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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Larry Smith

Kenneth Patchen — Poetry and Jazz days, 1957–1959

This is an excerpt from chapter fourteen of Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America by Larry Smith, A Consortium of Small Presses & Bottom Dog Press, 2000, ISBN 0-933087-59-4

This piece is 7,000 words or about sixteen printed pages long

Yes, I went to the city,
And there I did bitterly cry, 
Men out of touch with the earth,
And with never a glance at the sky.

          (Doubleheader 41)

KENNETH PATCHEN met the end of the 1950s like a wounded lion, healing and rising in a loud and rhythmic roar. At the beginning of 1957, while still recovering from the back operation, he and Miriam were told by the director of the Palo Alto Clinic that their house on Bryant Street was scheduled for demolition. Just out of his body cast and into a metal brace, Patchen still lacked mobility and so began to look around for a house nearby. A young fan and graduate student from Stanford University came to the rescue. William Packard (who would later help organize benefit readings for Patchen and would edit New York Quarterly) had visited them at their place on Bryant Street. In February, he drove them to the end of Palo Alto’s residential Sierra Court, to the little house where Kenneth and Miriam would live the rest of their lives together. For two people who had made homes out of the more than twenty apartments during their twenty-three years of married life, this was as close as they would ever come to the ‘little cottage’ of their dreams. Here Kenneth Patchen would launch his poetry-jazz tours and achieve his ultimate writing-visual synthesis in the original picture-poem form. Here also he and Miriam would suffer and endure the tragic debilitation of his last fifteen years. [. . . .]
      It was soon after their moving into their Sierra Court home that he told Miriam, ‘I think people need a little joy and humor as well as commitment in their lives’ (Interview 1990). He was preparing to give them both through a new medium, his poetry-jazz.
      As his physical mobility returned, Patchen began to plan a reading tour by asking writer friends Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, and e. e. cummings about making arrangements. He wrote Henry Rago of Poetry on February 22, 1957, ‘It now seems to me that one of the most constructive things I can do in my situation is to begin to explore the possibilities of a reading tour. The doctors advise me that my back should be sufficiently knit by early Autumn to stand whatever strain such a general trip would entail. . . . What I would hope to achieve by this if possible countrywide swing, aside from what money I could make on it, would be to enhance my chances for grants, awards, etc. I must put my head outdoors and proclaim myself in whatever vivid way I can . . . ‘ (PAP). Finally, Cummings suggested a Ms. Kray who sometimes acted as his agent. However, his timing was off, for she was leaving for Europe. Poetry did print an announcement of a proposed tour in the April 1957 issue, but by August Patchen wrote to thank Rago and advise him, ‘It appears now that my plan for a reading tour will change into something that could be productive in a number of directions. Nothing definite as yet, so I’ll save details for later. But present arrangements call for me to go on a reading tour with a modern-style jazz band. I made a record with the band — ready in Sept. People got excited. This just sort of grew on its own, from this and that, finally into the tour idea. (You may or may not know that I pioneered the business of reading poetry to jazz with a series of tapes dating back to 1950. Interests me quite a bit. )’ (PAP).

The new poetry and jazz work had developed back in April of 1957 when their friend Richard Bowman invited Kenneth to his home on Emerson Street in Palo Alto in order to meet Allyn Ferguson, a jazz musician from nearby Stanford University. Ferguson had been playing piano, french horn, and percussion with a group of Stanford musicians — The Chamber Jazz Sextet, including Modesto Briseno on tenor and baritone saxophone, Frank Neal on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Robert Wilson on trumpet and percussion, Fred Dutton on bass and bassoon, and Tom Reynolds on drums and tympani. Patchen was still not fully mobile from his operation, so Bowman brought Ferguson to talk with Kenneth about creating a poetry-jazz experiment. In part because of Kenneth’s immobility, it was decided that he would make a recording of his most jazz-based poems and Ferguson would then score them for a re-recording with jazz.
      Bowman’s friend Harry Hubbard brought his recording equipment to Sierra Court to capture Kenneth’s reading. Ferguson, who eventually scored many Hollywood films, favored this controlled system. For Patchen it was the only time the music and poetry were so separated from each other. In all later performances and recordings, Patchen becomes an integral part of the music by performing live where musicians and poet respond to and interact with each other.
Kenneth Patchen — book coverThe material for the readings and recording subsequently titled Kenneth Patchen Reads with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet (Cadence, December 1957) came from some of Patchen’s established cannon: ‘State of the Nation,’ ‘Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?’ ‘The Lute in the Attic,’ ‘Lonesome Boy Blues,’ ‘The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-Colored Gloves’ and some recent short improvisational pieces as ‘Limericks. ‘ He used material from two of his books that were out that year: When We Were Here Together (New Directions) and Hurrah for Anything (Jargon Society Press). His title Hurrah for Anything indicates Patchen’s stance as one who rebels from the social nothingness toward a faith in the human spirit. The poems’ contents and forms reveal the degree to which jazz and drawing had become an integral part of his creative vision. The whimsical drawings and poems are brief humorous sketchings (open form limericks) suitable for a jazz riff. Rexroth places them ‘in the great tradition of Edward Lear’s limericks, but done in modern free forms and with the bite of our contemporary crazy world’ (Doubleheader cover). ‘I WENT TO THE CITY’ provides an example of Patchen’s abstract expressionist ink drawing of what could be a city, accompanied by this poem in a blues form:

