August 2008

Katie Hartsock

poetry

We Meet and The Walking Away World by Kenneth Patchen

THEY ARE SO HAPPY THAT
YOU COULD MAKE IT
Out of this may come
something nobody
quite figured on!

New Directions has released two companion volumes by poet, novelist, and artist Kenneth Patchen: We Meet (appropriately titled for strangers to his work), a collection of five hard-to-find volumes of poetry, and The Walking-Away World, which consists of his brilliant picture-poems. The poems in We Meet are typeset and often complemented by drawings above or opposite them, similar in look and relationship to a bilingual printing. The picture-poems of The Walking-Away World integrate text and drawing; the creatures, colors, shapes -- even the loops of his cursive, by turns regal and childlike -- and words can exist without each other, but only as fragments and not without substantial loss of their combined effect.

As in the poem above; the text is funny, and sounds cheerful, but if you take a look into the eyes of the animals around the words -- a donkey wearing a donkey mask, a penguin in a boat on a pond, a trumpeting elephant -- you wonder if these creatures are welcoming us. Could it be a trick? Is this a party or a surprise attack? In Patchen’s world anything’s possible.

Patchen was born in 1911 in Niles, Ohio, and between growing up near the Youngstown Steel Mills (“To bake a cake or have a baby / with the taste of tar in your mouth”) and working an assortment of factory and odd jobs, he observed the twentieth century with an uncompromising eye (“My program? Let us all weep together”) and acquired his staunch and furious pacifism, distrust of government and the upper class, and indignation at consumerism. His genius stems from his uncanny ability to exist in and write through contradictions -- his anger, despair, and resignation, are matched by jubilance, a goofy sense of humor, and stubborn hope. Because of the proximity of these extremes, reading him can be a physically jolting experience.

We Meet starts with Because It Is (1946); these poems have beginnings such as “The lanterneater’s daughter went to a banquet / Dressed as the phone number of an elm tree,” and endings like

            They were a little disappointed to find
            Only a great white blind lion seated
            On the very edge of air.
            These are days nobody gets a break.

            —“Because She Felt Bashful with Palm Trees”

Patchen seats the reader on the very edge of his imagination, and the poems succeed on the strength of the coherence, however unseemly, of their environment. The various tones he can take are present and powerful here, such as his quiet lyric mode -- “And we are but the shadows of still more shadowy things”; his epiphanic contrarian style -- “And that we love! is this not a proof of something? / No -- I admit, not necessarily of heaven...”; and his ferocious anti-war stance, shown here in the thoughts of a decapitated green blackbird, “those poor unfortunates who still have heads left / to think about what’s going to happen to them.”

When Patchen moved, he moved in circles. The Patchen fan club included Charlie Parker, e. e. cummings, Anaïs Nin, André Breton, Marianne Moore, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Henry Miller... the list goes on. He collaborated with Charles Mingus and John Cage. But he was prevented from moving often -- a back injury at the age of 26 immobilized him often until a botched surgery rendered him unable to leave his bed. Considering this, his determination to constantly create is all the more stirring.

Next in We Meet is Poemscapes (1957), a sequence of 168 prose poems that accumulate effect by referring back to each other with repeating characters, landscapes, and titles. Patchen can be most stunning at his most brief. Here is “Golden Plum Beds”:

She loosens her hair. Out in the garden the flowers try on new colors.

Or the first “More Fabulous Animals”:

When sunlight hits a green leaf just right, that makes him! Abundant in children.

What abundance in 14 words! He sometimes allows himself to be too didactic and prosaic, but Poemscapes is well worth reading despite occasional platitudes. Letter to God (1958) is inspiringly without such weaknesses. As a string of dissonant sections of poetry and prose -- childhood memories, dated events, prayers, invectives, questions -- it is not comprehensible except as scraps of letters, clips of silent conversation.

Yesterday I tried to remember the first time I ever tasted an apple. Then I thought of this letter to you and it seemed an unimportant thing to know...
Why don’t you come down and carry on your fight?

There are several sequences of isolated descriptions of light or darkness -- “the wing is burning the wing is burning,” “In runaway order / out of the green life / O ALL IN FIRE,” “STAR” -- these addresses to God describe Him to Himself, with the most primal images of a divine experience. Another Patchen fan, Ronald Johnson, used a similar technique in Radi os (1977), a poem he “wrote” by crossing out sections of Paradise Lost, leaving no narrative but only fragmented symbols, often of light. In Johnson’s essay “Hurrah for Euphony” (possibly an echo of Patchen’s collection Hurrah for Anything), he calls Patchen “a homegrown Blake.” Besides the similarities between his picture-poems and Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, Patchen also writes with visionary authority.  

The Walking Away World gathers three collections of picture-poems he created in the last 13 bed-ridden years of his life, and their fervency emanates off the page. A terribly striking picture-poem contains a background of barely legible words in crooked lines around bug-eyed birds; most prominent is a box of black written over in white cursive, “This room, this battlefield.” Henry Miller rightly remarked in his essay, “Patchen: Man of Anger and Light,” “One is no longer looking at a dead, printed book but at something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment.”

And this book has many eyes -- the creatures surrounding the text of the picture-poems can be multi-legged and impossibly shaped, clearly recognizable as lions or owls, or patchwork creations of several animals. Yet their eyes are their most fascinating aspect, as they can be tickling or terrifying, depending. Some are altered by their black and white reproduction here, which is this edition’s only drawback. Patchen composed many of these picture poems with inks, watercolors, casein, and other chromatic media. After looking at What Shall We Do Without Us (Yolla Bolly Press, 1984), a full color printing of selected picture-poems, the poorer transfers in The Walking Away World are lamentable -- like arriving in a black and white Oz.

But that we landed, with what adventures ahead, is what matters. One picture-poem reads, “I have a funny feeling that some very peculiar creatures out there are watching us.” The creatures can comfort, “Of course there is a beautiful world what do you think we’re looking out of?” or the creatures can leer, “Come now, my child if we were planning to harm you, do you think we’d be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest park of the forest?” Whose world is beautiful, and where to seek refuge, are open questions.

Apart from the wonders of the creatures, Patchen is a poet of Orphic profundity in the picture-poems. In his later years, he gravitated towards the role of prophet, brandishing ultimatums: “Peace now for all men or amen to all things.” His jazzy colloquialisms can evoke a sax-slinging enlightened grandpa grumbling, “It’s really lousy taste to live in a world like this.” The last collection, But Even So, exemplifies his unique power of balancing contradictions, both in the title and in the layout: the picture-poems appear on the right pages, while on each left page, in identical large script, is the phrase “But Even So” -- each poem refutes and builds from the other. In their lyric tone and swell, it’s debatable whether the picture-poems are more like psalms or Proverbs of Hell -- “Any who live stand alone in one place together.”

We Meet and The Walking Away World are books to pore over and delight in and be moved by again and again, and convincing invitations to his Collected Poems and experimental prose. These companion volumes, much like two critters in a Patchen drawing, highlight the achievement of his work and hint at what else is out there.

We Meet by Kenneth Patchen
New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-1758-3
282 pgs.

 

The Walking Away World by Kenneth Patchen
New Directions
ISBN 978-0-8112-1758-3
282 pgs.

 

Images Copyright (c) 1960-1971 by Kenneth Patchen. Reprinted by Permission of New Directions