Kenneth Patchen Essay - Patchen, Kenneth (Vol. 2)

Patchen, Kenneth (Vol. 2)

Patchen, Kenneth 1911–1972

American poet and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols, 33-36.)

During the Second World War and the dark days of reaction afterwards [Kenneth Patchen] was the most popular poet on college campuses. He is still today an elder statesman of the youth revolt, the counter culture, and still today, he is never mentioned in the literary quarterlies.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 122.

Patchen did not protect himself from the world's evil doings—to do so would have been to draw away, to isolate and eventually sterilize himself and deny his human links. Through travel and other forms of communication, he knew people's and government's filth, stupidity, and meanness. Sometimes he wallowed in it like a pig; or transcended it like a Buddha or a saint; or preached his word like a Christ. His identity was rich and of finite extension. A left-wing, nonsectarian, religious poet. Not exactly engagé, but certainly an honest reporter of the universe and highly inflammatory….

He was Christ, Gandhi, and Marat; but also a hip Joyce, a gamester, a fantasist, and a wild wit….

To say what was on his mind, Patchen used a wild formless form that includes five or six little novels (often just tables of contents) within the larger novel; plus random notes and maxims, among the shifting scenery, a thousand fragments of plot, prayers, screams, mad speeches, prose poetry of the kind that Joyce made famous, socialist theory, endless bedroom and battlefield tableaux, a parody of the love talk in Lady Chatterley's Lover, pages with two and three colums of text running simultaneously, etc., etc. Everything a writer ever dreamed of putting into a book—all the products of his inspired mind—but usually left out because familiar notions of structure and mistaken definitions of realism and beauty demanded that he do so. Not for Patchen—he put it all in. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is a spontaneous novel…. It works here because the work is honest and basically realistic; mere craftsmen and experimenters are a dime a dozen. Yet Patchen was a craftsman, too. He not only expands the language, stretches concepts of what is art, and throws down a heavy challenge to literary criticism, but he also expresses a tremendous variety of human attitudes and feelings, including a gamut of ecstatic states (love, hate, fear, flying, falling, giving birth, dying, killing, madness, revelation, living in another world, etc.). The fact that many of these attitudes & feelings are, or seem, contradictory only emphasizes the richness of Patchen's personal universe: he was energetic and open enough to plunge and soar in the larger psychic life that most individuals are too unaware of or too afraid to unlock, even in times of crisis….

Clearly Patchen can easily excite us now for his being a forerunner and nourisher of the "life culture" striven for by an articulate minority in contemporary U.S. society, who see the value of nature, of work, of brotherhood. He believed in the organic unity of all life and saw how it was threatened by perverted pretensions….

[The Journal of Albion Moonlight] is history itself, on a local and eternal scale. Its author was a keeper of the flame, an educated spark of the divine commoner. He knew that mere writing was garbage (though he tried it), that phantoms oppress us and possess us, that articulation of the real is all. For this, his good work is universal and lasting.

Richard Hack, "Memorial Poetry Reading for Kenneth Patchen at City Lights Poets Theater San Francisco: Feb. 2, 1972," in Chicago Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1972, pp. 65-80.