Poet, artist, performer, pacifist and visionary, Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) was the closest thing America had to a William Blake. He was, in the words of biographer Larry Smith, the ‘Rebel Poet of America,” influencing the likes of Henry Miller, young Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder and, later, Jim Morrison and Richard Brautigan. PKM spoke to Larry Smith about Patchen’s life and literary legacy. Today (Dec. 11) is the anniversary of Kenneth Patchen’s birth.
“The trick is to get truth and lies / To sound just the same / That way you’ve got it made / Everybody is mad after while / Then you can come up with a world / Where madness is the normal thing / Of course those who rig it that way / End up mad themselves / But—who’s to know the difference? / This world’s the best example I know.”-Kenneth Patchen, “Sure There Is Food,” written in 1946 but prophesying 2019.
Kenneth Patchen may have wielded more influence on two generations’ worth of our counterculture than any other poet you’ve never heard of. He had a hippie pacifist sensibility 30 years before the hippies existed and a Beat Generation aura a decade before that term was common coinage.
He was such a true original that he, like his biggest champion Henry Miller, became a genre unto himself, always on the outside of the literary establishment—partly by their own design. Henry Miller saw Patchen’s forebears as Blake, Lautreamont, Picasso, Bosch and John of Patmos (he of the Book of Revelation). Patchen’s books, Miller wrote in his 1946 essay “Patchen: Man of Anger and Light,” were “something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment.”
Patchen came by his rough-hewn quality naturally, growing up in a working-class family near Youngstown, Ohio, where his father and other family relations all seemed to end up damaged and beaten down by their work in the steel mills—or breathing its smoke. After dropping out of college, he wandered the country in the 1930s in search of his muse, living for short periods of time in Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Boston, New York and Connecticut. Among his closest friends and confidantes were the equally idiosyncratic poet e.e. cummings and James Laughlin, who would go on to found New Directions, the imprint that published most of Patchen’s work. Patchen met his future wife Miriam in Boston in 1934, when she was a college student. After they married, they eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1951.
There, he became part of a vibrant literary scene that included Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who would publish some of Patchen’s work on his City Lights imprint), Josephine Miles (poet-in-residence at UCal-Berkeley), Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky. As early as the late 1940s, Patchen was performing his poetry to jazz accompaniment, inspiring the Bay Area poets to do likewise.
Eventually, he would release four albums of his jazz poetry readings on Folkways Records. This was one of his remarkable early poems, written in 1943 and recorded with a jazz sextet in 1958. If this is not punk, I don’t know what is:
Patchen published his first book of poetry in 1936 and continued to publish poetry and fiction—more than 40 books in all—until his death in 1972. The titles of some of Patchen’s books and poems are enough to warn you about, or prepare you for, a unique experience: First Will & Testament, “Do The Dead Know What Time It Is?”, An Astonished Eye Looks Out Of The Air, Hurrah For Anything, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, The Argument of Innocence, What Shall We Do Without Us?, Hallelujah Anyway.
His early work was called ‘proletarian’ poetry, a label he disavowed but one that did indicate his compassion for those caught in the intractable economic web of the Great Depression. As his biographer Larry Smith writes, about the range of his literary art, “Emerging from a poetry of working-class protest into a prose and poetic portrayal of the world’s madness and a cry for peace, Patchen developed in his fabulous fables, love poems, and picture poems a deep yet modern mythology which conveys a sense of compassionate wonder amidst the world’s violence.” Echoing this, the critic Louis Untermeyer said, “No more ringing protests or passionate love poems have been written in our time.”
One of Patchen’s most remarkable innovations was what he called the “painting-and-poem form,” which combined his untrained but vibrant visual artistic skills with words to create hybrid works of surprisingly powerful impact.
He was an “outsider artist” long before Howard Finster tripped over a paint can behind his barn.
Patchen created these painted poems partly out of necessity, due to chronic pain and sometimes debilitating health issues related to his back. While working on a friend’s car in 1937, the vehicle fell on top of him, damaging his spine. He never fully healed and, over the years, his condition was worsened by botched surgeries. By 1960, Patchen was a semi-invalid, spending most of his final 12 years a recluse, with his beloved wife Miriam (to whom he dedicated every one of his 40 books), in their Palo Alto home. The only creative outlet he had during these bedridden years were these painted poems.
Larry Smith is the author of the biography Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet of America as well as the scriptwriter for a film about Patchen that was broadcast on PBS, Kenneth Patchen: Poet of Engagement. He is the author of eight books of poetry and professor of literature at Bowling Green State University-Firelands College in Ohio for forty years. He is the director of publishing for Bottom Dog Press, which has published a book of Patchen’s love poems. Larry Smith recently spoke with PKM about Patchen.
