The Poetries of Kenneth Patchen

January 8: On this day in 1911 Kenneth Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio. Patchen’s varied work and talents – poet, novelist, painter, graphic designer – are most often labeled “early Beat,” in spite of an outlook which riled at labels and found “penny-a-line vulgarity” in a lot of Beat writing. Some prize the boat-rocking edge Patchen brought to his protest poems; others prize Patchen’s love poems, most of these written to his wife Miriam, who nursed Patchen through a decades-long spinal injury that kept him more or less constantly in pain and in bed for his last twelve years (and for which a surgery fund was set up by T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, E. E. Cummings, and others). The following lines from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Patchen” pay tribute to both the protest and the love:

…And when such a one dies

even the agents of Death should take note

and shake the shit from their wings

in Air Force One

But they do not

And the shit still flies

And the poet now is disconnected

and won’t call back

though he spoke much of love

And still we hear him say

‘Do I not deal with angels

when her lips I touch’

And still we hear him say

‘0 my darling troubles heaven

with her loveliness’

And still we hear him say

‘As we are so wonderfully done with each other

We can walk into our separate sleep

On floors of music where the milkwhite cloak

of childhood lies’….

Whatever his theme, Patchen is perhaps most famous for his crossover experiments in art-poetry and jazz-poetry. The poster-poems are widely available, and there are several recordings of Patchen reading to jazz, though none exist of this session remembered by Charlie Mingus in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog:

We improvised behind him while he read his poems, which I read ahead of time. “It’s dark out, Jack” – this was one of his poems. “It’s dark out, Jack, the stations out there don’t identify themselves, we’re in it raw-blind like burned rats, it’s running out all around us, the footprints of the beast, one nobody has any notion of. The white and vacant eyes of something above there, something that doesn’t know we exist. I smell heartbreak up there, Jack, a heartbreak at the center of things, and in which we don’t figure at all.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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