Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth. Courtesy Apologia de la Luz - Jorge Espina.

Kenneth Charles Marion 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.[1] He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance.



Rexroth was born 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.(Citation needed) 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 through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, moving up and down the eastern foothills 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 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.[2] 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; he would live in California the rest of his life.

Love, marriage, sacramentEdit

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."(Citation needed) 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.(Citation needed)

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. 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 USA, 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.

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.


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.

His classes were quite popular amongst his students, and they usually began with him expounding good-naturedly on whatever subject took his fancy at the time, Rexroth taking the mantle of favored Uncle to a collection of appreciative "nieces and nephews". Students were encouraged to write their own poetry and then recite it. One incident during his class was fairly explosive, however. A male student started to recite his own work, a jumbled, jokey misogynistic piece exulting in violence towards women. Rexroth stopped the reading, mid-stream, angrily eviscerated the student to the astonishment of others in the class, and banished the offender from ever setting foot in his class again. Such was Rexroth's respect and dedication to the idea of transcendental love between a man and a woman.


As a young man in Chicago, Rexroth was heavily involved with the anarchist movement (and was active in the IWW[2]), 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.[3]

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, a pacifist, was a conscientious objector during World War II[2] and was actively involved with helping Japanese-American internees.

Last yearsEdit

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.


Much of Rexroth's work can be classified as "erotic" or "love poetry," given his deep fascination with transcendent love. According to Hammil and Kleiner, "nowhere is Rexroth's verse more fully realized than in his erotic poetry".[4]

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 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.[5] Linda Hamalian, his biographer, suggests that, "translating the work of women poets from China and Japan reveals a transformation of both heart and mind".[4]

Rexroth's poetry, essays and journalism reflect his interests in jazz, politics, culture, and ecology.


800px-Kenneth Rexroth Street

Kenneth Rexroth Place, San Francisco. Photo by Beatrice Murch. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Flickr Commons.

In 1964 Rexroth was given an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1974, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Japan. In 1975 he received the Copernicus Award from the Academy of American Poets in recognition of his lifetime work and contribution to poetry as a cultural force.[6]



  • In What Hour. New York: Macmillan, 1940.
  • The Phoenix and the Tortoise. Norfolk, CT: Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1944.
  • The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Decker Press, 1949.
  • The Signature of All Things: Poems, songs, elegies, translations, and epigrams. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1950.
  • The Dragon and the Unicorn. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1952.
  • Thou Shall Not Kill. Good Press, 1955.
  • In Defense of the Earth; Poems. New York: New Directions, 1956.
  • The Homestead Called Damascus. New York: New Directions, 1963.
  • Natural Numbers: New and selected poems. New York: New Directions, 1963.
  • The Homestead Called Damascus. New York: New Directions, 1963.
  • Collected Shorter Poems. New York: New Directions 1967 [1966].
  • The Heart's Garden, the Garden's Heart. Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall, 1967.
  • Collected Longer Poems. New York: New Directions 1968.
  • The Spark in the Tender of Knowing. Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall, 1968.
  • Sky Sea Birds Trees Earth House Beasts, Flowers. Santa Barbara, CA: Unicorn Press, 1973.
  • New Poems. New York: New Directions, 1974.
  • The Silver Swan: Poems Written in Kyoto, 1974-75. Copper Canyon Press, 1976.
  • On Flower Wreath Hill. Blackfish Press, 1976.
  • The Morning Star (includes The Silver Swan, On Flower Wreath Hill, and The Love Songs of Marichiko). New York: New Directions, 1979.

Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer, Bradford-Morrow, 1980.

  • Selected poems (edited by Bradford Morrow). New York: New Directions, 1984.
  • Flower Wreath Hill: Later poems (combines New Poems and The Morning Star). New York: New Directions, 1991.
  • Sacramental Acts: The love poems (edited by Sam Hamill & Elaine Laura Kleiner). Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.
  • Complete Poems (edited by Sam Hamill & Brad Morrow). Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.


  • Beyond the Mountains (verse plays; produced in New York City at Cherry Lane Theatre, December 30, 1951). Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1951, reprinted, 1974.


  • An Autobiographical Novel. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966
    • revised & expanded, New York: New Directions, 1991.


