Kenneth Rexroth’s American Poetry in the Twentieth Century

By Michael Lind

Best Book on Amercian PoetryThe best book ever written about American poetry is American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, published in 1971 by the poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982). Rexroth is remembered today chiefly as a member of the post-World War II San Francisco counterculture, a mentor to the Beats and the author of numerous translations or recreations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Born in South Bend, Indiana, he was a genuine bohemian, who in the course of a long life and global travels met and befriended many of the leading figures of European and American literary circles. This makes his book a sort of Secret History of American poetry, told by an insider who knew many of his subjects.

The title notwithstanding, the book covers the entire history of American poetry, even though the focus is on the 20th century. In later life Rexroth discussed poetry on the radio in San Francisco, and the style of his book is conversational, complete with bombshell asides like this:

It simply is not true that there was a continuity in the Southern colonies of a cavalier tradition. The cavalier South, as Mark Twain pointed out, is a dream of chronic adolescents who read themselves to sleep with the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The real Southern tradition was largely French, Girondin, rationalistic. Its great representative is Jefferson…

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