The Other Kenneth: Kenneth Patchen and Greatness
Copyright Ó by Jessica Schneider, 12/14/02

  Not Kenneth Rexroth, is who I mean. Rexroth, more known to be associated with the Beatnik Movement, along with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, et.al., is a very good poet, and at times even great. I have to say that I would rank Rexroth below the other Kenneth, in this case Patchen. Kenneth Patchen is one of those poets who it is hard to believe has little info about him on the web. Sure there are a handful of websites that promote his legacy, but hardly are there any of his marvelous poems to be found, which is really a shame since his Collected contains some of the best lyrical poems ever written. I would easily place Patchen in a league with the other great lyrical poets, that being Countee Cullen, e.e. cummings, and Pablo Neruda. With the exception of maybe Cullen, the other two poets are rather well known, and have plenty of poems online. I was even shocked to find that on www.plagiarist.com, probably the best resource poetry website to be found, contained no Patchen, (at least none that I could find) thereby causing me to whine and say, “ugh, am I really going to have to type all his poems out?” But the man is worth it, and before I begin my seek essay, here’s a little biographical info:

Kenneth Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio, in 1911. From the age of twelve, he kept a diary and read Dante, Homer, Burns, Shakespeare, and Melville. He attended Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College for one year and then the University of Wisconsin. He was employed in a variety of jobs as a migrant worker in the United States and Canada. "Permanence," a sonnet, was published in The New York Times on April 10, 1932. He wrote more than forty books of poetry, prose and drama, including Before the Brave (1936), First Will and Testament (1939) and Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941), a prose work. In 1942, he published The Dark Kingdom in a limited edition of seventy-five copies and painted each cover individually in water color. (Although Patchen was a bad artist, his writing was good). **JS
For more than thirty years, Patchen lived with a severe spinal ailment that caused him almost constant physical pain. The weight of this personal battle was compounded by his sensitivity to greater issues of humanity, and his poetry paid special attention to the horrors of war. With his work he tried to create a kind of sanctuary for the reader, apart from reality, where larger-than-life characters were motivated by their loving and benevolent natures. Kenneth Patchen died in 1972.

          Online info provided by The Academy of American Poets

  The spinal ailment reminds me a bit of the painter Frida Kahlo, although the 2 artists are about as opposite from each other as can be, in that Patchen is a Great artist, while Kahlo is just mediocre (maybe someday in a Bylines, I’ll explain why I don’t think Kahlo is a good painter). Let’s take a look at the 1st poem, The Ladder, which comes from his 1st book, Before the Brave. (1936) (Cliches are italicized )

The Ladder 

Whether my day is day for you
Or light on other plane in other eyes,
Is not renunciatory measure of speech.
Men on little shelves of occupation
Must find another shelf, another day,
When houses are put in order, you will not
Get near the pigeonholes of what they’ve been.
Coming then to place of bodies: not cities,
Not plans, or greater age, new culture,
Can alter the system of being a man.
Stay near to that. We’ve had enough
Of games; enough of pressing selves
Along the grooves of epic dishonesty.

Revolution is not career as making
Coffee is career. It is the ladder;
The mountain is man.
Save the mountain.
Ladders are useful in their use.

  This poem has a Stevensian abstract quality about it, yet at the same time is balanced by the obvious notion of logic. The title is interesting because it states something tangible, something that has form, and is utterly simplistic on its own. The title works well to contrast the 1st 2 lines. Whether my day is day for you /Or light on other plane in other eyes, is a good way to start off, because it is a reflective rhetorical pondering that people often do. One could read it as: “Do I exist for you, or is my existence just something seen differently by someone else?” Then there are clues given for the speaker’s imposed logic: measure of speech, occupation, put in order, & system of being a man. What’s interesting about a good poem, is that much can be derived from it, but in a bad poem, deeper points are distained. Consider the lines:

Men on little shelves of occupation
Must find another shelf, another day,

When houses are put in order, you will not
Get near the pigeonholes of what they’ve been.

  This stanza can be read as how these shelves of occupation, or our “everyday purpose” must carry over into the next day or purpose, as a way of establishing an “order” to live by. (See where the Stevens comes in?) Once the order (or disorder) is established, one cannot return to what it was once before the change took place. The only weak like is When houses are put in order. One might argue that a better phrase would have been When houses are put. Order will not. By doing this, the ‘order’ then becomes more active and it’s the ‘order’ that is doing the doing. Although this may change a bit of the intended meaning, the phrase is better because the general meaning is retained, but the cliché is covered up. This is the problem with most Contemporary Poetry: people rely too much on their initial intent that they refuse to change the meaning of the poem, even if the phrases that express their meanings are nothing but a list of cliches. Then he goes on to say:

Coming then to place of bodies: not cities,
Not plans, or greater age, new culture,
Can alter the system of being a man

  This is a nice way of saying for people to appreciate “the big picture”, or who we are and are striving to become. We are what make us over the things that make us. Then the speaker reminds us to Stay near to that. We’ve had enough/ Of games; enough of pressing selves/ or in other words to stay “true to who you are” and not be sucked in by the phoniness, or “pressed selves” that one might present over who one really is. But then  the poem reverts to the 1st 2 lines: Is my day for you or just light on some other plane in some others’ eyes? Then the last stanza brings the poem home, beginning with the heavy word: Revolution, which is not a career as making coffee is career – the abstract idea is not what makes us, it’s getting through the mundane task of everyday. But then we are presented with the tangible object, a ladder, used by man to climb to “find himself” or whatever is on the mountain, which in this case is man himself. The last line is outstanding- very simple and an almost obvious remark, but following what has proceeded it, only resonates its power. One must be concerned with the everyday things in order to be able to solve the more complex issues in this life. In other words, in order for someone to gain success in a particular career, one must 1st know how to operate the car that takes one there. And going back even further, one must have gas in the car to operate it, which then delivers the person to a destination, where the individual can then move into solving more complex issues. I apologize for my use of clichés when explaining the poem, but it’s just to emphasize HOW something is said that matters most in poetry. In rereading this piece, I am more impressed with it, and am able to peel more layers from it, and can be looked at as quite philosophical, yet still maintaining a musical quality with just one faulty cliche, interesting word choices and examples, as well as good line breaks. To think that this poem was written when he was in his early 20’s is amazing. Few poets have a range of this quality at such young an age. Even W.B. Yeats' early stuff is trite and clichéd, where Patchen is not.
  Because Patchen wrote such a great 1st book of poems, I decided to examine another piece from his book, Before the Brave, to show that he possesses a range that at even such young an age was able to express, and thereby grow.

There’s a Train Leaving Soon

I want no easy light to lift my eyes.
Conversation in cells is rich as words
Arranged to pin imagination, spinning
Loose as death’s more lenient glove.

Call tome at end of operation: when love
Sewn into the breastwork of this sky,
When lanced of greed and hate and fear,
When lost of anger, envy’s vivid eye
Gone blind and black, when all is clear-
Your way to me-call: and I shall try to answer back.

  Yet another outstanding gem & need I explain why? The title is nice- it places us in a certain place and situation. When one thinks of a train station, or any place where there are people coming and going, moments like those can be difficult. I can say that I remember crying more than once while boarding on a plane- which ties well with the 1st line. He wants no easy light to lift his eyes. Then there is the nice music of conversation, pin, imagination, and operation. The rhymes are subtle and unforced, and topics that could easily fall into cliché, such as lost of anger & envy’s vivid eye remain fresh in context. The addition of blind before black heightens the language and keeps the phrase fresh, which otherwise by an inferior poet would have been trite.
  Another characteristic of KP is that he will often end his poems with a line that can easily keep a reader questioning what was meant by it, thereby granting more meaning to a poem overall. The next poem is from his book First Will and Testament (1939)

Crossing on Staten Island Ferry

I’d like to die like this…
with the dark fingers of the water
closing and unclosing over these sleepy lights
and a sad bell somewhere murmuring good night.

And a girl would stand beside me,
her hair lifted out like a hand against my face;
and I’d say “I’m going to die now.”

And she’d answer” All the guns are still:
for men have learned to love another.”

Then a star would nose the water, like a weary gull
which had flown a long way and come at last to rest.

And, when I’d lift my face to look on the God
I had found for myself,
The girl would say “You’re not going to die.”

And she’d not mean me at all.

  Here is another poem that, like the last, sets the scene in a particular place. The person could be either riding the ferry and crossing Staten Island itself, or crossing from land onto the Staten Island Ferry itself. Either way, it works and the ambiguity only heightens the power. The phrase dark fingers of the water falls into cliché, yet is not so overpowering that it ruins the trope of the poem. The narrative reads well, and it’s almost like this speaker is falling into a dream, but is not awoken until the last line. There could be many meanings to what is meant by the last line. Is the girl speaking to the “God he had found for himself?” Is she referring to an extension of his being, like his soul perhaps? It is puzzling, but the line works because it is such a contrast to the lines before it and also serves as an awakening that gets logged in your memory. This poem also leads into the obvious nod towards Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, which can be read as a metaphor for that “crossing over” from life into death. The most memorable part of the Whitman poem for me is when he is addressing his readers, which he often does, i.e. I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence… In knowing this, another way then of looking at the last line in the Patchen poem is to imagine the girl referring to the “me” in the poem as his soul, which is not going to die, because then the speaker is aware that the actual “me” of anyone consists of not the body but the soul. And in looking at the last line of the Whitman poem, it reads:

You furnish your parts toward eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

  Is this the river itself Whitman is speaking about or the reader, or the generations hence? All could be applied, but what I gather is that the “river” (whatever that is exactly) actually becomes everyone and lives through everyone, as everyone and generations hence live through it. I know that it is no challenge to say that this is a Great Poem by Whitman. But look how he ends the poem, using two very familiar and often clichéd word choices like eternity and soul. What redeems these words from falling into cliché are the phrases that precede them. To furnish your parts toward eternity is much more unique than to “fall into eternity” or something like that, because the phrase is actually specific, and “eternity” is being referred to tangentially, as a thing itself (as is “soul”). And not in the abstract sense, i.e. “he’ll love me for eternity” (Barf).
  Let me just say that Patchen seemed to be at his best poetically when the poems were under a page long. His longer pieces, though not bad poems by any stretch and are still filled with great imagery, are not as poignant as when he kept them under a page. But don’t get me wrong, the longer poems still have great moments in them and are worlds better than the crap published by the Donald Halls and James Tates of today.
  I don’t want to make it seem like this essay is all praise, (and I think that acknowledging some of the clichés shows that point) but at Patchen’s worst, his poems are just mediocre & a little preachy at times. As his age progressed, his poems lost their complexity, and became simple. Just about all of Contemporary Poetry indulges in the triteness of life. There is hardly any complexity, for poets are “taught” to speak “simply” and not use complex images and language someone may not understand. In other words, the poems need to be dumbed down to a level that any moron can understand, although this unfortunately causes the art to suffer. What is the purpose of poetry, then, if one is not to experiment with language, ideas, etc? If you just look at the past 3 poems, it is very easy to see the distinction to Patchen’s writing, the intricate nature of the word choices that grants a Patchian view on the world. In closing, I have to strongly recommend to any poetry fan to purchase Patchen’s Collected Poems, almost 500 pages long, which can probably be found in a used bookstore for under $5. What is so great about well-written poems is that they allow one to become a better reader. Just spend some time thinking about the poems by Patchen, Stevens, or Yeats & ask yourself why the poems are good.
  In order to understand the art, it is important for one to learn why & how any art is good. Once that can be done, a “name” no longer needs to be relied upon for confidence & you’d be able to find bad & mediocre poems written by Yeats, Shakespeare, Keats, etc… From my perspective, I get annoyed when people defend bad verse simply because a big named published poet wrote it. Many are willing to dismiss the errors & more are unwilling/unable to see them. Another problem is when people like to readily throw around the word “genius”. Why is this poet good? Ah, he/she is a genius! Adrienne Rich I believe won some “genius” award not too long ago, which then granted her a big wad of $$$. Let’s not mention the fact that she will be long forgotten in 100 years simply because her politics will seem so stale & she does not have the quality to sustain herself. (Rich who?) Academia likes to conflate certain “isms” in poetry, and accept bad poetry written by Rich, Hall, Olds, etc who have certain politics (or whatever the bias may be), thereby denying that the writing is bad simply because a certain poet agrees with another’s political views. But good poetry is good poetry, and will win out in the end. No one in 50+ years will remember anything Donald Hall wrote. He’ll be the James Whitcomb Riley of 2050. (Who?) But a poet like Patchen will only appreciate with time, hopefully by more people like myself who recognize his genius! (um, quality, I mean).

Return to S&D

Bookmark and Share