by Art Chantry:
seemingly forgotten and long overlooked is kenneth patchen. this guy is one of those american originals, a guy who hacked out his own path through the wilderness and just kept hacking away his entire life. people either loved him (bohemians) or hated him (academic snobs). he pioneered so many things in the poetry world, the politial underground, the hipster circles, music and art worlds, etc. etc. that it’s almost too much to list here. but, for the most part, his legacy (he died in 1972) is mostly ignored by all of us.
he was beat before beat was beat. the ginsberg crowd thought of him as a poetic mentor and respected elder statesman. but patchen soon disowned them for their excessive drug use. his extremely active life-long pacifist politics (he even protested WW2!) isolated him from the mainstream during most of the post war/cold war era and even limits his official approval even today. his oral/reading presenatation so revolutionized how poetry is presented live that he became a favorite of the cool jazz musicians of that era and he recorded with everyone from john cage to charles mingus. patchen was WAAAAY ahead of the game and set the standards for much of what we assume is ‘the way things are done’ today – and we just don’t realize it.
most of all, he pioneered the ‘painting poem’. for much of his life, he created paintings that WERE poems, treated as poetry and regarded even to this day as written poems (you never see his work in “art” museums.) his friendship with james laughlin, owner/publisher of New Directions paperbacks, lead to a long documentation of his work that exposed his ideas directly into amercian collegiate youth and young countercultural weird-ohs across the country. today he is called the father of JAZZ POETRY.
he was friends and buddies with many of the most edgey of his era, ee cummings, henry miller, langston hughes, kenneth rexroth, many painters and musicians and underground folks. his efforts to ‘re-present’ how poetry is experienced lead to book (& cover) design, poster design, and record cover design as well. he was BRILLIANT caligrapher/typographer/lettering artist. the guy was an original and his work spawned untold hundreds (maybe thousands) of imitators to this day (unknowing imitators). a single glance at his stuff makes you think “oh yeah. THAT stuff.” but, all the cloying hallmark era poster work, bad student drivel and exploitive commercial efforts of this “ILK” has their origins in kenneth patchen’s daring and risky efforts. we all tend to think it was william blake who popularly pioneered this sort of style and work (he’s so ‘acceptable”). but in reality it was kenneth patchen.
a college football player, he suffered a serious back injury when he was young (simply working on his friend’s car) that left him in constant pain and nearly disabled for the rest of his life. further fumbled surgeries and more later back injuries only made the condition worse. he was a physically big man, fearless, in constant pain and just kept pushing forward like a runaway train. nothing could stop him. his booming voice and commanding presence only further enhanced his domination of the revolutionary culture scenes around him.
the fact that we now see so many of his phrases he concoted in his picture poems as dainty little cliches. but, that is actually a huge misinterpretation. when he first presented this work, it was revolutionary and socially devastating. his work forced a complacent culture dominated by ‘fitting in’ and ‘acceptance’ to joltingly re-think what was thought of as “truth”. in his own way, he was the man who built the underground army that became the counter culture of the 1960′s. they were raised on this stuff. in turn, the children of t
hippies became the punk generation. the children of the punk generation are just now coming to flower on the net. and the spirit of kenneth patchen is still there. all you little kids out there doing painting poems and jazz poetry and spoken word jamming, etc. etc. etc owe that inspiration to this guy. he travels through generations and still points the way.