With a Tabloid Biographer, Who Needs an Oeuvre?

An Unabashed Appreciation of Kenneth Rexroth


Completed on his 100th birthday, 22 December 2005.
Written in the “zuihitsu” (“following the brush”) genre.


Linda Hamalian’s mostly cannibalizing biography, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (NY: Norton, 1991; all page numbers refer to it), has three conspicuous virtues: she researched her subject meticulously from a variety of written sources in a number of locations around the USA; she interviewed dozens of people who knew him, many of whom have passed away in the many years since the book’s publication; and she quotes Rexroth (1905-1982) verbatim at times, thereby enabling his voice to rise above her prose and thinking.

Hamalian describes her first meeting with Rexroth, introduced by Leo, her live-in boyfriend and future husband: “I was twenty-one . . . Carol Tinker [and Kenneth] came to our home after [his poetry] reading for dinner. Rexroth told me how perfectly I had prepared the broccoli (in a white anchovy sauce). . . . I could not believe that this great poet was commenting knowingly on my green vegetables. When Kenneth and Carol returned our hospitality by inviting us to their home in Santa Barbara, he entertained us around a Mongolian hotpot and talked philosophy (mostly Buddhist) and politics (of the conspiracy theory kind) into the early morning hours. I was convinced he was a genius, and a very kind man.” (x).

I was one of Kenneth Rexroth’s students at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1968, soon after I started writing poetry. After I graduated in 1972, Kenneth and I became lifelong friends. He was my mentor and the greatest person I ever met. I knew him from when he was 62-76 years old and I was 18-32. He disdained the word “guru” and made it clear that he had no successors, but to me he was like a grandfather, father and brother rolled into one. In other words, I could be myself in front of him and yet I respected him as a wise village elder.

Incidentally, I was interviewed for Hamalian’s book and am mentioned in it a half-dozen times. I neither object to anything she wrote about me nor do I wish she had written more; her treatment was fine and is inconsequential to my review.

Like most people who encountered Rexroth, I was initially bowled over by his erudition, charisma and compassion. I thought there was no reason a man who was 44 years my senior when I was a teenager should spend quality time mentoring me, and consequently I felt extremely lucky. I was unaware at the time that it was a tradition of righteous anarchists and avant-garde artists to mentor young people considered worthwhile. Unlike some people who encountered Kenneth, I was never disillusioned or turned off by him, I was simply grateful to be in his presence. And I never tried to one-up him as, for example, Allen Ginsberg did when crassly declaring himself a superior poet to Rexroth (246). Ginsberg’s unfortunate but telling lapse occurred after Rexroth, the elder poet, had come to Ginsberg’s rescue in print—soon after Allen emerged on the San Francisco scene and was given a cold shoulder by the east coast lit-crit establishment—and in court, when Ginsberg’s Howl went on trial in 1957 for obscenity. At the trial Rexroth had been among the distinguished witnesses and gave an impassioned defense which helped win the day—and much publicity—for Ginsberg (267).

I found Kenneth Rexroth not only to be extremely intelligent and witty, but also exceedingly kind and considerate. Just to cite one example is the time I visited him and his wife, Carol Tinker, in Santa Barbara with my wife-to-be Sachiko Sekine, a Japanese woman who had once lived in the USA. Kenneth went shopping and prepared a delicious roast beef dinner. Sitting in the living room and digesting after the meal, I said, “Kenneth, I’ve eaten here many times over the years but you had never cooked a roast beef dinner; you usually cook Asian food.” He smiled faintly and spoke softly, “I haven’t cooked roast beef in years, but I thought Sachi would prefer American food.” (Incidentally, the “ko” 子of Sachiko 幸子 is the graph for “child,” common in women’s names, but feminist Rexroth refused to use it for adults.) The gracious dinner he served is just a tiny example of his thoughtfulness, a gentleman with fine-grained sensibility.

Sachi and I named Ken, our first son, after Kenneth. Around the time Ken first stood up, Kenneth observed him, tickled him and out of the blue declared that Ken would become a scientist. Oddly enough, a quarter century after Kenneth’s death, Ken is a scientist. Kenneth had a sixth sense about people (James Laughlin also noticed it in relation to animals [Kobe, Japan: Electric Rexroth #1, 1992, ed. Tetsuya Taguchi]). He was perceptive in x-raying psyches and hearts and catching the contours of people’s vibrations as if he were on a psychedelic, although he had arrived at this intuitive sense by meditating in nature for long stretches and by living fearlessly at all times.

Hamalian’s initial experience was similar to mine, but the difference is that my wholly positive first impression lasted and deepened over the fourteen years I knew him. Whenever I left Kenneth and Carol’s house after staying a few days, I experienced a heady contentment as if walking on air, and my gratitude has increased incrementally over the years. They say a mentor is always with you, and I suppose it’s true. Most writers on Rexroth get caught up in the polemics of the man and there is nothing wrong with that, but they tend to overlook that he was a classy guy. By ignoring that aspect, more often than not they end up misinterpreting him and exposing their own tunnel vision.



When I first held Hamalian’s hardback in my hands, I wondered why there is a photo resembling a mug shot used on the book-jacket cover, a disheveled Kenneth Rexroth with a cigarette dangling from his lips. His unkempt appearance in the present age of outlawing cigarette smoke is already a turn-off for most readers. Is this the idea of a Bohemian as seen by the jacket-designer, Chris Welch? How many photos did he sift through to choose this particular one? It’s a curious design decision, because another camping photo, the frontispiece, is far more attractive, if indeed a camping photo is the most appropriate for a biography of a poet. Rexroth was a great nature poet and even wrote a brilliant, unpublished book ca. 1939 on the ins and outs of camping, Camping in the Western Mountains, but the dangling cigarette shot remains an odd choice.

Surely more relevance should be attached to the fact that Rexroth was one of the first poets to read with jazz and that he kept performing for thirty years with various musicians and instruments from East and West. A more obvious cover photo would be him reading poetry (one is included in the book [248], among one of Kenneth speaking into the ear of a donkey [252], and others). That choice would have grounded the pre-reading viewer to note that the book will be the biography of a performance poet, presumably an innovative and influential figure.

