The Bay Area is the cradle of high-tech development. Stanford is well aware of this history and its own role in it. However, the Bay Area has also been one of the most unique art scenes in the country. This article is not a claim that the arts are unfairly marginalized at Stanford, but it is a reminder of the important cultural contributions the Bay Area has made to the world.
Between 1940 and 1960, San Francisco underwent a cultural transformation from cultural backwater to a flourishing bohemia of counter-culture. This golden age conjures names like Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but one name is largely forgotten: Kenneth Rexroth, poet and cultural impresario.
His work included poetry, criticism, translations, newspaper columns, radio appearances, and tireless literary correspondence. Over the course of 41 years in an apartment in Portrero Hill, Rexroth shaped San Francisco, becoming the social center of literary life in the Bay Area, progenitor of The Beat generation, and the intellectual seed of the San Francisco Renaissance during the 1950s.
He had a frenetic interest in almost everything that is only suggested by his broad life experience spent as: monastery novice, café intellectual, wrestler, soapbox preacher, salon host, psychiatric ward assistant, anarchist and even a conscientious objector during the second World War.
Rexroth was born in South Bend, Indiana. At age 22, he married painter Andrée Schafer and the two hitchhiked around the country until arriving at a fledgling San Francisco. They were mesmerized and simply “decided to stay and grow up with the city.” The year was 1927.
Rexroth’s attraction to San Francisco was instantaneous — the city was unspoiled. At the time of Rexroth’s arrival, development in the city was sparse; west of Twin Peaks was more coastal scrubs and sand dunes than city. Rexroth remarked that San Francisco was the only city “which was not settled overland by the westward-spreading puritan tradition” and hence, lacked the entrenched cultural values and social structure of Eastern and Midwest cities.
Throughout the 1930s, Rexroth behaved like a bad parody of a San Franciscan: he wrote poetry, painted, explored eastern philosophy and participated in radical politics as a pacifist, anarchist and even communist. During the war, Rexroth objected to the wartime measure of Japanese internment and hid several Japanese people in his apartment, while helping others to escape to the safer East Coast.
After the war, Rexroth quickly established himself at the cultural center of San Francisco. He wrote weekly columns for the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Magazine, and San Francisco Bay Guardian and hosted a weekly radio show on KPFA. Simply put, if you were a literate person living in San Francisco, you encountered Rexroth’s name on an almost daily basis. In his columns, Rexroth assumed the role of public educator on an encyclopedic range of topics including literature, geology, anthropology, spiritualism, naturalism, civics and music. Meanwhile, he was publishing poems to national attention and becoming an identifiable face of Bay Area poetry and culture.
Rexroth’s biggest impact, however, was as a socialite. He generously launched the careers of many now-famous writers. During the 1950s, Rexroth was the social‐networking platform for area writers and intellectuals—his apartment served as the premiere San Francisco literary salon where writers like Robert Duncan, William Everson, Dylan Thomas, Jack Keroauc, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder all mingled.
In 1955, Rexroth organized and emceed the Six Gallery Reading, arguably the most important event in Beat history. The event featured several young poets and served as the public debut of Beat poetry; most notably, it was where Allen Ginsberg famously first read his poem “Howl” to an astonished San Francisco audience. Years later, TIME magazine would remember Rexroth as, “The Father of the Beats”.
A true San Franciscan, Rexroth was also a trend-setter. He was among the first American poets to do several things: write in haiku, recite poetry to Jazz music, fuse poetry and Eastern philosophy and lore. Rexroth pioneered these areas as legitimate territory for American poetry to explore.
Rexroth spent the final years of his life in a semi-retirement, comfortably translating Chinese and Japanese poetry in Santa Barbara. He died in 1982. To give a sense of the man, I leave the reader with a few quotes.
Rexroth’s prelude to a poetry reading: “I have an extremely wide repertory. What would you like—sex, revolution, or mysticism”?
On the cause of his father’s death: “Crooked cards and straight whiskey, slows horses and fast women.”
“I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.”