Kenneth Rexroth Rexroth, Kenneth (Vol. 112) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In What Hour (poetry) 1940
The Phoenix and the Tortoise (poetry) 1944
The Art of Worldly Wisdom (poetry) 1949
The Signature of All Things: Poems, Songs, Elegies, Translations, and Epigrams (poetry) 1950
Beyond the Mountains (verse drama) 1951
The Dragon and the Unicorn (poetry) 1952
Fourteen Poems by O. V. de L. Milosz [translator] (poetry) 1952
A Bestiary for My Daughters Mary and Katherine (poetry) 1955
One Hundred Poems from the French [translator] (poetry) 1955
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese [translator] (poetry) 1955
Thou Shalt Not Kill (poetry) 1955
In Defense of the Earth...

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Janet Overmyer (review date 9 January 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seeing the Classics as New," in Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 1969, p. 5.

[In the following review, Overmyer offers a favorable assessment of Classics Revisited.]

John Crow, a witty and wise Shakespearian authority, has said that the difficulty with writing on Shakespeare today is that by now all the intelligent things have been said, so that anyone hoping to come up with a new observation is reduced to saying something unintelligent.

Before reading this book, one might have said the same of the sixty classics on which Kenneth Rexroth, best known as a poet, has written sixty brief, revealing essays which first appeared in the Saturday...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 30 April 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Transcendental Redoubt," in Times Literary Supplement, April 30, 1971, p. 499.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of With Eye and Ear, drawing comparisons between Rexroth and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

The Azimuth Press has found a gnomon in Kenneth Rexroth. Even his style tends towards the gnomic, ranging the heavens of literature from China to Peru: "Don Quixote, The Tale of Genji, The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Satyricon, these are the world's major works of prose fiction." Or of D. H. Lawrence: "He is certainly one of the major poets of the twentieth century, along with Guillaume Apollinaire and William...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

David Kirby (review date 30 May 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Quiet Satisfaction," in Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1980, p. 620.

[In the following review, Kirby gives a favorable assessment of The Morning Star.]

The first section of The Morning Star consists of very short poems, glimpses of the natural world with or without the human presence:

On the forest path
The leaves fall. In the withered
Grass the crickets sing
Their last songs. Through dew and dusk
I walk the paths you once walked,
My sleeves wet with memory.

What is attempted here is the directness...

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Morgan Gibson (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Poetry Is Vision'—'Vision Is Love': Rexroth's Philosophy of Literature," in Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom, Archon Books, 1986, pp. 32-48.

[In the following essay, Gibson examines the evolution of Rexroth's poetic style, literary influences, and conception of personal vision and communal sacrament. According to Gibson, "Rexroth shows that vision is organic consciousness, sympathetic, clear, and steady, communing, communicating, realizing the many in the one, the one in the many, the universality of each being."]

According to Rexroth's theory and practice, poetry is vision. Poets and critics have often used this term carelessly, but in...

(The entire section is 5410 words.)

Leo Hamalian (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scanning the Self: The Influence of Emerson on Kenneth Rexroth," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 3-14.

[In the following essay. Hamalian compares Rexroth's tireless self-reflection, scholarship, poetic sensibility, and role as cultural spokesperson with that of Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

One of the crucial links between the Beat poets and the other avant-garde movements of the 1950s was Kenneth Rexroth. He served more or less as liaison between the younger generation and modernists like William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. A political activist for most of his life, he championed curiosity in scholarship and experimentalism in the arts...

(The entire section is 4292 words.)

Donald Hall (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth," in American Writing Today, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, Whitston Publishing Company, 1991, pp. 82-92.

[In the following essay, Hall provides an overview of Rexroth's literary accomplishments. According to Evans, Rexroth's poetry "is a poetry of experience and observation, of knowledge and allusion, and finally a poetry of wisdom."]

Among Kenneth Rexroth's lesser accomplishments, he appears as a character in two famous novels. James T. Farrell put him in the Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932–35), where he is a kid named Kenny working in a drugstore. With more creative denomination, Jack Kerouac called him Rheinhold Cacoethes in The...

(The entire section is 2913 words.)

Donald Gutierrez (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Radical Man of Letter of the West," in Northwest Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1992, pp. 142-55.

[In the following essay, Gutierrez discusses Rexroth's literary career and critical reputation. According to Gutierrez, Rexroth "remains probably the most underrated poet in 20th-century American literature."]

They say I do not realize
The Values of my own time.
What preposterous nonsense!
Ten years of war, mountains of dead,
One hundred million armed men
And billions of paper dollars
Spent to disembowel mankind.
If they...

(The entire section is 4794 words.)

David Barber (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Threading of the Year," in Parnassus, Vol. 18, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 267-90.

[In the following essay, Barber provides analysis of Rexroth's poetry and literary development. According to Barber, "however boldly his personal history carries the impress of beatnik San Francisco and beatific Kyoto, his reckonings with the wilderness bear the telltale marks of Jeffersonian and Emersonian bloodlines."]

In his later years Kenneth Rexroth came to assume the very appearance of a weathered Chinese sage. That drooping mustache and the incalculable crinkles round the eyes, the high forehead and the set of the square chin, something about the mixed air of gruffness...

(The entire section is 7799 words.)

Thomas Evans (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kenneth Rexroth," in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, edited by Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 93-104.

[In the following essay, Evans examines the significance of Eastern philosophy, particularly the fusion of "Buddhism and anarcho-pacifist attitudes," in Rexroth's contemplative poetry.]

Kenneth Rexroth should be remembered, primarily, for his contemplative verse; but this was by no means the extent of his best work. By the end of the Second World War he was already well known on the West Coast as a discerning critic, an essayist who covered an encyclopedic range of subjects, an accomplished painter, and a long-time...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gutierrez, Donald. "The Holiness of the Ordinary: The Literary-Social Journalism of Kenneth Rexroth." Northwest Review 32, No. 2 (1994): 109-28.

Examines Rexroth's significant contributions as a literary critic and social commentator.

――――――. "Introduction: The Crystalline Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth." In his "The Holiness of the Real": The Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth, pp. 19-52. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.

Provides an overview of Rexroth's poetic style, influences, and major artistic concerns.


(The entire section is 241 words.)