Kenneth Patchen

1911 –

On December 13, 1911, Kenneth Patchen was born in Niles. A poor boy throughout his childhood, he spent his time playing football and working in a factory. He enjoyed publishing in his school newspaper, kept a diary from the age of twelve, and began reading Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Herman Melville.

After high school, he moved to Wisconsin and attended Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College for one year and then the University of Wisconsin. Around this time, Patchen published a sonnet, "Permanence," in the New York Times. He continued his education in Arkansas and then spent years traveling. He was employed as a migrant worker in a variety of jobs in the United States and Canada.

In 1933, he fell in love with Miriam Oikemus, who he married the following year. The couple lived in Greenwich Village for a few years while Patchen finished and later published his first book of verse, Before the Brave, in 1936.

Over the course of his career, he wrote more than forty books of poetry, prose and drama, including Bury Them in God and First Will and Testament (both in 1939), The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941), The Dark Kingdom (published in a limited edition of seventy-five copies with individually painted covers) and The Teeth of the Lion (both in 1942), Sleepers Awake (1946), To Say if You Love Someone (1948), Poemscapes (1958), and But Even So: Picture Poems (1968).

Patchen was also interested in collaboration and multi-media experimentation. With the composer John Cage, he created the radio play The City Wears A Slouch Hat (broadcast in 1942), and in 1957 he performed with the Chamber Jazz Sextet, helping to further Jazz Poetry. Perhaps most notably, Patchen engaged in the visual arts, creating painted poems throughout his career.

"It happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing," said 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."

For more than thirty years, Patchen lived with a severe spinal ailment that caused him almost constant physical pain. 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.

The weight of this personal battle was compounded by his sensitivity to greater issues of humanity, and his poetry paid special attention to the horrors of war. With his work, he tried to create a kind of sanctuary for the reader, apart from reality, where larger-than-life characters were motivated by their loving and benevolent natures.

In 1967, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities presented Patchen with an award for a "life-long contribution to American letters." He died while living in California in 1972.