On December 22, 1905, Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana. Orphaned at fourteen, Rexroth moved to live with his aunt in Chicago, where he was expelled from high school. He began publishing in magazines at the age of fifteen. As a youth, he supported himself with odd jobs—as a soda jerk, clerk, wrestler, and reporter. He hitchhiked around the country, visited Europe, and backpacked in the wilderness, reading and frequenting literary salons and lecture halls, and teaching himself several languages.
Rexroth and his first wife, the painter Andrée Shafer, moved to San Francisco in 1927. There he published his first poems in a variety of small magazines, while also pursuing an interest in eastern mysticism and leftist politics. He kept company with like-minded left-wing poets such as George Oppen and Louis Zukovsky, and with them aimed to rescue poetry from its supposed downslide into formalist sentimentality. They organized clubs to support struggling writers and artists.
By the early 1930s, through a correspondence with Ezra Pound, Rexroth was introduced to James Laughlin of New Directions press, who included Rexroth’s poems of in the second volume of Laughlin’s pivotal annual, New Directions in Poetry and Prose in 1937. Rexroth’s first collection, In What Hour, which articulated the poet’s ecological sensitivities along with his political convictions, was published by Macmillan in 1940. In 1944 another collection, The Phoenix and the Tortoise, continued his exploration of the natural and the erotic, presented his pacifist stance on World War II, incorporated references to the work of classical poets from the East and the West, and expanded his tonal range with poems touching on world religions and the history of philosophy. A consummate activist, during the war Rexroth aided Japanese-Americans in escaping West Coast internment camps.
By the late 1940s, Rexroth was laying the groundwork for what would become the San Francisco Renaissance. He promoted the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Denise Levertov, William Everson, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and many others on the radio station KPFA. He organized a weekly salon and invited friends and other poets to come and share their philosophical and poetic theories. Among those in attendance were Robert Duncan, Richard Eberhart, and, eventually, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and other Beat poets.
Rexroth organized and emceed the legendary Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955, at which Ginsberg introduced the world to "Howl." Rexroth’s work was composed with attention to musical traditions and he performed his poems with jazz musicians. Nonetheless, Rexroth was not wholly supportive of the dramatic rise in popularity of the so-called "Beat Generation," and he was distinctly displeased when he became known as the father of the Beats. By 1955, his marriage to his third wife, Marthe Larsen, the mother of his two daughters, was coming to an end.
By the 1960s, Rexroth’s appeal reached far beyond San Francisco. He was devoted to world literature and brought public attention to poetry in translation through his "Classics Revisited" column in the Saturday Review and through his anthologies, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. In 1964 he was given an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He went on to publish collections of his shorter poems and longer poems in 1967 and 1968, respectively.
Rexroth moved to Santa Barbara in 1968, where he married his assistant, Carol Tinker. From 1968 through 1974 he taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 1974, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Japan, and in 1975 he received the Copernicus Award from the Academy of American Poets in recognition of a poet’s lifetime work and contribution to poetry as a cultural force.
A life-long iconoclast, Rexroth railed against the dominance of the east-coast "literary establishment" and bourgeois taste that was corrupting American poetry. While he refused to consider himself a Beat poet, his influence as champion of anti-establishment literature paved the way for others to write poems of social consciousness and passionate political engagement. His greatest contribution to American poetry may have been in opening it to Asian influences through his mystical, erotically charged poetry and superb translations. Kenneth Rexroth died in 1982 and is buried in Santa Barbara on a cliff above the sea.