Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) was a major American experimental poet and novelist influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism.
Kenneth Patchen's father was a steel worker in Youngstown and, later, in Warren, Ohio. As a young man Patchen followed his father's example and worked briefly in the mills, but, having decided to be a writer, he attended college, then travelled around the country, and, while supporting himself with odd jobs, spent what time he could developing his abilities with language. In 1934 he married Miriam Oikemus, to whom he would dedicate all of his nearly four dozen books, and two years later he published his first volume of poetry, Before the Brave.
Before the Brave showed Patchen's strong leftist political sensibility, formed in part by his youth in the steel towns and in part by his travels around the country during the Depression. Critics initially labelled him one of the leftist writers of the decade, but if he was a political poet (and in fact his intense political convictions remained with him throughout his life), he was a writer more strongly affected by the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. His response to these movements, however, was restrained. Patchen was no one's disciple, but the Dadaist and Surrealist influence can be felt in the free, whimsical associations characteristic of his work and in his determined lack of concern for traditional forms of literature.
Although Patchen liked to deny this influence, it can be seen clearly in, for example, the very title Aflame and Afun of Walking Faces, his series of prose pieces that retain the external characteristics of traditional fables but which revel in freewheeling Dadaist absurdities. In traditional fables, marvelous things happen—animals talk, snow falls in July, etc.—but these are justified by various conventions; the story, for example, may be an allegory, and the talking animals are supposed to be representations of human types, or the absurdities may be justified as ways of entertaining the reader while he is (although perhaps unaware of this) being taught a moral truth. But Patchen dispenses with the justifications and lets the fable take its own direction, no matter how absurd (and usually, at the same time, hilarious) that may be. The result is wonderful Dadaist nonsense.
Patchen shared with the Dadaists and Surrealists a dislike for the traditional moral and aesthetic objectives of literature. He did not make his work conform to preconceived literary patterns or expectations but was concerned rather with the way language can create or reflect subtle moods and emotional states, and his work was extremely experimental in seeking that end.
His political convictions, as noted earlier, remained with him, and The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941), the prose work for which he is best known, has in its anti-war or pacifist emphasis a political dimension, but the real achievement here, as in all Patchen's major work, rests in the evocation of feeling and mood. The Journal of Albion Moonlight presents and sustains, like the work of Franz Kafka (to which it is clearly indebted), the sense of loss, fear, despondency, paranoia, and general emotional suffering. In other words, the book evokes, as no other book of its time did so well, the moods and emotions many Americans must have felt when they found themselves in the summer of 1940, when the book was written, on the brink of another military cataclysm.
Four years later Patchen published Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (1945), a novel which evokes an entirely different set of emotions and moods. On the one hand, it satirizes popular culture—particularly the characters, plots, and language of popular movies, radio dramas, and novels—but Patchen's main achievement lies in sustaining a level of high burlesque, the hilarity of movies like screwball comedies (which, since very little is sacred in this book, he also satirizes). He followed Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer with Sleepers Awake (1946), a Dadaist collage of non sequiturs and startling associations, mixed together with experiments using different type faces. He had varied the use of type faces in some of his earlier work but never as exuberantly and creatively as in Sleepers Awake.
The range of Patchen's abilities can be clearly sensed in his poetry, which ranges from political polemic to love poems (Patchen was one of the great love poets of the century), occasional metaphysical complexities, and extravagant comedy. His poetry is marked by delightful verbal surprises and sudden twists of language. It assumes an extraordinary range of poetic forms, from prose poems to exquisitely-constructed songs.
Both the poetry and the prose are characterized by a sense of innocence, wonder, joy, and, above all, delight in playing with language. From time to time Patchen was deeply sentimental and melodramatic, yet what continues to astonish readers is that he succeeded in attempting such a vast range of fictional and poetic possibilities.
Patchen also wrote plays and essays, and he invented what he called "Picture Poems." In these, illustrations and language are brought together in a new format. They are not intended as comments on each other but as inseparably unified aspects of works of art. The "Picture Poems" involve the total fusion of two art forms. Patchen also attempted a fusion of music and literature in a highly regarded series of poetry readings he gave with jazz accompaniment in the late 1950s.
A reader encountering Patchen's work without any knowledge of his background might assume that he lived a robustly healthy life, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Patchen suffered from periods of great depression and from an acute spinal problem that kept him semi-paralyzed and in agony during much of the last 30 years of his life. His work involved the victory of his artistic imagination over extraordinary odds. The vast range of Patchen's achievement is all the more astonishing when one realizes the formidable physical and psychological barriers that he overcame in order to make it possible.
Essential books for a study of Patchen include Kenneth Patchen (1978) by Larry R. Smith; Kenneth Patchen and American Mysticism (1984) by Raymond Nelson; and Kenneth Patchen: A Collection of Essays (1977), edited by Richard G. Morgan, which collects important essays by, among others, William Carlos Williams, Babette Deutsch, Kenneth Rexroth, John Ciardi, Henry Miller, Jonathan Williams, and David Gascoyne. Reminiscences together with celebrations of Patchen's achievement can be found in Alan Clodd's Tribute to Kenneth Patchen (1977).