civil War, and the death of his first wife. In the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Butler Yeats, Rexroth displays the characteristic nature imagery, contemplative lyricism, and pacifistic morality that permeates so much of his work. His despair over the outbreak of the Second World War, especially the split between East and West, foreshadows Rexroth's lifelong effort to reconcile the transcendental legacy of both cultures. Rexroth examines the interrelationship of self-identity and social conscience in The Phoenix and the Tortoise, an assemblage of political verse, satire, elegies, and passionate love poems modelled on those of D. H. Lawrence. The more abstract influence of Cubism is prominent in The Art of Worldly Wisdom, in which Rexroth evokes elementary forms and intuitive word associations reminiscent of the work of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and the Imagist poetry of Ezra Pound. The latter volume contains "A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy," an extended meditative poem that incorporates allusions to Dantean Hell and visionary Christian imagery akin to John Milton's Paradise Regained. The Signature of All Things, named after the work of German mystic Jakob Boehme, reveals the strong influence of the eighth-century Chinese poet Tu Fu on Rexroth's verse, marked by an increasing tendency toward an oriental aesthetic in direct, spare lyrics. Rexroth's affinity for Asian culture is also evident in Beyond the Mountains, a tetralogy of verse drama that combines characters from classical Greek tragedy with elements of Noh drama, a stylized ancient Japanese form of theater involving dance, poetry, and mime. In Defense of the Earth is a diverse collection of personal statement, Japanese translations, epigrams, and highly charged love poetry. This volume also contains two of Rexroth's best known poems—"A Letter to William Carlos Williams," a touching tribute to one of his greatest influences, and "Thou Shalt Not Kill," an elegy commemorating the death of Dylan Thomas in which he offers a bitter indictment of conformist pressures and conventional morality in contemporary American society. The title poem of The Homestead Called Damascus is among Rexroth's most famous long works. Originally composed during the 1920s, this philosophical poem traces Rexroth's introspective quest for spiritual meaning through the dialogue and metaphysical speculation of two brothers and an omniscient narrator who ponder with skepticism the received wisdom of the ages. Written in the Symbolist style, the poem shows the influence of T. S. Eliot's Wasteland. In An Autobiographical Novel (1966), Rexroth offers additional insight into his intellectual and personal growth through the first six decades of his life. His well-informed interest in Asian literature and Buddhist philosophy is displayed in numerous volumes of Chinese and Japanese verse translations, as well as in The Heart's Garden, The Garden's Heart (1967), whose title poem describes a visionary journey into nature and the Tao. In this work, Rexroth sublimates the emotionalism of his earlier verse with serene landscape imagery and sensuous reflection that portray the quiet search for enlightenment and actuality. Along with several collections of essays, particularly Bird in the Bush (1959) and Assays (1961), literary criticism in Classics Revisited (1968) and With Eye and Ear (1970), and social commentary in The Alternative Society (1970) and Communalism (1974), Rexroth displays his wide-ranging interests, provocative insights, and erudition.
Rexroth is widely recognized as a gifted poet and translator whose indefatigable commitment to the creative life attests to the conviction and seriousness of his work, yet he was excluded from scholarly criticism and anthologies for many years. His detractors typically object to his avid contentiousness and anarchistic contempt for the literary establishment and consumer culture. However, as a model for radical free thinkers and "grandfather of the Beats," Rexroth achieved a rare independent perspective as a genuine autodidact and leading figure of the West Coast literary scene. Though eschewing affiliation with any artistic or political ideology, especially the modernist presumptions of Lawrence, Eliot, and Pound, Rexroth formulated a heterogenous personal style that freely assimilated elements of their work along with that of Whitman, Yeats, Tu Fu, Williams, Wallace Stevens, and the French Surrealists. Rexroth is consistently praised for his unusual ability to distill deep philosophical musings and multicultural literary allusions in highly accessible verse that captures the immediacy of sensuous experience in lucid language and arresting metaphor. While "The Homestead Called Damascus," "A Prolegomenon to Theodicy," and "The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart" are considered among his finest long works, Rexroth's shorter poems, particularly his elegies and erotic love verse, are considered equally accomplished. In addition, Rexroth's renderings of Chinese and Japanese poetry are considered among the best in the English language. He is also credited for his efforts to introduce female Asian poets to Western readers in several volumes devoted to translations of their work.