And there I did weep 
Men a-crowin’ like asses,
And livin’ like sheep.
Oh, can’t hold the han’ of my love!   
Can’t hold her little white han’!   
Yes, I went to the city,
And there I did bitterly cry, 
Men out of touch with the earth,
And with never a glance at the sky.
Oh, can’t hold the han’of my love!
Can’t hold her pure little han’!
              (Doubleheader 41)

These drawing-and-poems, Patchen’s answer to our need for ‘a little joy and humor as well as commitment,’ were also a breakthrough in the poetry-jazz movement, poems created in the jazz mode ready for a spontaneous performance with music. Both books received a strong review by John Holmes in The New York Times Book Review (Feb. 2, 1958). Writer-critic Holmes grasped immediately the necessity of Patchen’s transforming world vision, ‘The world Kenneth Patchen lives is wild with surprise, love and words, complete in its own fantastic system . . . too much glorious, crazy, love-bemused, bitter, word-drunk and wonder-struck to say. Here are two more items in the twenty-year Patchen saga. ‘ Another strong review in Trace magazine led Patchen to an important friendship with its Los Angeles editor James Boyer May.
      On October 1, 1957, mobile and enthused, Patchen and the Chamber Jazz Sextet took their poetry-jazz ensemble to San Francisco’s Blackhawk Club where they were booked along with the Art Pepper Quartet. It was an intimate club with real jazz fans who listened and responded well. After a two week engagement in which they drew large crowds, they were double booked with the then rising jazz group Dave Brubeck’s Quartet. Patchen and the Sextet performed Tuesdays through Thursdays, and Brubeck’s Quartet did the weekends. San Francisco Chronicle Jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason was on hand and praised Patchen’s performance, declaring, ‘I think this technique presents the possibilities of an entire new medium of expression — a combination of jazz and poetry that would take nothing away from either form but would create something entirely new’ (Poetry Reading in the Cellar cover). San Francisco cultural critic Herb Caen sent Patchen a comic telegram opening night, ‘Dear Kenneth wish we could be there to cheer you on. Know you will be bigger than Edgar Guest’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives). The group followed that engagement with one at Fack’s II, a San Francisco supper club, where people not only ate and drank but talked through the performance, the kind of audience the group swore to avoid. By November 12, they were booked back into the Blackhawk.
Rexroth reading jazz poetry Meanwhile Patchen’s cohorts (what one reviewer called the ‘mature bohemians’) Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were doing their own version of poetry-and-jazz at Sonny Wayne’s The Cellar Club. (The photo, left, is of Kenneth Rexroth.) Though Rexroth and Ferlinghetti created a lively scene at The Cellar, both men generally considered the event as primarily a means of winning back an audience for poetry, not a valid art form (Notes ‘Poetry and Jazz at The Cellar’). Rexroth’s best performance was his ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill — (In Memory of Dylan Thomas)’ in which he lambasts the social and literary establishment for devouring this brave, rebel poet. Ferlinghetti was more successful with his fugue-like ‘Autobiography’ poem in which he and the band traded laconic and melodic expressions of street life. Even Sonny Wayne, who caught a Patchen performance at the Blackhawk, had to exclaim, ‘He’s the greatest. You know!’ (Time, 2 Dec. 1957, 71).
      For the first time in his career, Kenneth Patchen was performing live and receiving immediate feedback from an invigorated audience. By Oct. 21, he was writing to James Laughlin of the potential of the new form and urging him to get out a flier announcing Kenneth Patchen as ‘The creator — and still undisputed champ — of the exciting new art medium, Poetry-Jazz" (New Directions Archives). By October 27th he wrote to James Boyer May of his continued excitement over the form yet physical weariness at returning home at 4 am which ‘doesn’t make for too much perspective. ‘ He also sent May a copy of his declaration of independence from the Beat and San Francisco Poetry Movements, and a response to Rexroth’s public claim on lease of his statement of nonaffiliation with the Beat and San Francisco Poetry Movements. It read:

