“Carol wants me to write a novel: ‘You’ve met so many interesting people,’ she tells me.
Very good, there was a young man and he could never get his hands on enough women. That’s a novel.
There was an idiot and he became God. That’s the same novel. I can’t possibly think of any others.
It is rather pleasant to be the author of two such excellent novels. The critics are divided in their opinions. One lot believes that they should be shorter; another not, that they should be a mite longer. I rather prefer short critics to long ones. I like critics with tan shoes — look nicer, I think. . .”
-From The Journal Of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen,
If you look for background on American poet, artist, author and activist Kenneth Patchen and his Albion Moonlight novel you find a lot of people who say…
“This novel is quite possibly the book that made the biggest impression on me, ever. Lord knows I’ve given it away to anyone who would listen. And sometimes those who wouldn’t listen, they still got a copy.”
Henry Miller writes about it, and Patchen’s poetry in The books in my life, the 100 books that influenced him.
Because I liked it too when I was in my early 20’s, I want you to like it, but I’ll have to admit that it is no longer a passionate or relevant read for everyone today. The reason why? I’m now in my 70’s and the Vietnam war and my conscription is behind me. We have other wars to worry about of course and America as portrayed in that book has become as surreal as Patchen feared. Patchen’s poems have stood up to time better and you could start there. I’ve been working on a film, I started back then and never finished, it uses the selected bits I still love about it now, so maybe you’ll find that interesting.
Poetry Foundation website says “The bulk of Patchen’s followers were and still are young people. Kenneth Rexroth once pointed out that “during the Second World War and the dark days of reaction afterwards [Patchen] was the most popular poet on college campuses.” One reason for the attraction of generations of college-age readers to Patchen may be the quality of timelessness of his beliefs and ideas. An article in the New York Times explained that Patchen’s antiwar poetry—written in response to atrocities of World War II—was embraced by students protesting the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.
A writer for the New York Times Book Review once wrote that “there is the voice of anger—outspoken rage against the forces of hypocrisy and injustice in our world. Patchen sees man as a creature of crime and violence, a fallen angel who is haunted by all the horrors of the natural world, and who still continues to kill his own kind:
‘Humanity is a good thing. Perhaps we can arrange the murder of a sizable number of people to save it.'”
You get the idea.
There’s an easy way to get through Patchen’s life story without feeling depressed (because you shouldn’t).
Here’s a comic written by Harvey Pekar and Nick Thorkelson, and illustrated by Thorkelson, about the poet Kenneth Patchen. The comic appears (in black and white — Thorkelson colorised it for this web version) in an anthology of Comics about the Beats, published in 2009 by Hill and Wang and edited by Paul Buhle. This appeared on his website which is no-longer hosted so enjoy it without guilt. Thank you Nick.
Patchen’s final years of artwork/poems is explained a little in that comic strip. In pain, bedridden, he could only work on things he’d finish quickly and the rough, garish at times illustrated poems are not my favourite Patchen art. Black and white illustrations appeared in a number of his poetry anthologies and small books, and these are more to my design sensibilities and playfulness. Comparing Patchen to William Blake is mostly based on these handmade books but other than both of their alienation and acceptance, their poetry is very different. Patchen’s surrealism isn’t Blake’s ‘vision’. But you still feel the rage.
Here’s an item about the books (I never seen a physical copy). There is my curated Pinterest page where you will see what the web has of the depth of his work.
The Art of Poetry
On Sept. 22, 2011, the University of Rochester opened the largest ever exhibition of the graphic art of Kenneth Patchen, the controversial 20th century poet-painter who pioneered the anti-novel, concrete poetry, poetry-jazz, and picture-poems.
Held during the centennial of Patchen’s birth, the exhibit presents a striking collection of more than 200 painted books, silk-screen broadsides, picture poems and paintings. The show pays tribute to a prolific artist whose work gained widespread attention and whose readings of poetry accompanied with jazz were a phenomenon in the 1950s. Patchen’s writings, published from the 1930s through 1972, have been labeled as Romantic, Proletarian, Socialist, Surrealist, Dadaist, and Beat, but ultimately defy easy categorization.
