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KENNETH PATCHEN: A PERSONAL VIEW

Philip Ramp

      

A personal view, and a plea for Kenneth Patchen, whose poetic genius has remained quite inexplicably ignored. I feel this will one day be rectified but then I have been expecting that since the day he died. Instead he has gone from obscurity to oblivion.

       As far as I know, his books haven't been reissued, articles aren't written about him, there are no retrospective critiques of his work, no re-evaluations, and he probably isn't taught anywhere either. So, how are we supposed to get acquainted with him? Apparently, we're not.

       Poets of Patchen's calibre are rare and his distinctive voice fills a need if not peculiar to our time then at least more pressing now. Human concerns have become "cultural factors" and cultural factors are relative, can be factored out as well as in. The yearning to overcome necessity grows; we want history to come to an end. Good and evil are now but cross-filed references. We're victims of the spiritual entropy we ourselves created, stripped of our ideals and goals. Patchen saw this and understood it but he thought it could still be confronted.   But enough editorializing, let's see what Patchen himself has to say:

"You have slunk through the darkness with the skull of a monster in your hands ........ Our images are fat with the grease of old caves where madmen sit thinking out new horrors - - our art, religion, society .....where is the sunlight!  where is the power and the glory! ....." 

(The Journal of Albion Moonlight New Directions, New York 1961, p.27).

       Kenneth Patchen is not just one of my favourite poets: he is my poet. Period. A "desert island" companion if I ever had to choose one, and has been since the first time I read him when he revealed the desert island to me and ways to tap into its hidden sources. No other poet has been able to get to me so consistently. What makes it work for me is the sustained inspiration, the sustained heat Patchen generates, and maintains, in poem after poem, book after book, and in my experience that is unique in poetry, with the possible exception of Blake, but let me get back to that later.

       The day I was introduced to him is still clear as the proverbial yesterday even though it was 35 years ago. I was in my second year at the University of Michigan, had become entangled in the tentacles of poetry, was "committed" to being a poet but had done nothing astonishing about it as even I recognized, if only several days after I'd completed a poem. Anyway, it was an average winter day for Michigan, mercury hovering around 0°F with no visibility, and I was pitting myself against it by sitting in the Student Union cafeteria drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and haphazardly reading some assigned poet (Samuel Johnson?). I was probably getting ready to go to my next class or, as was more frequently the case, getting ready not to go.

       Like I say an ordinary day but not for long. For I looked up and saw the figure of another fixture at the Union. He was there every day too, sitting, reading, drinking coffee, smoking and talking, just like me. We both had beards too, practically the only ones (not counting Sikhs) in a student population of 30,000 or so. It was a different world then I'll say that for it! Furthermore, as I was to discover later, we had gone to neighboring small town high schools out in the boonies of western Michigan. But we hung out with different groups and outside the Union went to different places or so I assume as I never saw him in either bars or bookstores which now I think of it may mean he wasn't even majoring in literature. Regardless, his shaggy beard was magnificent and he had a great name, Philip von Bretzel.

       This tawny mound of hair with glasses was, I realized, peering at me from behind his ever-present book resting on his equally ever-present pile of 12-15 books. And I only assumed he was looking at me as I couldn't actually see his eyes. Still, he must have been because he suddenly lurched to his feet, loped over to my table in two steps and said "Read this". Then he put the book he was reading down on the table, turned, loped back to his table, sat down again and opened the next book on the pile. I picked the book up while still looking at him in surprise, registering its texture as it had no jacket (rough but pliant too, fuzzy) and when I looked I saw it was a rarity: a hardback that wasn't a library book or something assigned for a course. Only then did I read the title: Red Wine and Yellow Hair by Kenneth Patchen, noticing the cover was red and yellow too. I had heard of him, if only vaguely, but not the book.

       I wish I had the book so I could try and recapture the experience of reading it that first time, starting with the opening poem (something I didn't usually do) and then slowly moving on to the next and the next without a break, carefully, with concentration. Unfortunately, it was with a number of Patchen books that got left behind in the USA when my future wife and I moved to Greece. I thought I'd have no trouble acquiring other copies later but that hasn't proven to be the case. Be that as it may, I read all the poems and knew I certainly wasn't going to any more classes that day. I immediately read them again because as excited by them as I was, I was also mystified, common enough to anyone, I suppose, reading really good and different poetry for the first time. And the second time I was less mystified though the mystery was just as strong, the feeling that life had been turned up several notches, or degrees. The third time I read it (not the whole book but more than half) I knew that I had found my poet. For my ideas I too often simply made clichés out of the insights of other writers. But when I read Patchen I found myself in a new landscape, one, however, that I recognized. Patchen was doing what I was hoping to do, trying to do, or if not trying then intending to do. It suddenly became clear to me because I had the living proof in front of me that it could be done, had been done, I mean. I knew the important thing was not feeling exactly what he did but the fact I was feeling things myself and not just a reflection of him. I had something to add, a place to go and would find a way of getting there. I wanted to be the kind of human being he was, not write copies of his poetry. I felt humble. I knew something great had struck a resonance in me, and I was thrilled to learn it was actually there and yet was overwhelmed by it. These were exciting dimensions but, more importantly, real world dimensions and unlike the university world, it felt scary. I loved Patchen but he scared me.

