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Picture of artwork by poet Kenneth Patchen; twentieth century American Literature and poetry

December 13, 1911
Kenneth Patchen   (1911 - 1972)
Rocking the Boat in Love and Anger
by Steve King

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On this day in 1911 Kenneth Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio. Patchen's varied work and talents -- poet, novelist, painter, graphic designer -- are most often labeled "early Beat," in spite of an outlook which riled at labels, and at the "penny-a-line vulgarity" of Beat writing. Some prize his love poetry highest, poems written to his wife Miriam, who nursed Patchen through a decades-long spinal injury -- one that kept him more or less constantly in pain and in bed for his last twelve years, and for which a surgery fund was set up by T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, e e cummings, and others. Others prize his experiments in picture-poetry or in poetry-jazz, or the boat-rocking edge he brought to his protest poems, as here in "The Hangman's Great Hands," from 1937:
    And all that is this day...
    The boy with cap slung over what had been a face...

    Somehow the cop will sleep tonight, will make love to
    his wife...
    Anger won't help. I was born angry. Angry that my
    father was being burnt alive in the mills; Angry that
    none of us knew anything but filth, and poverty. Angry
    because I was that very one somebody was supposed
    To be fighting for
    Turn him over; take a good look at his face...
    Somebody is going to see that face for a long time.
    I wash his hands that in the brightness they will shine.

    We have a parent called the earth.
    To be these buds and trees; this tameless bird Within
    the ground; this season's act upon the fields of Man.
    To be equal to the littlest thing alive,
    While all the swarming stars move silent through The
    merest flower
    ... but the fog of guns.

    The face with all the draining future left blank...
    Those smug saints, whether of church or Stalin, Can
    get off the back of my people, and stay off. Somebody
    is supposed to be fighting for somebody... And Lenin
    is terribly silent, terribly silent and dead.
There are several recordings available of Patchen reading to jazz; though none exist of this session remembered by Charlie Mingus in his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog:
    We improvised behind him while he read his poems, which I read ahead of time. "It's dark out, Jack" -- this was one of his poems. "It's dark out, Jack, the stations out there don't identify themselves, we're in it raw-blind like burned rats, it's running out all around us, the footprints of the beast, one nobody has any notion of. The white and vacant eyes of something above there, something that doesn't know we exist. I smell heartbreak up there, Jack, a heartbreak at the center of things, and in which we don't figure at all.'

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February 21, 2018
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