Review: Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Patchen

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Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Patchen. Edited with Introduction by Allen Frost. (344pp, $18.00, Bottom Dog Press)

Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) is an American poet whose work continues to be excluded from major anthologies. Yet he is perhaps responsible for some of the most beautiful poems of the twentieth century. In his time, he was admired by writers as diverse as Henry Miller and Wallace Stevens, by New York poets such as Kenneth Koch, and by Beat poets on both sides of the Atlantic. Today many readers of poetry have never heard of Kenneth Patchen. But why this state of affairs?

A partial reason may be Patchen's attacks not only on the literary and academic establishment but also on many other writers who were outside it. For Patchen, any literature which was not ‘committed' in some deeper sense was not worthy of the name. He had no patience for a ‘nice, artistic rebellion' which ‘doesn't offend anyone' (p. 146). Yet although Patchen hoped that poetry, and perhaps his own poetry in particular, could eventually open people's eyes and change the world, he was also contemptuous of any kind of literature that smacked of political, social or aesthetic propaganda. He himself rejected any kind of label, even that of ‘surrealist', though his work owes a great debt to the aesthetics and ethos of surrealism. Perhaps, then, Patchen made too many enemies in too many places, an effect which can be felt to this day. Another reason may be that Patchen's poetry is sometimes lazily dismissed as a kind of saccharine lyricism, for example his love poems, or as an overly rhetorical espousal of pacifism. It is true that his poetry can be either sentimental on the one hand or aggressively ranting on the other. This is Patchen at his worst, and his case is not always helped by those who would turn him into a kind of saint, so that he is wrongly perceived as nothing more than a ‘cult poet'.

However, perhaps the most important reason for Kenneth Patchen's continued exclusion from anthologies and accounts of the course of twentieth-century American poetry is that because of the very nature of his work he does not fit into any category or movement, or into the kind of narrative around ‘realism' versus ‘modernism' that academics  understand. When Patchen's first book, Before the Brave, was published by Random House in 1936, he was deliberately marketed as a ‘proletarian  poet'. His poetry was advertised as a robust American alternative to British poets such as Auden and Spender. Yet a huge range of diverse influences are clear - from the Bible, Dante, William Blake and Wilfred Owen, to the more popular novels of his time, which he loved to send up. Patchen's prose and poetry do not represent the kind of gritty ‘social realism' that one might expect from a ‘working-class' poet. Above all, it seems to me, Patchen owes a huge debt to the kind of experimentation that had already been carried out by DADA and surrealism. Like the dadaists and surrealists, Patchen could be serious and lyrical, and yet parodic and wildly funny all at the same time. This is clearly the case in his great prose work The Journal of Albion Moonlight (first self-published in 1941 before being eventually taken up by New Directions) where he continually adopts different voices, in almost postmodernist fashion, to subvert our expectations of what narrative and language should do. As Patchen himself wrote in a letter to James Laughlin, who complained about the lack of structure and ‘meaning' of the book, ‘it has been my weapon against the false and sterile reality of the story books - I have satirized the creaking framework of the whodidit and whatstohappennext fairy tale; I have, I think, kept the reader on his toes - I have made him a participant - I have removed the obvious landmarks' (p. 97). Patchen continued to be an innovative experimenter all his life, not only with his writing, but also with his fusing together of different art forms: for example in his collaboration with a young John Cage in 1941, in his pioneering of poetry and jazz in the 1950s, and in his creation of visual poems. 

After decades of neglect, there are hopeful signs that Patchen is now beginning to find the kind of recognition that may see him being properly evaluated as an important American poet of the twentieth century. In the May/June 2012 edition of American Review there is a section dedicated to the work of Kenneth Patchen (though I do not at the time of writing have a copy of it). More importantly, we now have a book which is for the first time dedicated solely to Patchen's correspondence. It offers us fascinating insights into the way he thought and felt, into his life and times, and into his relationships with others (organisations, editors, writers, friends, family). Throughout, whatever his problems with money and health, he remained fiercely committed to pacifism, poetry and experimentation right up to the last days of his life - when he was living in poverty, was confined to bed because of illness and an appalling back injury (exacerbated by a botched hospital operation) and yet was still producing and sending out his ‘picture poems'.

The letters start in September 1929, when Patchen was an 18-year old student at Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College (which was part of the University of Wisconsin), and already wondering whether he should dedicate his life to poetry or whether he would later regret it as a ‘silly whim' (p. 19). There is adolescent bravado alternating with expressions of self-doubt and a crippling sense of isolation at the college. Indeed, Patchen soon dropped out and for the next three years bummed and worked his way around America, still wondering what he should do with his life, before resurfacing in New York in 1933, when he had poems accepted by Harriet Monroe for Poetry. By December 1934 he had a contract with Random House for his first book, Before the Brave.  After that, he was writing on a regular basis to people like Henry Miller, James Laughlin of New Directions and Amos Wilder. His commitment to making society change alongside a refusal to align himself with intellectuals who romanticised the ‘working classes' or to turn a blind eye to the atrocities carried out by Stalin's regime are made clear from the outset, for example: ‘The Moscow Trials episode has not made me happy about the world. I do believe in change; but not at the risk of losing all things that men have fought for in the past. Love is greater than murder; faith finer than blind hate' (p. 58). At the same time, he rejected the notion that any ‘poet can write "for the people" without realizing that current literary taste (In the hands of the money changers) has little to do with literature' (p. 61).  He defended Ezra Pound after the war: ‘Only a few men in any age write great poetry; Ezra Pound is one of these. Let the Hitlers among you take his books off the shelves' (p. 138).

Most interesting of all perhaps is his lifelong correspondence with James Laughlin, who, in a letter of 1939, astonishingly asks Patchen not to ‘let any poem go out until you can tell in basic English exactly what it means' (p. 74).  Patchen responded by asking Laughlin: ‘What is the hard and definite core of meaning in the New Testament? in Shakespeare's Hamlet or King Lear? in the Brothers Karamazov? [...] What did Kafka mean by ‘the Castle'? what was ‘The Castle'? what was the significance of ‘Moby Dick'? is it Death? is it God? (what is god? what is life? [...]' (p. 98).

It has to be admitted that Patchen's complaints of financial difficulties, his repeated requests for loans (from people like Wallace Stevens), and his continually refused applications for a Guggenheim Fellowship, can make for depressing reading. In spite of crippling financial and health problems, however, Patchen, remained a passionate and uncompromising visionary to the end. In a letter of July 1969 to James Laughlin he wrote: ‘We must hit hard - without falling into the easy and comfortable stance of understatement - The walls of silence and condescension about my work might seem to be impregnable after thirty-odd years a‑building - but they are not! Things are a‑stir whenever and wherever my work gets over or through those walls into the eagerly receptive hands of youth' (p. 317).

No painstaking effort has been spared in the making of this beautifully-produced collection. As well as Patchen's own letters, we can read letters written to him (including a long, rambling one from Dylan Thomas) and other letters written on his behalf. The many photographs, the short biographies of correspondents, and the chronology of Patchen's life, provide a useful and engaging context. Throughout, there are brief but helpful footnotes. Larry Smith has written a fine foreword, and the introduction by editor Allen Frost is insightful and informative. This Selected Correspondence is surely a must-have for any admirer of Kenneth Patchen's work (and if you don't know his poetry and prose, then you are missing out). Hopefully, it is one of the first signs of a wider recognition to come.

                        © Ian Seed, 2012