Such an approach would have dovetailed well with Hamalian’s repeatedly stating that Rexroth’s poetry readings in old age, despite his frailty, were superb. She notes that although over 70 years old and with multiple ailments, he was always energetic. “When Rexroth performed, he was very well received” (358). She quotes Sam Hamill, “the poems were magnificent . . . his delivery was perfect” (363); Joe Bruchac, “his body old, but his spirit still as young as the lovers in those poems” (363): and Joyce Jenkins, “magnificent, so full of knowledge and life” (364). Instead of the persona of the performance poet, which Rexroth pioneered and that has since become standard fare, we get an unattractive shot on the jacket cover of an unwashed Bohemian who is supposed to metamorphose into a Beat and proto-Hippy. Incidentally, when asked if he was indeed the “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth retorted, “An entomologist is not a bug.”

I would like to mention in passing that I was also disappointed with the cover chosen by Copper Canyon Press when it published the otherwise fine compilation The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (eds. Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow, 2003). These two leading Rexroth specialists opted for a 1963 painting of a torso by Leo Kenney titled “Relic.” I don’t see a connection between that painting and Rexroth, and whoever made that decision neglected a rare opportunity to tie Rexroth’s poetry and painting into an organic whole. Why wouldn’t the editors have chosen a painting by Rexroth? Maybe Copper Canyon had a reason to choose Leo Kenney, but that chance won’t come again easily (mirroring the mostly wasted effect of Hamalian’s flawed biography). As publisher, Morrow had aptly put a photograph of a Rexroth painting on the cover of the poet’s Excerpts From A Life (NY: Conjunctions, ed. Ekbert Faas, 1981). Therefore, the omission of a painting on The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth is doubly puzzling, because Morrow already had used the idea—he merely needed to recall it.



The “mugging” of Rexroth continues unabated inside the book. Since Rexroth has told his own story in An Autobiographical Novel (NY: Doubleday, 1966) and Excerpts from A Life, one wonders why Hamalian titles hers A Life of Kenneth Rexroth, until we fill in the blank later and realize her intended title is “A Wife-Beating Life of Kenneth Rexroth.” Surely Rexroth deserves better, especially since the book was published after his death when he could no longer defend himself. It’s a shame he isn’t around, because he could write an erudite review listing the great authors whose reputations were done irreparable harm by third-rate biographers. I don’t have such a list, but I know Hamalian has veered off track in hunting down her subject only to have him elude her, despite her quoting him left and right. We could reconstruct a very different portrait of Rexroth merely by extracting some of the same quotes she presents and interpreting them, depending on what issue we wish to highlight. To make better sense of the poet and his work I needed to read his quotes against the grain of her continuous bashing him for sexual infidelities. I extracted a selection of those quotes and placed them at the end of this article to give a flavor of his thinking.

Hamalian gets entangled in psychologizing Rexroth as if she were defense attorney for his ex-wives who had turned into hungry ghosts because of his maltreatment. She sounds shriller and shriller, interposing herself like a spurned lover. More telling for me than her superficial analysis is the fact that Kenneth’s second wife, Marie, who also apparently alleged mistreatment, remained a devoted lifelong friend of his for over 50 years. Whatever occurred between them, Marie seemed to have forgiven him, but Hamalian can’t. In her self-righteousness she castigates Marie for being weak, but Hamalian doesn’t deal with the issue in depth (perhaps believing that Marie was suffering from the Stockholm syndrome). I kept wondering what accounts for Hamalian’s intractability and vicarious intrusiveness, but of course she never turns her psychologizing inwards. Why should readers be subjected to Hamalian’s dredging up of negativity for its own sake? Incidentally, Rexroth hung a 1935 portrait he had painted of Marie (123) on his dining room wall in Santa Barbara, and it remained there for the rest of his life.

Japanese have a proverb—“Fuufu genka wa inu mo kuwanu,” 「夫婦喧嘩は犬も食わぬ」 which means, “Even a dog won’t eat a husband and wife’s quarrel,” the point being that marital spats are usually temporary flare-ups and after harmony is restored, the meddling outsider will be ostracized.

Perhaps Hamalian’s evangelical defense of all women allegedly wronged by Rexroth was sheer opportunism—trying to ride the wave of the feminist movement in a timely manner. Unfortunately, her one-pointed attitude clouds her judgment and she has difficulty reading poems even at face value, let alone with any insight. For example, she quotes Rexroth’s series of six poems titled Hojoki 「方丈記」(which she says means “‘Monk’s Record’ or ‘Record of a Monk’s Hut,’” but more accurately means “Record of a 4.5 mat room”):

I am startled until I
Realize that the beehive
In the hollow trunk will be
Busy all night long tonight

She interprets, “These six tightly structured poems are particularly informative because they reveal so well an inner peace that contradicted the tenor of Rexroth’s worldly, personal life” (310). This becomes one of her central arguments. It seems to me peripheral to invoke his so-called contradictory personal life as to what is “particularly informative” about the poem. Why shouldn’t he feel the stirrings of nature? After all, he went to meditate and write poetry precisely to get away from his mundane city existence, that’s a given. It seems that Hamalian is goading here, wanting to deny him any happiness. Should he have stayed home? Would she have been placated had he written a poem in the woods about marital discord? Is his “inner peace” only informative of his lack of inner peace? Is that the import of the poem? If so, we are reading in an upside-down mirror, Linda in Wonderland. Her line of inquiry begs the question of why readers get immense pleasure from Rexroth’s nature poetry. As a professor of English and American literature with Rexroth as her preeminent credential, her appreciation of the literary seems skewed and superficial. Can’t we expect analysis beyond stating that the poems are hiding something that the poet doesn’t think belongs there in the first place? Even if we bracket the poet’s intention as unknowable and irrelevant, why should her intention for his poem be privileged as significant? If Rexroth’s poems indeed have the potential to enact a displacement of his emotional turmoil into sublime art, is the purpose of the critic to reactivate the displacement backwards in time from the poem to the emotional stress that was supposedly masked by the release of language into the poem? If that is the role of the critic, then I prefer to stick with reading the poetry and foregoing the analysis.



