Kenneth Patchen Analysis

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although mainly known as a poet, Kenneth Patchen (PAHT-chehn), a dedicated experimentalist, rejected normal genre distinctions, participating in radical new forms of prose, concrete poetry, poetry and jazz, picture poems, and surrealistic tales and fables, as well as other innovations. His first published prose work, a short story titled “Bury Them in God,” appeared in a 1939 collection by New Directions. Two years later, in 1941, he published his most celebrated prose work, a pacifist antinovel titled The Journal of Albion Moonlight. After that, his prose work began to appear irregularly between the publication of his numerous books of poetry.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

An extremely prolific writer, Kenneth Patchen published roughly a book a year during his thirty-six-year writing career from 1936 to his death in 1972. Besides poetry, his artistic works consisted of prose and drama, silkscreen prints, paintings and drawings, hand-painted books, and even papier-mâché animal sculptures. Holding strongly to his belief in the “total artist,” Patchen experimented with a wide variety of artistic forms, influencing a generation of poets with his creative energy.

Patchen also played a role in initiating the Poetry-and-Jazz movement in San Francisco during the 1950’s. With Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Patchen began reading his poetry to jazz accompaniment at the Cellar, a small club in San Francisco, in 1957. Patchen’s own innovations in this area had begun six years earlier when he read and recorded his Fables and Other Little Tales (1953) to a jazz background. As early as 1945, in his novel The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, Patchen had presented a two-page list of “the disks you’ll have to get if you want a basic jazz library.”

In addition to the Poetry-and-Jazz movement, Patchen made important contributions to at least three other areas of poetic experimentation. First, in the 1950’s, Patchen began to work with surrealistic fable and verse forms in such works as Fables and Other Little Tales, Hurrah for Anything, and Because It Is. Second, as an early experimenter in concrete poetry—particularly in Cloth of the Tempest, Sleepers Awake (1946), and Panels for the Walls of Heaven—Patchen provided American poetry with a uniquely visual poetic form in which the poet is concerned with making an object to be perceived rather than merely read. Patchen’s third contribution, also involving visual expression, is his fusion of painting and writing forms. Many of Patchen’s books include self-painted covers, drawings printed with poems, and picture-poem posters. Such “painted books” as The Dark Kingdom, Panels for the Walls of Heaven, Red Wine and Yellow Hair, and Poemscapes illustrate Patchen’s impressive skill as a painter. Although he usually refused to exhibit his paintings, claiming that he preferred bookstores to art galleries, in 1969, a few years before his death, he finally conducted a one-man art show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Patchen received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936, the Ohioana Book Award for Poetry in 1946, the Shelley Memorial Award in 1954, and a cash award of ten thousand dollars in 1967 from the National Foundation of Arts and Humanities for his lifelong contribution to American letters. A small but moving volume titled Tribute to Kenneth Patchen (1977), published after the poet’s death, attests the great respect in which he was held by contemporaries, publishers, critics, and friends.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Morgan, Richard G. Kenneth Patchen: A Collection of Essays. New York: AMS Press, 1977. A comprehensive and diverse collection of articles and essays on Patchen, with a foreword by Miriam Patchen. From reviews and radio interviews to critical analyses, this is a must for all who are interested in this poet.

_______. Kenneth Patchen: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Paul Appel, 1978. A comprehensive, annotated, descriptive bibliography of primary and secondary works. Essential for the Patchen scholar.

Nelson, Raymond. Kenneth Patchen and American Mysticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. A full-length and important literary criticism of Patchen that attempts to secure him a place among contemporary poets without the stigma of “cultist following.” Discusses his major works and his leanings toward the mystical in his poetry. An appreciative study of Patchen that concedes, however, that his work is uneven.

Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anais Nin, 1939-1944. Vol. 3. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969. Contains a short biographical sketch of Patchen during his New York days. Favorably analyzes his work The Journal of Albion Moonlight.

Pekar, Harvey, et al. The Beats: A Graphic History. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. Comics legend Harvey Pekar provides a history of the Beat poets in this graphic book. Contains an entry on and references to Patchen.

Smith, Larry R. Kenneth Patchen. Boston: Twayne, 1978. This study attempts to correct misunderstandings about Patchen by placing him in the context of his independence. Notes that his love poetry combines “hard realism with a visionary idealism.” Discusses also his “poetry-jazz” form, which was one of his highest achievements.

_______. Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2000. An authorized biography of Patchen by Smith, who completed an earlier critical study of Patchen’s works published by Twayne, and a video docudrama Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement in 1989. Here this American rebel artist stands exposed as a person of great strength and perseverance. His and wife Miriam’s story is one of the great love stories in American literature.