Bernard Kops on Kenneth Patchen

Friday 4 July 1997 by Marcus Williamson

MW : Can you say a little about how you came to know Patchen's work?

BK : I think it was in 1947, when I was very mixed up and pretty lost, feeling completely isolated from my family. The end of the war had come and we discovered all our relatives in Europe had been murdered and there was Hiroshima.

So it was really a dark place, the world in those 40's. The Cold War had just started, there was no relief in the gloom, it was just a terrible kind of isolation that I felt and I wanted also - I was completely lost in my own head - to get away from the family, the family couldn't understand me, I couldn't understand myself. So, I drifted into Soho where I found a lot of people from different backgrounds all of them kind of lost and seeking some kind of oasis.

Practically right at the start, feeling quite lost and distraught, I saw this guy at the next table, laughing. His name was Don Flowerdew and he was reading a book. He was laughing and I thought "Oh my god, someone's laughing". And I said "What are you laughing at?" and he said "This". It was about this guy, who I think was, or woman, who was stroking a dead mole or stoat or something. I think it was like "Hey, you take this, it's all used up", or something. And I thought "That's fantastic", you know, what a wonderful idea, you know what I mean. So I said "Who is he? Who wrote that book?" "Kenneth Patchen" "Kenneth who?"

I hadn't really started reading properly, hadn't got into my reading life, but immediately I got into American literature through Kenneth Patchen. You know, Tennessee Williams, led me onto Arthur Miller, especially Salinger. And I think there was this incredible breath of fresh air. But what was interesting, I think, was the fact that this was a different ethos, it was full of sunlight, it was very different from the dark world I was inhabiting. And then I read Outlaw of the Lowest Planet and I thought "My god", you know, England was the lowest planet and I was certainly an outlaw. I got this sense of hey, I wasn't all alone in this world, in this universe, there was someone else who was also a bit like me. You know, who was an iconoclast. At the same time there was a kind of residual optimism in the dark world and it was the iconoclasm, the jokey, kind of wonderful distancing himself from the American ethos, let's say. And I think that was very important to me at that point, to realise that there were others in the same situation, there were other people who inhabited my universe.

So, I think that's what he gave to me really. Not only did he give me a sense of inner, well, contentment, that I wasn't so mad, but he also gave me this idea of optimism, a kind of relentless optimism against all the odds. And I think those two things together were very important to me and I'm not saying that he was the defining influence, but he gave me American literature. He gave me Robert Frost and he gave me Berriman, he gave me New Directions, you know. So I was into a new literature and I was into the New World and I was into the fact that there was life after death.

MW : When did Patchen touch you later on? For me Patchen touched me first when I was a student. Later on I couldn't find his books anywhere, I looked around all sorts of places in England and really it seemed very difficult to find any of them.

BK : Well, I mean, I read a lot of the books. You know, I used to follow publishers and I thought well, Grey Walls Press. There must be a strange guy who publishes this person because he was pretty well unknown. I like the typography of Kenneth Patchen. There was one poem I think called "Cat", or something, you know, where it's like this cat and the typography of it was the cat is slowly moving towards its prey and then there's the word "Now". Do you know the poem I mean?

MW : Yes, there's another poem which he does which is The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-Colored Gloves and again you get the typography and the separation of the words.

BK : So I reckon that he must have been obviously well read with Appolinaire and people like that, Eluard and all the French poets. And this idea of how to lay out a poem so that it has a visual impact as well became very important to me, certainly as a playwright. How words themselves have such a kind of power, the way they use each word. It gave you a sense of editing, there was nothing arbitrary about the use of words. It was a lot of things really. So I sought out Grey Walls Press and I remember finding the man who ran it called Wrey Gardiner. I found him in the phone book and I phoned him up and I became very friendly with him. He was an amazing man, full of optimism himself. I don't know how many wives he had. Crazy man, Englishman. But very different and I read practically every book at that point that Kenneth Patchen wrote. Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer was particularly a favourite but then that was probably his best known work purely because of the title.

MW : Exactly.

BK : It's no better no worse than any of his other works.

MW : I read a story that Dennis Gould put together in a book called Love and War Poems as a short anthology of Patchen's work. In it he says that he went to the British Library and that book had been put into a special section because they thought it contained pornography.

BK : It's quite an innocent book. There's a great deal of innocence and affirmative kind of values in Kenneth Patchen. I suppose he inherits in a way the best part of the American ideal. You know the city on the hill, the kind of idealism, there's that kind of...still sticks in my mind, a kind of love poem to his wife, or is it a book? And it's very beautiful. And in those days in this country there was a great deal of irony and cynicism and there was straight, beautiful, emotional, clear-cut writing which I loved. So, in a sense he was one of the first icons in my career and he stayed there of course. The important thing about Patchen, I suppose, was the fact that he was a key writer and allowed others to come through.

And I knew Ginsberg very well indeed and I stayed some time in Israel, Ginsberg was there living in my flat and he always acknowledged the debt. And I think that he was a key bridge in American literature. He allowed other writers to take a journey, right? Which I think's very important because the avant-garde writers of America - I got to know America through its writing and completely lost myself in American writing, it was one of the greatest literatures as far as I was concerned, I'm talking about Spearhead and New Directions, William Carlos Williams, e.e. Cummings and I remember these poems like "Anyone lived in a pretty house with upside..." And all that, I think Kenneth Patchen was one of the avant garde and allowed that to happen.

MW : So do you think he was recognised enough for what he did?

BK : No, no, no. But then...

MW : That's what Alan Clodd says in his introduction to the Tribute to Kenneth Patchen to which you contributed. He says that he simply isn't recognised enough.

BK : I suppose more people know about me in this country than about Kenneth Patchen. And I think Kenneth Patchen was too early for his own good. Had Kenneth Patchen come twenty years later he would have been saluted with the Beatniks and with the Dharma Bums. He would have belonged to those people who changed their society. I mean, you could say that he was the beginning of Bob Dylan. I call Kenneth Patchen an icon, but of course he's not an icon that everyone knows about in the way that Bob Dylan might be or even Ginsberg or Kerouac. But in fact I think he was more important because he didn't follow a trend but kind of fertilised it, started it. And in a way - I don't know where he came from in his own literature, in his own lifestyle, it must have been through a lot of suffering and being misunderstood - he had no real mentor and there was no guiding light for Patchen. I think that's maybe one of the most important things about him was that, you know, he was kind of alone and he had the simplicity and purity of Robert Frost and the clarity of the other poets of that time but he also took chances.

I'll never forget, when I was first in Israel, there was a film called Hill Twenty Four Doesn't Answer and the young kid girl is going to fight. The night before the battle she says to the Rabbi "Why is it that those who believe the most suffer the most?" - it's a question I always ask myself - and he said "Those who believe the most are in the avant garde and they attract the first onslaught of the enemy". And that probably kind of sums up the way Patchen was, if you like, not recognised.

But then again, I don't think he was a person for the age of hype, you know. He was a very early pioneer striking out. And if there's a lasting tribute to him it's what he did, how he opened up the way for everyone else.