Tuesday, July 03, 2007


The earth takes it softly

On the eve of the National Festival of Glaring Rockets and Bursting Bombs, it's a good time to read Kenneth Patchen.

Kenneth Patchen was born in 1911 and grew up in Ohio, doing factory work in his early years. He became interested in literature early; a poem of his was published in the New York Times in 1932. During his life he wrote more than 40 books of poetry, prose, and other writing. For some thirty years a spinal ailment kept him in almost constant pain, and he was bedridden for the last thirteen years of his life. In his later years he did many paintings with poems painted into them, boldly colorful images stunning in their innocence.

Innocence is a quality that infuses much of his poetry, and an often raucous humor, along with a quiet sadness and, sometimes, a public voice, politically radical and angry, almost a prophetic quality similar somewhat to William Blake.
Therefore the constant powers do not lessen;
Nor is the property of the spirit scattered
On the cold hills of these events.
Through what is heavy into what is only light,
Man accumulates his original mastery
--Which is to be one with that gentle substance
Out of which the flowers take breath.

That which is given in birth
Is taken to purer beginnings.
The combats of this world
Rise only upward [...]
The sources of nature are not concerned
In peoples, or in battlefields; nor are they mindful
Of the intensity with which man extinguishes his kind.
He who can give light to the hidden
May alone speak of victories.
(From the poem "The Climate of War" in Patchen's Selected Poems, published ca. 1957 by New Directions, from which all quoted passages here are taken.)

During the 1930's Patchen's work was somewhat associated with the Proletarian literature movement; much of his work of those years bears a tough quality, ground-in and industrial. From an untitled poem with the first line "THE FIGURE MOTIONED WITH ITS MANGLED HAND [...]":
Join the world and see the army
The slime is quiet tonight, along the Jersey coast
The chippies discuss Democracy in awed tones
Breathes there a heel with man so dead...
Shoot the liquid fire to Johnnie, boy
With every rendezvous-with-death we are giving away
An autographed photo of J.P. Morgan taken in the frontline trenches

They took him down stone steps
To a cellar thick with rats.
The guard gave him a cigarette
And slapped it out of his mouth.
Moral. Don't ever knock off a cop.
Ethel, looking like a movie queen,
Descended on his cell in a mink coat.
When they fitted the black cap over his head
He knew that he'd never have another chance to be president.
Another poet who comes to mind when I read Kenneth Patchen is Kenneth Fearing; in Fearing I find the same denunciatory rising notes, the sharp accusing aria. Patchen also wrote some sublimely beautiful love poems, glorious in their simplicity; here he reminds me somewhat of Bill Knott, or maybe of a handful of the poems of e.e. cummings (although in Patchen's poems I feel a more iron weight anchoring the poems that I don't find in cummings much; cummings in his poems tended to idealize, where in Patchen's poems I feel an actual human being responding with another human being).
Exaggerate the green blood in grass;
The music of leaves scraping space;

Multiply the stillness by one sound;
By one syllable of your name...

And all that is little is soon giant,
All that is rare grows in common beauty

To rest with my mouth on your mouth
As somewhere a star falls

And the earth takes it softly, in natural love...
Exactly as we take each other... and go to sleep.
(From the poem "Fall of the Evening Star.)

What would Bush or Cheney or Condoleeza Rice make of poetry like this? Where is the place in them that can be touched the way Patchen knew how to touch? Where is the voice in them that could say, or dream, these things?

There is a webpage devoted to Kenneth Patchen in the Academy of American Poets website, here. I also found a Kenneth Patchen Home Page online, here; it gives many links to online materal by and about Patchen, and some bibliography to other sources; I haven't checked the links in detail. And I found a webpage with samples of Patchen's beautiful painted and silkscreened poems, here.

Kenneth Patchen looked out into the world with sorrow and wonder, with fury and tenderness, and he spoke. He left us his poems. They are lanterns that light our days, and stars that fill our nights.
O the lions of fire shall awake
And the valleys steam with their fury

Because you are sick with the dirt of your money
Because you are pigs rooting in the swill of your war
Because you are mean and sly and full of the pus of your pious murder [...]

O the lions of fire
Wait in the crawling shadows of your world
And their terrible eyes are watching you
(From the poem "The Lions of Fire Shall Have Their Hunting.")

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