January 10, 2009

Review by John Cunningham

WE MEET
by Kenneth Patchen

New Directions
80 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
ISBN: 978-0-8112-1758-3
2008, 304 pp., $18.95
www.ndpublishing.com


THE WALKING-AWAY WORLD
by Kenneth Patchen

New Directions
80 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
ISBN: 978-0-8112-1757-6
2008, 288 pp., $18.95
www.ndpublishing.com

Kenneth Patchen is an iconoclast. In the annals of American poetry, he is a true heretic. And if there are any religious images left standing in the realm of poetry, he has sought to topple them, to fragment them and to set them ablaze beneath his laser-like poetic gaze. In the process, he has influenced a great many who have sought to incorporate his unique style–a cross between Lewis Carroll and André Breton with a little bit of the showmanship of Fellini thrown in for good measure.

A brief bio: Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio, on December 13, 1911. Shortly after high school, he moved to Wisconsin. During this time, he sent a sonnet, “Permanence,” to the New York Times, who published it. In 1933, he married Miriam Oikemus who became his lift-long companion, helping him through the very difficult periods to follow. They lived in Greenwich Village for a while. In 1936, he published his first book Before The Brave. In 1937, during his stay in New York City, while helping a friend repair his car, Patchen suffered a spinal injury resulting in his experiencing severe pain for the rest of his adult life. This was compounded when, several years later, he was being taken for surgery when the orderlies dropped him from the stretcher resulting in his being bed-ridden for the rest of his life. He and Miriam moved to San Francisco where he became involved with Laurence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth in the development of jazz poetry. He performed on several occasions with Charlie Mingus. During his lifetime, he published over 40 books before he passed away on January 8, 1972.

Patchen was a pacifist and a strong advocate of social consciousness. As Larry R. Smith states, at p. 22 of his book Kenneth Patchen, “Thus initiated [through his involvement with unions and strikes at the steel mills of Ohio] to the accepted violence of human destruction, Patchen’s proletarian protest, which soon widened from this regional stance to include people impoverished anywhere by political and economic controls, remained one continuing facet of his varied art.” Smith goes on, at p. 33, to list “three pervading and felt principles” which “underl[ay] his world view and control[ed] his art,” these being “1) ‘man’s madness’ – the estrangement of man from his true life through the corruptions of violence, state, and materialistic controls, the inhumanity of man, and an insane conditioning by society; 2) ‘engagement’ – commitment to life through love, brotherhood, and a belief in the unity of life; 3) ‘wonder’ – an innocent, free, and imaginative response to the world’s beauty as the ideal approach to life.”

It is the latter, in the form of Dadaist and surrealist techniques, that will predominately inform the two books under review. We Meet opens with a brief and pitiful excuse for an introduction written by Devendra Banhart which is best ignored so that the reader can get right to the meat (pun intended) of Patchen’s later years. Contained within the pages of We Meet are several books from Patchen’s career: Because It Is (1960), Poemscapes (1958), A Letter To God (1946 – first published in Retort), Hurrah For Anything (1957), Aflame And Afun of Walking Faces (1970). The Walking-Away World, which opens with a vastly superior introduction, one that is well worth reading, by Jim Woodring, contains several more: Wonderings (1971), Hallelujah Anyway (1967) and But Even So (1968). Once this schemata is laid out, the dates of publication having been omitted in the published edition, one has to wonder why chronology was not followed–but that, and the introduction to We Meet, are minor irritants in an otherwise excellent offering.

Venturing bravely into these two books, the reader is immediately confronted with confusion for these are books unlike any others. Most poems in We Meet are accompanied by Patchen’s line drawings and are set in unusual typeface. This is no accident. Patchen was intimately involved with all stages of the production of his books, from writing the poems to selecting the typeface. As Smith states, at p. 65-6: “One of the primary unexplored relationships between Patchen and William Blake is their shared vision of the ‘total book.’…Following Blake’s model of the artist who maintains the purity of his vision, Patchen is thus involved in all aspects of creating and producing his art. For Blake and Patchen, a ‘beautiful’ or ‘total’ book is above all a model of engagement and wonder, capturing both artistic involvement and the personal sense of marvel necessary for the creative act.” Smith denies that Patchen is a surrealist, although he does have much in common with their movement. At. p. 67, he states: “Both believe in purging violence by expressing it; anger and joy are the predominant moods; both draw on the subconscious for imagery, often engaging in automatic writing; both mix abstract and concrete in their attempt to reconcile seeming opposites: sublime and trivial, universal and individual, sacred and profane. Both include the use of associative and rationally incongruent structure, as well as the characteristic use of titles for separate and ironic comment. But a fundamental and the paramount affinity is their shared ideal of the master creator of life and art–the ‘total artist.’”

We Meet opens with the poem “BECAUSE To Understand One Must Begin Somewhere.” Patchen wastes no time in letting the reader know what type of ride they are in for. And if the title were not enough, the poem begins with the lines: “John Edgar Dawdle married a little chicken/And went to live in a hatbox.” The title of each of the poems of Because It Is begins with the word BECAUSE. For example, “BECAUSE The Zebra-Plant Bore Spotted Cubs,” “BECAUSE Going Nowhere Takes A Long Time” and “BECAUSE There Are Roses, Swans, And Herbugazelles,” the latter demonstrating one of Patchen’s favorite devices: the combination of words or the adding on of nonce words to actual words.

