One way to trace the development of Kenneth Patchen’s (December 13, 1911 – January 8, 1972 vast poetic output is to posit a shift from the emphasis on class-consciousness and protest in the poetry of the 1930’s to 1940’s to a later concern with a sense of wonder and with the spiritual and irrational side of existence. Another and perhaps more compelling approach is to view the entire body of Patchen’s work as both spiritual and revolutionary, marked by the antiestablishment anger of the Old Testament prophets, who condemned the greed of the secular world while celebrating the coming of a just and sacred Kingdom of God.
Before the Brave
In his first book of poetry, Before the Brave, Patchen combines a vision of revolution with the wonder of the spiritual world. While lashing out angrily at the “sightless old men in cathedrals of decay” (“Letter to the Old Men”) and the police with “their heavy boots grinding into our faces . . .” (“A Letter to a Policeman in Kansas City”), he still confirms, in Whitmanesque terms, the ability of humanity to seize control of events:
O be willing to wait no longer.
Build men, not creeds, seed not soil—
O raise the standards out of reach.
new men new world new life.
In contrast to the world of the “culture-snob” and the emptiness of “civic pride,” Patchen’s prophetic voice calls out for a world of unity and wonder, for a “jangling eternity/ Of fellowship and spring where good and law/ Is thicker love and every day shall spawn a god.”
First Will and Testament
In another of his so-called protest books of the 1930’s, First Will and Testament, Patchen again combines or synthesizes the dual impulses of spiritual wonder and revolutionary zeal. In a poem called “A Revolutionary Prayer,” he cries: “O great good God/ I do not know that this fistful of warm dirt/ Has any mineral that wills that the young die. . . .” Here the miner’s son, Patchen, looks to the lesson of the ore that he, his father, and his brother had mined to confirm the injustice of war. Similarly, in “The Soldier and the Star,” Patchen contrasts the grace, wonder, and wholeness of nature with the destruction of warfare. In the opening four lines, he writes: “Rifle goes up:/ Does what a rifle does/ Star is very beautiful:/ Doing what a star does.”
In all Patchen’s poetry, life’s energy and fruitfulness is contrasted with the mechanical, dead, and often violent world of the war makers and the ruling elite. Throughout his work runs a triple vision that serves to direct his approach to the world. First is the painful reality of alienation and corruption, of a brutal, ruling monolith that forces people to move toward violence and control rather than growth and human fulfillment. In his earlier poetry, this force often takes the form of an actual ruling class in the language of Marxist ideology, while in later works, it appears as the nebulous darker side of human nature depicted by Mark Twain in his later works. Second is the need for humankind to become engaged in or committed to the fullness of life, unity, and social solidarity. Third is the sense of wonder and imaginative power that opposes the brutal side of human nature.
The corruption and alienation that Patchen sees running rampant in society are characterized largely by capitalist greed and human violence. Although the first evil is emphasized in his earlier works, the second emerges and is stressed throughout his entire poetic career. “War is the lifeblood of capitalism; it is the body and soul of fascism,” wrote Patchen in his novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight, and it is mainly in his poetry that Patchen vividly depicts the bloody force of war. In such poems as “I DON’T WANT TO STARTLE YOU” and “Harrowed by These Apprehensions” (First Will and Testament), as well as in the later, more subtle antiwar works such as “In the Courtyard of Secret Life,” from his 1957 book, When We Were Here Together, Patchen’s pacifist sentiments, which he held his entire life, are powerfully expressed.
Love as Redemption
Faced with chaos, alienation, and violence, Patchen believed that the poet must not fall into apathy or bitterness but rather must adopt a worldview in which belief, love, and action are possible. In the face of nothingness, Patchen offers the richness of being; in the face of chaos, he offers unity and order; and in the face of despair and confusion, he offers belief. In the poem “No One Ever Works Alone,” from Panels for the Walls of Heaven, Patchen further pursues his prophetic faith that a new order will soon sweep away the injustice and evil of the outmoded system. “O Speak Out!,” urges Patchen, “Against the dead trash of their ‘reality’/ Against ‘the world as we see it.’/ Against ‘what it is reasonable to believe.’”
Ultimately, for Patchen, the path that leads from destruction to unity is the path of love. “There is only one power that can save the world,” writes Patchen in “The Way Men Live Is a Lie” (An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air), “and that is the power of love for all men everywhere.” Though it is a rather prosaic statement, this affirmation illustrates the poet’s unswerving belief in the need for commitment to and engagement in the energy of life as opposed to the forces of death that always threaten to engulf humanity. Love, both sexual and spiritual, is an important weapon in that struggle.
A Sense of Wonder
Apart from love, another element that maintains unity in life, and one that is particularly evident in Patchen’s later books, is a sense of wonder, or, one might say, childlike amazement toward life. In a 1968 interview with Gene Detro, Patchen speakes of the absolute necessity of childlike wonder. Losing this sense, for Patchen, would be equivalent to death. In “O Fiery River” (Cloth of the Tempest), Patchen warns that “men have destroyed the roads of wonder,/ And their cities squat like black roads/ In the orchards of life.”
For Patchen, as for such Romantic poets as William Blake and William Wordsworth, the most perfect paradigm for wonder is to be found in the innocence of the child. In describing the wonder that exists between two people in sexual union, for example, Patchen speaks of how coming to his beloved Miriam’s “wonder” (“For Miriam”) is “Like a boy finding a star in a haymow” (The Teeth of the Lion). Like Blake in his Songs of Innocence (1789), Patchen finds a kind of salvation from injustice and pain in the world of childlike wonder. “Children don’t want to know,” writes Patchen in “O What a Revolution,” a prose poem from The Famous Boating Party, and Other Poems in Prose, “They want to increase their enjoyment of not knowing.” In “This Summer Day” (An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air), the child serves as a metaphor for both life and death. “O Death,” writes Patchen, “must be this little girl/ Pushing her blue cart into the water,” while “All Life must be this crowd of kids/ watching a hummingbird fly around itself.”
As vividly as tanks and the “rustless gun” represent, for Patchen, the horror of history and the blind destructiveness of patriotism, the image of the child and childlike wonder (depicted often in collections of tales and verse such as Fables and Other Little Tales, Hurrah for Anything, and But Even So) represents the innocence, energy, and potential of life’s richness. The critics who accuse Patchen of being a poet of dreary negativism ignore the fact that, throughout his poetry, Patchen offers a continuous prophecy of a world of wonder and delight that will inevitably shine through the universal darkness. As a revolutionary and a prophet, Patchen was never far removed from the vision of humanity’s enormous potential.
Long fiction: The Journal of Albion Moonlight, 1941; The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, 1945; Sleepers Awake, 1946; See You in the Morning, 1948.
Short fiction: Fables and Other Little Tales, 1953 (revised as Aflame and Afun of Walking Faces, 1970). plays: Don’t Look Now, pr. 1959; Patchen’s Lost Plays, 1977.
Radio play: The City Wears a Slouch Hat, 1942 (music by John Cage).
Morgan, Richard G. Kenneth Patchen: A Collection of Essays. New York: AMS Press, 1977.
_______. Kenneth Patchen: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Paul Appel,
Nelson, Raymond. Kenneth Patchen and American Mysticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anais Nin, 1939-1944. Vol. 3. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.
Pekar, Harvey, et al. The Beats: A Graphic History. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Smith, Larry R. Kenneth Patchen. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
_______. Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2000.