Authors: Kenneth Rexroth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works

Poetry:

A Prolegomenon to a Theodicy, 1932

In What Hour, 1940

The Phoenix and the Tortoise, 1944

The Signature of All Things, 1949

The Dragon and the Unicorn, 1952

The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 1953

Thou Shalt Not Kill, 1955

A Bestiary, 1955

In Defense of the Earth, 1956

Natural Numbers, 1963

The Homestead Called Damascus, 1963

The Collected Shorter Poems, 1966

The Collected Longer Poems, 1967

The Heart’s Garden, the Garden’s Heart, 1967

The Spark in the Tinder of Knowing, 1968

Sky Sea Birds Trees Earth House Beasts Flowers, 1971

New Poems, 1974

The Silver Swan, 1976

On Flower Wreath Hill, 1976

The Morning Star, 1979

Selected Poems, 1984

Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, 1997

Swords That Shall Not Strike: Poems of Protest and Rebellion, 1999 (Geoffrey Gardner, editor)

Translations:

Fourteen Poems by O. V. de L. Milosz, 1952, 1982

One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, 1955, 1957, 1964

One Hundred Poems from the French, 1955, 1972

One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, 1956, 1965

Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile, 1956

Poems from the Greek Anthology, 1962

Pierre Reverdy: Selected Poems, 1969

Love in the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese, 1970

The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China, 1972 (with Ling Chung)

One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, 1974

The Burning Heart: Women Poets of Japan, 1977 (with Atsumi Ikuko)

Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi, 1978 (with Carol Tinker, Ikuko, John Solt, and Morita Yasuyo)

The Love Poems of Marichiko, 1978

Li Ch’ing Chao: Complete Poems, 1979 (with Chung)

Drama:

Beyond the Mountains, pb. 1951 (4 plays)

Nonfiction:

Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, 1959

Assays, 1961

An Autobiographical Novel, 1966, 1978

Classics Revisited, 1968

The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World, 1970

With Eye and Ear, 1970

American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, 1971

The Elastic Retort, 1973

Communalism, from the Neolithic to 1900, 1975

Excerpts from a Life, 1981

World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, 1987

More Classics Revisited, 1989

Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 1991

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810000879}{$I[A]Rexroth, Kenneth}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Rexroth, Kenneth}{$I[tim]1905;Rexroth, Kenneth}

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 poems such as “The Thin Edge of Your Pride,” political poems such as “From the Paris Commune to the Kronstadt Rebellion,” nature poems such as “A Lesson in Geography,” social poems such as “Thou Shall Not Kill,” travel poems such as “Vicenza,” and translations. Various poems are dedicated to different contemporaries, from the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara to the Welsh bard Dylan Thomas. The net effect of reading these poems is a sense of both breadth and depth, range of subject and style combined with profundity and intensity of feeling.

Rexroth’s translations are equally impressive. With his long-standing interest in Eastern culture, he was largely responsible for making Chinese and Japanese poetry available to a broad American audience. Of special note in this respect are One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Rexroth also translated poetry from Greek, Latin, Spanish, and French, including the work of French cubist poet Pierre Reverdy. In return for his interest in Japanese culture and literature, three books of Rexroth’s poems have been rendered into Japanese by translators.

An Autobiographical Novel chronicles the first twenty-one years of Rexroth’s life. Begun as a set of tapes made to inform his young daughters about their father’s ancestors and early life and subsequently broadcast over the Pacifica radio stations, the book was transcribed and edited by further dictation to preserve its oral quality. In it Rexroth describes with factual detachment his early experiments in abstract painting, his adoption of the bohemian lifestyle, his political activism, his spiritual odyssey, and his conservationism.

Rexroth’s essays are pointed, trenchant, and individualistic. He brings his wealth of knowledge to bear in criticism that regularly shatters idols such as T. S. Eliot, undermines repressive authority such as that of the New Critics, reorganizes the traditional poetic canon to include forgotten poets such as Mina Loy, attacks the literary academy for superficiality and laziness, and generally enforces his vision that literature should be imaginative, international, innovative, and intelligent. From his position as outsider, and given his extremely articulate–even arrogant–voice, Rexroth as a critic speaks the unspeakable and recognizes the unrecognizable, leading often to insights that explode prejudice, cut through cant, and refresh his readers’ judgment, even when they do not agree with him.

In 1956 Rexroth gained special notoriety as the father of the San Francisco poetry renaissance, a flowering of creative activity in the Bay Area that corresponded to the rise of the Beat movement in New York. It was Rexroth who acted as master of ceremonies for the famous Six Gallery reading in 1956 at which Allen Ginsberg first performed “Howl.” That Rexroth subsequently rejected–and was in turn rejected by–some of the writers he initially supported is testimony to his integrity. As soon as he perceived that some of the new poets were encouraging a formulaic approach to literature, and so to life, he rejected them.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Rexroth won many prizes for his poetry and translations and taught sporadically in various universities. In 1967 a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled him to travel around the world. Subsequently, his growing belief that the world is doomed to destruction by runaway technology started him on a new spiritual quest that led through Buddhism to Episcopalianism and finally to Roman Catholicism. The publication of The Orchid Boat and The Burning Heart in the 1970’s, translations of Chinese and Japanese women poets respectively, fueled the growing interest in literature written by women. At about the same time Rexroth produced a radical social history, Communalism, from the Neolithic to 1900. Rexroth was baptized in the Catholic church in 1981, about a year before he died of heart disease in Santa Barbara, California.

BibliographyGibson, Morgan. Kenneth Rexroth. New York: Twayne, 1972. The first book-length study of Rexroth and a good introduction to his life and work. Chronological in approach, the book traces the step-by-step progression of Rexroth’s career. Includes chronology, notes, select bibliography (including an annotated list of secondary sources), and index.Gibson, Morgan. Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986. This book expands Gibson’s Kenneth Rexroth (1972) in order to assess the poet’s entire career. Benefiting from the close friendship with Rexroth, Gibson traces the evolution of themes and styles and analyzes the poems, plays, translations, and essays. Contains notes, bibliography (including an unannotated list of secondary sources), and index.Grisby, Gordon K. “The Presence of Reality: The Poetry of Kenneth Rexroth.” The Antioch Review 31 (Fall, 1971): 405-422. Grisby links the directness and clarity of Rexroth’s style to the nature of his vision. Many well-chosen examples from the poems illustrate the main themes of Rexroth’s poetry.Gutierrez, Donald. The Holiness of the Real: The Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. A critical study of selected poems by Rexroth. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.Gutierrez, Donald. “Rexroth’s ‘Incarnation.’” The Explicator 53, no. 4 (Summer, 1995): 236. Gutierrez explores how Rexroth renders sexual love in a context of nature so that nature ceases to be context in “Incarnation.”Hamalian, Linda. A Life of Kenneth Rexroth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. The first book-length biography of Rexroth relies on extensive interviews with Rexroth and other key individuals. Illustrating both positive and negative qualities, this book corrects Rexroth’s account in An Autobiographical Novel (1966).Rexroth, Kenneth. “An Interview with Kenneth Rexroth.” Interview by Cyrena N. Pondrom. In The Contemporary Writer: Interviews with Sixteen Writers and Poets, edited by L. S. Dembo and Cyrena N. Pondrom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972. This thorough, excellent interview focuses on the mystical and philosophical ideas underlying Rexroth’s poetry. Rexroth explains in detail the effects he tries to achieve in a poem. The influence of Asian culture, especially that of Buddhism, is abundantly illustrated.
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