"I have in the last, oh fifteen years, as you know, done a great deal of graphic work, and it happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing. In other words, I don't consider myself to be a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend. It gives an extra dimension to the medium of words."

What Patchen is describing is an attempt to move closer to the reader/viewer. The idea behind the marriage of different media on the same page, or in the same frame, is that such a text demands that the audience decode the offered relationships with free and imaginative association. Thus the reader/viewer is transformed through the act of perception. Patchen's visual work is based on a belief that such a poem will foster a new relationship and offer the viewer's mind an alternative to predetermined linear modes of thought. Patchen experimented with the addition of the visual in a number of different ways before finally developing a complete marriage of the words and pictures into one frame, one field.


It is easy to see Patchen's vision of the poet and artist in his earlier experiments with the linguistic and visual. These led Patchen to an "engagement" stage in his relationship to the reader/viewer. He uses the painter Van Gogh as an example of an artist that clearly shares his poetics: ". . . a quality of searching, of clumsiness in the craft almost like Van Gogh for example, whose breaking with tradition seems almost as though he didn't know what to do next. And I think this is the stance of the creator." These experiments were varied and provide an interesting and important line of development toward the later picture poems. Patchen's other written experiments were within two intriguing works of fiction, The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Sleepers Awake. Both novels utilize typographical and visual experimentation intermixed with traditional page composition (Figure 22). All of Patchen's varied work exemplifies a poet unawed by conventions, and skilled in the use of language. The early poems in this progression, for example the three titles Aflame and Afun of Walking Faces, Because It Is, and Hurrah for Anything, each employ crude drawings of an animal accompanying the poem traditionally typeset (Figure 23). These are examples of what his widow Miriam Patchen calls an "engagement".

Figure 22
Figure 23

She describes Patchen's artistic periods as beginning with an "understanding in the painted books to an engagement in the drawings and poems reaching a marriage in the final synthesis of the picture poem form." She includes the limited editions with covers hand-painted as a period of development; but I would refer to another statement of Miriam's in order largely to exclude them from discussion here: "The painted books - limited painted editions - started as purely an economic thing. ...Kenneth became completely enamored of that method of raising money, which is a vulgar way of stating it - bringing forth money from a book." This is not to say that the painted editions lent absolutely nothing to the development of his art. Obviously they were a stage, but not as important as others since the covers were painted as only an afterthought, not in the total or initial conception of the volume - the book as an object or piece of art. It is the silk-screen editions, Glory Never Guesses and A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player (later collected as The Moment and then Wonderings) the "drawings and poems", that offer us a perfect window into the next phase of development : the "marriage" of visual and linguistic in the "picture poems". These works are definitive examples of his development toward his conception of the "total book" and "total artist".

It is important here to look more closely at some of Patchen's influences and artistic connections for a definition of the total book and total artist. By examining Patchen's poetic goals in conjunction with some fundamental beliefs of certain schools of poetry, we will see that though Patchen is related to them he follows a unique path in his experimentations. One of Patchen's primary influences is William Blake. It is well documented and easily recognizable that they share a vision of the total book and artist. Patchen writes in the Introduction to the Book of Job: "Blake dreamed of the beautiful book', written, decorated, engraved, printed and illuminated by one creator." Patchen says of himself: "I have, as much as I could manage, had a hand in the design of all my books." The novels The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Sleepers Awake, the hand-painted covers, and the intimacy of the handwriting on the picture poems all attest to Patchen's commitment to the total book and poet. Henry Miller acknowledged Patchen's myriad artistic abilities, saying, "How interesting, too, are the typographical arrangements he dictates from his books! How competent he can be when he has to be his own publisher! ... From a sickbed the poet defies and surmounts all obstacles. He has only to pick up the telephone to throw an editorial staff into panic. He has the will of a tyrant, the persistence of a bull. This is the way I want it done!' he bellows. And by God it gets done that way." Blake's Lambeth books also attest to their kinship, as well as Patchen's introduction to the Job volume; and Patchen's most famous novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, borrows Albion', Blake's embodiment of both England and the original Cosmic Man. Albion in Blake's work is also the "Adam Kadmon" of the Gnostics and Swedenborg's Cosmic Man.

This kinship with Blake leads inevitably to a look at Patchen's other cousins, whom he would most assuredly consider to be black sheep in his family of poetry; the Dadaists and Surrealists. Patchen is quick to separate himself from those movements; "There is no such thing as super reality. (The surrealists have managed to put on a pretty good vaudeville act for the middle class; but there isn't a religious man among them.)"(Albion, p.307). Patchen also observes: "It is clear to me that when the reader has digested 'The dog ate the cheese and the small boy in the yellow coat coughed' he has embarked on no mean adventure". This suggests that Patchen himself saw little kinship with the Dadaists and Surrealists. This is a strange blindness' on Patchen's part - see the poem 'Saturday Night at the Parthenon' for example. Still the parallels are too blatant to ignore, especially concerning form and the role of the artist. Clearly Dada, Surrealist, and even Concrete poetic elements can be found in The Cloth of the Tempest, Sleepers Awake, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, and In Quest of Candlelighters (Figure 24).

