Kenneth Rexroth

“Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense—the creative act.”

(Credit: Morgan Gibson)
(Credit: Morgan Gibson)

Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. His mother died when he was ten, and his father died a few years later. After his parents’ death, Rexroth stayed with an aunt in Chicago, but dropped out of school at sixteen. He hitchhiked around the country and worked on ships around the world. Rexroth was a conscientious objector during World War II. He was married four times. This fragmented lifestyle fueled a magnificent mind. He became the senior ring-leader, instigator, and promoter of the beat poets in San Francisco. Time Magazine labelled Rexroth “the Father of the Beats” for his influence on Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other west coasts shenanigans.

Although Rexroth’s books of poetry gained national prominence by the 1950s, he felt ignored by the northeastern poetry regime and railed at the literary establishment.  Nevertheless, he reigned with prodigious influence on the west coast.  At the end of his life, Rexroth taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He wrote over fifty books of poetry and essays, and translated in Japanese and Chinese. On June 6, 1992, Kenneth Rexroth died and is buried in Santa Barbara.

“Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation.”

This essay by Rexroth was published in his collection World Outside the Window:  Selected Essays. Rexroth points to his relationship with the saxophonist Charlie Parker and the poet Dylan Thomas to expound his paradigm about how art should function within our malevolent world. He writes about his friends, “Contrary to popular belief, they were not great technical innovators. Their effects are only superficially startling.” I’m sure Bird and Thomas feel Rexroth’s sting. Rexroth’s point is that art became a commercial venture. The artists fed the hungry mass consumer. Innovation and genius are not profitable. Artists of all genres have lost the lineage that traces back to Baudelaire and Mozart. Commerce created the plastic arts, as Rexroth calls them.

Rexroth says, “Any novelist who can write home to mother, or even spell his own name, has a chance to become another Brubeck.” That’s good news, I think. Then he writes, “No one in the future will read the writers’ workshop pupils and teachers who fill the literary quarterlies. Very few people, except themselves, read them now.” Makes me feel weird about my MFA. Rexroth even disparages the efforts of William Faulkner and Jackson Pollack. Hhmm. I suppose anyone can sling paint on a canvas or write stream of consciousness.  These men are two of my favorites. Perhaps, I became that mass consumer. What’s the frequency Kenneth?

What is Rexroth’s answer to mediocrity in the arts?

Break out of the mold. If you are a prosperous hack writer, good for you. Continue to hack away, but strive to better your craft. If you mimic Faulkner, make the work your own. It worked well for Toni Morrison. Have a guru, but to paraphrase the Buddhists, “If you meet your guru in the middle of the road, kill him/her.” Don’t be a clone. Throw off the influence and keep practicing.

To learn more about Kenneth Rexroth, check out “Kenneth Rexroth: The Signature of All Things” by film maker Lindsay Mofford.


  1. Jnana Hodson

    Rexroth WAS hugely overlooked by the East Coast critics and publishers, James Laughlin excepted. (Laughlin’s New Directions press did, after all, present Rexroth and Snyder prominently in its lineup.)
    Even before we look at his poetry, I would note that his “Autobiographical Novel” gives a much different understanding of the radical nature of the American Midwest in the early 20th century than we get in standard histories — this was the same time it was the cauldron of so much industrial revolution, too. His looks at communtarian movements is likewise eye-opening.
    My deep admiration of his poems and translations has been somewhat tempered in the past year, though, by a new awareness of how troubled much of his adult life was, especially in regard to his daughters.
    I’m left wondering how much of the direction his emotions and critical commentary came as a reaction to toiling away out of the spotlight and without the laurels that were being awarded to far less deserving talents. Bitterness is, after all, acidic and ultimately a poison.
    Be that as it may, the work remains towering.

  2. Post
    Ramsey Mathews

    Thanks for your comments Jnana. Genius, art, family, and life sometimes make for a tough mix. Your prompt led me to track down several news items about his daughter Mariana. What a difficult and extraordinary experience for her.

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