Kenneth Rexroth

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

:: Poet Home :: Poetry :: Short Stories :: Contact ::

Kenneth Rexroth (December 22, 1905 – June 6, 1982) was an American poet, translator and critical essayist. He was among the first poets in the United States to explore traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku. He is regarded as a chief figure in the San Francisco Renaissance.

Rexroth had two daughters, Mary (who later changed her name to Mariana) and Katharine, by his third wife, Marthe Larsen.


  • 1 Early years
  • 2 Travels
  • 3 Love, marriage, sacrament
  • 4 Poetic influences
  • 5 The Beat Generation
  • 6 Critical work
  • 7 Teaching
  • 8 Politics
  • 9 Last Years
  • 10 Bibliography
    • 10.1 As author
    • 10.2 As translator
  • 11 Discography
  • 12 References
  • 13 Trivia
  • 14 External links

Early years

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. Rexroth was homeschooled by his mother, and by age four he was reading widely in the Classics and observing the natural world firsthand. His mother died in 1916 and his father in 1918, 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, 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.


An aborted attempt at a trip around the world with a friend piqued his interest in the American Southwest, and he began a tour though Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, moving up and down the western side of the Rocky Mountains.

He moved back east to Greenwich Village and attended The New School for a while before dropping out to live as a postulant in an Anglo-Catholic monastery near Poughkeepsie. 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 National Park Service trail patrolman in the Pacific Northwest. 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.

After meeting his first wife, he moved to San Francisco, and would continue to live in California for the rest of his life.

Love, marriage, sacrament

Rexroth viewed love for another person as a sacramental act that could connect one with a transcendent, universal awareness. In his introduction to the long poem The Dragon and the Unicorn, 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 other words, love was a key to truly realizing one's existence, something that could be cemented and validated in the long run by wedded union. This helps to explain Rexroth's four marriages:

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.

Poetic influences

Much of Rexroth's work can be classified as "erotic" or "love poetry," given his deep fascination with transcendent love.

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.

During the 1970s Rexroth, along with the scholar Ling Chung, translated the notable Sung Dynasty poet Li Ch'ing-chao and an anthology of Chinese women poets, titled The Orchid Boat.

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.

The Beat Generation

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.

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."

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.

Critical work

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.

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."


Rexroth was a professor 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.

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.

Rexroth was a conscientious objector during World War II and was actively involved with helping Japanese-American internees.

Last Years

Rexroth died in Santa Barbara in 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.


Rexroth was included in the Penguin Books anthology-series Penguin Modern Poets, which helped spread his reputation outside the US. Possibly his best-known poem is his translation of "The Advantages of Learning", by the Roman poet, Martial.

As author

  • In What Hour? (1940)
  • The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944)
  • The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949). Prairie City, IL: Decker Press
  • Beyond the Mountains: Four Plays in Verse (1951). New York:New Directions
  • Bird in the Bush: Obvious Essays (1959)
  • Assays (1961)
  • Classics Revisited (1964; 1986). New York:New Directions
  • Flower Wreath Hill: Later Poems (1991)
  • Collected Shorter Poems (1966). New York:New Directions
  • Collected Longer Poems (1968). New York:New Directions
  • The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World (1970). Herder & Herder.
  • With Eye and Ear (1991). Herder & Herder.
  • American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971). Herder & Herder.
  • The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas (1973). Seabury.
  • Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (1974). Seabury.
  • Selected Poems (1984). New York:New Directions
  • World Outside the Window: Selected Essays (1987). New York:New Directions
  • More Classics Revisited (1989). New York:New Directions.
  • An Autobiographical Novel (1964; expanded edition, 1991). New York:New Directions
  • Kenneth Rexroth & James Laughlin: Selected Letters (1991). Norton.
  • Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems (1997). Copper Canyon.
  • Swords That Shall Not Strike: Poems of Protest and Rebellion (1999). Glad Day.
  • Complete Poems (2003). Copper Canyon.

As translator

(in chronological order)

  • 30 Spanish Poems of Love and Exile (1956), San Francisco:City Lights.
  • 100 Poems from the Japanese (1955), New York:New Directions.
  • 100 Poems from the Chinese (1956), New York:New Directions.
  • Pierre Reverdy: Selected Poems (1969), New York: New Directions
  • 100 More Poems from the Chinese: Love and the Turning Year (1970), New York:New Directions.
  • 100 Poems from the French (1972), Pym-Randall.
  • Orchid Boat (1972), Seabury Press. with Ling Chung; reprinted as Women Poets of China, New York:New Directions
  • 100 More Poems from the Japanese (1976), New York:New Directions.
  • The Burning Heart (1977), Seabury Press. with Ikuko Atsumi; reprinted as Women Poets of Japan, New York:New Directions

(year not known)

  • Complete Poems of Li Ch’ing-Chao. New York:New Directions.
  • Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected Poems of Kazuko Shiraishi. New York:New Directions.
  • 14 Poems by O. V. de Lubicz-Milosz. Copper Canyon.
  • Poems from the Greek Anthology. Ann Arbor.


  • Poetry Readings in the Cellar (with the Cellar Jazz Quintet): Kenneth Rexroth & Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1957) Fantasy #7002 LP (Spoken Word)
  • Rexroth: Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk (1958) Fantasy #7002 LP (Spoken Word)
  • Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0-140-15102-8 (pbk)


  • He is referenced in the song "Rexroth's Daughter", written by Greg Brown, and recorded by Joan Baez.
  • Jack Vance allegedly based the mad poet Navarth on him.
  • Introduction to Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth
  • Kenneth Rexroth Archive, a collection of works by and about Rexroth
  • A biography of Kenneth Rexroth - focussing on his anarchist and working class politics
  • Kenneth Rexroth, from the Anarchist Encyclopedia
  • Communalism, Seabury 1972, e-text
  • A Life of Kenneth Rexroth - R book reviews[1]; Fall, 1993; Donald Gutierrez; Literary Review
  • On Rexroth's Poetry; 1999; Donald K. Gutierrez; Modern American Poetry; Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign;
  • This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from a Wikipedia article. To access the original click here.
    Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
    under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
    or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
    with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
    A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU
    Free Documentation License".