Here’s another typical example of Hamalian’s miniscule powers of interpretation and relentless whipping of the dead white man (despite her noting that in 1965 Rexroth was declared officially by the Oakland Mayor’s Office “an honorary Negro” [319]). First she introduces a special event honoring the subject of her biography, no doubt one of the peaks of Rexroth’s career up to that time, earned after forty years of being relatively neglected but having persevered and written prolifically nonetheless.

“When the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him $2,500 in May 1964, he did not fly to the ceremony. Malcolm Cowley made the presentation of the award, and praised the absent Rexroth for ‘maintaining under difficult circumstances, the integrity of the arts, and for communicating his understanding of experience with lucid candor, energy and compassion. Memorably and movingly he presents both minute particulars and the large vistas opened by his secular religiosity.’” (316)

Cowley packs a lot into his brief and straightforward encomium. First, he mentions “integrity . . . under difficult circumstances.” Among other struggles, Rexroth had been a conscientious objector, housed and aided Americans of Japanese descent as well as Japanese nationals in California when they were rounded up during World War II, was a freethinker during McCarthyism, and became the subject of investigation by J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious F.B.I. more once. Such integrity is always significant but especially so during times of strife and war. Cowley then praises Rexroth for his talent at “communicating his understanding of experience.” Those who are familiar with Rexroth’s oeuvre realize that Cowley is referring in part to the poet’s mystical experiences. Without entering into paradox, Cowley alludes to Rexroth’s uncanny talent at seemingly conveying the ineffable, as well as his more mundane experiences. Cowley’s use of the words “lucid candor, energy and compassion” are worthy of pondering by the biographer or general reader. The “lucid candor” reflects back to the aforementioned “integrity of the arts,” and “energy” to his sustaining a lofty and disciplined tone throughout book-length poems. (Charles Olson commented, “That long poem of his, The Dragon and the Unicorn, that’s really something! He gets the whole thing down there.” [227])

Cowley’s reference to “compassion” is important. Hamalian may not make the connection between Rexroth’s activist Buddhism which implied an engaged compassion towards the poor and downtrodden and his relentless denunciation of what he termed the Social Lie (Peter Tosh referred to it as the “Shitstem”). Rexroth’s religiosity and politics were in synch, and central to his humanity was his “compassion,” a virtue that Cowley found in Rexroth’s work. Cowley ends by praising Rexroth’s poetry for its “minute particulars and large vistas.” One can ask of which poets alive in the USA today the same could be said—that they “memorably and movingly present” the micro and macro to the extent of anything close to Rexroth’s achievement? Then to the depth and vastness add the aforementioned compassion and integrity, and how many would be left standing? I have parsed Cowley’s statement to make the simple point that it is a very positive introduction that is worthy of pondering and maybe even commenting on. How does Hamalian deal with these statements by Cowley about Rexroth’s poetic work? Directly following her quote of Cowley, she writes: “For those people in the audience who were familiar with the turmoil of Rexroth’s private life, Cowley’s remarks regrettably underscored the split between the poet’s persona and the man himself.”



Rexroth experienced a wrenchingly sad divorce from Marthe Larsen, his third wife and the mother of their two children, Mary and Katherine, the former born when he was already 44 years old. Rexroth was devoted to them, especially Mary, with whom he was able to spend more time. Near the end of their marriage, he wrote reassuringly to Marthe:

“Dearest Marthe, surely you must know that I love you devotedly and want only to see you happy and would do anything to help you. Never be afraid to let me know if you need me. I will always respond. Certainly I need you always in every way. I love you.” (306)

Tender, compassionate and in a melancholy mood, Rexroth was assuring her that she could count on him through thick and thin. Even if they were apart, he was aware that they shared two children and should remain friends, and he expressed his feelings in an eloquent, seemingly heartfelt manner.

Kenneth and Marthe thereafter sought the counsel of a therapist, Steven Schoen. Marthe quickly divorced Rexroth and married Schoen. Hamalian doesn’t probe if there is a question of ethics regarding a couple sharing their most vulnerable secrets with a counselor who then compromises and betrays their trust in an unprofessional manner for selfish gain. Rather, Hamalian brushes the incident off, “In the process of therapy, Schoen, who himself was married with three children, and Marthe fell in love” (305). Was Rexroth ripped off? As a reader, I find it extraordinary that the author has become so disillusioned with her subject that she injects such a noticeable bias in her chilly assessment. She doesn’t seem to exhibit a shred of compassion for him under what must have been exasperating circumstances.

Marthe “sued him for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty” (305), and in the settlement Kenneth gave her their $6,000 savings and paid her $275 monthly alimony and child support (307). He was noticeably shattered by this turn of events, because he had a lot invested emotionally in their relationship, so he decided to replace Marthe’s name with the anonymous “she” when reprinting the moving love poems he had written to her. Hamalian finds fault with Rexroth for doing this, but wouldn’t an empathetic biographer (or reader) find it understandable if he felt bitterness attached to the name and exchanged it to recover his poems? Was Rexroth so out of line in his behavior? Here follows Hamalian’s judgment with her psychological spin:

“Such editorial changes indicate that Rexroth felt humiliated and betrayed not only by Marthe, but also by his own dreams and self-delusions” (313). Did he necessarily feel “humiliated,” or did he just want to keep the poems without keeping the dedication to a woman whom he felt—whether mistakenly or not—had betrayed his love? For Hamalian the problem seems to be in deleting the name. And why is it “self-delusion” to rescue the poems as art? She seems to mean that his act was calculating and willful, which would sound correct, but “self-delusion” implies that he was fooling himself, and I don’t find that element indicated by the “editorial changes.” And to insist further that he was “betrayed by his . . . self-delusions” turns the analysis into cloak-and-dagger psychobabble. If Hamalian never has experienced writing a poem that she was proud of and dedicating it to someone whom she later had a falling out with, then she could at least have tried to empathize with that point of view instead of treating the act as the deceptiveness of a cruel man.

