Miriam Patchen

The Independent, UK, 15 March 2000

MIRIAM PATCHEN was for 37 years the wife and muse of the American poet and novelist Kenneth Patchen.

She was born Miriam Oikemus in 1914 and, like her Finnish parents, was a socialist all her life. She claimed to have been the "youngest card-carrying member of the American Communist Party", having joined at the age of seven.

She met Kenneth Patchen in Boston in 1933 and married him in June 1934. The Patchens moved to New York in 1935, where Kenneth's first book, Before the Brave, was published the following year. From that work to the last, In Quest of Candlelighters, published in 1972 four months after his death, more than 40 works of poetry and prose were all dedicated "For Miriam".

After New York, they lived in Los Angeles and Connecticut before settling in California in 1952. There Kenneth pioneered the fusion of poetry and jazz, working with the Chamber Jazz Sextet and Charles Mingus.

In 1937 Kenneth had sustained a back injury which was severely to affect his mobility and left him bedridden for the last 20 years of his life. It was hoped that doctors in California would be able to help with surgery, but the treatment worsened the condition. Hardship was a theme running through Miriam's life from Kenneth's disability to her own MS and diabetes and the floods of February 1998 when her house in Palo Alto was under two feet of water and mud. These problems she always bore with strength, dignity and a commitment to live life to its fullest.

Since Kenneth's death in 1972, Miriam was tirelessly engaged in campaigns for peace and for poetry. She was well known as part of a group which would hold demonstrations for peace every week in the town of Palo Alto. She frequently took part in readings of Kenneth's work in California and across the US together with Rita Bottoms, a close friend and Curator of the Kenneth Patchen archive at University of California, Santa Cruz.

In May 1998 Miriam visited London to take part in the series of events at the Tate Gallery and Poetry Library around Kenneth's life and work. During her appearance at Word, Image & Rhythms: a celebration of Kenneth Patchen, she enthralled the audience with her readings of Kenneth's poetry, her discussion of his visual work (he created nearly 200 "picture poems") and anecdotes of their time together. This event, organised by Barbara Read, included memorable performances by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Horovitz, Bernard Kops and Anne Waldman.

For the last two years Miriam had been assisting Larry Smith on the biography Kenneth Patchen: rebel poet in America, to be published this month. It is hoped that this biography, as well as the work of the curators of the Patchen archive, will continue Miriam's mission of keeping Kenneth's life and work in the public eye.

Miriam Patchen was a woman of immediate warmth, intelligence and quick-wittedness. She maintained that she never deserved to have known Kenneth Patchen and her later partner, the civil-rights activist Laurent Franz who died two years ago, both of whom she called "remarkable men". In 1998 she was the subject of a film Miriam is Not Amused, a short documentary by Kim Roberts.

Marcus Williamson

Miriam Oikemus: born Waverly, Massachusetts 28 September 1914;
married 1934 Kenneth Patchen (died 1972);
died Palo Alto, California 6 March 2000.

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