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Since there have been a few posts about the political poetry of Kenneth Patchen, I thought I would post a few of what he called his picture poems. These are from a book I own called Wonderings, published in l971, shortly before Patchen’s death.
I knew of Patchen as a visual artist (this must be from some time I spent in San Francisco in the 80’s , after he had died) and writer of lyric poems, chiefly love poems, which I was familiar with because of their appearance in Hayden Carruth’s anthology The Voice That is Great Within Us, originally published in 1970, a book that I know is somewhat controversial because of its neglect of the avant-garde. But I appreciate its mission: to bring poetry to the public on the cheap. My copy cost $3.50 used, 25 years ago, though the original price was crossed out with a marker because I suspect it was less than $3.50.
The few anthologies I’ve seen that include Patchen’s poems, as well as this poetry foundation web site (although there are wonderful poems here), don’t reproduce the picture poems, so I thought I’d post a few. As you can see, the text of these works are not great poems, and some of the artwork in the book is dismissible. But the alchemy of words and text is compelling—for some reason, reading Wonderings always puts me in a better mood. This is a form that few other poets have pursued. Maybe because the canonized star-poets are nervous about shackling their maybe-for-the-ages-worthy poems to less than stellar visual artwork, if they dabble in the visual arts at all. Who are the others who’ve combined their poetry with visual art? Blake? Painters like Elizabeth Bishop kept their artwork on the sly, distinct from their “serious” writing. It has been exciting to see contemporary poets like Anne Carson and Dean Young risk putting their own art on the covers of their books.
Patchen has always meant a lot to me because of his peculiar biography, a spinal ailment having kept him in bed for a large part of his productive life (although he makes no reference to this fact in his poems). It is encouraging and magical to see how such various art can be produced from the confines of a bed. To see how the products of a singular brain can radiate outward from a small locus with such force.
Hayden Carruth wrote to me that Patchen survived the way an old nail survives, rusty and forgotten. But this blog offers proof that this is not the case.