Kenneth Patchen Patchen, Kenneth (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Patchen, Kenneth 1911–1972

Patchen was an American poet, novelist, and playwright. For many years he battled against a spinal illness which eventually claimed his life. Despite his affliction, Patchen published over forty books, produced countless drawings and paintings, and was a major innovator of the poetry-jazz reading movement. Patchen's prose and poetry lashes out at the destructive nature of humanity. However, there is optimism in his work, in his poems of love and in his poems declaring the strength and potential of youth. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

William Carlos Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whether or not [The Journal of Albion Moonlight] is a good [book] (let's not talk prematurely of genius) I believe it to be a right one, a well directed one and a hopeful one. It is the sort of book that must be attempted from time to time, a book to violate all the taboos, a racial necessity as it is a paradisiacal one, a purge in the best sense—suggesting a return to health and to the craft itself after the little word-and-thought pansies have got through their nibbling. (p. 7)

Patchen lets himself go. Such a book will rest heavily on the character, ability and learning of the man who writes it. If it is a failure, not clear or powerful enough to deserve the concept of it I am suggesting, that is his hard luck. But the book should be written, a book that had better perhaps have been postponed to a maturer period of the man's career—but which had after all to be written now.

That's precisely it. Even though it acknowledges itself to be a foregone failure—the book must still have been made as it is, the work of a young man, a new man—finding himself unprepared, though vocal, in the world. He voices the world of the young—as he finds it, screaming against what we, older, have given him. This precisely is the book's prime validity.

Though Patchen is still young, still not ready, shall he be silent for that? That is the significance and reason for all his passion, that he is young, the seriousness and poignancy of it. And it does, whatever its failings, find a crack in the armament of the killing suppression which is driving the world to the only relief it knows, murder! today. It is itself evidence, as a thing in itself, of our perversity and failure. (pp. 7-8)

For once a writer insists on the maddening facts of our plight in plain terms; we grow afraid, we dare not pretend that we know or can know anything, straight out, in our own right. We have to be "correctly" educated first. But here and there, confronting Christ with Hitler—you won't believe it can be done—there are passages in this book where the...

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Charles I. Glicksberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a sense, Before the Brave and First Will and Testament constituted the most forthright, the most inspired "proletarian" poetry of our time. But [Patchen's] spirit was too independent, too innately creative and prophetic, to remain long within the Marxist orbit. It is probable that the outbreak of the Second World War hastened his precipitate retreat to the fastness of the self.

Before the Brave sounded a call to revolutionary battle. (p. 181)

The conflict is not only inevitable but imminent. To prepare ourselves for this catastrophic but redemptive event, we must rid ourselves of the dangerous nonsense of religion, the rank folly of patriotism. (pp. 181-82)

[The] early class conscious poetry of Patchen gains tremendous power by its concentration of aim. But with the publication of First Will and Testament in 1939, a significant change came over Patchen's work. This volume is largely an effort at self-understanding. Like Whitman's "I" in "I celebrate myself," Patchen's lyric ego is but a symbol of the universal, a projection of the self that is common to all mankind. Patchen now wants to reveal what goes on within the soul of man: the fear, the pain, the conflict, the lacerating anguish. Man must fight hard if he is to conquer himself. There is no other war. This perception of all that man has to suffer, the cosmic cruelty of things, lends a touch of compassion to his savage tirades of condemnation….

[Patchen] is drawn between two poles of creative desire: one leads him toward the creation of poetry that is hard, sensuous, direct, of the earth, earthy; the other prompts him to experiment with "metaphysical," dissociated, spiritualized images and lines distilled from the alembic of the unconscious, nebulous as mist, puzzling and "aberrational" as a Surrealist painting by Salvador Dali. (p. 182)

Panels for the Walls of Heaven, like Cloth of the Tempest, is a concentrated cry of horror at the insanity of the world, especially the insanity of hatred that leads to the mass slaughter of war…. Unfortunately [both works are] marred by typographical vices, the use of diagrams and drawings, surrealist tricks, inscrutable symbols, and glaring capitals, all intended to announce that the poet can smell death all around him. It tends to suggest the delirium of paranoia. The whole book is a plea for the absolution and finality of death.

As if seeking a larger audience for his message, Patchen finally turned to prose, but the fiction he has produced, five volumes in all (with others waiting to be published), is as disordered and frenziedly mystical as his later poetry. It is practically impossible to suggest the substance and structure of a book like The Journal of Albion Moonlight, which has no logical structure, no determinate principle of continuity, no plot that can be traced consecutively from beginning to denouement to conclusion. In its deliberate incoherence and sensational discontinuity, it is more original and disconcerting than either Sleepers Awake or Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer. It is Surrealism run amok…. [Perhaps] the principal intention of the book [is] to bring home to us the insanity of our civilization. Mad with the lust to kill, we invent the institution of war…. (pp. 183-84)

All sorts of crazy things happen in The Journal of Albion Moonlight. Characteristic of Patchen's method is his use of planned incongruity…. [All this is] intended to heighten the effect of the horror—the wholesale death and destruction, the madness of our war-minded world, the impossibility of leading a sane, decent life on earth. (pp. 184-85)

In The Journal of Albion Moonlight, Patchen is not interested in writing a novel about private people …, but about the fate of man, the possibility of redeeming the world....

