Kenneth Patchen lived in "the era of the are-nothings who have it all".
Kenneth Patchen's life was a celebration of love of poetry and of his wife, Miriam.
The deep-seated love of words, their rhythms and meanings, started at the early age of 12 and lasted over five decades. During these creative years, he was constantly driven to expand and challenge the boundaries of the literary landscape. The over forty volumes of prose and poetry cover expressive nuances from a grave commentary on the world's social conditions to lighthearted tales, from traditionally composed verse to illustrated poems.
He spoke of abhorrence towards injustice and cruelty of men,
"From my high love I look at that poor world there; I know that murder is the first prince in that tribe."
of compassion towards all living things,
"Every man is me, I am his brother.No man is my enemy. I am everyman and he is in and of me. This is my faith, my strength, my deepest hope, and my only belief."
and of an enduring faith in the survival of beauty,
"Who'll that be, Your little sleepy wren?Feathers as pretty as a snowfall's shirt...O, airfolk at their courtin',Angelwalkin' on th' sea,O my little honey, you wonder me."
His final feat was the 'Painted Poems', his visually charged odes to life.
Kenneth Frederick Patchen was born in Warren, Ohio, on Dec 13, 1911 to Wayne and Eva Patchen. He was the third child of six children. His father was a steelworker with a quiet Presbyterian demeanor and mother Eva, a devout Catholic of Scottish descent. Surrounded by the industrial milieu, Patchen became aware early on of the hardships of the American working-class families. He witnessed the violent Youngstown steel strike of 1916-1917, and experienced the death of his two sisters. Poetry became his emotional outlet.
Patchen graduated from Warren G. Harding High School in 1929 after four active years of excellence in scholarship and competitive sport. His formal education continued for another year and a half. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College and at Commonwealth College before setting out "on a road" in 1930. He drifted around in United States and Canada working menial jobs, but always writing.
In 1934 Patchen married Miriam Oikemus. They had met a year earlier at a Christmas party. She was 17, he was 21. The poet's love affair with his wife was enduring, lasting for 38 years. Though he dedicated all his published works to Miriam, his devotion is more evident in the numerous poems written to and about her;
"23rd Street Runs into Heaven"You stand near the window as lights wink On along the street. Somewhere a trolley, taking Shop girls and clerks home, clatters through To find the garbage cans sealed; newsboys Begin their murder-into-pennies round.We are shut in, secure for a little, safe until Tomorrow. You slip your dress off, roll down Your stockings, carful against runs. Naked now, With soft light on soft flesh, you pause For a moment; turn and face me- Smile in a way that only women know Who have lain long with their lover And are made more virginal.Our supper is plain but we are very wonderful.
The first years of their marriage, from the mid 1930's until 1947, were spent in an avant-garde setting of Greenwich Village, New York. There the world saw the publication of Patchen's most renowned work, The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941), an antiwar novel, in which he plainly declared his pacifistic beliefs, condemning all war efforts of the time. Patchen remembers "I was the only poet of reputation who took an unequivocal position against the war". Even though his pacifist tone during the WW II earned him the hostility of many, he regained his popularity among the youth in the 1960's, who were openly rising up against the war in Vietnam.
Patchen's early writings were shaped by the European modern literary movements. Influenced by poets Guillaume Apollinaire and F. T. Marinetti, his writing became rich with nonlinear representations of words stimulated with visual accents, varied typefaces, lettering and imagery. The departure from the traditional typesetting techniques appeared already in his second book First Will and Testament (1939). Throughout the 1940's, Patchen continued to develop the spatial orientation and combination of pictorial elements in his works, as seen in The Cloth of Tempest (1941), Pictures of Life and Death (1946), and Sleepers Awake (1945).
During the 1950's Patchen's writing became less oppressive and filled with angst. The change of tone is first seen with the publishing of Fables (1953). Miriam and Kenneth had just recently moved to San Francisco, and the new location appears to have played a role in Patchen's more humorous and optimistic writing style. Also, color appears in his works in the form of painted book and silkscreen editions, and the painted poems. Their artistry was later recognized by many prestigious museums including The Oakland Museum, Oakland, California; Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC; Dokumenta of Modern Art, Kassel, Germany, which exhibited these works between 1970-1990.