The next book to be included in We Meet is Poemscapes, a radically different turn from Because It Is. Here we find fractured prose pieces each consecutively numbered up to 168. The only problem is that the pieces making up Poemscapes are not in consecutive order. For example, ‘THE LITTLE ESSAYS,” which begins at 9 with the question “Why have hands?” continues at 14, then 38, etc. “KINDNESS OF CLOWNS” begins at 42, then 43, then 44 luring the reader to expect that perhaps the next one is to be found on the next page at 45. The reader would be wrong, for the next insertion does not occur until 56 and proceeds by jumping all over the place. The writing style is similar to Because It Is, only in prose form. For example, in “THE PICKLED CHAFFINCH,” at p. 102, we read: “Destiny unmakes strange bedfellows. There was once a great number of people hastening to an inn. ‘Plenty Rooms’ they kept saying. Actually there were only three. Moreover, the inn was closed for seasonal repairs and refurbishments.”

A Letter To God is in chapbook format, and consists of a mixture of writing styles. For example, at p. 134: “Water is cruel water is cold kind water deep sweet water O then let me be quiet and quiet and still. For stranger stronger art thou.” ”Do you hate me?” ”I know thee not – not even in fear.”

In Hurrah For Anything, we come to Patchen’s jazz poetry. Regarding the Poetry-And-Jazz Movement, Smith states, at p. 129: “The chief motivation for the movement as expressed by Ferlinghetti and Rexroth was to give poetry a wider audience…Patchen varies here in the degree of his motivational direction. Although all three sought a larger audience for poetry, Patchen’s primary motivation was with the creation of the new art form.” As to Hurrah’s relation to this movement, Smith, at p. 132 states: “Also of note is that Patchen had developed in the selections from Hurrah his own poetry-jazz form. Carolyn See points out that this ‘book of peripheral jazz experiments’ is a collection of humorous, almost limerick pieces to be ‘read to a jazz riff that was written especially for it and for other humorous poems of the same length and mood.’” Hurrah opens with “Where?,” which was accompanied by a Charlie Parker piece titled “There’s A Place” on the recording Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada: “There’s a place the man always say/Come in here, child/No cause you should weep/Wolf never catch the rabbit”(147). You can hear the saxophone wailing in the background and Patchen outlined in the klieg lights as he stands and delivers his words. Another example, “A Word To The Sufficient”: “Won’t do you no good, Mr. Rabbit/Either you pays the rent/Or I perch my fist/On top your carrot-crusher”(176).

The last book included in We Meet is Aflame And Afun Of Walking Faces. Here Patchen imitates Aesop or perhaps La Fontaine with his own brand of fable. But these are definitely stamped with Patchen’s own brand of humour. For example, “How The Problem Of What To Hold Cream In Was Eventually Solved” begins, at p. 200, with the words: “Once upon a time a lovely little All-Blue-Pitcher fell sound asleep in the ram’s-wool shop, and so was left the whole night there.” Or “The Three Visitors,” at p. 224, where “an insouciant little Pelagic Breeze, finding himself in somewhat elegiacal surroundings with the declension of night, stealthway penetrated into the shanty of a certain unjocund Cup-fashioner, where, dismayed by the powdery glabosity of his host, he bagan, ebulliently, to cozen some exiticial catholicon.” There is no mistaking these for anyone else.

That draws us to the close of We Meet where we are very glad we did. And now we find ourselves introduced to The Walking-Away World where we discover his picture-poems. The three books contained here were written during the latter part of Patchen’s life when he was bedridden and, due to continuous pain, was unable to write poems of any significant length. This is not to dismiss these books as in any way inferior to those he had already written. As Smith says, at p. 27: “As Patchen so candidly confesses, the pain had a crucial influence on his writing, but what may not come across is that this pain could both limit and broaden the expression of his art. As an intimate with suffering, Patchen’s reservoir of pain could also serve to amplify his writer’s voice.” These picture-poems followed a natural progression from the line drawings which accompanied his earlier work. Miriam Patchen has described the “growing fusion of painting and writing as a progression from an ‘understanding’ in the ‘painted books,’ through an ‘engagement’ in the ‘drawings and poems,’ reaching a ‘marriage’ in the total synthesis of the ‘picture-poem’ form” (Smith, p. 153) which Smith describes as “an ultimate synthesis of painting and poem and a culminating achievement of [Patchen’s] ideals of the ‘total artist’ and the ‘total book”’(at p.160). It is unfortunately impossible to provide quotes from these picture-poems as one cannot quote a picture particularly when the picture and the poem are integral to each other and blend into each other on the page. And although the poems themselves are short, they are pithy, an example being the opening one which reads: “But if your precious illusion should turn out not to be real where then will you leap, my little flea.” Many, but not all, of the poems are handwritten. Those that are not may often be a combination of handwriting and various printing fonts. The fusion of poetry and painting found here is incredible particularly having been done by one languishing in severe pain. His body may have been affected but his mind remained sharp as the beak of a periwinkle groundsnapper.

Thank you, New Directions, for providing us with the incredible output from the last twenty years of Patchen’s life. These two books are an incredible read. And both are a visual feast. Kenneth Patchen is an iconoclast, but of the finest order. And if he didn’t have many in the way of predecessors, he left a heritage which many writers have subsequently sought refuge in.