Imagine | Painting by Kenneth Patchen
Poetry Dispatch No. 337 | December 14, 2010
(From the Blei archives)
This piece grew out of some notes I had written in a setting further north in Wisconsin from where I live. I had found a cabin on a lake, with a comfortable chair, a large kitchen table to lay my stuff down—notebooks, paper, pens, brushes, watercolors, books…and a fireplace for the evening. It was the middle of the week. There was no one around. It was late fall.
There was an inner need to seek a more desolate location, dealing as I was with all the emotional baggage of a divorce after a long and mostly successful marriage. Certain landscapes draw you (me at least) to a more meditational state, deeper, deeper into the silence of self. Both the North and the Southwest always spoke to me.
The notes began to accumulate…mornings, afternoons, late nights…possible stories? poems? essays? ideas to be reconsidered…dead ends…till one morning I found myself titling this assemblage: “North of Kaka.” I think I smiled. I had no idea where that came from. I had not brought any Kafka along to read. But I pictured him in a northern Wisconsin landscape. And the word inside me, which I did not express, was “yes.”
The writing flowed even faster after that.
This piece, below, has seemingly little to do with Kafka, but instead is all about Kenneth Patchen. Another literary hero of mine. I had brought my tubes of watercolors along, paper, brushes, inks…and when I tired of writing, I always found renewal in painting—in my own fashion. Which is all that matters. Some of the notes I had written in the northern cabin reflected my continuing interest in words and images—thanks to Patchen, thanks to Henry Miller.
And so, in time, “Picturing Patchen’s Poems” became an essay of sorts. One I never submitted anywhere to be published in real print. But one I ‘flirted” with online, seriously at one pint, as I wanted to develop a ‘column’ or something (what they now call a “blog” )…a rather personal, in depth search of all that goes into…or what makes a writer’s life whole.
I completed (for inline publication) maybe three pieces for “North of Kaka”…but then, as way leads onto way”… found myself alive in other ways, other works, other places. Though I still maintain, replenish “North of Kafka” whenever the spirit calls me in that direction.
At the moment, in fact, I am seriously considering, involved, in resurrecting Kafka (UpNorth) sharing whatever comes to pass ‘selectively’, on line, occasionally with a small number of readers. Because…because I’m doing this more for me…to keep in touch with the better (darker?) angel. Then, too, there’s a whole new series of paintings I want to do, of which my friend Franz will certainly have something to be said, seen in this light. —Norbert Blei
P.S. Regarding the “Patchen Dispatches” mentioned below, as I recall (and I don’t very much, especially these days), I did only four, possibly six of these paintings. All but #1, which I kept, are gone. Except in two cases, I don’t know where the rest are, who bought them, what happened to them. I am a poor record keeper when it comes to the hundreds of watercolors I’ve done. But I’m okay with that. Another sure sign of an amateur. (amateur—one who does something for the love of it.)
Picturing Patchen’s Poems
There are two kinds of writers: those who speak, and those who talk about something. It may be an exaggeration to say that there are five writers in the world at this hour. –Kenneth Patchen, from THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT
I first heard of Kenneth Patchen in the late l950’s. Ira Adler, who managed the book department at Marshall Field’s, put a thin, bright yellow covered hardback in my hands, RED WINE AND YELLOW HAIR. “Do you know Patchen?” he asked.
I was blessed by two Chicago book men in my writing youth: Ira Adler, and Paul Romaine. Their mentoring had an enormous influence upon the kind of writer I would become. Romaine, in particular, for whom the written word was all politics and passion, would pull all the right books from the shelves of his small shop on LaSalle Street, and discuss each with authority, love, and a keen sense of literary history. He also put me onto Patchen early on (THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT) and then introduced me to Patchen’s drawings and picture poems (in black and white reproductions), soon after I discovered the Mexican muralists, the drawings of Kaethe Kollwitz, and the watercolors of Henry Miller. All thanks to Romaine. It was all an intriguing jumble of images, color, lines, and words.
