Kenneth Rexroth

By: David Smay
December 22, 2010

Cross-country hitchhiker, spiritual seeker in monasteries, Parisian ex-pat, Wobbly supporter, translator of Asian poetry, Greenwich Village bohemian, forest ranger in the Pacific Northwest, sexual adventurer: if you mashed up the life experiences of Kerouac, Brother Antonious, Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder you’d get something that looked like Kenneth Rexroth’s (1905-82) bio. He just did it all fifteen years earlier. Though he’s best known today as a godfather to the Beat movement, Rexroth is severely underrated as one of the great American lyric poets of the postwar era. Certainly Rexroth’s literary salon in the Lower Haight fostered the range of the Beats’ interests, and his tart critical writing ranged widely from the Chinese poet Tu Fu (whom he translated) to D.H. Lawrence and gnosticism, forming a counter-curriculum to Forties and Fifties academia. However, if you agree with me that the proper subject of lyric poetry is not love, but sex (or: love glimpsed as a mystery when we are in the teeth of sex, shaken along the axis of our spine), Rexroth’s greatest value was as a poet descended from Sappho (his great inspiration), Shakespeare, Donne, and Neruda. His elegant, sensuous lines have the epigrammatic ache of Sappho and the subtle, teased out parallels and allusive depth of Tu Fu. Rexroth’s third wife left him for Robert Creeley, the most emulated poet of the Sixties. Though this is an outlier opinion, I think she left the better poet.

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