Infuriating to critics and largely ignored by academics, Patchen nevertheless has been lauded as ‘the best poet American literary expressionism can show’ by Poet Laureate James Dickey and as ‘all that a poet should represent’ by novelist and painter Henry Miller. His boosters, including James Laughlin, Kenneth Rexroth, and E.E. Cummings, “would constitute a Who’s Who in 20th century American letters”, writes exhibit curator Richard Peek, director of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester.
Patchen’s was an unconventional life, one committed to art, social justice, pacifism, and to his wife and muse Miriam, to whom he dedicated all of his books and love poems. But it was also marred by a back injury at age 26, complications of which eventually left him bed-ridden and poverty-stricken during the last dozen years of his life. Text and Photo Credit: Kenneth Patchen, courtesy of the University of Rochester.
Click to expand this strange, roving, wonderful letter from Dylan Thomas to Kenneth Patchen
From a hacked /virus ridden page on the The American Reader I found this. Clicking anywhere on that web page took you to a porn site. Dylan Thomas would have been upset but Patchen would have laughed. Touching on everything from the charitable habits of the Welsh to Thomas’ desperate fear of being drafted into the British war effort. “As far as a country at war goes, I’m hermetic,” Thomas explains. “I want, among other things, to go on working, and I know I can work only in peace; I can’t do a Brooke in a trench; mud shells shit and glory will make me swear & vomit, not write.”
November 27, 1939
(12th week of the war to
end war to
save my democramatic Aunty Titty.)
Dear Kenneth Patchen: I’d have written before, long before, I’ve been meaning to write, everyday I sit down, etcetera, but my troubles as one of those who is always with us and as one who tries in a temper always to live up to a standard of comfort and pleasure I have never been used to—in my poorest and most ragged days it’s my only wealth to remember, with self-deception and envy, those rich days past which never were—have spoiled my natural politeness (another imagined quality of the unborn, never-forgotten past) and pinned me down, like a frog with ideas above his suction, on to a tableful of halfmade stories, semi white pages waiting for wheedle—“Dear—, I’m hoping that this may move you (though nothing will, I know, but the last dynamite trumpet) to help me, in my present desperate, with a small (big, big, damn your breath) which I will instantly, as soon as my ship (if it came home with a deck of poundnotes and a golden captain, I’d blow it up to the sky rather than let you put your Hongkong foot or Hottentot apron on the gangway”)—old poems, flies-by-night, hack-to-come.
With neither faith nor hope, and despising the charity I seek, I’m working quickly and mostly badly on a book of stories so that I may work slowly on poems, and, at the same time, whining, with my tongue in their cheeks, to a few old fashioned humbugs for enough money to live better than they do. I’m not angry because the large public does not support me; I give the large public very little, probably nothing, and there is every reason against them supporting me. As a public entertainer who entertains very few, I cannot grumble—or, rather, I either change my entertainment, take up some other occupation or be angrily content (which I am) with my present one. And I don’t want you to imagine me—thank God none of us knows how extremely little the other one ever thinks of him at all, let alone imagines him as this or that—as a whiner against people with money; I whine, among other noises, for their money, which is quite different. The Welsh have money under their skins and that’s all you see of it, their dried and stunted bodies rustle when they squat, their bad teeth chink when they bite on a pinched turnip, they piss a stream of coins which they at once suck down again. (This last cheapness is what I think the boiled string and lobster on my colonel school might say about the Welsh, or about anybody else, at length and with suet pictures. I remember somewhere in Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a man pissing gold coins at a wall, but I’ve plenty of cracks to grind with Miller.)
They’re mean. This morning I asked a Welsh farmer to lend me half a crown for a lying purpose and my expectations were realized: I got nothing and a long lie back. He said he had no money, he was very poor. He has two large farms, no wife, no good habits to waste anything on, lorries, a motorcar, and thousands of crinklers in God’s hands (in the Bank.) His name, oddly or not oddly, was Henry James. I offered him a good lie for half a crown—not ‘a good lay’ as our American cousins put it, as they express themselves ‘over the pond’, and mind the inverted commas. Mrs. Ratface—and a good Welshman, that heavenly devil, should stump up readily. I could have told him the truth and he’d believed I was lying; we respect each other so much for our capacity for lying that we would never insult each other by imagining we were telling the truth. But the roguery, the wild eye (nearly always ingrowing), the sly and vicious tribalism, the imaginative deceits, the revivalist rhythms, the conscience—wallow, the occasional inverted miserdom (‘having a good spend’), the comic religious hysterical churning together of false thoughts and genuine emotions (the Welsh equivalent of Irish blarney) are very lovable.
