The singular work of Kenneth Patchen has influenced poets, artists and political activists for decades. New Directions is proud to launch a Patchen revival beginning with omnibus editions of his unique compositions.
Kenneth Patchen's last words to New Directions founder James Laughlin were "When you find out which came first, the chicken or the egg, you write and tell me." Answering his own question comes Patchen's "picture-poem." The Walking-Away World reissues three of his picture-poem classics: Wonderings, But Even So, and Hallelujah Anyway. Inspired by the "illuminated printing" of William Blake, Patchen worked in a spirited fervency with watercolor, casein, inks, and other media to create absurdly compelling works. His entire process was a simultaneous fusion of painting and poetry: neither the poem nor the painting preceded one another. Each picture-poem is inhabited by strange beings uttering everything from poignant poetic adages to cheeky satire. One confides, "I have a funny feeling / that some very peculiar-looking creatures out there are watching us," which sums up the suspicious joys of The Walking-Away World.
Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) was one of the most prolific American poets of his time. He was born in Niles, Ohio. He attended school at the University of Madison-Wisconsin where he met his wife, Miriam Oikemus. They moved to Greenwich Village and befriended many writers including E.E. Cummings, Anais Nïn, and Henry Miller. An accident occurred after his first publication that would eventually leave him an invalid. He and his wife later moved to San Francisco during the early years of the Beat Movement. Many Beat poets would cite Patchen as a major influence. His "experimental protests" in poetry, painting, and prose remain unprecedented. Aside from his many books of poetry, his acclaimed novels, and his concrete visual works, Kenneth Patchen also collaborated with John Cage for the radio-play The City Wears a Slouch Hat, and worked with Charles Mingus developing jazz poetry. Patchen was an unwavering pacifist and many of his works have a political bent. Patchen was the first recipient of an NEA Literary Grant in 1967.
The Walking Away World gathers three collections of picture-poems he created in the last 13 bed-ridden years of his life, and their fervency emanates off the page. A terribly striking picture-poem contains a background of barely legible words in crooked lines around bug-eyed birds; most prominent is a box of black written over in white cursive, “This room, this battlefield.” Henry Miller rightly remarked in his essay, “Patchen: Man of Anger and Light,” “One is no longer looking at a dead, printed book but at something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment.”
And this book has many eyes -- the creatures surrounding the text of the picture-poems can be multi-legged and impossibly shaped, clearly recognizable as lions or owls, or patchwork creations of several animals. Yet their eyes are their most fascinating aspect, as they can be tickling or terrifying, depending. Some are altered by their black and white reproduction here, which is this edition’s only drawback. Patchen composed many of these picture poems with inks, watercolors, casein, and other chromatic media. After looking at What Shall We Do Without Us (Yolla Bolly Press, 1984), a full color printing of selected picture-poems, the poorer transfers in The Walking Away World are lamentable -- like arriving in a black and white Oz.
But that we landed, with what adventures ahead, is what matters. One picture-poem reads, “I have a funny feeling that some very peculiar creatures out there are watching us.” The creatures can comfort, “Of course there is a beautiful world what do you think we’re looking out of?” or the creatures can leer, “Come now, my child if we were planning to harm you, do you think we’d be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest park of the forest?” Whose world is beautiful, and where to seek refuge, are open questions.
Apart from the wonders of the creatures, Patchen is a poet of Orphic profundity in the picture-poems. In his later years, he gravitated towards the role of prophet, brandishing ultimatums: “Peace now for all men or amen to all things.” His jazzy colloquialisms can evoke a sax-slinging enlightened grandpa grumbling, “It’s really lousy taste to live in a world like this.” The last collection, But Even So, exemplifies his unique power of balancing contradictions, both in the title and in the layout: the picture-poems appear on the right pages, while on each left page, in identical large script, is the phrase “But Even So” -- each poem refutes and builds from the other. In their lyric tone and swell, it’s debatable whether the picture-poems are more like psalms or Proverbs of Hell -- “Any who live stand alone in one place together.”
We Meet and The Walking Away World are books to pore over and delight in and be moved by again and again, and convincing invitations to his Collected Poems and experimental prose. These companion volumes, much like two critters in a Patchen drawing, highlight the achievement of his work and hint at what else is out there. --Bookslut.com