Poetry: Before- And After-Image
Kenneth Patchen, We Meet and The Walking-Away World [New Directions, 2008)
Kenneth Patchen’s reputation as a proto-beatnik poet, visual artist, activist, jazz performer and all around bohemian emanates an aura of saintliness. Some of the more even-keeled poems from his series “Poemscapes” in the new collection We Meet reveal his understanding of a world rife with positive and negative energies at work: “Much depends on whether you want to grow / nettles or clover: on whether you’ve come to applaud or just to swipe clothes off the line…” A constant theme throughout the poems in We Meet and The Walking-Away World is the narrator’s ongoing encounter with an ever-changing world that he feels needs to be cherished all the more with each new experience and that this necessitates a kind of return to childhood innocence, with a dose of naive abandon. These books bring together an assortment of Patchen’s later books of poetry and artwork, including the picture-poems of Wonderings and the prose poem piece, Aflame and AFun of Walking Faces.
Patchen's drawings, presented beside his poems, embody a holy child primitivism, while the poems chosen to represent his work appear to suppress the darker aspects of the imagination in favor of an essentially unmitigated wackiness. Both books favor the aspects of Patchen’s craft that involve yarn-spinning so nonsensical no actual child or child-at-heart could make heads or tails of it.
“The lanterneater’s daughter went to a banquet/ Dressed as the phone number of an elm tree” begins one of the poems from the series of limerick/fable verses “Because It Is.” The poems do challenge the reader to try and conjure any stable idea or image of what could possibly be going on. But at a certain point, they become so stupefying that any conjecture just seems frivolous. The poems build off the syncopated rhythms of everyday speech that Patchen became famous for setting to jazz in his reading of them (great lines like “she fetched out a bottle and got skyeyed” beg for a little percussion accompaniment), but then the poems launch into pure whimsy, imaginary animals and other wild neologisms, etc. And many of them seem arbitrarily cut short to a brief lyric epiphany, so that it feels as if the reader has just walked in on the better half of a poorly orchestrated hoax. Any fan of Patchen’s work, or anyone curious to look into it seriously for the first time, should approach these books with skepticism, as they display only the outlandish, blithe and extravagant realms of the poet’s work.
Talk of a revival raises a few questions: 1. How does the work need to be made available again in all its variety; 2. What about the work warrants the revival? The songwriter Devendra Banhart (who wrote the preface for We Meet) could go on a little more about the odd particularities of what’s here, and how it might possibly have influenced him in his songwriting (seeing as from the outset he sets himself up to be a new generation’s champion of Patchen’s work). “I live happily at the bottom of the totem pole of Patchen devotees,” he says. Is the Banhart devotee who sees this book going to find himself suddenly enchanted with Patchen for the very first time? Or perhaps it could also happen vice-versa.
Ben Tripp is a poet and editor of the literary magazine Gerry Mulligan.