She then hobbles along harping, “All eight poems indicate that Rexroth was reaching a point where the women in his life had become a single Woman” (314).

Incidentally, I remember a professor of Spanish I had in college, Gavin Hyde, who told me that in middle age he realized in a mystical sense that all women are one woman and all men are one man. I don’t imagine Hamalian is suggesting that Rexroth couldn’t differentiate the personality of individual women whom he knew, so what is she suggesting? She seems not to distinguish between his anti-bourgeois values and her own thoroughly bourgeois outlook towards marriage and sex. He was a self-proclaimed Anarchist (he used to specify Anarcho-Pacifist not to be misunderstood) who came from a distinguished tradition of free-thinkers. Hamalian is not a free-thinker and cannot catch his drift or import whatsoever. She acts like a gleeful but twisted Mother Superior exposing a masturbator.



Hamalian’s reference to Rexroth as an “old goat” (quoted without source, 309), her malicious and unsourced claims that “some people said that ‘he’d screw anything that moved—male or female, two-legged or four’” (415) and “Rexroth once told a friend that he was afraid he had damaged his mouth and throat from too much oral sex” (418, my italics) are rabbit punches which speak to the low consciousness (and subsequent lack of conscience) of the biographer, as well as inattention or worse by the editor and publisher. Who are some people and a friend?

She also quotes hearsay in a flagrantly derogatory fashion, “Rexroth…would ‘fuck a snake if it would hold still for him’” (182, my italics). This last remark is sourced as second-hand gossip, “According to David Koven, Jim Harmon described Rexroth’s sexual behavior in these words.” (402-403). Hamalian even interviewed and gained the confidence of Rexroth’s two daughters and fourth wife, Carol Tinker, before publishing her “old goat,” “male or female, two-legged or four,” and “fuck a snake” vulgarities.

Hamalian chose to include allegations without sources and hearsay, and one can only wonder why she would do so except as a forced attempt to seem both politically correct and “juicy” (Hagedorn, jacket back cover).

Hamalian grew up on slapstick cartoons, and she swipes with a wooden plank, hitting a defenseless man in the back of the head. Rexroth is now headless and beyond responding, and her damage continues unabated. Ironically, Rexroth spent over half a century actively standing up for the weak and defenseless and could amply take care of himself in any argument or physical confrontation. The main thesis of Hamalian’s biography—tediously underlined in the preface, body and epilogue—is that Rexroth was abusive. Because in her estimation he was an abuser, she’ll abuse him back now that he is six-feet under. Her approach is conceptually parallel to the eye-for-an-eye mimicked by Henry Miller in his World War II pacifist pamphlet Murder the Murderers (157), but Miller’s courageous public stance stands in stark contrast to Hamalian’s personal hostility.



Hamalian is not only one-dimensional in a way that I don’t happen to like, but she is at times guilty of deceptive scholarship. I wonder if she would approve of a student of hers pulling off the following misuse of materials:

“Rexroth said his poems were about the ordinary things in his life—[1] ‘the stuff I see, the girls I’m sleeping with, or something else like that.’ He liked to sound casual: [2] ‘The girl I fuck in this poem must now be about forty-five. I look her up sometimes’” (341); “a variation on his standard [3] ‘this is a girl I used to screw’ introduction” (353).

In the above three quotes the first is from a journal interview Rexroth did in 1976 answering questions about his poetics. Speaking off the cuff, he mentioned that his poems came from everyday life, including “the girls I’m sleeping with.” That seems honest enough. When I read the second quote attributed to him, “The girl I fuck in this poem must now be forty-five. I look her up sometimes.” I thought it sounded quite crude and unlike my memory of how Rexroth used to speak in public, yet Hamalian described him liking “to sound casual.” Checking her endnote (419) I was surprised that Rexroth never spoke those words, in fact they were written by Stephen Spender who “attributes the remark to a poet named ‘Waxwrath.’” Stephen Spender’s playful mocking of Rexroth while he was alive has, in Hamalian’s rush to belittle him, undergone a transformation into words uttered by Rexroth himself. Waxwrath = Rexroth and you’d never know unless you happen to check the endnote. This is not only sloppy scholarship but a willful and malicious merging of disparate sources. If she had cited a source’s misquote, that would be a forgivable mistake (called in Japanese “magobiki” 孫引き [“pulling a grandchild”]), but in this case she is misquoting her own source. I shudder to imagine how she would analyze that conduct were it by Rexroth. Here she is revealing more about herself than her subject.

And, now that Hamalian’s head is full of recycling Rexroth equals Waxwrath and has naturalized the concept of him introducing his poetry at readings with crude boasts about sexual conquests, we find her flippantly writing a few pages later, “. . . a variation on his standard ‘this is a girl I used to screw’ introduction” (353). Circular logic implants Spender’s mocking comment and now she delivers it as factual. I kept wondering if it is or isn’t odd that someone who pulls such a stunt—evidence of a palpable (unconscious?) bias running throughout her work—can sit accredited by an English department in an American university.



Hamalian’s pitch unfortunately gets ever more strident as the book progresses. Despite Rexroth’s sympathetic translations of women poets of China and Japan, she reads his attitude in a negative light, “His identification with these poets suggests that, despite outward appearances, he too felt trapped” (341).

Why did he necessarily feel “trapped”? Hamalian, the English professor, seems unable to grasp the point that Rexroth sought and found and translated excellent poetry. She seems to need reminding that he was first and foremost a poet, and poetry and emotion can be intertwined (although not necessarily), and the act of translating poetry isn’t always to cover up marital shortcomings. Much more significant than if he “felt trapped” is that many literati consider Rexroth’s translations of Japanese classical poetry to be among the best so far produced in the English language (including Howard Hibbett, a highly-respected Japanese literature specialist and professor emeritus at Harvard University). Hamalian, however, in her myopic crusade and acting like a “hysterical bride in the penny arcade” (Bob Dylan), declares unequivocally that Rexroth is “doomed . . . to a life where he would feel betrayed by love, and disappointed by his family and friends. Unlike these [Asian] women poets, Rexroth had built his own prison” (341). Does she mean Rexroth’s “prison” was the home where she had been invited for a fun dinner and wished he had written a poem for her? (x). Does she mean that his mind was a prison, if so why was he so jolly most of the time and how could she extrapolate her existential condemnation from a cursory reading of his empathetic translations? Given the choice between her derailed judgments and Rexroth’s considerable accomplishments, it’s a no-brainer (versus a “genius” [x]).

