. .

To Kenneth Patchen,

By Aysegul Tözeren

This composition is not about Kenneth Patchen; it is for Kenneth Patchen. Patchen was not only the forerunner of Concrete Poetry in 1940, preceeding Eugene Gomringer's "Constealtions" and Oyvind Falstrom's Manifesto in 1953, which are usually cited as the official begining of the Concrete Poetry movement, but he also transformed his conceptions of reframing genres and altering letter forms under the name of "Painted Picture Poems" as part of the larger field of Visual Poetry. Patchen mastered all the leading genres of Visual Poetry, but was the victim of a "conspiracy of silence" while he worked and after his death.

The importance of Patchen begins in his ability to build his own poetics without following any other movement. Among other tendencies, some might see traces of Dadaism and mytic Surrealism in some of his books, especially Sleepers Awake, yet Patchen rejected most tenets of Surrealism in a radical manner. In this context, reviewers associated Patchen's inventiones with those of Mallarme and Apollinaire. In addition, Patchen affirmed in a letter that he had no relation to the Beat movement which dominated alternative writing through much of his later career. It is important to note that he and Kenneth Rexroth pioneered practices such as reading to jazz accompanyment before the beginning of the Beat movement, and that, as with Concrete Poetry, he was not following a genre but creating one. Even among these forerunners, however, the reader or listener can see a difference between the two Kenneths: Rexroth spoke of his work as "jazz and poetry," while Patchen considered his work in this field "jazz-poetry."

The artificer who most profoundly inspired Patchen was clearly W?lliam Blake. Sharing with Blake the concepts of the "total book" and "total artist" wrote of Blake's "Book of Job," that his predecessor "dreamed of the beautiful book, written decorated, engraved, printed and illuminated by one creator."

Patchen frequently identified himself with painters. "Although he does not know what he will do at the next step, he could succeed in breaking away from the tradition." These were his thoughts regarding the masters Van Gogh and Picasso. But when he talked about his orientation at the time he started his leading edge work in the field of Visual Poetry, he especially emphasized Paul Klee. "For instance, a man like Paul Klee. I feel that every time he approached a new canvas it was with a feeling that, 'well, here I am, I know nothing about painting, let's learn something, let's feel something.' This is what distinguishes the innovator, the man who destroys, from the man who walks in the footsteps of another."

"I have in the last, oh fifteen years, as you know, done a great deal of graphic work, and it happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing. In other words, I don't consider myself to be a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend. It gives an extra dimension to the medium of words." (Kenneth Patchen)

It is particularly interesting that in his last Visual Poems, Patchen used animals along with textual elements. His wife Miriam associates these figures as part of his altruistic identification with all living creatures, although he was acutely aware of the violence in the world. Reviewer Peter Veres, however, interprets these figures in these terms: "They are messages from other lands, spoken in our vernacular by vaguely familiar creatures. Figures and words share a continuum of presence and form, a counterpoint of meaning, an interchange of energies."

Kenneth Patchen's career was hindered by by a physical disability as well as disinterst on the part of reviewers and some literary milieux of the time. He suffered a serious back injury while refitting a friend's car. Injuries to his spinal cord sustained in this accident led to many unsuccessful surgeries, until he was confined to his bed during the last years of his life.

Henry Miller was one of the few writers whose comments on Patchen received more than minor circulation. In his essay, "Man of Anger and Light," he wrote: They will accuse him of permitting his illness to distort his vision. 'The work of a sick man,' they say, shrugging their shoulders. If he bellows, then it is 'the work of an impotent man.' If he begs, and entreats, then 'he has lost all sense of dignity.' But if he roars? Then he is hopelessly insane. No matter what attitude he adopts, he is condemned beforehand. When he is buried they praise him as anothe 'poet maudit.' What beautiful crocodile teras are shed over our dead and accursed poets!"

Another characteristic of Kenneth Patchen is that he was a radical antimilitrist. The pacifism and antimilitarism Patchen found its roots not in a period when he had many fellow activists, such as the anti-warriors of the Vietnam era, but during World War II. It is essential to note that pacifists during this era laid the groundwork of anti-war movements in the U.S. in later years. Patchen answered those who were against his antimilitarism: "I am the world-crier, and this is my dangerous career..."

Kenneth Patchen was a "total artist" who did not simply seek readers, but searched "'not to see, but seeing' / a couple of eyes from human soul."


1) Bernard Koops on Kenneth Patchen
2) Kenneth Patchen, Karl Kempton
3) Patchen: Man of Anger and Light, Henry Miller
4) Kenneth Patchen, Poetry and Jazz Days, 1957-1959, Larry Smith
5) Kenneth Patchen, Charles S. Maden

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