What I have to say is said for the purpose of throwing light on a situation about which many people have expressed puzzlement. My name and activities have not figured in recent publication coverage of ’the San Francisco Scene’ for the simple reason in so far as I could I rejected all such identification. . . .
I am not and never have been ‘a regional poet. ‘
Moreover, my participation in, and knowledge of, ‘the San Francisco Scene’ is exactly zero.
My stay there was occasioned and colored by medical considerations; unfortunately those of a social or literary kind did not enter into it.
And now about ‘Poetry-Jazz’ -  . . .
I am convinced that the art direction may only be realized through the union of the poet’s reading with music expressly composed for that reading.
The Chamber Jazz Sextet and I have made such a start.    
          (New Directions Archives)

Laughlin, along with the people at Cadence Records, was opposed to printing it, as it might alienate Patchen’s new audience. In his letter to Laughlin, however, he reiterated his continued support for the work of his ally Rexroth, ‘As I have always said and shall continue to say, Rexroth is at this moment what he has been for some twenty years: one man keeping alive by the force of an uncommon intelligence and an equally uncommon gift and dedication to the art of poetry all claims which SF may justly advance for being a city of cultural importance’ (New Directions Archives). Patchen sent a like letter to Rexroth declaring his lasting admiration and supporting his public statement that ‘1956 will be known as the year Ginsberg and Co. corrupted San Francisco’ (Nov. 4 UCLA). He followed this with a letter to Henry Rago on Dec. 4, trying again to clarify his position on the poet’s integrity: ‘The poet should resist all efforts to categorize him as a painted monkey on a stick, not for personal reasons alone, but because it does damage to poetry itself. I told you about the actual as opposed to the fictional situation . . . to demonstrate by case and example the fraudulent and cheap nature of the thing which has spawned here when the cameras of Life set up and staged their poetry-with-jazz sideshow in February [Life and Time had each done stories on poetry-jazz. ], along with half a dozen other ’cultural evenings with the bearded and besandled denizens of San Francisco’s lower-Bohemia’ — including a striptease to poetry . . . I can only hope that some of these people will come to their senses and realize that poets have something better to do than become exhibits in a tricked-out freakshow’(PAP). The older poets were not so much fighting the violation of their home turf as struggling for the integrity of their art.
      The fact that Patchen termed his work ‘poetry-jazz,’ while others, including Ferlinghetti and Rexroth, labeled theirs as ‘poetry-and-jazz’ speaks much. In fact Patchen’s was the only true synthesis of the art forms into something new. Despite Patchen and Rexroth’s quibbling over who originated the form (Actually the form is a part of the Blues and the early 1930s experiments of Langston Hughes in Chicago), a more important point is who did the most with it. In an early review of Patchen’s poetry-jazz album, John Ciardi pointed out how ‘Patchen’s poetry is in many ways a natural for jazz accompaniment. Its subject and its tone are close to those of jazz. And most of it is written not metrically, but in phrase groups that adapt naturally to jazz rhythms. ‘ He also cites Patchen’s powerful voice as capable of musical sounds and credits his sharp sense of timing: ‘A gentle and easy voice, always deeply concerned for the natural rhythms of speech, yet kept exciting by small modulations and by a superb sense of timing’ (‘Kenneth Patchen: Poetry, and Poetry with Jazz,’ 57).
      That November Patchen and the Chamber Jazz Sextet performed along with the Andre Previn Trio at the Oakland Music Festival at the Oakland Civic Auditorium, and in December to a packed house at the Los Angeles Jazz Concert Hall on Crenshaw Blvd. James Boyer May concluded in Trace, ‘Beyond mere harmonies and antiphonies, these performances are remarkable fusions’ (1959 in poems penneyeach). As many who witnessed it describe, Patchen (appearing in a bright scarlet blazer which Miriam had found in a used-clothing store and dyed for him) took command of the stage, as all great jazz artists do, pulling from himself and the musicians and audience a real fusion, an experience of creative expression, as jazz musicians exclaim, he was ‘really there’ and ‘ringing the changes. ‘
      By the end of December the Patchens were staying with the James Boyer May family while he performed twice each night at the LA Jazz Concert Hall on Central Avenue, primarily to a white Bohemian audience. Miriam often watched in the audience till 2 am. The Los Angeles Examiner reported in ‘Patchen Great in ’Dream Talk’’ (Dec. 30, 1957): ‘This modern day minstrel is as fascinating and interesting as any swing or blues singer. In his scarlet jacket and black trousers, he sits on a stool and reads; not just words, but phrases and thoughts so beautifully woven into the jazz background, and so expertly phrased and timed, that it is a revelation to the ear and mind. ‘ They were held over for a second month.
      The whole poetry-jazz experiment was a grand success, so that it is surprising to have Patchen write Jonathan Williams from Los Angeles that December 15, exclaiming the success yet stating bluntly, ‘We are utterly broke’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives). The fact is that the clubs, like many jazz musicians, were initially skeptical of poetry-jazz and so were paying poorly. Kenneth Rexroth exclaimed at the time to Larry Lipton that ‘no stripper on Main Street’ would work for the $35 fee he was being offered for two performances a night (Rexroth 275-276). Even at the height of his success, which did not come until 1959, Patchen was receiving only $75-$250 for a night’s performance, not including expenses. That first year, Patchen earned $750 for performing his poetry-jazz. It was, however, the most solid income he had ever received. Yet it would be short-lived (‘Summary of Trial: Patchen v. Richards’ 48).
      In January of 1958 the Patchens were back home in Palo Alto, but Kenneth’s head was virtually a-flutter with new ideas. Two of his books were due for release: the City Lights re-release of The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer with a photo of Kenneth in his slouch hat on the cover, and his new experiments with the prose poem, Poemscapes from Jargon Society. The Poemscapes were page units with four brief, haiku-like prose statements or images spread on each:


