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.

Originally Published: July 23rd, 2008

Lucia Perillo grew up in the suburbs of New York City. She earned a BSc in wildlife management from McGill University in Montreal and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before earning an MA in English from Syracuse University. Perillo was the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Dangerous...

  1. July 24, 2008
     Mark Nowak

    Thanks for posting these, Lucia!
    When I went to my office yesterday, two new amazing volumes of Patchen's work in this mode had arrived from New Directions, We Meet and The Walking-Away World, both gorgeously produced. I hope it'll bring even more people to this significant though too often neglected work.

  2. July 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Two new & very good compilations of Patchen's work have just been published by New Directions.
    The Walking-Away World is a collection of picture poems, as described above, and it's introduced nicely by comic book author and artist Jim Woodring. (The only thing wrong with it is that the reproductions could be better. It's still a great pleasure.)
    We Meet combines Because It Is, A Letter to God, Poemscapes, Hurrah For Anything, and Aflame & Afun of Walking Faces, and is introduced by musician Devendra Banhart.
    These books go together nicely, and maybe, who knows, signal a Patchen revival. If you're interested, check out also his experimental novel, Journal of Albion Moonlight, and thence go you to his Collected Poems!

  3. July 24, 2008
     Don Share

    My reply crossed with Mark's - looks like we're both pretty happy!

  4. July 24, 2008
     Travis Nichols

    There's also a lovely Ron Padgett poem in the new Denver Quarterly about hearing Kenneth Patchen read the line "the apples are red again in Chandler's Valley." Patchen-fest '08!

  5. July 25, 2008

    This post is particularly interesting in light of the growing popularity of graphic novels as a "serious" art form: works like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle explore "serious" subject matter with pictures and words. The result is often very striking: the balance of words and visual art moves beyond traditional narrative and into some other territory altogether. Wouldn't it be great if poets, like you suggest here, started to explore this avenue as well?
    Alicia Ostriker admits her obsession with visual art (painting?) and color. Maybe we can nominate her to go first...

  6. July 25, 2008
     Don Share

    Well, let me sneak in a mention of a portfolio of visual poetry, curated by Geof Huth, in the works now for a forthcoming issue of Poetry (though Patchen's "picture poems" are rather different)...

  7. July 26, 2008

    All right! Will order the Patchen books and add them to the pile. I'd like to see the political poems, of which I was unaware.
    As a person who's generally interested in everything and whose attention is always hopping around, I'm always looking for areas to jettison from my interest. Dance--out. Devandra whatever--the music hasn't passed across my radar, though somehow I know what he looks like. Graphic novels--no. Gotta read Nightwood first.
    I did read Maus though.

  8. August 7, 2008

    the way you have described it you have crushed the beauty before you recognize it
    why stoop to criticizing the picture-poems as picture apart from poem or poem apart from picture before you mention the alchemy? don't allow conventional response to bog you down -- the genius that some of us have long recognized in the picture poems is indivisible, innocent, complete; take your impression in a moment and then relax and enjoy it

  9. August 8, 2008
     William J. Harris

    For me some of Patchen's best and most original poems are the picture-poems--esp. HURRAH FOR ANYTHING (1958) and BECAUSE IT IS (1960). His surreal-politics-of-people-at-the bottom seems the most effective and least heavy handed in these poems. For my craft I am rereading these poems right now. Best, William J. Harris