Kenneth Patchen is interested in, among other things, the way the branches move on the trees to create visions and to scratch the surface of the stars in the night sky. He’s also interested in the cruelty that men – mostly rich men with political power – do to their fellow human beings. But his poems seem to come straight from the senses, unmediated by any ideology.
The poems in Selected Poems were originally published between 1936 and 1957. So they precede and slightly overlap the period in 20th century North American literature that I find most interesting: the time of the Beat Generation. And in Patchen’s pages it’s easy to detect some of the influence he had on the writers who came after him.
Many of these poems have a rhythm that to me sounds like Charles Bukowski. I can hear that voice very strongly here, strange because of the sense of Patchen’s lines, a sense of hope, something largely absent in Bukowski. Take Patchen’s What is the Beautiful? for example: beginning with harrowing images (“Needles through the eye. / Bodies cracked open like nuts.”) and ending with a statement of faith in the goodness of humanity (“I believe that every good thought I have, / All men shall have.”)
Patchen is more akin in spirit to Allen Ginsberg than to Bukowski, writing of the mysteries of nature and the happiness for humankind that can come from universal love. A major influence on Ginsberg was William Blake, who also was happy to philosophise in his poems and prophesy a new hope for humanity, and Blake seems to come through on the pages of Patchen too.
Patchen’s poetry is powerful, with something to say. I started reading Patchen because I read Henry Miller’s essay about him (“Patchen: A Man of Anger and Light”), where Miller portrays Patchen as a man who is restless and angry and dissatisfied, and must create fire in the world to protect his own sensitive skin. Reading Patchen finally, I’ve got a feeling for myself of that fire, and also a sense of the hope and beauty that the poet saw in the world.