      Let it be fashioned in love! Boundless and imperturbable Let it be! O tiger sleeping in the rose-heart. Let it be! Masterless, remote, solitary. A country where men and birds may come to take breath.


      I live in wonder. It is a glory to be alive in me. How there is grief! How there is grief and joy! O how there is a grief and a joy in me! The cursing prayer that is me! O far on the other side of me, beyond senses’ reach — that comes here!

(Poemscapes np)

It is a quiet book with some rare achievements, all within his wonder vision. The cover included his ‘Statement’ of independence and a list of recent achievements. It also contained what might be his finest tribute. Henry Miller wrote it from Big Sur that March 8, of 1957: ‘In my eyes Kenneth Patchen is now and will remain one of the outstanding figures in American letters. He represents all that a poet should represent, whether expressing himself in verse, in prose, in paint, or in action. By his example he has given courage, direction, and inspiration to more poets than anyone I know of on this continent. Patchen stands out like a shining warrior, a herald of peace and truth, endowed with invincible heart and integrity. No one can read him without being affected — and influenced in his own life and work. It is not only the youth who are indebted to him but all of us, unto the last and most fanatically ardent defender of the Word. ‘ Patchen was so moved by Miller’s statement that he wrote him, ‘What can I say — Your beautiful statement went to my heart. In the work I have ahead of me to do I hope you will find the best expression of my thanks’ (UCLA March 10, 1957).
      Besides his continued work with poety-jazz, Patchen had developed a Jazz-Play in his Don’t Look Now. He wrote to Laughlin suggesting it as a book, telling of how his ‘Glory, Glory’ segment from the play was the most requested piece at his performances. He also suggested plans for their next book of poems, Because It Is, and a selected love poems to go with a planned recording. He told Laughlin that Carl Smalley’s animated version of The Journal of Albion Moonlight had been banned by the LA police for obscenity (New Directions Archives). Elsewhere composer Charles Hills had been working on several choral settings for Kenneth’s lyrical pieces ( performed in NY in 1959). And James Boyer May had helped Patchen prepare a self-nomination for the Ford Foundation Award.
      In February and again in March, Patchen was back in Los Angeles performing at the Cabaret Concert Theatre, Los Angeles City College, and again at the Los Angeles Jazz Concert Hall. Most exciting, however, was an invitation they had received to perform at the Brussels World Fair that summer. The invitation came from the US Commissioner General’s office and was made by the Coordinator of the Performing Arts Program. The person who had been instrumental in getting the invitation was Patchen’s old patron, millionairess and jazz fan, Doris Duke. It came at the wrong time for the band, however, whose members were each considering splitting up. Fred Dutton and Tom Reynolds had found other work, and Allyn Ferguson was beginning to break through into Hollywood studio work and scoring (He would later work as musical conductor for singer Johnny Mathis as well as score many films). Nevertheless, a press release was sent out by New Directions announcing the invitation and the fact that a film-recording of Kenneth Patchen and the Chamber Jazz Sextet would be featured on the Bobby Troup’s ‘Stars of Jazz’ ABC network. Yet, by June it was clear that the band had ceased to exist. Miriam attributes some of this to Duke’s covert plans to include her jazzman boyfriend into the group. By June 4, 1958, Patchen wrote to James Boyer May of the group’s demise complaining that Ferguson had left him ‘holding a pretty damned soiled bag. . . to put it mildly! Amazing!’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives).
      A further complication to the Los Angeles trip had been an injury that Kenneth suffered in slipping and bumping his head while getting out of the car. In August he reported to Henry Rago that he was wearing a brace for a sprained neck which they hoped hadn’t also damaged his spine. He could not have made the trip to Brussels. His bigger concern was for Rago to understand his financial need and to solicit Rago’s support of his Ford Foundation nomination. Ironically, Patchen feared that the attention that he had achieved around the poetry-jazz performances might throw off his chances for any kind of established award. He made it clear again that there was no big payment from the readings: ‘I had not lost hope that one of these committees would one day take note of the fight I have put up to working in the face of everything — but now. . . What an irony that my own effort — against the advice of doctors — have probably closed the one door I had open to me!’ (PAP Aug. 15, 1958).
      Patchen wrote to Jonathan Williams and to James Boyer May of the ‘cervical strain’ from his accident in getting out of the car and of the new wave of bills from the Palo Alto Clinic, ironically stating, ‘This is a real blow to us, a real crippler’ (Aug. 2, 1958, Kenneth Patchen Archives). He further explained to May on August 9 explaining that Miriam’s illness and their financial insecurity were affecting him, ‘Small wonder that I have moments of panic’ and on August 26 he used a striking metaphor, ‘The blows have come thick and fast and show no sign of falling off in either their number or impact’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives). By October, all of his enthusiasm seemed drained as he reported to May, ‘Things at lowest ebb with us. Miriam — who certainly shouldn’t — has taken a clerk’s job in a drug store. Very dangerous for her to get tired, etc. but what can I do. Painted Books don’t sell; all reading tour — talk, and everything related — at an end. I could go on and on — no money for medicine; needed hospital treatment out of the question. Well, things have been bad before’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives).