In the Epilogue, highly-strung Hamalian gets in her final licks with, “[his] nasty level of sexism” and “[despite his spiritual aspirations] he was too much in the world” (375). Like a matador going for the final thrust of the sword, she ends her biography reiterating her main point, “he was genuine in his poems the way he could not always be in his life” (375). Does that back-handed compliment mean that he was “genuine” or “not genuine,” assuming it was not in his life but only in the poems? Is she suggesting that he was genuine only in the realm of the poem as autonomous object? If so, what does “genuine” mean (crafted, crafty)?

Rexroth the poet certainly got sideswiped by what Hamalian had to offer in her analysis of his extraordinary talents. Ken Knabb is the sole reviewer who comes to a similar conclusion (“A Clueless Life of Kenneth Rexroth”). No one would suggest that Rexroth was perfect. Some of the faults Hamalian chooses to focus on were also noted in his own correspondence, so he dealt with those issues. Sure he was a bundle of contradictions like anyone else. Who expects poets in our society to be saints? But Hamalian’s overarching bias and relentless bashing cloud any reasonable assessment of Rexroth’s legacy, because she turns her years of research into a hatchet job.

She often quotes Rexroth’s disdain for east coast, academic, reactionary, establishment critics, and ironically Rexroth got one of them as his biographer. How could he have known what havoc the twenty-one year old Hamalian would wreak on his reputation a decade after his death? I’m sure she would never have dared write that kind of book while he was alive. He would have pulverized it in a review with far more eloquence than I could ever muster. Hamalian notes that she visited Rexroth with her husband a few weeks before his death, after a stroke rendered him unable to speak, “His steely brilliant blue eyes lit up in recognition, but only a series of grunts issued from his mouth” (422). Behind the grunting was Kenneth desperately trying to say that he didn’t think her broccoli was perfect after all and that he wished she’d leave his life alone?

I think that not to bracket what she highlights of Rexroth’s alleged behavior towards some of his wives is also to turn a blind eye to what he was up against in the larger picture of his struggle to fight the Social Lie at all costs in the US during the middle fifty years of the 20th century. Selden Rodman summed up the situation already in 1951:

“The whole dull, grey, standardizing, conformist, amorphous weight of contemporary American civilization is pitted against the few remaining individualists in the Emerson-Thoreau tradition, of whom Rexroth is a splendid example. If his isolation makes him occasionally outrageous and shrill, that is understandable, and more power to him.” (176)

That is not to excuse any inexcusable behavior—which I’m sure as a sensitive human being Rexroth would have amply regretted—but in general is it too much to expect empathy rather than disdain for the subject of a biography? Is it her duty to take the side of all the women she feels were wronged by him and then re-fight their battles as a proxy without his participation?

Everyone who knew Rexroth seemed to enjoy his hipness while he was alive. No one was as sharp and direct and funny. He could elucidate subtleties of world history and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu metaphysics, and the next moment transition to an off-color joke, all smoothly and effortlessly. Once in my presence, late in the evening, Kenneth was lying on the couch listening to Thomas Parkinson, a professor from the University of California at Berkeley and an old friend of his who was trying to engage him in conversation. Kenneth had spent the day driving back with Carol and Tom to Santa Barbara, and I had been house-sitting in their absence. Kenneth was admittedly tired and seemed to have exhausted his patience with Tom’s nagging. To show displeasure while Tom bellowed away, Kenneth slowly turned his back to him, loudly farted and then fell fast asleep. It was a hilarious performance. No one was earthier in action and loftier in thought than Kenneth Rexroth, and that dichotomy was difficult for some people to handle.



I don’t usually read biographies that are unsympathetic to their subjects. To give examples from rock ‘n roll, books that raid the skeletons in the closet (such as Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon [1988], Elvis [1981] and Elvis: The Last 24 Hours [1990]) don’t interest me, whereas I prefer portraits such as those by Jerry Schilling (Me and a Guy Named Elvis [2006]) and Jerry Hopkins (No One Here Gets Out Alive: A Biography of Jim Morrison [1980]). The genre of ransacking dead people’s lives for their purported weaknesses has always seemed inherently unfair, lame and sleazy. I know that it is part and parcel of trashy tabloid culture, and since Christina Crawford’s scathing book Mommie Dearest (1978), the genre has gained in popularity. Readers naturally eschew hagiography, but wanting a generally amiable biographer should not be out of the question. I am disturbed that the goalposts of “fair” and “honest” have been moved in the last few decades, if Hamalian’s book is normative. Authors should beware if fame necessarily implies being skewered after death.

I am amused that some writers have praised the Rexroth biography, even if they happen to be blurbs on its back cover.

--Diane Wakoski: “How refreshing! A biography which seeks out truth without distorting or vilifying the subject” (jacket blurb; my italics).

I wonder how much more Hamalian could vilify Rexroth. I know we are in the age of intensified double-speak, and I expect it from the political news—based on the Social Lie—but not necessarily from an intelligent poet.

