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Kenneth Rexroth

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 up 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 them, 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 better.

Next, poet Michael McClure read Point Lobos: Animism and For the Death of 100 Whales.

Following him, Philip Whalen read Plus Ca Change.

After 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 ritual.

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 haunts.

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 in 2002.

Kenneth Rexroth died on June 6, 1982, in Montecito, California.

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