      The one poetry reading he was able to arrange involved his flying into the University of Pittsburgh where he read, visited Warren briefly, and returned home. In December he received a fan letter from poet Marianne Moore who had been in the Blackhawk audience with Ruth Witt-Diamont of the San Francisco Poetry Center. Moore praised the way Patchen ‘managed the background instruments with unmistakable effectiveness — every word was audible against the music (or should I say ’with it’?)’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives). But this mellowing out of the year proved only a temporary retreat before the storm of activity.
      Through the combined effort of their old friend, jazzman Johnny Wittwer (now back in Seattle) and another fan and jazz arranger John Grinnell from Vancouver, Canada, a new poetry-jazz tour of Washington and British Columbia was launched that February. Traveling without a jazz group, Patchen was met by John Grinnell in Vancouver on February 12th where he met the Alan Neil Quartet with whom he would be working. He dashed off a note to Miriam that night, ‘Late yesterday afternoon Mike Jeffries, young last year law student and Alan Neil, the piano play leader of the quartet with which I’ll appear, came around to motel and we had supper before proceeding to ’The Cellar’ at 8:30 for a rehearsal which lasted until eleven. Worked out a lot of material, and things should pan out pretty well as far as readings-band combination is concerned. Neil is very versatile and quick, full of hero-worship of me; and the alto sax player (18 yrs. old) [Dave Hillary] is almost as talented as Modesto. Drums and bass [Bill Boyle and Lionel Chambers] complete quartet — all young kids. Have another rehearsal tonight at 7. As I say, things should be lively and smooth by time for first appearance’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives). On Valentine’s Day, he sent her a special delivery card expressing his love and this report, ‘Afternoon reading at Victoria College was a standing room smash hit, much to surprise of sponsors, I thinks. Kids called me back three times — practically tore auditorium down in their enthusiasm. Hope to rest a bit now in hotel room before tonight’s sessions: usual night club hours, start around 10:30, probably end about 2.’
      With only a few days rehearsal, Patchen and the Alan Neil Quartet had melded into a unit that would produce on February 18th, one of the best poetry-jazz recordings of all time, Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada (Folkways 1959) taken from their radio broadcast. They also performed at the Arts Club and University of British Columbia and for television on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that week. Patchen closed his note to Miriam that night after another performance at ’The Cellar,’ with this Patchenesque note, ‘Must improve the unshining hrs. now. Gray, rain-or-snow filled sky. I miss you so much — love, Kenneth’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives).
      Alan Neil, who worked in the post office by day and played jazz by night, has provided a colorful written record of that CBC session in Vancouver when they made poetry-jazz history. ‘We got to the studio expecting to wail. Behind us we had a good half dozen performances with Patchen — at colleges, couple of nightclubs, and on television: and today we could count on three hours rehearsal before doing the radio show. The band was in a mood to groove. ‘
      Patchen had chipped a tooth that day and had Alan Neil walk him over to the dental surgeon’s office during a break in the rehearsal. ‘Well, Patchen had a major tooth surgery right on the spot as I waited. . . . His jaw had to be chiseled away at, literally gouged out in an excruciatingly painful operation that took almost an hour. Finally, he emerged into the waiting room, his face drained of color, and those great tired eyes more tired than I had ever seen them. His mouth was bleeding through big cotton plugs — still he smiled and when the girl at the desk asked for his occupation he mumbled ’Writer, self-employed. ’’ Back in the cafeteria, Kenneth managed to eat a rare steak and coffee, when Neil noticed a change, ‘In maybe ten minutes his face stopped being gray, and his eyes got back their straight look of seeing right through everything and everybody. . . . He had pulled out of it, was ready to get going. ‘
      Seated at a table across from them and speaking into the microphone, they began again, only the band was having trouble hearing Patchen and the lead horn. ‘Then somebody (Kenneth, I think) hit on the idea of each of us having earphones. We put them on — and we had a scene! It was extremely exciting! Now we could aim our language, our feeling, at Patchen’s — the thing had come to life! . . . In a couple of minutes I waved to the engineer to tape away. . . . just before ’Glory, Glory’ — Kenneth drew on a cigarette, stretched his legs, refused coffee, and nodded that he was set. And during that last number I don’t think that he looked down at the paper once. We had all been caught up in the reading from the start — we knew that something was happening, that this was ’something else’ — but now he really went out for it, he wailed! With our nerves, our hearts, we heard him coming on, ringing the changes, threading and pulling us in and out of the light — the King Cat making his scene! And on his face we could see that what we had to say back to him was making the same kind of ’heart sense. ’ It was there.’ (Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada liner notes).
      A lasting impression of Patchen — jazz-poet extraordinaire — was left on these fine young musicians and on others who carried on the poetry-jazz experiments with integrity. Neil, who argues for the free and spontaneous interplay of poet and jazzman, ultimately describes Patchen’s gift: ‘Kenneth’s dignity — so easy and natural — his bigness and deep honesty, these things came through to us with added force that day. As I said, something happened. ‘ Patchen’s ability to give himself to many by giving himself purely to his art deeply moved these young musicians who reportedly went around for months reciting his poems.