I would have bought RED WINE AND YELLOW HAIR (a $2 hardback, published by New Directions in 1949) for the title alone. I remember opening and reading my first Patchen poem, which I’ve never forgotten:
AN OLD PAIR OF SHOES
Instead of throwing them away,
I’d put them in a bag on the shelf:
Where, forgotten as that world
They tramped through, and the self I had then, the quiet dust
Settled, and other feet walked.
Here’s the nail that made a deep
Pit in my heel when I looked
The whole damn town over for a job
Those lousy winters of the ‘recession’;
And here’s the scar a policeman’s horse
Left one of the hungrys in that ‘mob’.
Well, my cheap-shoe time is gone-
(For the moment anyway)-the rent
Is paid (clear to the first of the month),
And I smoke tailor-mades on the lawn.
Many of the books I wanted then
–And records, prints, and magazines-
I have. The work of ‘our finest men’…
And every day I’m more amazed
At how quickly I would choose
Between the lot-and this pair of angry shoes.
O WHEN I TOOK MY LOVE OUT WALKING
O when I take my love out walking
In the soft frosted stillness of this summer moon
Then are the mysteries all around us
O what can I say!
the ever-known, the ever-new
like her they seem
O lully, lullay
Only this little moment is real
Here at the edge of the world
and the throne. The rest’s a lie
which shadows scheme.
Now gentle flowers are awash on the sleeping hill
And as I bend to kiss her opened lips
O then do the wonders and the sparklings seem
A shabby tinsel show for my dear queen.
Patchen’s ‘queen’, the one, true love of his life was Miriam Oikemus, whom he married in 1934, and to whom he dedicated his life’s work:, “For Miriam”, which reads like a mantra on the dedication page of every one of his books.
Though I would return to the bookmen, Adler and Romaine, for further guidance and more books, I was in Patchen’s hands from that point on–and for years to come. He had my ear, my rebellious heart, though not yet my eye.
Patchen’s, THE FAMOUS BOATING PARTY And Other Prose Poems came next. Which read like a mixture of Joyce, Rimbaud, the French Symbolists and Whitman-though ever distinctive was Patchen’s own American voice. It was the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and everywhere Patchen looked he saw too much of America weeping, powerless under the gun of war mongers and under the heel of Big Business. It was a time when Patchen begged on the streets of New York. It was Capitalism’s less than finest hour. And Patchen raged.
Kenneth Rexroth, in an essay, “Kenneth Patchen, Naturalist of the Public Nightmare,” considered him an American conscience comparable to Zola. “His voice is the voice of a conscience which is forgotten. He speaks from the moral viewpoint of the new century [the 20th Century] the century of assured hope, before the dawn of the world-in-concentration-camp.”
One of the major reasons for Patchen’s brief success in his time and sad neglect today, Rexroth saw happening (and coming) fifty years ago: “There is no place for a poet in American society… The majority of American poets have acquiesced in the judgment of the predatory society… They are employees of the fog factories-the universities. They help make the fog. Behind their screen the universities fulfill their social purposes. They turn out bureaucrats, perpetuate the juridical lie, embroider the costumes of the delusion of participation, and of late, in departments never penetrated by the humanities staff, turn out atom. hydrogen, and cobalt bombers-genocidists is the word. Patchen filled these academicians with panic.”
His real masterpiece (sorely neglected American masterpiece, ‘experimental’ to this day) was/is THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT, written on the eve of World War II, published in l941. Patchen at his political and fiery best-the soul of the artist bared and burning for a mankind that seemed to crave blood and refused to acknowledge the soul of man or beauty, peace, and wonder in the world.
“I attempt to write the spiritual account of this summer,” he explains, “a summer when all the codes and ethics which men lived by for centuries was subjected to the acid tests of general war and universal disillusionment I had to recreate that chaos…”
In the course of recreating that chaos Patchen reflects upon the art of journal writing: “The journal, whether real or imaginary, must conform to only one law: it must be at any given moment what the journal-keeper wants it to be at any given moment… The true journal can have no plan for the simple reason that no man can plan his days.”