PKM: I notice that you come from the same geographical background as Kenneth Patchen—working class Ohio mill towns—and you are also a poet. Are these the things that drew you to Patchen? When/how did you become aware of his work?
Larry Smith: I discovered Kenneth Patchen as a college sophomore in a survey of American Lit course. The editors had wisely included him. I had already discovered Ohio poet James Wright. Both confirmed in me that my working-class life had value and could be the subject of poetry, including my own.
PKM: What sort of reaction do you get in your college classes when you introduce students to Patchen’s work?
Larry Smith: Students young and old are sparked by his imagination, his humor, and his compassion. For many he validates their alternative view of things. He is the “rebel poet,” and that connects.
PKM: When I teach classes, all I have to do is show a few of Patchen’s painted poems or play the jazz-backed recordings of poems like “Do The Dead Know What Time It is?” to get the rapt attention of the audience. What is it about his voice and lyrical gifts that generate such an instant reaction from people who’ve never heard of him?
Larry Smith: Ah, Kenneth played the saxophone in high school, and early on discovered jazz. He knew how to play his voice like an instrument. He also knew the value of startling images to awaken his hearers.
PKM: It’s easy, because of his severe chronic health problems, to think of Patchen as a sort of tragic figure, but his work inspires and amuses too. Still, the clash of darkness and light, pessimism and optimism—what Henry Miller called “the mixture of hope and despair, love and resignation, courage and sense of futility”—does create a tension in his work. Was he a tragic figure?
Larry Smith: Well, it’s impossible to talk about Kenneth without talking about his beloved wife Miriam. She was the light of his life and work. She confessed that at one point in the late 1960s he was ready to just quit. “I’ve said it all,” he lamented, “and they haven’t awakened.” Miriam heard him but refused to accept this resignation. “You have to continue,” she said. “because so many people believe in you.” No one believed more that Miriam who endured real poverty and struggle without a complaint. For us, looking back, we may feel that his treatment (medical and critical) was unfair. But it never stopped him.
PKM: Was Miriam helpful to you when you were writing your biography? She must have been quite an amazing woman, since he dedicated all of his 40+ books to her.
Larry Smith: I lived with Miriam in Palo Alto for much of the research on my biography. She was amazing.
PKM: Who else was helpful when you were writing your biography of Patchen? Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Gary Snyder? Henry Miller? Some of the musicians who backed his recordings?
Larry Smith: Probably the next best help was James Laughlin, Patchen’s friend and editor for decades at New Directions. I stayed with him and researched his ND files in Norfolk, Conn. He often struggled with keeping Patchen afloat, but he was devoted to his work and shared that. Ferlinghetti was devoted to Patchen and shared his sense of him as a person and poet.
PKM: Looking over the complete career, including the early years when he wasn’t dealing with health issues, I sense a bit of a “hobo poet” in him, like a Vachel Lindsay or a Harry Kemp. Didn’t he wander the country, taking menial jobs while searching for his muse?
Larry Smith: Yes, when he dropped out of labor college, he rode the rails, but soon met Miriam and became part of Greenwich Village scene.
PKM: Patchen has been loosely associated with the Beat poets but he resisted any such affiliation, partly because he was older and less inclined to beatnik hijinks. But he did influence some of the younger Beats, like Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, didn’t he?
Larry Smith: Oh, yes. He influenced all of them and they testify to this. Outsider magazine did a beautiful Homage to Kenneth Patchen.
PKM: Was there some connection between a young Jim Morrison and the older Kenneth Patchen? I seem to recall reading about Morrison’s trying to help Patchen out, long before the Doors ever existed. Was that just my imagination?
Larry Smith: I have not heard this…though Morrison knew and appreciated him, as did the Beatles.
PKM: Patchen’s poetry is accessible but it is not simple or shallow. His fiction/novels are another matter altogether. What would you suggest as the best place to start for a new reader of Patchen?
Larry Smith: I tried teaching The Journal of Albion Moonlight in an upper level lit course at Bowling Green State University. It was too much of a challenge to some. Patchen speaks deeply to individuals, but his maverick approach does not please all. I usually stick with the poetry…and it has a wide range. As Miriam said, “Kenneth never wrote the same book twice.” He’s a challenge.
PKM: Why has Patchen been kept out of the so-called American poetry canon? Too naïve, too primitive? Too hard to categorize?
Larry Smith: Alan, as I discovered, there have always been those in the poetry scene who worked to keep Patchen out. Delmore Schwartz fought New Directions publishing him…He felt Patchen corrupted their fine literary publications. This is pure jealousy and resentment. Not just critics then, who didn’t know how to handle or categorize him, but fellow writers. He had and continues to have a devoted following…people like you and all those on the Kenneth Patchen Facebook page, etc.
Larry Smith performs Kenneth Patchen’s poem “The Orange Bears”: