In Praise of Kenneth Patchen

A tonic for disgust and despair.

The hyper-literate contrarian, H.L. Mencken, wore many hats: journalist, lexicographer, scourge of religious and political charlatans and—depending on who you read—unreconstructed racist and anti-Semite or “a tremendous liberating force in American culture” (or maybe, somehow, both). Mencken was the most provocative, entertaining American writer of the early 20th century. He was also a first-class literary critic and, just about a year ago, one of his observations about poetry began tolling again in my head.

“I enjoy poetry as much as the next man — when the mood is on me,” Mencken wrote in a 1920 essay, “The Poet and His Art,” which I first encountered in college, several lifetimes ago. “The mood … of intellectual and spiritual fatigue, the mood of revolt against the insoluble riddle of existence, the mood of disgust and despair. Poetry, then, is a capital medicine.”

Yes. Disgust and despair. Like countless people in the U.S. and around the globe, I spent most of 2016 growing painfully familiar with those two ways of being. (“Emotions” seems too weak a word.) With every sleazy utterance, every open incitement to violence and every brazen right-wing campaign lie, I felt more anxious, angry, and helpless. The cynicism and cruelty on display during the campaign was getting to me.

After the shock of election night settled like a layer of black silt somewhere behind my heart, I started ignoring headlines for hours, and even days at a time. I paid attention to the news, as much as I felt was warranted, but I wasn’t consumed by it. As a remedy and a bulwark—and recalling Mencken’s “capital medicine” line—I turned to poetry in hopes of countering the brutal rhetoric oozing from Donald Trump and his extremist enablers. I returned to Kenneth Patchen and, right away, my longstanding disgust and despair started to recede. They didn’t disappear entirely. But they shrank, day by day, like sibling tumors in remission, beaten back by one poet’s humane, unmistakably American voice.

Kenneth Patchen’s work is hardly remembered nowadays, by most readers or even by other poets—in large part, I guess, because his genius defies categorization. He was an individual; he belonged to no school. As his fellow poet Louis Untermeyer once put it, in the middle part of the last century, “There is more verve and more variety in Patchen’s work than in any other living American’s entire output. No more ringing protests and no more passionate love poems have been written in our time.”

Poems of protest and of love? That sounded very 2017 to me. So after not looking too closely at his work for probably 20 years, I returned to Patchen and gradually, inexorably, his uncompromising work restored me.

I turned to his rhapsodies, like “As We Are So Wonderfully Done with Each Other”:

As we are so wonderfully done with each other
We can walk into our separate sleep
On floors of music where the milkwhite cloak of childhood lies

O my lady, my fairest dear, my sweetest, loveliest one
Your lips have splashed my dull house with the speech of flowers
My hands are hallowed where they touched over your
       soft curving.

It is good to be weary from that brilliant work
It is being God to feel your breathing under me  

A waterglass on the bureau fills with morning . . .
Don’t let anyone in to wake us.

I turned to poems that are funny, sad, and angry all at once, like “The Origin of Baseball,” with its Frank O’Hara-esque absurdist vibe:

Someone had been walking in and out
Of the world without coming
To much decision about anything.
The sun seemed too hot most of the time.
There weren’t enough birds around
And the hills had a silly look
When he got on top of one.
The girls in heaven, however, thought
Nothing of asking to see his watch
Like you would want someone to tell
A joke—“Time,” they’d say, “what’s
That mean—time?”, laughing with the edges
Of their white mouths, like a flutter of paper
In a madhouse. And he’d stumble over
General Sherman or Elizabeth B.
Browning, muttering, “Can’t you keep
Your big wings out of the aisle?” But down
Again, there’d be millions of people without
Enough to eat and men with guns just
Standing there shooting each other.

So he wanted to throw something
And he picked up a baseball.

I turned to poems of rage and hope, like “A Letter to a Policeman in Kansas City” (this is an excerpt):

            Goddamn them standing on
the cover of our world their heavy boots grinding
into our faces their ropes about our necks their guns
shut your mouth you bastard where do you live
what are you doing here look out
look out we don’t know anything about that but
I’ll tell you where we live and what we’re doing here
tomorrow maybe I’ll tell you then I’ll tell you
when your guard is down when the thing breaks
I’ll tell you all you want to know come to
think of it


            I’m not too starved to want food
not too homeless to want a home not too dumb
to answer questions come to think of it
it’ll take a hell
of a lot more than you’ve got to stop what’s
going on deep inside us when it starts out
when it starts wheels going worlds growing
and any man can live on earth when we’re through with it.

Patchen was no starry-eyed, ivory-tower dweeb. He was born in 1911 in blue-collar northeastern Ohio, the son of a mill worker and a devoutly Catholic housewife mom, and he remained a champion of workers, the downtrodden and the marginalized all his life. He was a vocal pacifist who knew who his enemies were—the war mongers, the money-mad, the lethally complacent—and he fought them the only way he knew how.

But Patchen also loved the broken world — the balm of nature and the crazy energy of cities — and he loved his wife, Miriam (a Massachusetts native and self-declared “youngest card-carrying member of the American Communist Party”; Patchen wrote virtually all of his poems for and about her), and that love sustained him through decades of financial troubles, career struggles and, in his last years, it sustained him through unremitting physical suffering.

In recent months, in the bleakest era most of us can remember, the love expressed in Patchen’s poems—along with his anger, his faith, his humor and his soulfulness — has also sustained me. He was a one-man resistance. And I honor him for it. This last one is pure Patchen—especially in its emblematic melding of the ecstatic and the mournful, a poem called “I Feel Drunk All the Time”:

Jesus, it’s beautiful!
Great mother of big apples, it is a pretty

You’re a bastard, Mr. Death,
And I wish you didn’t have no look-in here.

I don’t know how the rest of you feel,
But I feel drunk all the time

And I wish to hell we didn’t have to die.

Oh, you’re a nervy bastard, Mr. Death,
And I wish you didn’t have no hand in this game

Because it’s too damn beautiful for anybody to die.

You can find recordings of Patchen reading his own work, alone and accompanied by jazz musicians, on YouTube.  He was also a self-taught artist and illustrator who created beautiful, whimsical, totally original “painted poems” throughout his life. See examples of them here.


Image: Wikimedia Commons