Patchen’s Selected Poems

In making a comment on a recent Berryman poem, Tom indirectly mentioned the poet Kenneth Patchen, a poet I’d heard of but couldn’t remember reading. When I did a search I found this poem, which happens to be the fourth poem in his Selected Poems:

Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?

The old guy put down his beer.
Son, he said,
(and a girl came over to the table where we were:
asked us by Jack Christ to buy her a drink.)
Son, I am going to tell you something
The like of which nobody ever was told.
(and the girl said, I’ve got nothing on tonight;
how about you and me going to your place?)
I am going to tell you the story of my mother’s
Meeting with God.
(and I whispered to the girl: I don’t have a room,
but maybe…)
She walked up to where the top of the world is
And He came right up to her and said
So at last you’ve come home.
(but maybe what?
I thought I’d like to stay here and talk to you.)
My mother started to cry and God
Put His arms around her.
(about what?
Oh, just talk … we’ll find something.)
She said it was like a fog coming over her face
And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying
You can stop crying now.
(what can we talk about that will take all night?
and I said that I didn’t know.)
You can stop crying now.

Though I’m still not quite sure why (which in and of itself is generally a good thing) I loved this poem immediately. I love it just as much after several readings.

When I sent a copy to Mike, he replied, “I’ve loved this poem for 35 years.” He sent me another of Patchen’s poems to look at. Equally impressed by that one, I ordered Selected Poems.

I’m sure the archetypes juxtaposed here are part of the appeal of the poem. Most of us men seem to have two images of women, harlot and saint, and often have a hard time reconciling those images. Part of the appeal is the way the theme is developed, simple dialogue that would do Browning proud, no moralizing.

Something about that last line is compelling, too.

Unfortunately, now that I’ve started reading the Selected Poems I’m much more ambivalent about his poetry, which strikes me as remarkably uneven. Too much of it sounds like some mad prophet expounding mankind’s sins. At times it even reminds me of Blake at his worst.

At its best though, as in this poem:

Nice Day for a Lynching

The bloodhounds look like sad old judges
In a strange court. They point their noses
At the Negro jerking in the tight noose;
His feet spread crow-like above these
Honorable men who laugh as he chokes.

I don’t know this black man.
I don’t know these white men.

But I know that one of my hands
Is black, and one white. I know that
One part of me is being strangled,
While another part horribly laughs.

Until it changes,
I shall be forever killing; and be killed.

The simple direct scene he describes is compelling, while still leaving the reader to make his own judgements, though “honorable” is too ironic to ignore.

But the real revelation in the poem comes in the lines, “But I know that one of my hands/ Is black, and one white.” We are both victim and victimizer, and until we realize it, we shall never escape the sorry mess we have created here, sanctimoniously pointing our fingers at others while continuing to victimize others, never quite realizing that we are also victimizing ourselves.

6 thoughts on “Patchen’s Selected Poems”

  1. I’m glad to have had some part in bringing you to Patchen. I’d agree his work is uneven, but when he got it right…. If you have the collected poems, let me say my favorites include The Lute in the Attic, The Lions of Fire, So Be It, Lowellville Cemetery: Twilight (a place near my home), and The Builders. It’s pretty clear from his poetry but is beautifully set out in Larry Smith’s biography “Patchen: Rebel Poet in America,” that he was a powerful person who was filled with real wonder at the beauty of the world and rage at the cruelty of people. Not somebody to take lightly or, apparently, to cross. Henry Miller called him a “sincere assasin” who would “give you the chance to put up your hands before shooting you down.” (Miller’s “Patchen: Man of Anger and Light” is available at

    What else to make of someone who wrote:

    I am the world crier and this is my dangerous career.
    I am the one to call your bluff, and this is my climate.

    Some of my favorite lines of his, though, are from the Journal of Albion Moonlight:

    We still have not tamed the kingdom of the word.
    The word is, to put it plainly, unlettered.
    The word is the call of the tribe from down under the water.
    The word is the way something floats that cannot be seen.
    The word is the thing the wind speaks to the dead.
    The word is the candle at the foot of the throne.

    Your comments on the Lynching poem, by the way, are very much on the mark. Well said.

  2. Thanks for the link, am.

    Some of the painted poems are included in the Selected Poems, but they’re not in the brilliant color shown on the above page.

  3. “victimizing others/oneself”:

    An injustice anywhere is a diminution of justice everywhere.

    The justice you deny to others you also deny to yourself.

    Everyone is against due process until they are sitting in the dock.

  4. I never read Patchen’s “Selected Poems”, but I was introduced to his work back in the mid-1960’s by an instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute – the book was “The Journal of Albion Moonlight” and my instructor was David Zack.

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