Laureate of the Doomed Youth of the Third World War —
REXROTH'S DESCRIPTION OF THE AMERICAN POET AND PAINTER, Kenneth Patchen, is only a small part of the story. Patchen is one of the few poets of the last thirty years who has lived up to his responsibility as a man and yet managed to create fine poetry. In the age of the Doomsday Machine and the State Machine this is quite as much as we had a right to expect.
Patchen is the poet of the lover, the protester, the revolutionary, the bewildered and the inarticulate as well as the doomed. He is opposed to authority and "bloodfed politics", opposed to war and the State. He is on the side not only of the "victims who know they are victims" but also "the victims who think they are winners" wrote Alex Comfort in an introduction to a Patchen collection. It is because of this uncompromising dual commitment that Patchen has been able to retain his integrity, both as a man and as an artist. He is not committed to East or West, black or white (he knows "that one of my hands is black, and one is white"). He is engaged in humanity. His "genius is an enormous littleness, a trickling of heart that covers alike the hare and the hunter". He recognises that each man is divided within himself, that no man can ever be certain. He has a strange duality himself. At times he would obviously be quite happy to tear down the whole authoritarian structure and cut the throats of those within it, but he also recognises that there has been too much
bloodshed, too much cruelty, too much misery: "Until it changes, I shall be forever killing; and be killed".
Few details about Patchen the man have seeped through to the casual reader in this country. He was born in Ohio in December 1911, and was educated at the University of Wisconsin. As a young man he did a variety of jobs and worked in a steel mill, but since 1936, when he gained a Guggenheim fellowship for his first volume of poetry, Before the Brave, he has devoted his life to poetry, prose and painting. He is married. He is, along with poets like Langston Hughes, one of the originators of Jazz Poetry, some of which he has recorded. He has also made recordings of Poemscapes, Love Poetry and Funny Fables, which are enough to ensure his reputation and are available in this country from time to time. He has a soft and caressing reading voice, ideally suited to his own verse; anyone who has enjoyed or been moved by his poetry would be well advised to hear him reading it.
As well as being a writer of merit Patchen is a considerably talented painter — those who read ANARCHY'S nearest American equivalent, Liberation, will have seen his delightful illustrations, whimsical and tender, with their gentle or ironic inscriptions. From these alone one can gather that Patchen is a solitary individual, "moving with the times but not in step". A man of courage and integrity, he has been blessed with a relatively small but enduringly loyal readership. Those who know his name have usually read his poetry; he is thus saved from praise without readership — the fate of so many poets. He is, in his publishers' words, "repaid by that carefully articulated curse (or cure) of silence which official circles have in all periods reserved for his kind". His poems do not appear, flashily set-out, in glossy women's journals, he is ignored by the literary lions, unpraised by The Observer, and as a result he has retained his honesty, his conscience and his ability to write. Henry Miller says of him that he "represents all that a poet should represent, whether expressing himself in verse, in prose, in painting or in his life".
Patchen writes in a contemporary language and his poetry, though not unintellectual, is seldom bogged down in a morass of unintelligible, esoteric intellectualism. He rigorously eschews the "rehearsed response". His poetry is often incoherent — the agonised scream of the witness of a public brutality. That it can be incoherent at such times is understandable and refreshing: poets have for too long been prone to understate glibly or ironically on such occasions — Patchen has no time for the apathetic shrug of the law-abiding citizen. Comfort has described the impression left by Patchen's poetry as "very like a blow in its total effect, and … equally impossible to analyse".
Patchen is arguably the foremost living poet of resistance; he has toughness and tenderness, passion and calm in the right proportions. He is rarely hysterical but his indignation at the failure of man to live nobly does not allow him to be dispassionate. He is a romantic (in the sense that Comfort uses the word in Art and Social Responsibility), a man with a sense of individuality which enables him to feel more intensely the universal agony, the alienation of man from a natural pattern of life, and the stupidity of people allowing this to happen. Like Comfort's romantic, his is the fight against obedience, the fight against death:
"I should like to pray now if I can stay out of a trench to do it.
There is no war between us, brothers.
There is only one war anywhere."
Patchen is out in front, a trail-blazer for the better society who does not retreat into a cocoon of self-pity or excuse himself by saying that it is too early or too late. A man of humour and passionate conviction that men may prevail, he is one of the legion of active and vocal free men who may make a healthy society more than the pipe-dream of prematurely ageing revolutionaries. We are all indebted to him, "even unto the last and most fanatically ardent defender of the world" says Henry Miller.
Apart from the poems of anger, of despair and of horror, Patchen has written the most consistently beautiful love poems of this century. But even in love, he remembers his horror — now it is outside, something which must not be allowed to invade the last stronghold of freedom and peace: the love between a man and woman. "— Away from this kingdom, from this last undefiled place, I would keep our governments, our civilisation, and all other spirit-forsaken and corrupt institutions". Sometimes his love is great enough to fill the universe, sometimes only a room; but then:
"Any person who loves another person,
Wherever in the world, is with us in this room —
Even though there are battlefields."
Many people who should know a great deal better are critical of Patchen. He has been described as everything from a right-wing stalking horse to a sentimental liberal of pseudo-human sympathies, a fey and childish purveyor of kitsch whimsey. To those who deplore his "superficiality" we can only offer The Journal of Albion Moonlight, surely one of the most notable books of this century. In it Patchen has erected a monument to Man's confusion, dignity and crass folly. ("Power" he says "is an image in the mythology of the slave"). It is the allegorical journey of a modern Everyman into the darkest and most frightening recesses of the human mind and soul. The journey is described poetically; with anger, compassion and intense imagination. The book is harrowing and witty, grotesque and beautiful. It screams, laughs and sobs its anguished message of love and pity. "Albion Moonlight is the most naked figure of man I have ever encountered in all literature" says Henry Miller. In the words of Comfort, surely (like Miller) not a man to be taken in by platitudes posing as a revolutionary literature: "In this century only Kafka has written prose as vibrantly alive and sensitive to every least cell change in the agonised flesh of these times as cries up from every page of The Journal of Albion Moonlight". It is a remarkable book, an extreme in the literature of dissent; coherent and tortured, bitter and tender, appalled and humorous, aggressive and calm. But, more than dissent, it is a supreme work of art produced against all the odds of the war-crazed forties. It is a book more relevant today than when it was written and one that no anarchist who cares at all for literature should fail to beg, borrow or steal — and read.
Alex Comfort has said that the existence of medical science and "this (i.e. Patchen's) kind of poetry are the only two factors which give contemporary Western life any claim to be called a civilisation" and he ended his introduction (written in 1946) with the words: "If the spirit of Patchen comes to reach a new conscript generation, if his poetry and his attitude to poetry gives the new generation a voice, there will be a sound in the street that will not be rain". There are signs that this is beginning to happen; despite Patchen, it may be too late; if it is, we can at least join him and:
"… continue to praise truth and justice
Though the eyes of the stars turn black
And the smoking juice of the Universe,
Like the ruptured brain of God,
Pours down upon us in a final consecration."