Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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Kenneth Patchen: Off the Beaten Path

Jeffery Beam

  We Meet.
Kenneth Patchen.
New Directions, 2008.
304 pages, $18.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811217582

  The Walking-Away World.
Kenneth Patchen.
New Directions, 2008.
288 pages, $18.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811217574

Today we think of literary genius as some formidable mind creating one pristine and solid masterwork after another, whereas in truth genius is a rogue quixotically inhabiting paramours for their flexibility, openness, power of movement, and comfort with contradiction. Genius is never formulaic, comfortable, easy, or expected. As Edward Young once said, "All eminence and distinction lie out of the beaten road, excursion and deviation are necessary to find it; and the more remote your path from the highway, the more reputable."

Poet-painter Kenneth Patchen's life and work took him off the beaten path and resulted in over 40 works of startlingly uneven genius and distinctive eminence. New Directions, his primary publisher, has kept Patchen in print since his death in 1972. In 2008 it re-published eight of his books in two simple volumes—We Meet gathers five of his poetry books: Because It Is (1946), A Letter to God (1958), Poemscapes (1957), Hurrah for Anything (1960), and Aflame and Afun of Walking Faces (1970) including the original graphics. The Walking-Away World includes three of his picture-poem collections: Wanderings (1971), Hallelujah Anyway (1960), and But Even So (1968). In addition two major prose works, Sleepers Awake, and The Journals of Albion Moonlight, are now available as PODs.

Patchen's generous and light spirit, which should have been extinguished by the ignorance displayed toward his work, and a chronic back injury which limited him physically and kept him in oftentimes excruciating pain, bore instead a visionary lyricism, even rage, deeply critical of greed, corruption, environmental abuses (before the environmental movement), and the many evil consequences of modern life. His poems possess an open-eyed childlike enthusiasm for the redemptive, the simple, and the beautiful, even as they pointedly blast the system that keeps the human spirit bound. Henry Miller called Patchen "A living symbol of protest." Patchen's poems breathe with an immediacy and joyous humanity seldom found in modern poetry.

Although the work in these two collections inspires easy comparisons to Blake, Patchen's approach is somewhat different. The poems in We Meet are accompanied mostly by black and white graphics, childlike birds, funny beasts, and odd beings that serve to illustrate the fury illuminating the aggressions that eat at humanity:


Is usually standing near some peaceful tree . . .
And may always be found lost
When it comes to "voting"
Or reading the newspapercovers;
For if he wanted to study up
To be a bloody nut,
He'd choose something more sensible—
Like sticking his head in a buzzsaw,
He's got a hole at either end of him,
Both of which he respects to the point
Of never confusing their functions.
("Governments etc" please copy.)

Stevie Smith and Russell Edson come to mind, but Patchen's world is not that of personal psychology but rather the commune. His titles can be as engaging as the poems themselves: "Because Sometimes You Can't Always Be So," "How the Problem of What to Hold Cream in Was Eventually Solved," "How Ostriches Came to Have Throats Long Enough to Get Gold Balls Stuck in the Middle Of," "Because to Really Ponder One Needs Wonder." Don't let the nonsensical confuse you to the wisdoms therein.

The works in Walking-Away World integrate the paintings and poems even more—creating a symbiosis of image and word that goes far beyond even Blake's illustrative pairings. These poem/paintings created when Patchen had become essentially bed-ridden and in such deep pain that his poems became simpler, shorter, aphoristic and koan-like—matched with brilliantly colored images masterful in color sense and magical in imagination. It's impossible to convey their impression—go to the Web and seek some of them out, or to the Sierra Club's What Shall We Do Without Us. One major complaint is that New Directions has only ever published them in black and white. Hopefully, someday, more affordable color facsimiles, like the Sierra Club selection, will be made available. Even without the words Patchen's passion for life and justice is apparent:

"Man is not / a town / where things / live / But a / worry & / weeping / of unused wings"

"They Don't Seem To / Understand That / Unless Someone / Does / Nothing / Soon / The Sky'll / Not Be / All / That's Up"


"MAN, WOULD YOU / JUST LOOK / AT YOUR / LEADERS! / A-puckerin' up / like they expected good / to kiss them right smack / on the / mouth / any minute / now // (Guess all those crude / & unenlightened people / must have tortured & / starved & murdered them— / selves just / for the / hell of it)"

And a delighted earthy mysticism prevails:

"I have a funny / feeling / that some very / peculiar-looking / creatures / out there / are watching us"

"Before the girl picking field daises / Becomes the girl picking field daisies // There is a moment of some complexity"

"Any / who live / stand / alone in / one / place together"

Patchen's creatures, seem both familiar (the inhabitants not of our dreams, but of our flights of fancy into imaginary taxonomies), and alive (seeming so real, as on some other metaphysical or even planetary plane we've yet to discover that Patchen has found a telescope to see into). His calligraphy is awkwardly gorgeous. His pictorial styles remind one of Smith, Klee, Shahn, Rouault, Chagall, and others. His colors vibrate. He gets away with using poetically "exiled" words such as "beautiful" with a panache that's convincing and delicate. "Beautiful" become freshly appropriate, even just invented. As poet James Dickey one said, Patchen could be "sentimental . . . preachy . . . sprawling" but also "the best poet American literary expression can show . . . the author of a few passages which are so far . . . comparable to the most intuitively beautiful writing even done."

Joyousness conveys even in the darkest images and poems—their prophecy seems aural as well as visual. How that happens, I don't know, but one feels an internal register is contacted. They agonize over the closed horrors of the world while offering hope. Patchen awakens an innocence that calls forth action. He speaks to the dead parts that need to be awakened. His poems and poem/paintings require our active resistance, our active engagement in the world.

. . .