       I felt as focused then as I ever have, I could see my whole life in effect dedicated to poetry, dedicated to this vision which was my vision. These poems seemed to be speaking directly to me and though I was soon to read other books of his, like The Journal of Albion Moonlight, that were certainly greater, this book held all the mystery, faith, horror, love, vision, transcendence, abasement and sheer inspiration I had ever hoped to find in a book of poetry (and had never found) or had hoped to express myself in poetry (which I am still trying to do). The voice! There he was talking in a way I would like to think all human beings would talk if they just felt it was worth making the effort. To make the struggle to be clear without omitting any of the hard parts, facing death and evil squarely (but love and courage too) never growing faint-hearted for long or trying to sweeten the terror and despair and if you failed, as you would, to admit it quickly and forge on. Nothing didactic but always bright with that something that turns plain words into poetry. Like:

"until I can join her in that soft town where the bells
split apples on their tongues
and bring sleep down like a fish's shadow."

Or where

"A thousand lights smudge
Within the branches of the old forest,
Like colored moons in a well of milk."

Or

"you're a merry bastard Mr. Death
And I wish you didn't have no hand in this game
Because it's too damn beautiful for anybody to die."

Or finally

"..... only by losing our place
in this overlapping circle of wombs,
can we attain to that ultimate pattern
Where childhood selects its running wing and grave"

Multiply these lines by several thousand and you have entered Patchen's world.

       So, fast forward to now. First, I recently reread Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight, Because It is, and Selected Poems for what, I discovered to my surprise, was the first time in six years, this time with more appreciation for how adult he is, how though resigned to the sheer horror and pain of the world he at the same time accepted the need to save it while conceding it cannot be done. Save isn't right: more like "bring to realization". To be what it is but somehow to bring that closer to poetry through insight, inspiration and love like the greatest masters who Patchen says "foster no schools. They imitate themselves until the matter is ended".

       Anyway, on the day I finished reading the poems, the latest edition of Poetry Review arrived and in it there was an article by Adrian Mitchell: Tygerjuicerated. To my mind it could just as easily have been about Patchen; only the names were different, really. I wish it would have been. I mean, Patchen needs this kind of strong even fanatic support; Blake has enough; they should share. Patchen is a major poet, a unique poet, and he deserves to be considered in a class with Blake. Mitchell says that Blake is: "The most inspiring individual England ever produced". Change England to America and that could fit Patchen. Mitchell also says that Blake survived neglect and scorn and was a great poet-painter (Patchen again, but how many people ever know about his Painted Books, always delightful, often profound?) Mitchell says Blake was creating songs for his beloved wife Kate while on his deathbed. I have no idea if Patchen did that but he certainly might have. I believe every one of his books was dedicated to his wife Miriam as were many of the individual poems. It was a great love and completely consistent with everything he wrote. Here as elsewhere he lived the dictums of his poetry. Mitchell says a lot of things about Blake that could be equally applied to Patchen. Uncanny really.

       And reading Patchen, of course, is the only way to find out. Furthermore, I suggest reading a lot because, like Blake again, he has a great number of things to say and a number of different ways of saying them including lyrics and nonsense, social criticism and epic exaltation, the ironic moment and the tender epiphany. Whatever else you may feel I think that after reading him you will have to admit he is the best unrecognized poet of our time writing in English. Unrecognized American poet anyway. And there is all the poetry to prove it.

       I'd like, of course, to be able to discuss some of his more than thirty books of poetry as well as the 500 volumes of the Painted Books series but that is way beyond the scope of this article which is already straining at its limits. But if you have never read Patchen then try to read Albion Moonlight first of all because it is his greatest work and I think of it as poetry, though it is often called a novel. That's like calling Revelation a novel. Be that as it may, the power and the poetry increase as the book moves along. I know of no book like it: revealing, truthful, fearless, heroic, great, an "indictment of our times" as some critic said. In fact the book cannot be classified; it lies beyond adjectives, fits no plan (maybe not even the plan Patchen himself originally must have had). It seems to grow on its own; at least it never seems the same to me when I pick it up again, as it seems to have transformed itself in the meantime. The book is so quotable that in another age when people still quoted, Patchen would have already been guaranteed immortality. Every page of that book has indelible lines of poetry, so penetrating, so right.