Patchen’s “Nobody is a Long Time”

I’ve finally finished Patchen’s Selected Poems. The poems in the last third of the book generally seem less strident than many of the earlier poems. My favorite poems actually seem to have been written to be read with jazz music, which may explain why I’m fond of them.

I was a little surprised to discover that my two favorites from this section follow exactly the same format, though they seem to represent two opposite sides of Patchen’s personality.

Many critics insist on comparing Patchen to Walt Whitman, though I personally see few similarities. This poem, however, does convey some of the same optimism that permeates most of Whitman’s poetry:


In this my green world
Flowers birds are hands
They hold me
I am loved all day

All this pleases me

I am amused
I have to laugh from crying
Trees mountains are arms
I am loved all day

Children grass are tears

I cry
I am loved all day
Pompous makes me laugh
I am amused often enough
In this
My beautiful green world

There’s love all day

Of course, I like this because it’s often how I feel when I’m out enjoying nature and avoiding problems that otherwise might confront me. Though I don’t really feel like “I am loved all day” when I’m out walking, I do feel like I love most of what I behold out there, and loving something doesn’t seem too awfully different from being loved.

Perhaps my favorite poem in the whole collection is this one:


Oh nobody’s a long time
Nowhere’s a big pocket
To put little
Pieces of nice things that

Have never really happened

To anyone except
Those people who were lucky enough
Not to get born
Oh lonesome’s a bad place

To get crowded into

With only
Yourself riding back and forth
A blind white horse
Along an empty road meeting
All your
Pals face to face

Nobody’s a long time

I guess I’ll have to see if there’s a recording of this out there somewhere. These are some of the best blues lyrics I’ve ever heard, and I’ve listened to a lot of blues in my time, though the lack of rhyme would probably suggest a jazz song rather than a traditional blues song.

Nobody is, indeed, a long time.

Patchen’s “The Orange Bears”

I’ve finished the middle third of Patchen’s Selected Poems, and generally I find that I react very much the way I reacted to the first third of the book. I don’t like most of the poems, but I continue to read because I find a few poems that I like very much.

Here’s an example of the kind of poem that I generally don’t like, though this is actually my favorite of this genre:


The lions of fire
Shall have their hunting in this black land

Their teeth shall tear at your soft throats
Their claws kill

O the lions of fire shall awake
And the valleys steam with their fury

Because you are sick with the dirt of your money
Because you are pigs rooting in the swill of your war
Because you are mean and sly and full of the pus of your pious murder
Because you have turned your faces from God
Because you have spread your filth everywhere

O the lions of fire
Wait in the crawling shadows of your world
And their terrible eyes are watching you.

I don’t really disagree with much of what Patchen says; I agree that money, greed, too often seems the root of our problems rather than the answer to them. You know I’m tired of pious wars. Right? That should be a given by now.

I suppose what I object to most is the tying of God to the “Lions of Fire” and the general apocalyptic tone of the poem. Filth and pus strike me as far too hysterical to be effective.

And this is the best of these types of poems. Many lack even the restraint shown here, and are reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

About the time that you decide you really don’t need to read any further, you find a gem like this one:


The Orange bears with soft friendly eyes

Who played with me when I was ten,

Christ, before I’d left home they’d had

Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs

Seared by hot slag, their soft trusting

Bellies kicked in, their tongues ripped

Out, and I went down through the woods

To the smelly crick with Whitman

In the Haldeman-Julius edition,

And I just sat there worrying my thumbnail

Into the cover—What did he know about

Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal

And the National Guard coming over

From Wheeling to stand in front of the millgates

With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers?

I remember you would put daisies

On the windowsill at night and in

The morning they’d be so covered with soot

You couldn’t tell what they were anymore.

A hell of a fat chance my orange bears had!

The anger’s obviously still there, but here it’s been channeled better, and the ideas driven home by their very understatement. What a beautiful contrast between Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and a world where the daisies are covered in soot in a single night.

What kind of world do we live in where the gentlest people are crushed by an economic system that puts profit before lives?

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.