Jessica Hagedorn also writes a blurb for the book. A poet whom Rexroth had nurtured from age fifteen, Hagedorn is described in Hamalian’s book as follows: “[Rexroth] was very sympathetic to her artistic aspirations, her Filipino childhood, and her education. He set her on a course of reading—which included anthologies of black writers and French writers like Apollinaire, Artaud, and Clevel—and invited her to use his library whenever she liked . . . Rexroth decided that Jessica needed to develop her ear, and invited her to read with him at a small coffeehouse.” (320)

This sounds to me like a generous mentor in the Bohemian tradition and, significantly, there is no hint of sexual impropriety involved. Hagedorn “repays” his unusual gift (in the book she is quoted as saying, “Rexroth was magical” [320]) by writing a blurb for the book’s jacket: “Hamalian is both a fair and honest biographer—revealing his dark side without stripping Rexroth of his dignity” (my italics). I imagine he would have thought that his dignity had been stripped by the examples I’ve already cited, even the single sentence: “[he] would fuck a snake if it would hold still for him.” Maybe Jessica didn’t have time to read the book closely or was flattered with the opportunity to write a blurb. Nevertheless, I think the book is neither “fair” nor “honest” unless vicious hearsay, unsubstantiated libel, and poor literary criticism are the order of the day.

--Donald Gutierrez: “Hamalian has turned out a . . . generally judicious account” (1993; zinkle.com; my italics).

---Herbert Gold: “Gradually Linda Hamalian allows developing understanding of the rogue poet’s flaws—a fabulizing of his own life, plus vanity, capriciousness, erratic judgment , abusiveness toward both enemies and ex-friends—to stain the portrait . . .” (jacket blurb; my italics).

Gold at least seems to be discussing the same book that I read. The publisher significantly puts Gold’s list of qualities on the jacket cover as a way to titillate readers about a “rogue” poet’s life. Gold notices that there is mudslinging (or exposing) going on, and yet he is circumspect in eluding the main thrust of her book, namely Rexroth’s alleged mistreatment of women.



In my opinion, Hamalian’s book has done irreparable harm to Rexroth’s reputation. During the almost two decades since it was published, his literary stock has fallen precipitously. Because of her fastidious research into many of the facts of his life—despite her bias—few writers are likely to redo the project anytime soon. His work will not be consistently under-appreciated, it rises like cream in a myriad of fields, yet her book, as the most comprehensive “biography” of his life, is where many readers will continue to go for an appraisal of the man as a whole. While reading her unflattering portrait, I started to imagine how readers who never met him would evaluate him. A crucial tenet of Rexroth’s belief system was that a poet must be an intelligently functional human being, but ironically Hamalian has reduced him page after page to the dysfunctional freak stereotype demanded by straight society. [Note: Two years after writing this paragraph I was delighted to hear that a new biography by Rachelle Katz Lerner, A Rage to Order: Kenneth Rexroth, is forthcoming from the University of Michigan.]

In sharp contrast to Hamalian’s rude and crude approach, most of Rexroth’s prose essays, several on topical issues, are resilient and often more poignant today than when they were first published. And some of his poetry still defies assimilation by bourgeois society, because the Social Lie he unmasks so articulately has become ever more transparent as the hypocrisy of USA foreign policy unravels (cf. Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize speech). Incidentally, Rexroth was using the term “post-post-modernism” already in the 1970s, before theoretical works by Fredric Jameson and others on postmodernism became popular.

It is high time to move past Rexroth’s controversial personality and delve into his provocative ideas. He and like-minded friends started the Randolph Bourne Council in the early 1940s and the Libertarian Circle right after the war in San Francisco, the latter to “refound the radical movement after its destruction by the Bolsheviks and to rethink all the basic principals and subject to searching criticism all the ideologists from Marx to Malatesta” (149). At the very least we can enjoy Rexroth’s insights and humor in his poetry and prose, but it would be even more important if people could come together to “refound the radical movement” and “rethink all the basic principals,” perhaps on a blog site (while keeping in mind Robert Fisk’s caveat: “ ‘Activists’ spend hours and hours emailing each other to no purpose it seems to me, other than to say, ‘we’re losing.’ ”).

The ideas of Rexroth’s generation of anarchist poets run the risk of being marginalized as those of quaint dinosaurs. I hope that people like him who dedicate their lives for more than personal fortune will not be demonized.



Kenneth Rexroth’s multi-faceted activities make him difficult to classify. He reminds me of the Japanese game “mogura-tataki” 「土竜叩き」(wack-a-mole) in which you hammer down moles with a mallet but they reappear elsewhere. The object of the game is to be faster at striking them down than they are at reemerging. Rexroth’s various talents are akin to the moles in the game that refuse to stay put.

Right-wing critics might shoot down Rexroth’s radical politics, but they’d probably be moved by his exquisite love poetry. Critics who consider his love poetry compromised by not being in synch with his life story as they understand it (like Hamalian) can still have high regard for his nature poetry. Refer to the nature verse as merely California regional “bear-shit-on-the-trail” school of poetry (as he self-mockingly did), yet you might acknowledge that Rexroth was a great translator and a philosopher who encompassed wisdom of the west and east (cf. Morgan Gibson’s fine study, Revolutionary Rexroth: Poet of East-West Wisdom [Hamdon, CT: Archon Books, 1986]). For those who knock the profundity of philosophical and theological meanderings, he was a thoroughly down-to-earth poet (like this unpublished ditty in his old age: “Love Poem: All over the world/ At this moment, beautiful/ Women are wiping / Their assholes.”) (355) You may find his ribald side inappropriate to your bourgeois taste (Hamalian refers to his “bad jokes and sophomoric remarks” [401], forgetting that Rexroth was a repository of American humor from cowboys, vaudeville, the Ozarks and elsewhere, and in this respect he resembled Gershon Legman [1917-1999], who faithfully copied graffiti limericks from toilets and other locales around the USA). Disregard Rexroth’s bawdy side and his paintings might impress you as exploratory and sophisticated, way beyond the dilettantism associated with most writers who pick up a brush. His paintings were as much his essence and as meaningful to him as his poems. (He told me, “If the house starts burning, just save the paintings.”) And if you happen not to be moved by his painting (like Hamalian), you might still respect Rexroth’s detailed guidebook to flora and fauna of the High Sierras. If poetry with jazz or original poetry or translations don’t suit your fastidious tastes, you probably would still consider his erudite essays on the world’s classical literature to be an education in itself. And so on and so forth.

Rexroth’s house of culture has so many windows and doors open that he will not be relegated to obscurity because of bad press in any one section. Wack-a-mole here and there, but Rexroth will still astonish you with another fascinating angle. One day if “The Complete Works of Kenneth Rexroth” is published, then readers will be astonished at the breadth of his diverse achievements.