Patchen, the author, and book's narrator share the final vision in The Journal of Albion Moonlight: "I have told the story of the great plague-summer; as an artist I could have wished there had been more structure and design to it, as a man, that there had been less of the kind there was."(p.305). Here then is the role of the storyteller, the writer, the artist. A work with the same theme is the picture poem, 'Alas I remember most what never happened' (Figure 25). This is a sentiment close to the heart of many modern' poets. It is Patchen's apologia as artist, and his statement as a person and as the 'eye' of his work.

Rather than directly deriving from Dada and Surrealism, Patchen's picture poems seems to embody the early years of what is termed Concrete poetry. Concrete poetry can rightly be called a closer match than Dada or Surrealism with some of Patchen's earlier experimentations chronicled around ten years before the Concrete movement officially began. There are many definitions of Concrete poetry; but we need to remember that the Concrete poet is concerned with establishing his linguistic materials in relationship to the field of the page or its equivalent and thus frees himself to abandon predetermined linear measure. Put another way this means the Concrete poet is concerned with making an object to be perceived and experienced rather than "read" (remember the Emblem poets). The visual poem is intended to be seen like a painting. This stance forces the reader/viewer to actively engage their senses when encountering the poem. One of the only impressive Patchen scholars, Larry Smith, justly and firmly states, ". . . Patchen's experiments in Concrete poetry were completed before the movement formally began. It is widely known that the formal beginning, as it was with Breton's publication of his Manifesto, of the Concrete poetry movement began with Gomringer's Constellations (1953), and from Oyvind Fahlstrom's Manifesto for konkret poesie, also in 1953." Patchen's Concrete poetry first appeared in The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941), The Cloth of the Tempest (1943), and Sleepers Awake (1946). Patchen's work during these ripe literary years can be seen to share a thread with many avant-garde painters and writers. If this formula is true; "All definitions of concrete poetry can be reduced to the same formula: form = content / content = form." , then one sees in Patchen an immediate kinship with Apollinaire, Mallarme, and other European poets; with Joyce in Finnegans Wake; and with some American contemporaries including Cummings and Zukofsky. The most vital thread that links Patchen, the Concrete poets, and the Dadaists and Surrealists is their belief in the total book and the total artist. Nahma Sandrow in her study Surrealism: Theatre, Arts, Ideas, suggests how centrally important the conception of the artist was to the Surrealists: "They were artists . . . primarily because art was for them a means of living the surrealist life with intense awareness. In fact, the surrealist felt ... that one's self is his primary artistic creation and must be fully achieved. The artist lives to create and creates in order to live and survive ... Certainly Dada and Surrealism both were considered by their members to be primarily philosophies and ways of life rather than schools of art."

Figure 24
Figure 25

Patchen, though vehemently denying any connection with these movements, holds close the notion that art must realize the form follows function theorem, as is evident in his experiments. Gomringer expresses it succinctly in relation to the poet's goal in life: "The aim of the new poetry is to give poetry an organic function in society again, and in doing so to restate the position of the poet in society." Both believe in rebellion and in the artist breaking boundaries of all mediums, and the inclusion of the reader/viewer intimately in the creation of the art - both being necessary for the final act of creation. Patchen remarked to Miller, "I think that if I ever got near an assured income I'd write books along the order of great canvases, including everything in them huge symphonies that would handle poetry and prose as they present themselves from day to day and from one aspect of my life and interests to another." For Patchen then, true art includes all aspects of the artist's life by crossing all formal boundaries as needed. This relationship fosters the imaginative creativity necessary that has fueled all great art because it befriends and includes the public. This is an aspect of the fundamental act of creation: an educated stumbling upon a treasure, which is experienced first by the artist then transformed and transferred to the reader/viewer.


