A Literary Lion

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) may well be the greatest unread writer America has ever produced, and certainly among the most influential. Much postwar nonacademic poetry owes its origins, its way of perceiving the world as an object of lyrical meditation, and its fluid idiom to standards Rexroth set in such major works as "The Homestead Called Damascus" and "The Phoenix and the Turtle." Many contemporary poets, among them Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Wendell Berry, figure as his direct descendants.

As much as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Rexroth helped revive an interest in classical literature and Chinese and Japanese poetry, and his translations, notably One Hundred Poems from the Chinese and Poems from the Greek Anthology, remain standards in their respective fields. Rexroth informed any number of social movements as well, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the antiwar activism of the 1960's and 1970's, and he lived the defiantly unfettered life of an anarchist artist, first in the bohemian Greenwich Village and Chicago of the 1920's and 30's, and later in San Francisco.

Although he is inarguably central to 20th-century American literary and intellectual history, Kenneth Rexroth's life and work remain little known. Like his near-contemporary and peer Edmund Wilson, he is only occasionally taught in the academy, and the critical and biographical work devoted...

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