He sees that chaotic summer as his story of the great plague. “My journal is its record. I have traced it origins, defined its boundaries, shown its course. It was too late to write a book; it was my duty to write all books. I could not write about a few people; it was my duty to write about everyone.”
Other books would follow, from the l940’s into the l980’s (Patchen died in l972) but never anything quite like THE JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT. An American Classic.
In ALBION MOONLIGHT, which might be described as a written collage of ideas and forms, Patchen as ‘literal artist,’ one can sense his breaking out of and on to the page (as he does typographically), in search of a more visual manifestation of the world of Bosch and beyond he held within. Something to stick in the reader’s face: Do you SEE what I mean? You can almost read between his lines. Do I have to draw a picture for you?
Again and again Patchen would turn to/return to fantasy to escape to an innocence of language all his own that conjured kingdoms, creatures, kings… hills and fields of green–a place he visited in reading and writing early in his childhood. And in that fabulist realm where he was King, he might resort to the words and work of the real people as well–in irony, protest, satire, and prayer–as he first began to draw and then paint the feelings he held inside (POEMS OF HUMOR & PROTEST, HURRAH FOR ANYTHING, HALLELUJAH ANYWAY, WONDERINGS, etc.) which occupied his attention after his move to California in the l950’s, and after a series of spinal operations which would eventually leave him bedridden.
These picture poems of Patchen first surrealistically seduce the wary on-looker in color and form, then tumble upon the page kaleidoscopically in image, humor, protest, and finally the poet’s own, hand-written words: PEACE NOW FOR ALL MEN OR AMEN TO ALL THINGS, proclaims one of his pure pictured creatures. ALL AT ONCE IS WHAT ETERNITY IS says another, in a Zen-like way. THE ARGUMENT OF INNOCENCE CAN ONLY BE LOST IF IT WON, reads another. And: WHAT SHALL WE DO WITHOUT US? as prophetic a Patchen poem/message to be found anywhere in his work.
These poems, in full color (as they should be seen, in all their wonderment), can only be found in two out-of-print books, worth looking into at libraries or searching for on the net: THE ARGUMENT OF INNOCENCE, Scrimshaw Press, l976; and WHAT SHALL WE DO WITHOUT US, The Voice and Vision of Kenneth Patchen, Sierra Club Books, 1984.
It was the pictures poems which began to pull me closer and closer to Patchen, about the time I lost my connection to Chicago’s bookstores and bookmen and left the city for the rural north of Wisconsin around l968. Patchen was still alive then. So was Henry Miller. And I, at that time, was fascinated with writers who put their words on paintings. And so ‘wrote’, ‘painted’ my way through publishing THE WATERCOLORED WORD, Quixote Press, l968. (Followed, many years and many paintings later by PAINT ME A PICTURE MAKE ME A POEM, Spoon River Poetry Press, l987, and THE WATERCOLORED WAY, Ox Head Press, l990).
I wrote Miller about writing and painting watercolors from both Chicago and my new location, the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin. And he responded-which I never expected. I wrote Patchen about his picture poems–at the time he was bedridden (unbeknownst to me then)-and his wife, Miriam, responded for him–which I never expected. Nor would I ever forget their gesture, Two American writers of their stature taking the time to respond to a young nobody trying to write, trying to expand his own new/natural world through pictures and words.
Upon each of their deaths, the lights went out. I felt isolated enough in my new environment without my city, libraries, bookstores, close friends. To realize nothing–no words, no pictures–would be coming from either Patchen or Miller any more, was a loss of color and words difficult to explain. So I said nothing. Wrote nothing.
Patchen immediately retreated to the shadows-though I remembered to end my first novel (ADVENTURES IN AN AMERICAN’S LITERATURE) with some final words from one of his picture poems (“NOW WHEN I GET BACK HERE…”), which I read like a perfect epitaph to himself. Miller never retreated too far or too long. In fact, re-entered my life first, through a flurry of Miller-like watercolors I could neither control nor explain, and ended up printing, selling, trading, and giving away. It was Miller’s essay, “To Paint Is To Love Again,” which took hold of me, which I read and re-read, and led me to a lifelong love affair with painting.