You have to put up with them all, and smile, too, smile, if you still want to weep over the Celtic onion. That because Henry James refused me halfacrown to waste carefully. Money again. I’m smoking a halfpenny, writing with twopence on a sixpence, sitting on three and six—the chair was bought at a sale; the Welsh like sales almost as much as funerals; in either case you’re getting something cheap, and in one case, brassbound, you’re getting a lot for nothing, even if you get nothing after all, which is a matter of opinion, and that, in my opinion, is precisely what the hereafter is. In Welsh sales, by the way, I’ve seen farmers buy dirty and warped junk at twice or three times its doubtful value; a Welshman will buy a bargain at any price. When I lived in London a few years ago, in the bedsitting-room with the scribbled card on the door, cultivating a number of voices and obtaining at considerable cost the clap and the itch, first at the bottleparty and last to go, paying for the rent and the kippers on the gasfire with a pound a week from my parents, determined to get there, not knowing where ‘there’ was but having a very good idea, covering with crabs and cracks and wild dirt, with eccentricities I had long possessed but had never, until that moment, been frightened enough to expose and expand, my confusion at the shockingly liberated behaviour of other young men and women two stages further, from the provinces into another conventional life, than myself, enviously scorning the well-poised manner of the intelligent well-to-do, racing against time as though time were another young writer with a suburban home address, but always, in myself, naturally and fortunately thick-skinned and stubborn, I decided never to forget the importance of money and to devote all my spare time to gathering it from other than literary sources, and never to live below the imagined standard I had set myself, and always to live within those luxuries I enjoyably deceive myself into thinking I was born to enjoy.
Although I have never forgotten the importance, the rest of my monetary decisions have come to little. Sometimes, indeed, I think I am living far above the standard I imagine myself to have been born to deserve; but that soon grows into an unworthy thought, and the wind again, blowing from penniless places, is thick with rich cigar smoke. Now I live only three times above my salary, & still badly, above, that is, what I earn through writing—an occasional drop of milk from life & letters To-Day, 10 shillings a poem from the New Curse, love and some stamps from the red monthlies—what I am fobbed off with by (as Charles Morgan would say) friendly conscience-smoothers, what I cajole, extract. I cannot, as Balzac wrote on the bare walls of his attic, write Rosewood Panels on the crumbling walls of this tall, then, nibbled & neglected, mousefull, sea-staring house, nor turn my water into wine, nor tear the invisible cigarbands off my Player’s Weights. Angrily satisfied with the shape of things as they should not be, a man used to riches but born poor, I continue to think of money as it moves about beautifully beyond my reach, money that burns and multiplies and smells of hot food.Interval for thinking of food and drink. Today it is indecently cold & I have no fire in this rotting room. Where are my London plans now? Gone up in smoke that should be going up the chimney. Now, through some dull work, I’m trying to move towards a respectable financial safety which I must immediately make perilous. I must be moving all the time, even if it’s down. But that’s more than enough of this. I’ve got some very thoughtful things to say about money, if I could only think of them.
I had a letter from you, dated Christ knows when, somebody tore off the top of the letter and I am the only one here who touches my papers—failing very very successfully to get enough money to live on (how am I living then? Anyone’s hand to my mouth) is my excuse for never having answered it, and so the embroidered money-talk—in which you said that it might be interesting for us to exchange perhaps fifty letters about work and living and then publish them. Yes, I think it would be interesting: at any rate, I’d like to read them. Let’s go on writing to each other for a bit and see what happens. When I read letters I nearly always whizz through the explanatory parts and the arguments and am really excited to know what the person writing has been doing with himself & with others lately, where he’s been to, who he’s met, what he feels like the moment he’s writing, and, if I don’t know him personally, what sort of person he actually is, what sort of face has he got, who he loves and doesn’t, is his Sex Life a mystery, has he got any money and if so does he want to share it, where he comes from, what sort of parents did he have, what does he do most evenings, does he know anything about the private lives of film stars, even what he had for breakfast so that I can compare. So if I was reading, in a book, this letter I’m just writing. I’d say to the devil with all the twisted sentences and why doesn’t he talk about the things that happened.Or an emotional gush is very nice too.It’s like wanting paragraphs and conversations and a lot of moving about in stories, rather than studied settings, atmosphere, and morals expressed without people. I don’t know what a reader of a letter like this could get out of it.