      Neil’s account alludes to stories that the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker carried around Patchen’s writing and even spoke them at times during the music. The analogy between Patchen and Parker is an interesting one, revealing larger parallels between contemporary poet and jazzman. Acting as a rebel and expressive force outside the cultural mainstream, poet and jazzman each blow messages back at the world — hot and cool, passionate and cerebral. Each debunks the restraints and myths of ’fine art’ in favor of an immediate inner expression. As jazz critic Alvin L. Kershaw explains, ‘Jazz helps us be sensitive to the whole range of existence. Far from offering us rose-colored glasses. . . it realistically speaks of sorrow and pain. . . it helps us relate and interpret the variety of experience we have had. . . jazz stimulates us to feel deeply and truthfully. . . jazz thunders a mighty ’yes’. . . it offers us an urgency to live fully’ (in Stearns, The Story of Jazz 304). Like the jazzman, Patchen creates a sharp and intense response to the world he lives in and watches. His art is driven by his will to remain sane and whole. Like jazz itself, Patchen’s art is open form, intuitive and spontaneous; based on understood forms, it manages to go beyond them into an expressionist response to and engagement with the world. Poet and music critic Al Young observes, ‘Patchen operated very much in the jazz tradition, that is to take something — to take a form — and to go beyond it. To improvise, and to express your feelings and insights of the moment, superimposed over a given form. Patchen was a real master of that’ (Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement , 1989). It was in tribute that Patchen used a Charlie Parker composition for his ‘Four Blues Poems’ in the Vancouver recordings.
      Before returning to Miriam in Palo Alto, Kenneth had several more performances in the Seattle area, arranged by his friend Johnny Wittwer. Patchen arrived on a train wearing a neck brace on February 26th and was met by an enthusiastic Wittwer who still remembers his handshake, ‘He had such a bearing, it was a little like shaking hands with a mountain, like returning to the womb. He had a wonderful handshake’ (Interview 1991). Kenneth began practicing with Wittwer’s own group the New Bed of Roses Chamber Jazz Group which included Lowell Richards, Bob Gilkeson, Floyd Standifer, and George Mulllaly. Wittwer was a bit bewildered about how the whole thing would come together, but Kenneth’s self-assurance guided them. Wittwer explains, ‘As a piano player, I usually see myself as an accompanist, but with Kenneth it seems it was the two things going on at once.’ They were to be featured February 27 and 28 at Seattle’s Musicians Auditorium on Third and Cedar along with a showing of Norman MacLaren’s experimental jazz-film, ‘Begone Dull Care. ‘
      Kenneth Patchen — Celery Flute Player Wittwer had done his job of promoting the event by pulling together a four-page tabloid on Patchen entitled pomes penyeach 1959. Besides ten poems and three prose selections by Patchen with his comic drawing of the celery-flute player (also used on the tickets), it included reviews of his poetry-jazz performances and books. Wittwer remembers that Kenneth had him print an extra 1,000 copies to use for future promotions. The afternoon of the 26th Kenneth and Wittwer went around to the radio station KUOW at the University of Washington for an interview. On the televised six o’clock news he also did a performance of ‘A Sigh Is Little Altered’ (‘It Is the Hour’ in Hurrah for Anything), only this time Kenneth took the normal ending ‘And we have not done/much that is beautiful’ and, turning to the news anchor added another, ‘No, we have not done much that is beautiful!’ They switched back to a speechless news announcer and crew, and Wittwer remembers how that final line just resonated in the studio. Later when they performed with little rehearsal and scant notes, musicians and audience became caught up in the poetry-jazz event. Patchen received $150 for each performance. A few years later when Wittwer discovered a new Patchen book entitled Hallelujah Anyway, he remarked, ‘It just summed up Kenneth Patchen. He just about summed up everything for everybody, right there... Hallelujah Anyway!’ (Interview 1991).
      That afternoon at the KUOW radio interview at the University of Washington, Patchen was in rare form. His detailed comments ranged from the personal to the critical to the whole question of audience and the purpose of art. On the question of the poetry-jazz form, he verified his belief in the engagement thus formed, ‘I’ve done it literally hundreds of times, and no time in my memory has it not been a living experience, a creative thing, an exploration of the evening of living substance, of things going on between human beings at a level, it seems to me, removed from the ordinary one of entertainment. It’s possible, I think, to bring the immediacy of jazz to bear on the spoken word. An electric switch is thrown’ (A Collection 64). He dismissed again any link with what he termed the ‘synthetic bohemian spectacle’ then going on, terming the San Francisco Beat scene as ‘not my dish, and it’s not the dish of any artist I know of, or any writer I admire. ‘ Finally pushed to acknowledge some proximity with these writers, he smiled and quipped, ‘I breathe the same air as Liberace’ (A Collection 64-65). Somehow he led the interviewer into a larger consideration of the nature and purpose of poetry insisting that its only obscurity was because ‘People don’t read it or they read it through the clouded, fogged-over glasses of professors and so on. . . . it preceded anything that people nowadays seem to think of as literature. ‘ Tracing poetry to its oral origins often with lute accompaniment, Patchen insisted on its essential rhythmic basis as ‘a rhythm present in the universe itself’ (A Collection 65).
      What inspired Patchen to this rare and bold declaration of his engaged poetics may have been his felt need to resist being typecast by journalists and pseudo-critics; it may have also been the enthusiasm he was finding for his work in his responsive audiences. He turned to the larger issue of audience:

I don’t usually think of it [audience] in terms of people I know or people who are reading reviews, or buying books, or  what-have-you. I’d like to just say that I hope my audience includes somehow . . . the spirits of some of the men now dead who worked in poetry and in the other arts and I don’t feel that they’re dead al all. This is perhaps a sentimental way of putting it, but it’s a very real thing to me. I’m often consoled thinking about some of the poets and artists who have had no ’audience,’ as people think of audience, someone like William Blake for instance . . . These men who were read by no one, known by no one in their time, yet command a hearing by men of spirit. And all artists have anyway, is this one little pinpoint of light in the darkness, the fact that out of all the morass of mediocrity and conformity there is this small current of communication, not with an audience limited or confined to a period of time, but an audience which resides solely in terms of the human spirit, and if anything lasts on earth, it is this, a small thing, but a thing which, until now at least, has shown more endurance than anything else that man has advanced before him, this small light, this small desire to be true, not so much to art, no man knows anything about that, but true to the best instincts and feelings in himself in regard to what he does. This thing to me is all of it; the rest of it is just talk, hot air.
(A Collection 66-67).

This full and clear statement of the timeless dynamics of Patchen’s art and life advocates the act of being most honestly and fully alive. His final gesture during that interview was to pay tribute to another ailing and admired poet of Seattle, Theodore Roethke.
      Back in Palo Alto with Miriam that March, Patchen received two items of bad news. He had lost the Ford Foundation Award and doctors at the Palo Alto Clinic had found a mass on one of the x-rays of his chest. He wrote of both to his friend James Boyer May. Of the lesion, he was matter-of- fact, ‘The doctors conferred over me on Tues. : report — ’a 2. 5 m lesion of the upper esophagus which has so far been seen as asymptomatic. . . Operate in April through chest wall.’’ On losing the award, he relieved his regret by consoling May, who had nominated him, with this realization, ‘The clothes of your candidate were cut from a bolt of cloth suited not to them but to us. Such a failure as ours does register its victory in another court. I’m disappointed, of course: but it would be a sorry thing indeed if men of our kind depended on the likes of them’ (Kenneth Patchen Archives March 7, 1959). It must have been a familiar response for Patchen who characteristically turned to brighter affairs, a poetry performance scheduled with bass jazz great Charlie Mingus in New York that month.
      Patchen’s jazz play was to be performed off-Broadway at the Living Theatre in 1959, though staging complications prevented it from happening. Instead and equally exciting were the performances which Kenneth did there with the Charlie Mingus Jazz Workshop during those last two week of March. His old friend David Dellinger had helped make the arrangement, and so Patchen dedicated his performance with Mingus to Dellinger and his son Patch.

Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen, by Harry Redl.

Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Patchen backstage at the Living Theatre where Patchen was performing with Charlie Mingus, New York City 1959. Photo copyright © Harry Redl 1959, 2000.

Photographer-friend Harry Redl was there to capture an interesting backstage shot of Patchen and a young Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg recalls the meeting, ‘At the Living Theater in 1958 [sic 1959] we stood together in the lobby, many people, and poet Patchen disapproved Kerouac’s poetics, and didn’t seem to like — in fact actively disapproved — all the new work of composition that later entered Don Allen’s New American Poetry 1945-1950. It may be that he thought it all too commercial, not realizing that many of the poets he damned, like myself who had taken a vow of penury, were obsessed with their Bodhisatva task, enlarging the consciousness of America and having a good time in the Kali Yuga, than with amassing insubstantial golden TV sets. . . . Time passes and all our disturbances are happily annihilated’ (‘Homage,’ Outsider 99). As pointed out, Patchen, who had vocally supported the publication of both Ginsberg’s HOWL and Kerouac’s On the Road, had grown weary of comparisons with the Beats; his main purpose that night was the performance with Mingus, which was a great success.
      While he was in town, he also did a reading at Gotham Book Mart and worked out a multiple contract with a Moe Ash of Folkways Records. They would record and release the Vancouver recording of Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada (1959), Selected Poems of Kenneth Patchen (1960), and Kenneth Patchen Reads His Love Poems (released 1961). From Albion Moonlight was recorded later at Patchen’s home but not released until 1972 by Folkways.
      Fables was also recorded at home by Folkways but subsequently released in 1974 through Miriam Patchen as Green Tree Records.
      By May of 1959 Kenneth Patchen was a public figure, out there with his audience performing, declaring himself and in charge of his life and art. He was riding a wave of health and deserved success that was about to crash with him harder than he had ever fallen before.

This is an excerpt from chapter fourteen of Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America by Larry Smith, A Consortium of Small Presses & Bottom Dog Press, 2000, ISBN 0-933087-59-4
It is reprinted here with permission and with thanks.
      The book is published in soft cover ($14.25 post paid), hard cover ($27.25), and a special edition signed by the author and Miriam Patchen ($50). It is available through any of the cooperating publishers in the Consortium of Small Presses: Bottom Dog Press, c/o Firelands College, Huron, Ohio 44839, New Native Press (PO Box 661, Cullowhee, NC 28723), Artichoke Press (550 Mountain View, Mt. View, CA 94041), Cross + Roads Press ( PO Box 33, Ellison Bay, WI 54210), Ridgeway Press (PO Box 120 Roseville, MI 48066), Transient Press (2068 S. Barnett Rd. Bisbee, AZ 85603), Ellis Press (PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241).
You can check out Bottom Dog Press at this URL:

Many of Patchen’s books have been kept in print largely through his New York publisher, New Directions. Chief among them are The Selected Poems (1965) and The Collected Poems of Kenneth Patchen (1968), and the novels The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941) and Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (1945). Bottom Dog Press published Awash with Roses: The Collected Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen in 1991 edited by Larry Smith and Laura Smith.

Larry SmithLarry Smith has been professor of English and humanities at Firelands College of Bowling Green State University since 1970 and is the author of an earlier critical study Kenneth Patchen as part of the United States Authors Series. He has also written numerous articles on Patchen including two for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. In 1989 he and Tom Koba (Berlin Heights, OH) wrote and produced a video docu-drama ‘Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement’ shown on the Public Broadcasting Network. It was funded chiefly by the Ohio Humanities and Ohio Arts Councils. In addition, Smith is the author of two books of fiction, six volumes of poetry, and another critical biography, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-At-Large (Southern Illinois University Press).

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