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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In our late teens we would quote with wry approval two lines of tight-lipped weariness from 'Street Corner College', in the old Grey Walls Press selection:

cold stars watch us, chum
cold stars and the whores.

The cynical-melancholy mood was appealing, yet Kenneth Patchen seemed then no more than a turgid, bewildering writer with a certain anarchic energy—and no flair for saying anything memorable or attractive which he didn't immediately mess up. We certainly didn't guess that he would turn out to be not only an eccentric link with the Dadaism of the Twenties but also a portent: one precursor of all that inflated, meandering, soft-centred rhetoric that came in with the Beats (though he didn't have the egocentric mysticism).

To read the new Selected Poems is to mourn for the submergence of a talent by an attitude. Underneath the incoherent gestures, just salvageable from all the obscurantist digressions and limp, indulgent romanticism, is a perceptible lyric gift and a sardonic eye for the facts of American life. Sandwiched between long posturing poems whose titles take up entire pages, and pieces of raw, embarrassing sentimentality, are the haunting precisions of 'Autumn is the Crows' Time', 'The Knowledge of Old Towns' and 'Shadows and Spring Flowers', poems which actually focus. For the rest, 'all our...

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William Packard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Until last year, Patchen had been pretty efficiently ignored by the so-called literary establishment. Its critics had seen him as a naive romantic, or as a capricious experimenter, or as some sort of social-protest poet vaguely associated with the 1930's. Even the most generous praise was usually grudging, as if Patchen had somehow won his place through sheer wrongheaded persistence….

["The Collected Poems"] is a remarkable volume, although it is difficult to describe. One could say that it contains the animal honesty of Whitman, and the desperate exaltation of Hart Crane, and the simple delight in sense perception of D. H. Lawrence. One could also say that it contains the wrath of the Old...

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Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have been fond of Patchen ever since I read his "Journal of Albion Moonlight" in my teens, together with that other surreal masterpiece, "Maldoror" by Lautreamont. They illumined for me the poetic landscape of our century far better than even the work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens or Cummings could, probably because Patchen, for instance, seems an unreflective, lyric poet, a simple visionary, and accepts our period rather than rejecting it, attempting to assimilate and project its images and sounds in all their terrible, dislocating impact—in order to redeem it for us thereby.

This is another way of saying Patchen never doubted that human life is always transcendental, spiritual in a primitive Christian sense, deeply not just aesthetically religious, not for the sake of poeticizing. His work seems never to have been troubled by the schoolboy's hang-ups over rhetoric, forms, traditionally academic problems of statement and communication. What we get, consequently, is an almost incredible mélange of forms and rhythms, mostly prosy, yet not prose, but always driving ahead, telling about the explorations, the lost wanderings of a small gang, children and adults, a family of the spirit, and a spirit eminently masculine, exalted, tough, fervidly living and dying in the search for love and passionate beauty, and peace.

That quest means that his poems are filled with squads of brutal soldiers, bandits, aimless killers marching like robots, breaking in and overwhelming us. Their terrain is a fairytale geography, a vision of forests, mountains and island skies, of little cabins and strange angelic presences suddenly mutilated by the machine gun fire, bombardment, tanks and bayonets of our time.

And yet, through it all, a vision of tender love and beauty persists….

Jascha Kessler, "Prosy Poetry of Kenneth Patchen," in The Los Angeles Times; (copyright, 1968, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1968, p. 45.

Laurence Lieberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I first began reading Kenneth Patchen's poetry, I can remember the novelty of his recklessly abandoning himself to the free play of child-like imagination. His lurid fantasies—beatific and inflammatory, by turns—seemed, at the time, the perfect antidote to the sterile technical perfection of the work of most newer poets in the mid-Fifties. Now, as I sift through the ample selections from Patchen's many volumes [in The Collected Poems], hunting for the luminous apocalyptic passages, I find that the moments of brilliance grew rarer as his career advanced. He continued to employ, endlessly, the same stock devices, such as his predilection for shocking the reader with weird mixtures of humor and terror. When Patchen began writing, the imagination of surrealism was an innovatory rarity in American poetry, and he is to be credited still with being among the first to work seriously in this mode. But the surrealistic intelligence has advanced to levels of exquisite sophistication, and has been employed in the service of a poetry of developing technical mastery, in the hands of a number of the best poets now writing in America—W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Louis Simpson. These poets, schooled in the work of contemporary French and Spanish poets, have been continually refining their medium, and hence, widening the gulf between Patchen's linguistic consciousness and their own.

Laurence Lieberman, "Critic of the Month: A Confluence of Poets," in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXIV, No. 1, April, 1969, pp. 40-58.∗

James Schevill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is too soon for any authoritative statement about [Patchen's] poetic range. Too much of his poetry is concealed…. He was always a prolific, hardworking writer who scorned increasingly any boundaries between poetry, prose, and art. This tendency to focus on new, unified dimensions of art, combined with his illness and inability to give readings, caused his reputation to suffer during the 1960s. Various critics tended either to ignore his poetry or dismiss it too easily. When they did discuss Patchen's work, they were apt to take lines out of context … and call these too literal or too sentimental. In a time when poetry has often limited itself to the search for novelty in every line (Pound's dictum: Make it...

(The entire section is 881 words.)