Miriam Patchen describes the process, and also the circumstances behind Patchen's final 200 works, the picture poems; ". . . inventors work all their lives on trying to do something. The thing they're doing doesn't happen and yet accidentally something else happens, and they discover or create something they hadn't planned on. In a way, this is almost what happened to Kenneth's picture poems and painting poems. When he was very uncomfortable in Palo Alto, bedfast and trying to do things, John Thomas, who is now and was then in the Department of Botany at Stanford, brought us, almost accidentally, some very strange old papers." Patchen himself says, "I would also think that in the cases of the greatest painters there is...a quality of searching, of clumsiness in the craft almost, like Van Gogh, for example, whose breaking with tradition seems almost as though he didn't know what to do next." Another kinship acknowledged by Patchen: "I feel that in the act of creation there is always a losing of contact with the medium; and when this happens to a marked degree, as happened in the case of someone like Picasso. . . For instance, a man like Paul Klee. I feel that every time he approached a new canvas it was with a feeling that "well, here I am, I know nothing about painting, let's learn something, let's feel something' and this is what distinguishes the innovator, the man who destroys, from the man who walks in the footsteps of another." The important idea to take from Patchen's subjective view of himself as an artist is that he identifies himself with painters, not poets. It is also easy to see the influences of these artists on Patchen's visual elements and poetic endeavors.

What, then, is Patchen's attitude toward society? Is it that of the omniscient observer as in the concrete poem, 'The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid/Wearing Lemon-Colored Gloves.' (Figure 26) Not only does the title demand visualization, but the typographical placement of the words demands the tension associated with the title. One must also hear, or more precisely overhear, the cruel scene that is unfolding in front of the reader/viewer. It is in fact the reader/viewer who looks on apathetically, helpless to do anything but move the scene through to its bitter end. The poem is at once a statement about the reader and a denunciation of society via its presentation of the act of premeditated murder and the disregard for life that act implies. This is not Patchen's accumulative social statement, but an early success in the use typography and the field of the page as an instrument for the poet. Patchen was most assuredly a pacifist. Though many of his works do contain graphic depictions of violence, these are mainly a tool to alert the reader to the reality of the life that simultaneously goes on while one is engaged in the poem or the book or the creation of the book. The mass infusion of beauty and love in Patchen's work, though these are terms stuffed with varied meanings, serves as a constant reminder to the reader/viewer that these things, these ideas are still alive, though diluted. "For, he [Patchen] writes and paints with certain abstract understanding of the reconciliation of ego with what Jung called the anima...His best things are acts of reunion." As Blake puts it: "To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal eyes Of Man inwards into the World of Thought, into Eternity Ever expanding into the bosom of God, the Human Imagination." Patchen shares with Blake and with many others the belief that the real beauty and love of our lives come not from the natural outside world, but from within ourselves. As Patchen says, "The one who comes to question himself has cared for mankind."

Figure 26

Patchen's own sentiment to restore humanity to peace and love and to foster a love for all living things, plants and animals, is accurately expressed there and is a good point to begin discussing his most important and famous works; the picture poems.


These silk-screens of Patchen's early period, drawings accompanied by handwritten poems, were more illustrated or illuminated manuscripts than the later picture poems but are noteworthy for their vivid use of color, and the large format, eleven by fourteen inches, which was to be close to the size of the final picture poems, eleven by seventeen. The reproductions of most of Patchen's picture poems were in black and white and this does not do justice to the brilliancy of color. Still, with the reproductions from these limited silk-screen editions and their subsequent mass publication in black and white we see vividly the real beginnings of the marriage of visual and linguistic in Patchen's work.

What truly sets the silk-screened poems apart is the intimacy of the handwriting. Patchen's cursive handwriting is round and solid, strong, clear and legible. In honor the bird' (Figure 27) Patchen's use of the bird as a frame for the words is reminiscent of Blake's framing techniques. The sweep of the line of the bird leads directly through its body to the beak which points to the initial cap "O". The intimacy of the handwriting and the poem being encircled by the bird make for a concentrated, powerful image. This careful placement of text and image and their obvious interplay are missing the only other element that marks the final period, the use of the voice of characters instead of the omniscient poet or story teller.

Figure 27

The picture poems of Patchen's final period of work represent a culmination of his experiments with the synthesis of visual and verbal forms. The poems are Patchen as the total artist, and these are the best examples of his total art.

In the final picture poems Patchen relies on the interplay of characters within imaginative landscapes to convey the meaning and feelings. The technique of using creatures discussing the issue is one Patchen used more and more as the picture poems developed. The method is effective for two reasons: It offers reader's a safe vantage point, yet gives them the power of an eavesdropper to take the information away and process it as they wish. Also, the reader, by virtue of their participation in the act of creation, becomes a character in the world. The characters grew out of Kenneth's love for all animals. As Miriam Patchen states: "His poems, even in later years, were very conscious of the horrors of the world. But, curiously enough, Kenneth always, even in the very beginning, had a great warmth and sense of humor and loved all living things, to the point where he'd do any thing to keep, well, a mouse alive."

