Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth (December 22, 1905 – June 6, 1982) was an American poet, translator and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and paved the groundwork for the movement. Although he did not consider himself to be a Beat poet, and disliked the association, he was dubbed the "Father of the Beats" by Time Magazine. He was also a prolific reader of Chinese literature.
Rexroth was born Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth in South Bend, Indiana, the son of Charles Rexroth, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Reed. His childhood was troubled by his father's alcoholism and his mother's chronic illness. His mother died in 1916 and his father in 1919, after which he went to live with his aunt in Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago.
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; the police alleged he was part 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 crowds on street corners downtown.
An aborted attempt at a trip around the world with a friend piqued his interest in the American Southwest, and he began a tour through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, moving up and down the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
He moved to Greenwich Village and attended The New School 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, 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 viewed love for another person as a sacramental act that could connect one with a transcendent, universal awareness. In his introduction to his poem The Phoenix and the Tortoise, Rexroth articulated his understanding of love and marriage: "The process as I see it goes something like this: from abandon to erotic mysticism, from erotic mysticism to the ethical mysticism of sacramental marriage, thence to the realization of the ethical mysticism of universal responsibility."
In 1927, Rexroth married Andrée Dutcher, a commercial artist and painter 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. 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 the couple returned to the US, Marthe was pregnant. They had 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.
After living in San Francisco for 41 years, Rexroth moved to Santa Barbara in 1968. He taught two courses at UCSB. After a few years, he married Carol Tinker, his longtime assistant. They remained married until Rexroth's death in 1982.
Rexroth was the central figure in San Francisco Bay Area poetry from the 30s through the 60s and exercised a major and early influence over the evolution of the area's local artistic culture and social counterculture. Bay Area poetry in the 40s and 50s was substantially the creation of Rexroth, along with Robert Duncan, William Everson (Brother Antoninus), Philip Lamantia, Jack Spicer, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others, and Rexroth's centrality was generally acknowledged. His prose on social subjects was an incitement, a participant, a witness and a history of the emergence of this counterculture. His weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle was, while it survived, a lodestar of this movement.
Much of Rexroth's work can be classified as "erotic" or "love poetry," given his deep fascination with transcendent love. According to Hamill and Kleiner, "nowhere is Rexroth's verse more fully realized than in his erotic poetry".
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 contemporary, "young Japanese woman 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 and culture. Linda Hamalian, his biographer, suggests that, "translating the work of women poets from China and Japan reveals a transformation of both heart and mind".
Rexroth's poetry, essays, and journalism reflect his interests in jazz, politics, culture, and ecology.
With Rexroth acting as master of ceremonies, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen performed at the famous Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955. Rexroth later testified as a defense witness at Ferlinghetti's obscenity trial for publishing Howl. Rexroth had previously sent Ginsberg (new in the Bay Area) to meet Snyder, and was thus responsible for their friendship. Lawrence Ferlinghetti named Rexroth as one of his own mentors.
Rexroth was eventually critical of the Beat movement. Years after the Six Gallery reading, TIME magazine referred to him as "Father of the Beats." To this he replied, "an entomologist is not a bug."
Rexroth wrote a large body of literary and cultural criticism, much of which has been compiled in anthologies. His incisive views of topics ranging from D. H. Lawrence to gnosticism testify to his familiarity with the world and extensive self-education.
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. Before it went on the air in 1949, its founder Lewis 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 weekly half-hour 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.
Rexroth was a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1968 to 1973. He became famous among students—and infamous with the administration—for his witty and inflammatory remarks on trends of anti-intellectualism and laziness on campus.
As a young man in Chicago, Rexroth was heavily involved with the anarchist movement and was active in the IWW, attending and participating in politically charged readings and lectures. He was a regular at meetings of the Washington Park Bug Club, a loose assemblage of various intellectuals and revolutionaries. Such relationships allowed him to recite poems by other writers as well as gain experience with the political climate and revolutionary currents of the day.
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 that 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.
Rexroth died in Santa Barbara on June 6, 1982. He had spent his final years translating Japanese and Chinese women poets, as well as promoting the work of female poets in America and overseas. He is buried on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Cemetery Association overlooking the sea, and while all the other graves face inland, his alone faces the Pacific. His epitaph reads, "As the full moon rises / The swan sings in sleep / On the lake of the mind." According to association records, he is interred near the corner of Island and Bluff boulevards, in Block C of the Sunset section, Plot 18.
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He called himself a 'philosophical anarchist'...
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