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)
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)
Beyond the Mountains, pb. 1951 (4 plays)
Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, 1959
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
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.
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.