It was all a matter of the right time.
The politically incensed Patchen, the poet who put his heart in painted words, came back to me in the 1980’s like an angry prophet. Reagan was steering the Ship of State. The economy was trickling down. Sabers were rattling. Happy Days were here again. And American policy was all about profit and power–once again. I picked up a Patchen book one night–and I could see him turning over in his grave, hear him shouting to an unconscionable world in picture-poster-poem-protest: THE BEST HOPE IS THAT ONE OF THESE DAYS THE GROUND WILL GET DISGUSTED ENOUGH TO JUST WALK AWAY, LEAVING PEOPLE WITH NOTHING MORE TO STAND ON THAT WHAT THEY HAVE BLOODY WELL STOOD FOR UP TO NOW.
The loss of a Kenneth Patchen was more serious than I imagined, a struggling writer myself, exiled up in the boonies, still looking for a way to write and exist with some sense of free spirit and purpose. How to understand, let alone explain the loss of a significant writer of conscience in my own time, whom I loved, read, absorbed, identified with to the point I felt a secret dialogue existed between us? In those fragile times of trying to find one’s own words, we sometimes seek to emulate those we love and admire. To learn from them, read their minds and hearts: Hemingway’s prose, Faulkner’s style, Steinbeck’s humanity…etc. With both Miller and Patchen I brought the relationship to yet another level-learning how to paint like them. No formal training for either man, there would be none for me. No time for that. Just paint. That’s what Miller said. You want to paint? Paint! You take what you need and must and find you own way.
I had gone as far as I could with Miller; but Patchen captivated me another way entirely. I wanted to return to, live inside his paintings… recreate his creatures, bring back his words, his passionate concerns for the future of man. To know anyone’s life, you must go deep inside. Crawl into their skin, their whole being. Inhabit their heart. To know any painter or writer: copy a story of theirs, word for word. Recreate a painting of theirs, color for color, line for line, image for image. Then do it again. And again. Who knows what you will learn. Try Picasso. Try getting into Kafka’s head sometime.
So here in the North, one cold November morning, I rekindled the fire I first felt for Patchen back in my Chicago days when Paul Romaine opened a book of Patchen paintings before me, “Look at these. Aren’t they great?” and began reading them aloud, smiling, laughing, puffing away on his pipe. “I just love these,” he said.
Standing at my painting table, I looked at the paintings again that winter morning in the late 1980’s, but this time with a mission and an eye that translated every line, every color, every shape, every word. I fixed a fresh sheet of paper to my table. Dipped a brush into water and paint, grabbed pencils, filled pens with India ink, and embarked upon an idea that working in me me: to bring Patchen back alive. For my own sake. To write him, paint him. Resurrect him, if you will. Create a series of homage paintings that I called “Patchen Dispatches,” updating the universal news of mankind for him. For myself. For whoever’s interested. Using my own words.
This would be an on-going mission, whenever the mood was upon me. Whenever the world looked a little too dark To bring Patchen back in the picture. To paint is to love again. To keep him alive, in me, out there, forever.
NOW WHEN I GET BACK HERE
I EXPECT TO FIND
ALL OF YOU
MARCHING THROUGH THE STREETS
WITH GREAT BUNCHES OF WILD FLOWERS
IN YOUR ARMS
- —KENNETH PATCHEN Rebel Poet in America, by Larry Smith, $12.95, pb, $25.95 hb, (Bottom Dog Press, c/o Firelands College, Huron, OH 44839 This is the first biography on Patchen, filled with fascinating facts. Highly readable. Highly recommended.
- —KENNETH PATCHEN: AN ART OF ENGAGEMENT video. A Koba & Smith production, $29.95. Dr. Larry Smith co Firelands College, Huron, OH 44839 . A wonderful look into the man, his life and art, narrated by Joel Lipman. Highly recommended for poets, writers and teachers. An excellent introduction to the poet and his times for classrooms and writing workshops.
- —KENNETH PATCHEN HOME PAGE. An excellent website devoted to Patchen’s life, work, and history. Important information links.