Kenneth Patchen was born into a working-class milieu in Ohio’s industrial and mining area, an environment that helped to forge his reputation in the late 1930’s and 1940’s as a significant proletarian poet. His father, Wayne Patchen, had spent more than twenty-five years working in the steel mills, where both Patchen and his brother also worked for a time. As Larry R. Smith writes in his biography Kenneth Patchen (1978), “much like D. H. Lawrence’s mining background in England, Patchen’s roots in a hard working yet culturally wasted community of poor and semi-poor gave him an early sense of strength and violation.” In his early childhood, the family moved to nearby Warren, Ohio, where Patchen received most of his schooling. The town is located a few miles from Garretsville, the birthplace of Hart Crane.
In Warren, Patchen began writing poetry. He also spent two summers working in the steel mills with his brother and father to earn tuition money for his brief attendance at the University of Wisconsin in 1929. Following this successful year at the university, Patchen wandered around the United States and Canada, working at odd jobs, writing poetry, attending Columbia University for a while, and eventually meeting Miriam Oidemus, the daughter of Finnish immigrants, whom he was to marry in June, 1934, and with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
With the exception of a brief period in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a short stay in Hollywood in 1937, the Patchens lived in and around Greenwich Village from 1934 to 1950. Although his marriage was happy, Patchen spent a good part of his life in intense physical pain caused by a serious back disability that began in 1937 when Patchen tried to separate the locked bumpers of two cars that had collided. In 1950, a writer’s committee, consisting of such notables as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, E. E. Cummings, Thornton Wilder, and William Carlos Williams, gave a series of readings to earn money for Patchen to have corrective surgery.
Finding a renewed sense of mobility after the surgery, Patchen and his wife moved to San Francisco, where, in 1954, he befriended Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with whom he collaborated in 1957, after a second spinal fusion, to create the Poetry-and-Jazz movement. By 1956, the Patchens were living in Palo Alto, at the southern end of San Francisco Bay, which was to become an important artistic center. In 1959, following a surgical mishap after prescribed exploratory surgery, further surgery was canceled and Patchen returned to Palo Alto to a bedridden life of almost constant pain. The 1960’s, despite his disability, were productive years for Patchen, resulting in such books as Because It Is, Hallelujah Anyway, But Even So, and The Collected Poems of Kenneth Patchen, as well as several recordings of his works and an exhibition of his art in Washington, D.C.
By the time of his death in January, 1972, Patchen had gained a sound reputation as one of America’s most influential avant-garde poets and “painters of poems.” His experimentation with new forms, whether poetic or painterly, as well as his insistence on living the life of the “total artist,” despite excruciating pain and deteriorating health, points unmistakably toward a quality that made him the greatly respected artist he was: action even in the face of chaos and pain. “The one thing which Patchen cannot understand, will not tolerate, indeed,” wrote Henry Miller, “is the refusal to act. . . . Confronted with excuses and explanations, he becomes a raging lion.”