blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Kenneth Rexroth's Life

Caren Irr

rexroth.jpg (35414 bytes)Rexroth, Kenneth (22 Dec. 1905- 6 June 1982), poet and translator, was born Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth in South Bend, Indiana, the son of Charles Rexroth, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Reed. Owing to Charles's rocky career, the family moved frequently throughout the northern midwest until Delia died in 1916 and Charles in 1919. For the next three years, Rexroth lived with an aunt in Chicago. After his expulsion from high school, he educated himself in literary salons, nightclubs, lecture halls, and hobo camps while working as a wrestler, soda jerk, clerk, and reporter. In 1923-1924 he served a prison term for partial ownership of a brothel.

During the 1920s, Rexroth backpacked across the country several times, visited Paris and New York, taught in a religious school, and spent two months in a Hudson Valley monastery. Reflections on these experiences appear in his later poetry, but his early work was cubist and surrealist--often opaquely so. In 1927 he married Andrée Schafer, an epileptic painter, and they moved to San Francisco. In the late 1920s Rexroth's first poems appeared in Pagany, Morada, and Charles Henri Ford's Blues. He read much of Alfred North Whitehead's philosophy around this time.

During the 1930s, Rexroth studied mysticism and Communism. Readings of Jacob Boehme, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus influenced revisions to his long poem, Homestead Called Damascus, published by New Directions in 1963. He also participated in the Communist party's John Reed Clubs, organizations supporting working-class writers and artists. Although skeptical about internal party politics, Rexroth helped organize clubs on the West Coast until 1938. He corresponded with other leftist poets, such as Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen, who wanted to save poetry from sentimentality and impressionism. In the mid-1930s, Rexroth participated in the Federal Arts Projects. In 1936 he spoke at the Western Writers Conference and was published in New Masses, Partisan Review, New Republic, and Art Front. A long-standing association began in 1937 when Rexroth's poetry appeared in the second volume of James Laughlin's New Directions in Poetry and Prose. Rexroth would be a lifelong friend, guru, and skiing companion to this influential publisher.

In 1938 Rexroth shifted his political attention to an ecologically based pacifism. His first volume of poetry, In What Hour (1940), was tepidly received--a response he blamed on the literary establishment of the urban East Coast. After Andrée died in 1940, he married Marie Kass, a public health nurse who shared his passions for politics and camping. When the United States entered World War II, Rexroth registered as a conscientious objector and served as a psychiatric orderly. Objecting to war measures, he helped a number of Japanese Americans evade internment. During this period, he practiced Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga.

In 1944 his collection The Phoenix and the Tortoise appeared. The title poem is a long philosophical narrative interspersed with concrete sensual images. This kind of earthy Jeremiad was central to Rexroth's postwar aesthetic. He took the social role of the poet quite seriously, writing in a 1958 review of Kenneth Patchen's work, "If no one cried, 'Woe, woe to the bloody city of damnation!' and nobody listened to the few who cry out, we would know that the human race had finally gone hopelessly and forever mad" (Kenneth Patchen: A Collection of Essays, ed. Richard G. Morgan [1977], p. 23). In the late 1940s Rexroth established a Friday-evening salon and a Wednesday-night philosophy club to discuss his theories of politics and poetry; in attendance were friends such as Robert Duncan, William Everson, Richard Eberhart, Philip Lamantia and, later, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and other Beats.

After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 1948, Rexroth traveled across Europe and the United States, making sociological observations that resurfaced in The Dragon and the Unicorn (1952). During the 1950s Rexroth continued to serve as father figure to the Beats, partly through a weekly radio show. He also became the biological father of two daughters; their mother was philosophy student Marthe Larsen. In 1953 he wrote what is probably his most well-known poem, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," in honor of Dylan Thomas. A passionate indictment of standardized culture, the poem asks who is responsible for Thomas's death; its answer implicates the cocktails and Brooks Brothers suits of this world. This piece became a standard in Rexroth's repertoire when, with the Beats, he began to read poetry with musical accompaniment. Actress Shirley MacLaine attended a poetry-and-jazz performance in the late 1950s and concluded that Rexroth resembled "John Donne in the fourth dimension."

After Kass divorced him in 1955 Rexroth legally married Larsen in 1958 (they had been illegally married in France in 1949); they divorced in 1961. His live-in secretary, Carol Tinker, became his fourth wife in 1974. In the 1960s Rexroth supported civil rights struggles and the anti-war movement. His Collected Shorter Poems appeared in 1967 and Complete Collected Longer Poems in 1968. Increasingly recognized by mainstream critics, he wrote a series of essays for Saturday Review and received a National Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1964. This later work was dominated by Eastern philosophy--a theme that appealed to the students he taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1968-1974). Partly on the strength of his translations of Asian poets, Rexroth won a Fulbright to Japan (1974-1975) and a Copernicus Award for lifetime achievement. His last major project was a series of poems presented as translations of a fictional Japanese poet named Marichiko. In later years Rexroth maintained friendships with younger writers, such as his literary executor Bradford Morrow, and feminist poets such as Carolyn Forché and Denise Levertov. Rexroth died in Santa Barbara, and, characteristically, Catholic eulogies, Buddhist chants, and Beat poems were performed at his funeral.

Kenneth Rexroth's distinctive poetic voice emphasized sexuality, ecology, and mysticism and provided an aesthetic alternative to social realism and New Critical formalism. Although some feminists have objected to his philandering and dated representations of women, as a writer and editor, Rexroth generously promoted both male and female radical writers. His contributions energized postwar American poetry.


Rexroth's papers are located at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. Rexroth's collections of poetry also include The Signature of All Things (1949), In Defense of the Earth (1956), Natural Numbers (1963), Elastic Retort (1973), New Poems (1974), and Flower Wreath Hill (1991). His translations include 100 Poems from the Chinese (1956), 100 Poems from the Japanese (1964), Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems (1969), Love and the Turning Year (1970), Orchid Boat (1972), 100 Poems from the French (1972), and 100 More Poems from the Japanese (1976). His play Beyond the Mountains was published in 1951. His essays include Bird in the Bush (1959), Assays (1961), Classics Revisited (1968), The Alternative Society (1970), With Eye and Ear (1970), American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971), Communalism (1974), and More Classics Revisited (1984). An Autobiographical Novel was published in 1966. Lee Bartlett, ed., Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, appeared in 1991. See Bradford Morrow, "An Outline of Unpublished Rexroth Manuscripts, and an Introductory Note to Three Chapters from the Sequel to An Autobiographical Novel," Sagetrieb 2, no. 3 (Winter 1983): 135-44.

The major biography is Linda Hamalian's A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (1991). Critical studies include Morgan Gibson, Kenneth Rexroth (1972), Gibson, Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom (1986), and Ken Knabb, Relevance of Rexroth (1990). James Laughlin and Denise Levertov wrote a moving tribute to Rexroth after his death; see "Remembering Kenneth Rexroth," American Poetry Review 12, no. 1 (1983): 18-19.

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 12:29:57 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Return to Kenneth Rexroth