  • Bird in the Bush: Obvious essays. New York: New Directions, 1959; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1970.
  • Assays. New York: New Directions, 1962.
  • Classics Revisited. Quadrangle Books, 1968; New York: New Directions, 1986.
  • The Alternative Society; Essays from the other world. New York: Herder & Herder, 1970.
  • With Eye and Ear (essays). New York: Herder & Herder, 1970.
  • American poetry in the Twentieth Century. New York: Herder & Herder, 1971.
  • The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas. New York: Seabury, 1973.
  • Communalism: From its origins to the twentieth century. New York: Seabury, 1974.
  • World Outside the Window: The selected essays (edited by Bradford Morrow). New York: New Directions, 1987.
  • More Classics Revisited (edited by Bradford Morrow). New York: New Directions, 1989.


  • One Hundred Poems from the French. Jargon, 1955; Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall, 1970.
  • One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1955.
  • One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1956.
  • Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1956; Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint Co., 1973.
  • Poems from the Greek anthology (translated with an introduction by Rexroth; drawings by Geraldine Sakall). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1962.
  • Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1969.
  • Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Chinese Poems. New York: New Directions, 1970.
  • The Orchid Boat; women poets of China (translated & edited by Kenneth Rexroth & Ling Chung). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.
  • The Burning Heart: Women poets of Japan (translated & edited by Rexroth & Ikuko Atsumi). New York: Seabury, 1977.
  • Kazuko Shiraishi, Seasons of Sacred Lust: Selected poems (translated with Ikuko Atsumi; edited & with introduction by Rexroth). New York: New Directions, 1978.

(With Chung) Li Ch'ing Chao: The complete poems (translated with Ling Chung). New York: New Directions, 1979.

  • Women Poets of Japan. New York: New Directions, 1982.
  • The Noble Traveller: The life and selected writings of Oscar V. de Lubicz Milosz. Lindisfarne Press, 1985.
  • Tu Fu, Tu Fu (translated with Brice Marden). Blumarts, 1987.
  • Love Poems from The Japanese. Shambhala, 1994.


  • (And author of introduction) D.H. Lawrence, Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1948.
  • New British Poets: An Anthology, New Directions, 1949.
  • O.V. de Lubica-Milosz, Fourteen Poems. Peregrine Press, 1952; Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1984.
  • Czeslav Milosz, The Selected Poems. Seabury, 1973.
  • David Meltzer, Tens: Selected poems, 1961-71. New York: McGraw, 1973.
  • Four Young Women: Poems (edited & with an introduction by Rexroth). New York: McGraw-Hill 1973.
  • The Buddhist writings of Lafcadio Hearn (selected & with an introduction by Rexroth). Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1977.

Collected editionsEdit


  • Kenneth Rexroth and James Laughlin: Selected letters (edited by Lee Bartlett). New York: Norton, 1991.

Except where noted bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[7]


  • 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 #7008 LP (Spoken Word)

See alsoEdit


  • Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0-14-015102-8 (pbk)
  • Hamalian, Linda, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991 (hc), 1992 (pbk) ISBN 0-393-30915-0
  • Hartzell, James and Zumwinkle,Richard. Kenneth Rexroth. A Checklist of His Published Writings. Los Angeles: Friends of the UCLA Library, 1967. (HC & pbk)
  • Perron, Lee. Kenneth Rexroth. A Bibliographic Checklist. Bennett Valley, CA: Sun Moon Bear Editions, 2009. (pbk)
  • Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks (2002) Counterpoint. ISBN 1-58243-148-5; ISBN 1-58243-294-5 (pbk)
  • Weinberger, Eliot. Works of Paper, 1980-1986 (1986) New Directions. ISBN 0-8112-1000-6


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Suiter 2002, pg. 81
  3. Wroe, Nicholas (July 1, 2006). "Last of the bohemians". London:,,1815401,00.html. Retrieved 2008-06-08. "He called himself a 'philosophical anarchist'..." 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hammil, Sam, and Elaine Laura Kleiner. "Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. " The American Poetry Review. 26.n6 (Nov-Dec 1997): 17(2). Gale. UNIV OF MONTANA. 8 Mar. 2009. <>. Full Text:COPYRIGHT 1997 World Poetry, Inc. This piece is the introduction to Sacramental Acts: The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, edited by Sam Hamill and Elaine Laura Kleiner, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.
  5. Weinberger 1986, pp. 117-8
  6. Kenneth Rexroth,, Academy of American Poets. Web, Jan. 25, 2015.
  7. Kenneth Rexroth 1905-1982, Poetry Foundation. Web, Jan. 25, 2015.

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