A Brief Review of
Two new collections of Kenneth Patchen’s poetry.
by Chris Smith.
New Directions has recently released two new collections of poetry by “jazz poet” Kenneth Patchen, an early twentieth-century writer who influenced the beat generation, especially Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We Meet is a collection of five of Patchen’s previously released books, which is illustrated with his own artwork. These poems are characterized by a child-like whimsy, with titles such as “A Firtree Shook Hands with Orion” and “The Little Man who Saw a Grass.” At times, these poems remind me of e.e. cummings, who was a close friend of Patchen’s. Nature is one theme that runs through the pages of We Meet, especially the first book Because It Is, the poems of which are teeming with animals, trees and other plants. However, there is also a strong theme of social criticism here. Take, for instance, “I Went to the City,” one of Patchen’s most famous poems:
Yes, I went to the city
And there I did bitterly cry,
Men out of touch with the earth,
And with never a glance at the sky.
Patchen’s social criticism also shows up in his adamant pacifism, reflected in poems like the longer work “A Letter to God”:
Why don’t you come down and carry on your fight? What exactly did you mean when you said
“Thou shalt not kill.”?
Come down God and continue your fight against this pious murder. – “Under certain circumstances; in order to properly defend; in event that no other method of survival is forthcoming” –
“Thou shalt not kill”
And what right has anyone to make people think you were a liar.
The other new collection from New Directions is The Walking Away World, which is a volume comprised of Patchen’s books of picture-poems, all of which were written in the last 13 years of his life. During these final years, he was confined to bed by a botched surgery to repair an earlier spinal injury. It is difficult to describe these picture-poems, and cartoonist Jim Woodring is right to note in his introduction that these works “have no known antecedents in Western art” (ix). However, they remind me of some works that would come later, particularly those of the renowned folk artist Howard Finster, and especially pieces like “Had General Grant been a Xmas Tree.” Patchen, however, is generally more poetic and less polemic than Finster in the textual parts of these works. These unique pieces of visual/textual art, although difficult to describe in words, demand our attention as important pieces from the history of American counter-culture. New Directions is to be praised for recalling our attention to them.
We Meet: Poems.
Paperback: New Directions, 2008.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com