But let’s see what happens, write as we like, about anything or anybody, and if after some time we get letters together and find someone to sell them to the public—then let’s hope he sells them well and we can buy another yacht. In that letter of yours you said too that if you get a renewal of your Guggenheim fellowship you’ll be able to send me something for bread and potatoes, beer and cigarettes, bus-rides & cinemas, all the essentials, and thank you, thank you, and if I catch a rich widow or write a book in a trance and the Book Societies recommend it then I’ll send you something that matters—I’ve never felt more worldly than today; I want to go on with a poem some time, but it will be all stocks and shares, even if it looks just zoological about bears & bulls; Anna Wickham, a large, frenzied poetess I used to know sold her little poems, & some of them were fine, as she wrote them, for a shilling each to a young relic called John Gawsworth, and once she rebelled and wrote a long, indignant poem about love entitled “Advance to 1/3d.”—and you send me some cigarettes in a letter and I’ll send you some cockles.
But what I need right now is a lump of money to pay my fare and the fares of my family to Corfu where we want to live for a while with the Durrells and, if he remains there, Miller. I’ve got to get out of England before I’m called upon to join the army and see the next world or—and that’s much more likely—before I object to fighting & having to fight and am sent either to jail or to a working camp (concentration camp, but run on British lines) with a lot of other jesusing, vegetarian, socialist, mother-stuck nancies and fanatics. I want to get out of the war: to America best of all but nobody, possibly quite rightly, will help me to.
A man I wrote to recently about objections to fighting answered that, though he was, by nature & conviction, a coward and a pacifist, as I am, he would probably join up & fight—bayonetting included—because he believed that a writer should undergo contemporary experience to the uttermost. This seemed to me hysterical and pernicious misreasoning.To undergo contemporary experience to the uttermost, he would have to be bayonetted, he would have to starve to death, and as a dead man what use could he possibly be, either as a man or writer. He’s a young man, and what’s the good of dying for your writing before you’ve begun? And to call me an escapist is no insult. As far as a country at war goes, I’m hermetic. I want, among other things, to go on working, and I know I can work only in peace; I can’t do a Brooke in a trench; mud shells shit and glory will make me swear & vomit, not write. So I want to be where there still is peace, peace at least from the propagating of hate, the enforcements of military discipline, the extraordinarily rapid growth of dictatorship all around me, and the immediate prospect of a noble death ha ha or ignoble detention ho ho as an antisocial shirker and—worse still—unrepentant individualist. At a recent London tribunal for conscientious objectors, the presiding Judge refused to register one man as an objector because he refused to fight “only on moral & ethical grounds.” The only two men they totally exempted were: one “mentally retarded”, and one who is already working in an aeroplane factory. Tribunals, in South Wales anyway, still ask: “What would you do if you saw a German…rape…kill…mother…sister?” If you come across, or can think of, any would-be patron who’d like to aid a poet’s flight from war to work, mention (without success) my name. Wouldn’t American Societies like me to come over, at their expense, and read poems to them in my passionate voice? I can’t think why they should.
Now I know what you look like. I don’t mean I know what you resemble: you look like a young man with a big nose and an open resemble: you look like a young man with a big nose and an open shirt, suspicious, broad, and rather angry, to me. I’m thanking you for the photograph. The only likenesses of me that I can find are tucked away, scowling, in groups. So, until someone appears with a camera, I’ll just send on a photograph that was printed in some newspaper; I’ve lost the original, though not of myself: I wake up with that, with delight and repugnance, every morning or afternoon.
I’d like you to have this silly letter before Christmas; though again I don’t know why. So I’ll send it off now—without a word about your grand, exciting book which I liked more than any new book of poems for years. I want to write a lot to you about it, but it’ll keep. Thank you for the copy. More, lots more, again.
Four months later, Dylan Thomas wrote to James Laughlin:
“…Did Patchen ever get the long over-literary letter I sent him? I’d like to hear from him again. Is he still with you? I shall be conscripted in about a month now, and am worried. I won’t fight, and I don’t want to object. Wish I was well out of it.