“Carol wants me to write a novel: ‘You’ve met so many interesting people,’ she tells me.
Very good, there was a young man and he could never get his hands on enough women. That’s a novel.
There was an idiot and he became God. That’s the same novel. I can’t possibly think of any others.
It is rather pleasant to be the author of two such excellent novels. The critics are divided in their opinions. One lot believes that they should be shorter; another not, that they should be a mite longer. I rather prefer short critics to long ones. I like critics with tan shoes — look nicer, I think. . .”
-From The Journal Of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen,
If you look for background on American poet, artist, author and activist Kenneth Patchen and his Albion Moonlight novel you find a lot of people who say…
“This novel is quite possibly the book that made the biggest impression on me, ever. Lord knows I’ve given it away to anyone who would listen. And sometimes those who wouldn’t listen, they still got a copy.”
Henry Miller writes about it, and Patchen’s poetry in The books in my life, the 100 books that influenced him.
Because I liked it too when I was in my early 20’s, I want you to like it, but I’ll have to admit that it is no longer a passionate or relevant read for everyone today. The reason why? I’m now in my 70’s and the Vietnam war and my conscription is behind me. We’ve have other wars to worry about of course and America as portrayed in that book has become as surreal as Patchen feared. Patchen’s poems have stood up to time better and you could start there. I’ve been working on a film, I started back then and never finished, it uses the selected bits I still love about it now, so maybe you’ll find that interesting.
Poetry Foundation website says “The bulk of Patchen’s followers were and still are young people. Kenneth Rexroth once pointed out that “during the Second World War and the dark days of reaction afterwards [Patchen] was the most popular poet on college campuses.” One reason for the attraction of generations of college-age readers to Patchen may be the quality of timelessness of his beliefs and ideas. An article in the New York Times explained that Patchen’s antiwar poetry—written in response to atrocities of World War II—was embraced by students protesting the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.
A writer for the New York Times Book Review once wrote that “there is the voice of anger—outspoken rage against the forces of hypocrisy and injustice in our world. Patchen sees man as a creature of crime and violence, a fallen angel who is haunted by all the horrors of the natural world, and who still continues to kill his own kind:
‘Humanity is a good thing. Perhaps we can arrange the murder of a sizable number of people to save it.'”
You get the idea.
There’s an easy way to get through Patchen’s life story without feeling depressed (because you shouldn’t).
Here’s a comic written by Harvey Pekar and Nick Thorkelson, and illustrated by Thorkelson, about the poet Kenneth Patchen. The comic appears (in black and white — Thorkelson colorised it for this web version) in an anthology of Comics about the Beats, published in 2009 by Hill and Wang and edited by Paul Buhle. This appeared on his website which is no-longer hosted so enjoy it without guilt. Thank you Nick.
Patchen’s final years of artwork/poems is explained a little in that comic strip. In pain, bedridden, he could only work on things he’d finish quickly and the rough, garish at times illustrated poems are not my favourite Patchen art. Black and white illustrations appeared in a number of his poetry anthologies and small books, and these are more to my design sensibilities and playfulness. Comparing Patchen to William Blake is mostly based on these handmade books but other than both of their alienation and acceptance, their poetry is very different. Patchen’s surrealism isn’t Blake’s ‘vision’. But you still feel the rage.
Here’s an item about the books (I never seen a physical copy). There is my curated Pinterest page where you will see what the web has of the depth of his work.
The Art of Poetry
On Sept. 22, 2011, the University of Rochester opened the largest ever exhibition of the graphic art of Kenneth Patchen, the controversial 20th century poet-painter who pioneered the anti-novel, concrete poetry, poetry-jazz, and picture-poems.
Held during the centennial of Patchen’s birth, the exhibit presents a striking collection of more than 200 painted books, silk-screen broadsides, picture poems and paintings. The show pays tribute to a prolific artist whose work gained widespread attention and whose readings of poetry accompanied with jazz were a phenomenon in the 1950s. Patchen’s writings, published from the 1930s through 1972, have been labeled as Romantic, Proletarian, Socialist, Surrealist, Dadaist, and Beat, but ultimately defy easy categorization.
Infuriating to critics and largely ignored by academics, Patchen nevertheless has been lauded as ‘the best poet American literary expressionism can show’ by Poet Laureate James Dickey and as ‘all that a poet should represent’ by novelist and painter Henry Miller. His boosters, including James Laughlin, Kenneth Rexroth, and E.E. Cummings, “would constitute a Who’s Who in 20th century American letters”, writes exhibit curator Richard Peek, director of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester.
Patchen’s was an unconventional life, one committed to art, social justice, pacifism, and to his wife and muse Miriam, to whom he dedicated all of his books and love poems. But it was also marred by a back injury at age 26, complications of which eventually left him bed-ridden and poverty-stricken during the last dozen years of his life.
Text and Photo Credit: Kenneth Patchen, courtesy of the University of Rochester.