Hamalian wrote that the first time she visited Rexroth he “talked . . . politics (of the conspiracy theory kind) into the early morning hours.” What if the F.B.I. or C.I.A. or N.S.A. or a nameless intelligence organization was troubled by what a nation of people who agreed with Rexroth’s revolutionary (not “re-volvo-lutionary”) politics and cultural attitudes could do? After all, he was a key figure in the break-apart 1960s and had mentored Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other Beats before they were radicals, and the Beats then merged into the Hippies before spreading worldwide. There would be no better way to neutralize such a figure than to have a biography like Hamalian’s downplay his or her overall importance by harping on a perceived personality shortcoming. Highly significant is that she never once addresses the potential of Rexroth’s ideas in the contemporary world but continually bashes him until he is trivialized as a cantankerous buffoon. The history of the anarchist movement in the USA also deserves better treatment of one of its leaders. Along the way, Hamalian impoverishes us and herself. The neo-cons currently in Washington, D.C. should be proud to have her book on their shelves and I’m sure they wish they had such a biography for each and every radical thinker with potentially threatening ideas. Hamalian, whether inadvertently or not, in the cloak of feminist righteousness has been doing the Man’s job.



In my opinion, Rexroth’s foremost talent was his “ability” (the literal meaning of the Japanese “Noh” theater that he was so fond of) to construe almost any situation—grave or ludicrous—into a phrase that is eminently quotable. His times and what he said were quite different from those of Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde, but Rexroth had a similar knack for witty and memorable utterances.

I see Rexroth’s legacy as radiating out from his quotes to people who subsequently search out his paintings, poetry, prose and recorded performances. Using Linda Hamalian’s book exclusively, I fished out some of the gems she quotes from various sources (including An Autobiographical Novel) under topics that I titled. I did so to recuperate his voice, because reading her book made me think that his quotes were lotuses blossoming from her unfriendly mud. In his own words he is freed from the scandal and gossip, the agenda-raising and rancor, as if to present the reader a plateful of vegetables without pouring an unnecessary spicing on top to make their edibility questionable.

If you enjoy the mind behind any or some or all of the following Kenneth Rexroth quotes, then I suggest that you skip reading Linda Hamalian’s A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (unless you are researching “unfaithful poets and their [un]faithful wives” or taking Professor Kevin Blackburn’s “Tutorial 1: Biographers Who Hate Their Subjects” which focuses on “the pitfalls of bias in the writing of biography”). You may prefer to go directly to the dozens of books Rexroth wrote and translated and the website that has much prose material by him and some about him: www.bopsecrets.org.

Now that almost a quarter century has passed since Rexroth’s death, we should be able to evaluate which of his utterances turned out to be correct and which were off the mark. He managed to be ahead of the curve, if not prescient on many matters, and his work pushes us to consider seriously the importance of ecology, individuality in art praxis, the dehumanization and alienation under hyper-capitalism, and strategies to recover sacramental human relationships in a vapid political climate. He might even have some insights about what to do about people like Hamalian who have “discovered the use of the rhetoric of radical politics for reactionary purposes” (360).

Hamalian really shouldn’t have the last word on Rexroth (and neither should I). Until a more sympathetic biography is written, I prefer to let him speak for himself. His quotes follow my untitled poem.

* * *

when you were alive
you were larger than life

you never said
when dead
you'd be larger
than death

you pirouetted integrity
your best friend, Laughlin
called you omniscient
in your late thirties
you wrote him a letter
admitting you couldn't
feed yourself and
were a beggar

from sheepherder
cowboy cook
horse wrangler
painter and poet
driver for Al Capone's lieutenant
you almost had to take a job
as a rat catcher not
even a dog catcher

a poetry book of yours
won a California prize
you had to borrow a suit
to attend the dinner party

you were rough on some
no patience for evil
you pushed yourself
to starburst heights

pioneer of jazz poetry
points massager
front guard aiding Japanese and
Japanese-Americans in San Francisco
to escape from horse stable fate
you hid them in your four rooms

you sent many mid-west
on a scam you devised
enrolling them in
correspondence schools

yet you couldn't afford a $10 pair of shoes
when you were almost forty years old
you saw the capitalist system as doomed
but wouldn't be fooled by Stalin's tactics
you led a hard life for a long time
because you always kept it real

as everything unravels
people will catch your worth
bodhisattva among reeds
shaken by the mindless
and soulless

humans never again
free as you were
future prohibits it

like the softly waving hand
of an Indian dancer
your poetry will last
as long as the language


* * *




“I starve under capitalism, and I would starve under a dictatorship of the proletariat for the same reasons. After all I am interested in perpetual revolution in a sense other than Trotsky’s—the constant raising into relevance of ignored values. Poetry has for its mission in society the reduction of what the Society of Jesus named ‘invincible ignorance,’ and the true poet is as much to be feared by the proletariat as by the bourgeoisie.” [1931] (76)

Doom and destruction are inevitable until humans escape “from the frozen embrace of this dead economic system.” (115)


“Maybe I am slowly growing up and learning that it is idle and tedious to quarrel with others about their ideas. After all, ideas are going to play a very scant role in the world we are entering.” (116)


“Under such circumstances I feel one has a responsibility to his species—it is silly to spend one’s life talking about ‘Mutual Aid’—and then make socks in jail or plant trees while one’s species tears itself to pieces.” (107)


“The problem is to control history/ We already understand it.” (104)


“Mr. Humphries is welcome to his opinion of my vocabulary, but I came into the Popular Front from the Left, and went out by the same door. Mr. Humphries knows this. He has either locked himself in the burning building or left by some other exit.” (105)


“Only Blake and Cowper ever got the kind of wives poets should have, and Blake’s was illiterate, and Cowper’s wasn’t his wife.” (132)

“You marry a poet so you can have a social feather in your cap, and then treat him as though he had the nerves of a ditch digger.” (169)


“Like all Slavs, she gives off a sort of muffed and booted aroma of Venus in Furs.” (134)


“Has he got, locked up at the bank, an autographed picture of you fucking a sheep?” (174)


“A late anal arch deacon.” (174)


“We fed him and got him drunk and gave him a marijuana cigarette and everything.”


