Dignity and Tenderness: Reading Kenneth Patchen
“Dignity and Tenderness” is this here, now -- my reading diary -- and it is also part of a song by the Modern Lovers. At first, to me, the Modern Lovers sounded like one of those abstract-moony bands brainy white guys put on mixtapes for girls. So I didn’t give them a chance for years. That was dumb, because the Modern Lovers are punk and terrific -- the band a novelist would write for Jonathan Richman, a kid who grew up in the Boston suburbs, listening to the VU and feeling all thumbs.
The Modern Lovers were musical pioneers too -- see the provenance of “Roadrunner,” which Griel Marcus calls “the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest” -- but I’ll leave those descriptions to professional music critics. What I know for sure, and remember and love each time I play their songs, is that the Modern Lovers hover in that space where maybe we’re not actually alone, because looking at the loneliness means we’re not of it. We’re not dead either, because we still think things are beautiful and sometimes we even make jokes about them. (By “we” of course I mean “me” -- the Modern Lovers lean on lyrics and music equally, meaning they’re a band lots of writers love, and can learn about structure and harmony from too.)
My favorite Modern Lovers song ever is “A Plea for Tenderness,” which is also a dialogue between two people. One person is a girl and one person, the singer, is probably a guy but he might also be a girl, a ghost, a cat, straightedge -- anyway, he’s someone who wants to see her clear and can’t stand to be alone at night. He’s looking for a lover, and she’s hanging around long enough to hear the dude out.
“I can see tenderness in your face,” he sings, “and innocence, straight from infant days. You know,” he says -- and here I roll my eyes, picturing sweetheart holding up a boombox or clutching a red cup, or something. He says he’s read some writers, from the old days. He knew they’d understand. “Because dignity and tenderness should apply -- they could apply -- to modern romance.” It sounds sincere, not creepy. (Cut to Michel Piccoli falling down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in Leos Carax’s Mauvais sang and this, pretty much, is how I understood love in my twenties.)
I believe dignity and tenderness could apply to reading too, and talking about reading: my modern romances. We sit down, we stay, then we stand up with something new in our heads. Leslie Scalapino says a novel means you start at the beginning and you read to the end. There’s a before, and an after. Brian Eno says if you listen to a song again and it sounds different, you know you’re the one who’s changed.
Richman’s singer also says he’s not interested in hearing about this girl’s school, or her “stupid cats” or her homework. He just wants to talk about love, or sex, or starving hearts -- if it’s important when he touches her hand in the kitchen, late at night when it’s cold outside. I want to touch your hand too.
I want to write a reader’s diary not about how hard it is to make a living or to finish a book, though of course it is, but about how hard we’re all trying. I think it’s possible to do this in a way that’s personal, interesting, and relevant but not narcissistic.
In my twenties I listened to music all the time, like how I read books now, but I was a weak music critic because I wanted to move to a city, not play in a band. But I do want to finish my novel, badly. I write at a bright red desk above a coffeeshop across the street from a 24-hour hot dog stand, so sometimes the office smells like caramel cake, sometimes grilled onions. Most days it is not romantic.
Of course reading novels is more fun than writing them. It’s zoomier. “The novel is a great, great form,” wrote Samuel Delany in a letter to Q., 1997 (text reprinted in Delany’s book About Writing). “As a form, it says that evil (like good) is a manifestation of social systems, not individuals, and thus individuals, both the good ones and the bad ones, if they move into new social systems they are unused to, can be changed by them if they stay there.” I love this sentence and all its clauses. Reading it sounds like Chip is across the table, waving his hands and eating a pastry, talking about vectors, force, power -- individual readers and writers as opposed to characters. “I can see tenderness in your face,” sings Richman. I love the idea that a form can speak.
This sense of force is sort of like what Bill-Dale Marcinko got at in the introduction to his zine AFTA, which stood for “Ascension from the Ashes.” (IRL I am the kind of person who stands in the kitchen trying to hold your hand, but in books sometimes I like phoenixes. Always I like the idea we are all headed somewhere together, one big crabby family.) Marcinko grew up in New Jersey, where his idols were Woody Allen and Bruce Springsteen, which is kind of like being Felix and Oscar’s third roommate. “I tried to pretend for the first fifteen years of my life that I wasn’t bothered by being a misfit,” Marcinko said.
He wrote not so that his characters could be changed by their environments, but so that they -- for him, this means readers too -- could escape. “When I write, I think I am building highways where people can escape their towns when the mines close down.” The model for AFTA, Marcinko said, was “a broken down roller coaster at Bertrand’s Island Amusement Park in Hoptacong, NJ. I want to fill it with bumps and twists.” Marcinko died -- probably -- in a house fire in the early 2000s, but every time I read this I want to ask him where he is on the coaster. Is he next to us? At the controls? On the ground with a camera?
One of my teachers, David MacLean, said writing a novel is like driving from New York to California at night with one broken headlight. This comforts me when I feel panicked at the desk, because it makes that feeling logical. It helps me understand it. Of course I’m nervous; I can’t see the road! It’s so strange it’s sensible, writing somewhere that smells like food I’m not actually cooking -- practical, reading to be a better writer. Richard Hugo says semicolons are ugly but Mary Ruefle says we should stop and be thankful that there exists this little thing, invented by a human being, that allows us to go on and keep on connecting speech that for all apparent purposes is unrelated.
If writing a novel is like building a system, or riding a roller coaster on the fritz, then yes I think reading them can be like holding someone’s hand in a kitchen. I read a lot. I do not cook very daringly, and I get dressed in maybe seven minutes and sometimes I put on my lipstick on the bus. I get stage fright. So it does not make sense for me to write about food, or fashion, or music, but yes let’s talk about books.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep I read Kenneth Patchen poems. I love the firm, committed way he and Miriam loved each other, even when it was scary and poor and stuff didn’t work. Towards the end of his life, when his back was hurting like knives and orange, she’d hide the telephone in the laundry basket because otherwise it’d wake him up and then he couldn’t get back to sleep.
There is a dignity and tenderness to this too, one I didn’t always understand -- or want -- when I was younger. The dignity and tenderness of sleeping somewhere, or of letting someone else sleep. Of reading start to finish, before and after, breathing instead of rushing off towards whatever’s bright and up next. This is maybe what Eileen Myles means in her essay “Universal Cycle,” when she says “the touch of a foot in the night is sincere.” In his introduction to New Directions’ collection of Patchen poems, the artist Jim Woodring credits Patchen with helping him see the true genius of the phrase “See you in the morning.” It is, says Woodring, “an excruciatingly tender, pathetic genius of hope.”
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. An MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate of the 2013 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, Mairead is Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library and an editor-at-large for Yeti Publishing, featherproof books, and elsewhere. She writes regularly here and for Bad at Sports.