Kenneth Patchen's Painted Poems
"It happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing," said poet Kenneth Patchen. "In other words, I don’t consider myself a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend."
Throughout his prolific career, Patchen produced more than forty volumes of poetry and prose, most with a visual component. In his earlier works of the 1930s and 1940s, including First Will and Testament and The Journal of Albion Moonlight, he experimented with the typographical arrangement of words to convey meaning—a practice that over a decade later, in 1956, was named "concrete poetry." He also accompanied his text with abstract drawings and illustrations, sometimes including hand-written pages in the midst of typeset ones. Patchen believed in innovating new forms of expression and in engaging the reader (and viewer), comparing his vision to that of Van Gogh, whose "breaking with tradition," he wrote, "seems almost as though he didn’t know what to do next. And I think this is the stance of the creator."
In 1942, unable to pay for an expensive fine-print edition of his book The Dark Kingdom, Patchen designed and painted his own book covers and published a limited edition of 75 copies. This launched a series of nine titles that became known as the "painted books," all with covers individually decorated by Patchen with original paintings and holograph colophons, totaling 956 cover paintings. Other titles in this series were Red Wine & Yellow Hair, Fables and Other Little Tales, and Hurrah for Anything. Patchen went on to make a series of silk-screened poems printed on handmade Japanese paper.
"Like Picasso," wrote Henry Miller in 1946 of his friend Patchen, "he makes use of everything. The innovator and initiator are strong in him....One is no longer looking at a dead, printed book but at something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment. Novelty is employed not as seduction but like the stern fist of the Zen master to awaken and arouse the consciousness of the reader."
A back injury in 1937, when he was just 26, left Patchen disabled and confined to bed for long periods. This constant internal pain, coupled with his sensitivity to the injustices of the world, made him infuse his writings with quirky drawings and splashes of color. "The sickness of the world probably didn't cause mine," he wrote to Henry Miller, "but it certainly conditions my handling of it. Actually (the worst part) is that I feel that I would be something else if I weren't rigid inside with the constant pressure of illness; I would be purer, less inclined to write (say) for the sake of being able to show my sick part that it can never become all powerful; I could experience more in other artists if I didn't have to be concerned so closely with happenings inside myself."
An operation in the early 1950s, thanks to a fund set up by his fellow poets, including T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and E. E. Cummings, allowed him to regain his mobility, but the relief was short-lived: a mistake during a follow-up surgery in 1959 left him almost completely bedridden for the remaining thirteen years of his life, during which he created his most visually remarkable works: 151 "painted poems"—free verse poems with whimsical imagery using pieces of Japanese paper and common construction paper, glue, tempera, watercolors, casein, crayons, ink, pencils, cloth dyes, cloth string, and coffee and tea (used as dyes). The idea for the painted poems, Patchen’s wife Miriam has said, emerged from his fascination with sheets he received from John Tate, a botanist. The sheets, once used in France to press botanical specimens, became the backdrop to the painted poems, which were bound and published in the collections Hallelujah Anyway and But Even So. Emitting both joy and grief, the painted poems depict the ways of the world—its cruelty included—with mature resignation and playful humor. His last work, Wonderings, contains reprints of his silkscreen pages along with abstract and figurative drawings. Patchen died in 1972, a year after Wonderings was published.
"It would be a feather in the hat of any gallery to show these wonderful paintings!" Miller rightly predicted in 1946. Patchen’s works have in fact been exhibited by museums and galleries worldwide, including the Oakland Museum in Oakland, CA, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Dokumenta festival of modern art in Kassel, Germany, the Centro Studi Americani in Rome, Italy, and the Royal Festival Hall’s Poetry Library in London, England.
Image: Kenneth Patchen. Painted Poem, ca. 1966-68. Special Collections, University Library. University of California, Santa Cruz. Kenneth Patchen Archive. © UC Regents. Used with permission.