See S. Hamill and B. Morrow, ed., The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (2003); biography by L. Hamalian (1991); studies by M. Gibson (1972 and 1986), L. Bartlett (1988), K. Knabb (1990), and D. Gutierrez (1996).
(born Dec. 22, 1905, South Bend, Ind., U.S.—died June 6, 1982, Santa Barbara, Calif.) U.S. painter, essayist, poet, and translator. The largely self-educated Rexroth spent much of his youth traveling in the West, organizing and speaking for unions. His early poems were experimental, influenced by Surrealism; his later work was praised for its tight form and its wit and humanistic passion. He was an early champion of the Beat movement. His works include essays in Assays (1962) and With Eye and Ear (1970); and many translations of Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Latin, and Spanish poetry.
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Rexroth had two daughters, Mary (who later changed her name to Mariana) and Katharine, by his third wife, Marthe Larsen.
He spent his teenage years as an art student and soda jerk, along with other odd jobs. In 1923–1924 he was imprisoned during a raid on a Near North Side bar that he frequented, allegedly for being partial owner of a brothel. He lived in a decrepit jail cell under the care of four black cellmates until his legal guardian could bail him out.
While in Chicago, he frequented the homes and meeting places of political radicals, quickly identifying with the concerns of an agitated proletarian class and reciting poetry from a soapbox to excited crowds on street corners downtown.
He moved back east to Greenwich Village and attended The New School for a while before dropping out to live as a postulant in Holy Cross Monastery (West Park, New York). The lifestyle of meditation, silence and artistic creation suited him marvelously, and he later recalled it as the happiest time of his life. However, he felt strongly that he did not have a vocation there, and left with a solidified admiration for the communal rites and values of monasticism.
At age nineteen, he hitchhiked across the country, taking odd jobs and working a stint as a Forest Service trail crew hand, cook, and packer in the Pacific Northwest, at the Marblemount Ranger Station. Later he was able to board a steamship in Hoboken, exploring Mexico and South America before spending a week in Paris to meet many notable avant-garde figures, notably Tristan Tzara and the Surrealists. He considered staying on in Paris, but an American friend urged him not to become just another expatriate and he returned home.
Rexroth married Andrée Dutcher in 1927, a commercial artist from Chicago. He claimed to have fallen in love with her at first sight when he saw her in the doorway of the apartment building he was renting. He encouraged Dutcher to pursue non-commercial painting, and she gave him feedback on his writing. The two shared many interests and what Rexroth described as a perfect relationship. Their marriage deteriorated, however, and the couple was divorced near Rexroth's 35th birthday. Andrée died of complications from epilepsy shortly after, in 1940. Despite the divorce, her death triggered great sadness in Rexroth, who wrote a number of elegiac poems in her honor.
Within a year of Andrée's death, Rexroth married the nurse and poet Marie Kass. They opened up their home to weekly literary discussions, anti-war protesters, and Japanese-American convalescents avoiding internment. The two separated in 1948.
In 1949, Rexroth traveled to Europe with Marthe Larsen. The two were married in Aix-en-Provence despite Rexroth still being legally married to Marie. When couple returned to America, Marthe was pregnant. They had two daughters, Mary and Katherine, by 1955 when Rexroth's divorce from Marie finally came through. In 1956 Marthe fell in love with the poet Robert Creeley, and she later left Kenneth despite his desperate pleas for her to stay. Rexroth later removed all instances of her name from his poetry.
Carol Tinker then joined him, serving as a domestic and secretarial assistant. The two lived in an unmarried partnership for some years, and then married for legal convenience after Rexroth received a Fulbright Fellowship to visit Japan. They remained married until Rexroth's death.
His poetry is marked by a sensitivity to Asian forms as well as an appreciation of Ancient Greek lyric poetry, particularly that of Sappho. Rexroth's poetic voice is similar to that of Tu Fu (whom he translated), expressing indignation with the inequities of the world from an existential vantage.
With The Love Poems of Marichiko, Rexroth claimed to have translated the poetry of a long-dead Japanese poet, but it was later disclosed that he was the author, and he gained critical recognition for having conveyed so authentically the feelings of someone of another gender, culture, and time-period.
Rexroth's poetry, essays and journalism reflect his interests in jazz, politics, culture, and ecology.
With Rexroth acting as M.C., Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen read at the famous poetry-reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Rexroth later served as a defense witness at Ginsberg's obscenity trial concerning the event. Rexroth had previously sent young Ginsberg (new in the Bay Area) to meet young Snyder, and was thus responsible for their friendship. Lawrence Ferlinghetti named Rexroth as one of his own mentors.
Recordings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading want-ads, as featured on radio-station KPFA in 1957, were recorded by Henry Jacobs and are featured on the Meat Beat Manifesto album At the Center, mistakenly credited to Rexroth.
He is said to have read the entire Encyclopædia Britannica "like a novel" once a year. His books indicate familiarity with subjects ranging from political anarchism, painting, and world religions, to classical Chinese literature and philosophy.
In 1973, Rexroth wrote the Encyclopædia Britannica article on "literature".
Despite the value of his critical prose, he dismissed these works as being financially motivated. In the introduction to Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays, he wrote that "practicing writers and artists notoriously have very little use for critics. I am a practicing writer and artist. ... Poets are very ill advised to write prose for anything but money. The only possible exceptions are anger and logrolling for one’s friends."
A notable exception would appear to be his long association with KPFA, the Berkeley listener-supported, non-commercial FM station. Prior to its going on the air in 1949, its founder Louis Hill outlined his plans to a gathering of San Francisco artists and writers who met in Rexroth's apartment. For years Rexroth presented "Books", a spasmodic half-hour weekly program of reviews which he ad libbed into a tape recorder at home. Much of his prose writing, including his Autobiography, began as KPFA broadcasts.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled that Rexroth self-identified as a philosophical anarchist, regularly associated with other anarchists in North Beach, and sold Italian anarchist newspapers at the City Lights Bookstore.
His ideas later fermented into a concept of what he termed the "social lie:" that societies are governed by tactics of deception in order to maintain a hierarchy of exploitation and servitude. He saw this as pervasive in all elements of culture, including popular literature, education, and social norms.
(year not known)