Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Patchen
Bottom Dog Press, 2012
Edited by Allen Frost
336 pgs, 26 illustrations
Two things are true about Kenneth Patchen’s life from his mid-twenties on: he was always working, and he was always in pain. The letters in the Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Patchen deal almost exclusively with these two facts. Despite his immense pain, made worse by botched surgeries and allergic reactions to medicine, Patchen was able to publish 30-some books in his lifetime, a couple records of what he dubbed “Poetry-Jazz,” a radio play, picture-poems, and thousands of letters that often read like his poems and dwell on similar themes – diligent pacifism, animosity towards those in power, and ardent appreciation for life and art.
Patchen maintained many loving friendships in his life. He wrote frequently to Henry Miller and e e cummings to talk books and to share stories. He delicately signs a letter to Miller, “My hand, Kenneth Patchen.” That these correspondences gave Patchen great joy is very clear: he often uses the letter as a place to cry out, in paragraph-long sentences, his love for a new book of poems, or his frustration with grant-giving committees which constantly reject his applications, or his disdain for the growing Beat movement in the sixties, and his impatience with publishing houses.
Patchen had deep care for his books. His unapologetically meticulous vision is revealed in countless letters to and from James Laughlin, who founded New Directions and was an early champion of Patchen’s. In his letters, Laughlin seems to be endlessly fascinated and frustrated with Patchen. Laughlin is dry, a bit reserved, highly logical, and can’t always keep up with Patchen’s demands and abstract thinking. One letter from Laughlin aims to clarify the amount of space Patchen wanted between the last letter of a sentence and the first period of an ellipsis that follows – this, after 4 sets of revisions already made.
Excerpt from "Sleepers Awake."
The editors’ neglect to adopt the same care Patchen had for the layout of his books is glaringly evident. Images of Patchen’s handwritten letters are poorly scanned and are very difficult to read. Wild punctuation marks find themselves in places where they don’t belong. There’s a typo in the introduction. Patchen’s own misspellings in his letters are kept intact; this is announced at the end of the introduction and needlessly repeated at the end of each letter that contains misspellings.
Patchen’s painstaking concern rubs off on you. “Unless the things were done beautifully there’s no use in doing them at all,” he writes.
But the editors have selected and sequenced the letters in a way that keep pace with Patchen’s tireless life. Though there may be a gap of almost a year between one letter and the next, and though Patchen refers to letters not in the selection, it’s easy to maintain an understanding of the details of his life at the time. The editors’ summary of each chapter (each one devoted to up to 5 year’s worth of correspondence), their short but detailed chronology, and the information they compiled on the correspondents are all helpful references.
And despite the bad scans, it’s always a delight to see Kenneth’s smiling hand. Correspondence reveals that Kenneth’s ebullient script was not solely reserved for his picture-poems.
Patchen lived what he wrote. In his severe anti-war novel The Journal of Albion Moonlight, he declares, “There is no hope left in this world. But how drunk I am with life.” With his constant pain, his fury toward the world at war, and his unceasing creativity, consider that his personal slogan. In one letter he denounces the H-bomb, saying it’s “like throwing the planet into the path of the sun.” Peace is often the message in his poems. In 1947, after he makes several pleas to his local library to have his books removed from the restricted shelf, he writes, “I feel that there is nothing more to be done after a civilized reproach has failed to change their collective attitude.”
To read that Patchen’s work was censored and restricted is startling. His strong anti-war sentiment was seen as inflammatory and brash. But today his work remains as ever a call to action; his fury with the word – in his poems and his letters – causes a great stir.
Alex Comfort’s words from a 1952 letter still ring clear today: “The world today can’t afford not to have him… he’s too badly needed.”
To conclude I offer you, from Selected Correspondences, the following
“Xrayishly.” “Postmanly.” (“Like a mail carrier,” not “once manly.”) “Snobocracy.” “Toadystool.” “Waggy.” “Shotgunny.”
He calls Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning: A Book of Poetry “a wet fizzle.”
He describes his Palo Alto, CA, cul-de-sac as “children-peaceful.”
Describing his poverty: “We are church-mouse poor.”
To Kenneth Rexroth, on trouble with James Laughlin regretting calling Patchen “the most compelling force in American poetry since Whitman”: “The more resistance you have to overcome, the more you have to resort to blurb baloney and such stuff to keep the publisher’s head above water… When things are a mess, unmessing them often becomes a bigger mess.”
Writing to e e cummings about a strange creature that follows Miriam, his wife (whom he dedicated all his books to), he says he will not name it “Touhanenyalkapappamotoa.” Neither will he name it “Western Stranger,” “Little Golden Beard,” or “1000 Feet of Tapeworm.”
In a handwritten letter to a classmate, 19-year-old Patchen prides himself on being a radical who refuses to cross his t’s.
Ryan Mihaly reviews books and music. He also writes palindromes: “Red, nice, cinder.” He teaches music in Northampton and Amherst. He is a multi-instrumentalist and composer. Contact him at email@example.com.
Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Patchen was published by Bottom Dog Press.