The Painted Book series initially began out of economical necessity in 1942. Unable to publish an expensive fine print edition of The Dark Kingdom, Patchen's aesthetic concerns propelled him to create individually designed and hand-painted book covers. There were a total of nine titles, ranging from 50 to 108 copies each, made of these handsome one of a kind covers.
The silkscreen portfolio editions, Glory Never Guesses (1955), and A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player (1956) represent Patchen's creative midpoint, illustrated poems that stretch the boundaries of a traditional book format. The unbound editions were produced from the original manuscript pages screened onto handmade Japanese paper in a variety of textures and colors. A total of 200 copies were hand printed by Patchen's friend printer Frank Bacher in San Francisco.
Patchen's most visually stunning work, the Painted Poems, surfaced during his most physically trying time in the 1960's. In these streamlined poems populated with imaginative creatures, Patchen spoke increasingly of beauty, humor and fun. A mood of anger and despair at human cruelty is present but doesn't dominate the material. The poems incorporate a wide array of colors, heavy with tempera and paper pasted laid onto an old handmade rag paper. The sheets, dating back to Napoleonic France, were originally used to press botanical specimens. Patchen received the rag paper from John Tate, a botanist at Stanford, who had rescued them from being thrown away. Miriam recalls that the painting format of the poems grew out of Kenneth's pure awe towards the beauty of the paper itself. He finished approximately 200 individual manuscript pages of the painted poems during his life. Even left over paper was utilized. Patchen molded the scraps into papier-mâché creatures, or "an-imals", as the couple called them.
Kenneth Patchen's medical history was a nightmare. He spend most of his life in severe back pain which resulted from a spinal injury in 1937 when he tried to help separate two collided cars. The injury was first wrongly diagnosed as arthritis. Later he found out that the pain was caused by a slipped disc. He underwent spinal surgery in the 1950's, which finally brought relief for a period of three years, from 1956-1959. During these pain-free years he toured in the United States and Canada doing poetry readings to jazz, an art form he pioneered back in 1938. Allyn Ferguson, a musician and a bandleader, had discovered Patchen's early experimentations of poetry to jazz music in 1957. Ferguson remembers, "When I finally met Patchen at Stanford, I suggested that his poems and our sounds might make interesting recordings. We opened at the Black Hawk as a tryout for an album, and wowed the audience." The two men recorded "Kenneth Patchen Reads His Poetry With the Chamber Jazz Sextet" under Cadence Records in 1958.
After a corrective surgery gone wrong in 1959, Patchen was confined to bed for the last thirteen years of his life. The couple had moved to Palo Alto, California, where their lives became a constant battle against physical pain and isolation. In spite of the struggles, Patchen continued to write and paint until his final days. On January 8, 1972, Kenneth Patchen died of heart failure leaving behind a rich legacy of a poet-artist, pacifist-proletarian values. He was the champion of anti-novels, concrete poetry, tales and verses, as well as a pioneer of painted poems, and poetry with jazz.
- Smith, Larry R. Kenneth Patchen. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. (Twayne's United States Authors Series Number 292.) Critical biographical study with bibliography.
- Morgan, Richard G. Kenneth Patchen: A Bibliography.Mamroneck, New York: Paul P. Appel, 1978.
- Morgan, Richard G., editor. Kenneth Patchen: A Collection of Essays. New York: AMS Press Inc., 1977.
- Veres, Peter. The Argument of Innocence: A Selection from the Arts of Kenneth Patchen. Oakland, California: The Scrimshaw Press, 1976.
- Detro, Gene. Patchen: The Last Interview. Santa Barbara, California: Capra Press, 1976 (Capra Chapbook Series Number 40)
- Patchenobelia: from the Archives of Kenneth Patchen at UCSC. Web Exhibit.