February 15, 2006
"The Ground Will Get Disgusted Enough to Just Walk Away"

when we were here together in a place we did not know, nor one

We are five years in to the 21st century and the world doesn't seem any better organized than it ever was. Is the time right to revisit poet, painter, and pacifist Kenneth Patchen? I think maybe it is.

I haven't read enough to make a really good critical study, but here are a few places to start:

This literary essay calls him the "other Kenneth."
An appreciation of his book, "Sleepers Awake"
Actual poems can be found here.
In 1996 (well after his death) apparently there was a calendar of his paintings.

Patchen is interesting not just for what he has to say, but for what others had to say about him. For instance, the words Kenneth Rexroth (the "cranky beat"?) wrote in 1959 about Patchen and his life and times could still apply today:

As the years go on, fewer and fewer protests are heard. The spokesmen, the intellects of the world, have blackmailed themselves and are silent. The common man dreams of security. Every day life grows more insecure, and, outside America, more nasty, brutish, and short. The lights that went out over Europe were never relit. Now the darkness is absolute. In the blackness, well-fed, cultured, carefully shaven gentlemen sit before microphones at mahogany tables and push the planet inch by inch towards extinction. We have come to the generation of revolutionary hopelessness.

Men throw themselves under the wheels of the monsters, Russia and America, out of despair, for identical reasons.

With almost no exceptions, the silentiaries of American literature pretend that such a state of affairs does not exist. In fact, most of them do not need to pretend. They have ceased to be able to tell good from evil. One of the few exceptions is Kenneth Patchen. His voice is the voice of a conscience which is forgotten. He speaks from the moral viewpoint of the new century, the century of assured hope, before the dawn of the world-in-concentration-camp. But he speaks of the world as it is. Imagine if suddenly the men of 1900 . H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Romain Rolland, Martin Nexo, Maxim Gorky, Jack London . had been caught up, unprepared and uncompromised, fifty years into the terrible future. Patchen speaks as they would have spoken, in terms of unqualified horror and rejection.

Norbert Blei had a similar reaction in the 1980s:
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.

Resonance? Yes, I think so.

Posted at February 15, 2006 06:41 PM