December 22, 1905, marks the birthday of Bohemian poet
Kenneth Rexroth, who was born in South Bend, Indiana. His father was a
wholesale drug salesman, and Rexroth was offered a position in the business
that would eventually have catapulted him to a top executive spot.
He considered the offer for several days before finally turning it down in
favor of pursuing a career as an artist.
The only problem was that Rexroth didn't know what kind of
artist he wanted to be. Finally, in the 1920s, he set off on a journey
the southern tip of Lake Michigan to Chicago, where he fell into a West Side
artistic community. He inhabited
speakeasies such as the Dill Pickle Club and the Wind Blew Inn, where
politics, theater, jazz, and poetry spilled forward nightly. Rexroth became one of the first poets to read his poetry to the
accompaniment of jazz music.
Before long, he became involved in left-wing politics and
began to tour the country, speaking from soapboxes on behalf of the
radical organization, the International Workers of the World. He
supported his efforts by horse-wrangling, sheep-herding, and selling
pamphlets that promoted a cure for constipation.
He eventually settled in San Francisco, where life on the
West Coast changed the very nature of his poetry. While his earlier
poems were filled with classical references to Greek mythology and
philosophy, his later writings concentrated on everyday life. He wrote
poems about camping trips, restaurants, fly fishing, and love affairs.
In the 1950's, San Francisco became a Mecca for
disgruntled artists. Rexroth held an open house, and Beat
poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gary Snyder
showed up. Rexroth became their poetic mentor, organizing the lauded Six
Gallery reading in 1955 where many of the original Beat Poets read
their works in public.
It was the first public reading by several of
some of whom had not met before. Nearly 150 people attended, and Jack
Kerouac, who had been invited to read but declined, collected money from the
guests and ran out to fetch three jugs of California burgundy, which helped
to "loosen up" the audience. The Gallery, once an auto-repair shop, was
decorated with starkly surrealistic sculptures built from wooden orange crates and
plaster of Paris.
Philip Lamantia, a moderately well-known Surrealist poet, went onstage first,
reading a series of poems by his late friend, John Hoffman, who had just
died of a peyote overdose. Kerouac, in the loosely fictionalized account of
the evening he published in The Dharma Bums, mocked Lamantia's
"delicate Englishy voice," although he said he later came to know Lamantia
Next, poet Michael McClure read Point Lobos: Animism
and For the Death of 100 Whales.
Following him, Philip Whalen read Plus Ca Change.
him, twenty-nine-year-old Allen Ginsberg walked onstage and stole
the show with his reading of Howl. Up until then, he had published little poetry and
never before read in public. He had written Howl
in a mad frenzy only weeks earlier, so nobody had yet heard of the
revolutionary work with its long unbroken lines of Biblical verse,
proclaiming glorious defiance in the face of isolation and disaster.
Gathering confidence as he went on, Ginsberg began singing
the lines like a Jewish cantor, glancing quickly at the manuscript at the
beginning of each new line and then delivering it in a single breath. The
crowd was transfixed, and Kerouac, now sitting on the edge of the stage,
began shouting, "Go! Go!" By the end of the poem
(only the first part; the rest had not yet been written), Rexroth was in
tears, and Ginsberg had launched what would become the most famous poetic
career since the early 19th Century.
Finally, the last reader, Gary Snyder, who had wisely
waited for the crowd to settle down before reading his legendary poem, A
Berry Feast, unwound a stark and multi-layered celebration of tribal
At the end of the evening, the poets--basking in the limelight of their own
success--gathered for dinner at a Chinese
restaurant before going to The Place, one of their favorite after-hours
By the next morning, word had spread about the enigmatic reading, and the
five poets became famous locally. The entire evening's proceedings
were repeated several times to much larger crowds in the coming months.
But it was the first reading at the Six Gallery that
crystallized the San Francisco poetry scene and turned several of the young
poets, especially Ginsberg, into overnight celebrities.
In Scratching The Beat Surface, Michael McClure wrote of the
evening, "In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry
before -- we had gone beyond a point of no return. None of us wanted
to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective
void -- to the land without poetry -- to the spiritual drabness. We
wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we
went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision."
As a result of
that evening, Rexroth became
known as the Godfather of the Beat Generation. Although he never
regarded himself as one of them, he had become inexorably tied to the Beat Generation within the collective mind of America,
although he had difficult accepting the notion.
"I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the
avant-garde," he said. "...I [just] try to say, as simply as I can,
the simplest and most profound experiences of my life."
Rexroth went on to publish more than fifty books of poetry
and critical essays in his lifetime, including The Signature of All
Things (1950) and Saucy Limericks and Christmas Cheer (1980).
The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth was published
Kenneth Rexroth died on June 6, 1982, in Montecito,
Discover Kenneth Rexroth
Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling