Kenneth Patchen,
Naturalist of the Public Nightmare

Kenneth Patchen has recently published two books, Hurrah for Anything and When We Were Here Together. They are two big strides forward in his development as a poet. For my taste, there have always been two fields in which his stuff never quite came off: first, a peculiar topsy-turvy bitter whimsy; second, the sentimental love lyric. The little poems, each illustrated with one of Patchen’s uniquely comic drawings, in Hurrah for Anything are free verse limericks. Patchen has gone back to the world of Edward Lear and interpreted it in terms of the modern sensibility of the disengaged, the modern comic horrors of le monde concentrationnaire. It is as if, not a slick New Yorker correspondent, but the Owl and the Pussycat were writing up Hiroshima. In When We Were Here Together, the giggly coyness that defaced so much of Patchen’s love poetry has vanished. These are grave, serious, immeasurably touching poems. They compare very favorably with the love poems of Paul Éluard or Rafael Alberti. In other words, they are amongst the very few poems of their kind, written by an American, which can compete confidently in the international arena of contemporary “comparative literature.”

Patchen is the only widely published poet of my generation in the United States who has not abandoned the international idiom of twentieth-century verse. He is the only one we have, to take these two books as examples, to compare with Henri Michaux or Paul Éluard. Twenty-five ago no one would have prophesied such a comeuppance for what we then thought, and I still think, was the only significant tendency in American literature. What happened to the Revolution of the Word? Why is Patchen still there? Why did everybody else “sell out” or sink, like Louis Zukofsky, Parker Tyler, Walter Lowenfels, into undeserved obscurity? Why did American poetry, a part of world literature in 1920, become a pale, provincial imitation of British verse in 1957? We are back, two generations behind Australia.

Man thrives where angels die of ecstasy and pigs die of disgust. The contemporary situation is like a long-standing, fatal disease. It is impossible to recall what life was like without it. We seem always to have had cancer of the heart.

The first twenty-five years of the century were the years of revolutionary hope. Immediately after the First War, this hope became almost universal among educated people. There was a time when most men expected that soon, very soon, life was going to change; a new, splendid creature was going to emerge from its ancient chrysalis of ignorance, brutality, and exploitation. Everything was going to be different. Even the commonest, most accepted routines of life would be glorified. Education, art, sex, science, invention, everything from clothing to chess would be liberated. All the soilure and distortion of ages of slavery would fall away. Every detail of life would be harmoniously, functionally related in a whole which would be the realization of those absolutes of the philosophers, the Beloved Community wedded to the Idea of Beauty.

We who were born in the early years of the century accepted that hope implicitly. It was impossible that any feeble hands could halt the whole tendency of the universe. This was not the Idea of Progress, of indefinite human perfectibility, now the whipping boy of reactionary publicists and theologians. The nineteenth century had believed that the world was going to go on becoming more and more middle class until the suburbs of London stretched from Pole to Pole. We believed that man’s constant potential for a decent, simple, graceful life was bound to realize itself within a very few years, that the forces of wealth, barbarism, and superstition were too weak to resist much longer.

On August 29, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed with the connivance of the leading descendants of the New England libertarians. A cheap politician and a judge with the mind of a debauched turnkey were able to carry through this public murder in the face of a world of protest of unbelievable intensity, mass, and duration. When the sirens of all the factories in the iron ring around Paris howled in the early dawn, and the myriad torches of the demonstrators were hurled through the midnight air in Buenos Aires, the generation of revolutionary hope was over. The conscience of mankind went to school to learn methods of compromising itself. The Moscow trials, the Kuo Min Tang street executions, the betrayal of Spain, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the extermination of whole nations, Hiroshima, Algiers — no protest has stopped the monster jaws from closing. 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. He speaks as Émile Zola spoke once — “A moment in the conscience of mankind.” Critics have said of him, “After all, you can’t be Jeremiah all the time.” Indeed? Why not? As far as we know, all Jeremiah ever wrote was The Book of Jeremiah and the world of his day was a Chautauqua picnic in comparison with this.

It is not true, historically, that the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of mankind. On the contrary, poets seem to flourish under despotism. It is difficult to say if the artist and the prophet ever really merge. It is hard to find a common ground for Isaiah and Richard Lovelace. Artist and prophet seem perpetually at war in Blake and D.H. Lawrence. But there comes a point when the minimum integrity necessary to the bare functioning of the artist is destroyed by social evil unless he arise and denounce it. There is a subtle difference between the paintings of Boucher and the cover girls of American magazines. It is almost an abstract difference, like the difference between the North and South Poles — all the difference in the world. If the conscience remains awake, there comes a time when the practice of literature is intolerable dishonesty, the artist is overridden by the human being and is drafted into the role of Jeremiah.

Men in prison become obsessive. The prison itself is an objective obsession. Trotsky was paranoid, he saw assassins behind every bush. They were real assassins, as it turned out. On the other hand, men in madhouses console themselves by pretending they are kings in palaces. Patchen, very likely, is obsessed. Popinjay, on the other hand, refines his sensibilities with the accents of Donne and Hopkins. Writing this, sitting at my typewriter, looking out the window, I find it hard to comprehend why every human being doesn’t run screaming into the streets of all the cities of the world this instant. How can they let it go on? Patchen doesn’t. If no one cried, “Woe, woe to the bloody city of damnation!” and nobody listened to the few who cry out, we would know that the human race had finally gone hopelessly and forever mad.

There is no place for a poet in American society. No place at all for any kind of poet at all. Only two poets in my lifetime have ever made a living from their poetry — Edna Millay and Robert Frost. Neither of them would have done so if they had started their careers in the last two decades. The majority of American poets have acquiesced in the judgment of the predatory society. They do not exist as far as it is concerned. They make their living in a land of make-believe, as servants of a hoax for children. 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 fills these academicians with panic. “Let us walk, not run,” says one of the best intentioned of them, “to the nearest exit. The bobbysoxers can have him.” Let me out of here. Somebody is doing something frightfully embarrassing to all concerned. Precisely.

The bobbysoxers do have him. Against a conspiracy of silence of the whole of literary America, Patchen has become the laureate of the doomed youth of the Third World War. He is the most widely read younger poet in the country. Those who ignore him, try to pass over him, hush up his scandalous writings, are read hardly at all, unwillingly by their English students and querulously by one another. Years ago Patchen marked out his role. “I speak for a generation born in one war and doomed to die in another.” Some of his most ambitious books were published by an obscure printer. Reviews of his work are almost all unfavorable. He is never published in the highbrow quarterlies. In a market where publishers spend millions to promote the masturbation fantasies of feeble-minded mammals, his books have made their way into the hands of youth, the hands that are being drafted to pull the triggers, the youth that is being driven to do the dying — for the feeble-minded mammals and their pimping publishers.

The official spokesmen of the Official Revolution have not chosen to stand in the place Patchen stands. Read Upton Sinclair’s anthology, The Cry for Justice and any anthology of pseudo-proletarian literature of the Thirties. The contrast is shocking. From Patrick Magill to the young Sandburg and Lindsay, Oppenheim and Lola Ridge, the poets of the earlier day had an integrity, a moral earnestness, which overrode their occasional corniness and gave them a substance of things hoped for, an evidence of things not seen, which has vanished from the work of the approved poets of bureaucratic salvation. “Change the world” indeed, but from what to what?

It has been pointed out, time out of mind, that American literature has never been whole. It has always split into two antagonistic tendencies: the exhortative, expressive, responsible, sometimes prophetic utterance — Whitman; and the egocentric, constructive, irresponsible machine — Poe. Today, in the epigoni of Henry James and the Corn College Donnes, the constructive tendency has degenerated to a point where it is no longer only irresponsible, but socially invisible. For better or worse, Patchen belongs to the first tendency. He shares the faults of Whitman, Sandburg at his early best, and e.e. cummings. His contemporary literary antagonists are practically faultless.

In a nation where every second English Department assistant is a provincial litterateur, a past master of the seven types of ambiguity to be found in Barnaby Googe, Patchen is one of the few representatives (Miller is another) of a world movement — Anti-Literature. He is a descendant of Sade, Restif, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Corbière, Jarry, Apollinaire, a contemporary of Artaud. It is significant that in his case this ideology of creation has become quite conscious, even “class conscious” in a special sense.

The Journal of Albion Moonlight can be compared very aptly with Apollinaire’s Poet Assassinated. There is an important difference. The assassins of Croniamantal, the poet, are Boredom and Misery, and the vagueness of the figure of the enemy gives Apollinaire’s work an air of naïve imprecision which borders on frivolity. In Wyndham Lewis’s Childermass, a similar book, the enemy is more carefully defined, but Lewis’s impact is vitiated by the crankiness of his indictment. This is still more obvious if you compare Lewis’s The Apes of God with Patchen’s Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer. The Apes is certainly a great book, one of the monumental satires of our day, and it deals with events and issues of great importance. It also goes out of its way to pay off specific grudges against various denizens of Bloomsbury, Chelsea, and Charlotte Street. It ends with an extremely specific attack on the Sitwells. It is all very entertaining, but it is rather too monumental and you miss much of the fun if you don’t know the people. The Shy Pornographer is not a comédie à clef. True, remarks like, “Have you anything in view?” need a footnote already, but there aren’t too many of them.

On the whole, all three of Patchen’s prose works deal with the “great archetypes,” the same figures who are found in Homer, Gulliver, Rabelais, or Le Morte D’Arthur. But these dramatis personae have undergone a change unlike anything they ever experienced before. The actors, the masks, who have always spoken, in all the classics, the words of humanist culture, in epic, satire, comedy, or tragedy, have been reduced to their simplest elements and then filtered through the screen of the commodity culture. Launcelot becomes the Thin Man, Ulysses is worked over by Mickey Spillane, the Poet is confused with Flash Gordon, love scenes slip in and out of the idiom of Ranch Romances, Tristan and Iseult are played by Elvis Presley and Kim Novak. The idiom of science fiction or the blood-on-the-scanties school of detective stories accurately but naïvely reflects the mass psychosis, however skillfully it may be rigged to augment that psychosis and sell commodities. Patchen turns it upon itself, dissociates its elements, and uses them to create a vast, controlled, social dream, a diagnostic symbol of the collapse of civilization.

Patchen’s active interference, so different from the passive madness of Lautréamont, is continuous in the texture of the narrative. His sentences are saturated with the acid of undeluded judgment, a running clinical commentary on the periods of Henry James, the oratory of the United Nations, the velleities of the literary quarterlies. Beside the narrative — the picture of the universal disorder of values and death of the sensibility — there runs this obbligato, the attack on literature, not out of any superficial épateism, but because the practice of literature today is the practice of acquiescence. This is a fundamental technique of all great comic writers; it is obvious in Erasmus, the Letters of Obscure Men, and Rabelais; but since that day humor has become a grimmer business. Characteristically, editors and critics cannot even comprehend the comic today, in this conspiracy of mutual guilt, mutual espionage, mutual silence. Imagine Gargantua, or Swift’s savage indignation, or Nashe, or Lawrence’s Pansies, or even Absalom and Achitophel in the pages of that refined quarterly which is devoted to perpetuating on a high-toned level the tradition of Red Rock and The Birth of a Nation.

The sort of thing Patchen does was written in France in the very brief period between the naïve revolt of Dada and the dissipation of all revolt in the deserts of Stalinist conformity or the swamps of neo-surrealist salon Freudianism. An example which occurs to me offhand is the early work of Aragon — which he, characteristically, no longer allows mentioned by his bibliographers. Was it he or Soupault who wrote a book of mockery called The New Adventures of Nick Carter? I no longer remember, but I do remember that it lacked Patchen’s seriousness, his understanding of the real causes of the contemporary Black Death, his organized system of values, his solid vantage point of judgment. When Aragon deserted this medium, he said, “The newspapers present us daily with infinitely more horrible nightmares than we can manufacture in our studios.” Patchen is well aware of this. Albion Moonlight and Sleepers Awake, not Les Cloches de Basle, are realistic portrayals of the modern world. Similarly, Patchen must be distinguished from the later, orthodox Surrealists. This stuff was largely a dreamy rehash of the troubles of rich women and their favorites of the literary, artistic, and pathic international. Rare, unhappy schoolboys here and there around the world may have read Breton once with excitement, but it takes modistes, comtesses, and American heiresses to read him with understanding. The nightmares of Patchen’s narratives are the daily visions of millions.

Anti-literature is, of course, largely the real literature of certain epochs. Dynamite is one of the most powerful instruments of construction. One would think that any critic with a high school education would recognize the genre of Don Quixote. It is amazing to read the few reviews of Patchen’s books that have ever been printed in the fashionable quarterlies. These little academic bunnies cannot even guess what he is about. Haven’t they ever read Don Quixote, or Tristram Shandy, or Gulliver? The answer is no. They read one another in the fashionable quarterlies.

The other day one of the subalterns of the Bronx edition of PMLA, otherwise known as the Vaticide Review, said to me, “Patchen is no good, he has no feeling for the weight of words and no sense of literary responsibility.” When I told him I was doing this piece he warned me, “Don’t get tied up with Patchen. He’ll destroy your reputation, just when you are getting recognition in the right circles.” Un hunh. I have been around since the Twenties and have always had the recognition of my — or Patchen’s — “right circles.” I’ll take a chance. To paraphrase old Steffie, I have seen the future and in some cases it wears bobby sox, at least for now.



This 1957 essay was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust. See also Rexroth’s newspaper column about Patchen.

Other Rexroth Essays