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.