My poetry aims to get into my “own bowels and into the physical intimacies of my relations with others and the world. Most poetry is best when it is about what the poet thinks of some pink beloved pussy and not at all about H[enry] A. Wallace and J.C. God.” (175)


“I know what you’re doing. I feel as if I walked into a candy store and got beaten up by a bunch of juvenile delinquents.” (259)


“[T]errifying gibberish that sounds like a tape recording of a gang bang with everybody full of pod, juice and bennies, all at once.” (269)


They like to get “drunk as perch orchard swine.” (177)


“Don’t mention that name in my presence; I’ll beat the shit out of him if I ever see him again.” (359)


“like pillars of Hercules, like two ruined Titans guarding the entrance to one of Dante’s circles. . . . Both of them were overcome by the horror of the world in which they found themselves, because at last they could no longer overcome that world with the weapon of a purely lyrical art.” (231)


“[Trungpa is] a counter Buddha, sometimes considered his brother, who always goes about seeking whom he may devour with ignorance and trying to destroy the Buddha word.” (365)


“Children [are] safest in a convent or a whorehouse.” (292)


“Every time they set a plate in front of you in a restaurant, you feel like suing the management. . . . They can spoil anything. All they have to do is take food out of a package or tin and put it on a plate and it becomes inedible.” (404) “I’d rather be/ Fed intravenously.” (294)


“You people are not anarchists, you are just exceptionally English. You are even more brutally rude than the rest of your countrymen.” (193)


“[It sounds like] “farting into lettuce.” (202)


“The only civilized Germans departed in smoke from the gas ovens.” (322)


“To keep out the people who drop cigarette butts in the goldfish bowl.” (221)


Based on his experience in some “nasty jails,” he said the trick of getting through a prison term was never to think of “any screw or warden as human.” (229)


The kind favored by “the castrated rabbits of Puddle, a magazine of Piddle.” (239)


“This is a lectern for a midget who is going to recite the Iliad in haiku form.” (244)


“I must get certain jobs done soon. This is a debt—not just to society—but to the society of generations to come. Of this failure to do my duty, I am always terribly aware.” (303)


“[The social revolution has become] pot and pussy.” (307)

Life deteriorated among the Flower Children of Haight-Ashbury because “nobody did the dishes; they were screwing one another and everybody got diseases. It was love time. No one cleaned the bathrooms, the kitchen, the urinals.” (412)


“Never trust a bourgeois millionaire.” (354)

“My god, they think if you do it on your side, you’re a freak.” (309)

“A snob is a person who imitates the manners of the class above him.” (373)


“[Police are involved] in a symbiotic relationship within the illegal communities—narcotics peddlers, prostitutes, and gamblers—that function as subcultures in the society.” (326)

“The Boss Heat in San Francisco got me fired from three jobs at once, one of which I had held for almost ten years. Can I prove it? No. My informants refuse to testify.” (330)


“The Catholic contemplative, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk follow counsels of perfection—illumination comes as the crown of a life of intense ethical activism, of honesty, of loyalty, poverty, chastity, and above all charity, positive, outgoing, love of all creatures. The good life creates the ambiance into which spiritual illumination flows like a sourceless, totally diffused light.” (328)


“A characteristic social mechanism [is] the institutionalization of dissent and revolt. . . . Today Malcolm X is invited to address executive seminars at Shangri-las nestled in the snow-clad Rockies.” (343)


“Japanese businessmen are only too well aware that they owe their ever expanding economy to the fact that seventy percent of their taxes do not go for wars, past, present and future.” (350)


“[It’s] a long dead corpse full of fighting maggots cannibalizing each other.” (351)


“The idea that you can lie on a couch for five years, spend twenty thousand dollars, suddenly remember the first time you saw your grandfather’s penis, rise illuminated, and walk away in complete mental health… is pure bullshit.” (109)

Rexroth believed that mental illness was, like tuberculosis, a disease of the poor, and not “an indoor sport of the Viennese upper class.” (109)

While on duty as an orderly in a mental hospital, “No patient was put in seclusion, unless he was so completely demented that he ran around, threw himself in all directions, and attacked people. And no one was kept in restraint except people with brain damage from strokes or trauma who were unconscious and would roll out of bed and injure themselves.” (108)

[Rexroth said that the only people he thought should ever receive capital punishment were the doctors who ordered shock therapy and lobotomies for their patients. (394)]


“I may not look that way, but I was a feminist before most of your mothers were born.” (353)

“[I write poetry to] please women—not to bitch about them.” (353)


KR translation of an epigram
by Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330-395),
the last great Roman historian:

Dawn after dawn comes on the wine
Spilt on books and music,
And on the stained and tumbled pillows.
And then, while we are paying
No attention, a black man comes
And roasts some of us, and fries
Some of us, and boils some of us,
And throws us all in the dump.


“If you are being raped in the kitchen or burned alive in the woods, it is small consolation to know that all the world condemns your persecutors as evil men. . . . The end of the road is total social indifference as to race, not in the Five Spot or the Blue Note [jazz clubs]; not in City College; not in a political rally. . . . It means that race won’t make any difference if you’re a plumber and go to the Plumber’s Convention. It won’t make a particle of difference with your neighbors in your apartment house or suburb. It won’t make any difference to the kids your kids play with, or to the young men and women your sons and daughters choose to marry.” (307-8)


“To the southwest the great mountain rose up covered with walls of ice. There was no one near me for miles in any direction. I realized then, with complete certainty, this was the place for me. This was the kind of life I liked best. I resolved to live it as much I could from then on.” (32)


“They’re all stoned and they’re all illiterate.” (332)


This critique by John Solt of Linda Hamalian’s A Life of Kenneth Rexroth was originally published online (along with several other articles on Rexroth) here. For a briefer critique along the same lines, see Ken Knabb’s A Clueless Life of Kenneth Rexroth.