Kenneth Patchen Essay - Critical Essays


One way to trace the development of Kenneth Patchen’s 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 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.”

Antiwar poetry

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...

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