This sentiment takes a certain edge off the creatures and one is often left with a warm feeling after encountering the strange shaped beings that inhabit their world. Peter Veres suggests, "The creatures themselves are formed of bits of torn and painted papers, of blots and scribbles, casual silhouettes nudged into life by the addition of an eye or two in the appropriate places, some feet, perhaps feathers, ears, horns, or beak." Veres also says the creatures simply are "there", "just standing around", and "being". This is not wholly true. The creatures are not only alive via the conversations they are having, but by virtue of their sharing their world, the page, with the words and the reader/viewer. Also the fact that they are a pasted in element with some physical dimensionality, and that they are rarely monochromatic, give one the feeling that these creatures are vividly "alive"and an integral and necessary part of the poem. It is the reader/viewer who holds the key to allowing the scene to come into existence, akin to the suspension of disbelief so often referred to in the art of theater and film. These beings seem to be a family of some sort. Some - the King, the Couple, the Tall Yellow Bird - reappear repeatedly in slightly different guises. Critic Alfred Frankenstein has found that: "The only thing consistent about the creatures that inhabit these paintings is that they all have eyes. A good many of them also have beaks and legs and hair, but whether they are birds, people, octopi, or cats is something problematical." There are other elements and animals included in the composite creatures that inhabit Patchen's world; but more important is that they inhabit, they live in the world of the poem--it and they are alive, speaking directly to the reader/listener/viewer, or else being overheard by him. The reader/viewer and the page must come together to bring the poem to life, as in the picture poem 'Ah! Here comes the ninth one now' (Figure 28). The poem welcomes the reader/viewer into the land of the poem with an obvious sense of relief about her arrival. Without the reader/viewer, the "ninth one,"the poem's world is not complete. On the page are the king, who speaks, and seven others, possibly disciples. Is it the ninth month, the birth of a new being? The poem is born again with every reader.

In the picture poem 'Imagine Seeing You Here' (Figure 29) it is the king again who speaks. This time he addresses another, much taller creature, not the reader/viewer. Both creatures have (presumably) two eyes, two feet, and no arms. The listener has a beak. They are under a large, bright sun. One is reminded of the position a book rests in the hands of the reader/viewer. Initially we must take the stance of the eavesdropper, just within earshot of these two creatures. Our ears are already pricked. Visually, the first words of the poem are the largest and share the top third of the poem's world only with the sun. The word 'Imagine' plays a multi-faceted role in the welcoming of the reader. First, the large size of the word in comparison with the others, then its literal meaning, which asks the reader/viewer to enter into that world - to imagine those creatures as real. Their world is similar to ours, and though it may look a little child-like, simplistic, they are speaking English. The next word, 'seeing', is also a signpost that our eyes and the speaker's recognize a friend in this special place. Here, where is here? Here is the page, the world, the field of the poem. The reader/viewer can believe the poem is speaking to her until the smaller type reveals that the conversation is between the smaller crowned creature and the larger bird-like thing with human feet. Patchen I believe develops, as Blake does with his prophetic books, a fabric of meaningful characters that inhabit and converse in a world we all share though do not all see. It is through such conversations that the reader/viewer comes to realize the importance of their participation in this ancient ritual of communication.

Figure 28
Figure 29

Two picture-poems from Hallelujah Anyway, 'Oh Come Now' (Figure 30), and 'I have a funny feeling,' not only share the two sides of a page, but also share in their portrayal of the necessary role the reader/viewer must play.

Figure 30

The first poem is an affirmation that a beautiful place does exist. The issue of where a beautiful place is has been posed as a statement by one of two possible speakers out of four characters on the field of the poem and is being addressed by one of the other two, both of whom have their mouths open. It is possible the characters are responding to a question posed by the reader/viewer, but we will say that the reader/viewer is overhearing this conversation, or has stumbled across this gathering. One of the characters is looking directly out of the page toward the reader/viewer, which assists in understanding the answer to the question, 'What do you think we're all looking out of?'. The question-answer is ambiguous. One can read it as saying that the page, or primarily the book, is still one of the beautiful places left in the world, a sacred place that still survives. The other reading points directly at the self, the reader/viewer, or the characters in the poem, and declares that within each of us there is a beautiful world, our minds, our heads which house our eyes, which feed our brain and imaginations. We are left with two beautiful worlds to ponder: the world of our minds, and the world of engagement in the poem and the book.

In the second poem 'I have a funny feeling' (Figure 31) the reader has eavesdropped on the conversation of the well-dressed couple in the poem. The male figure has on a plaid suit with a tie. The female standing among some plants has flowing hair and seems to be addressing or at least looking at or acknowledging the reader/viewer. The irony is that the reader looks 'peculiar' to these weird creatures when the male looks to be a well dressed elephant man with elf shoes and the female resembles a google-eyed egg-shaped clown. Still, the reader/viewer is acknowledged and spoken to in an understandable language, even though both parties in the encounter look peculiar to each other. The poem needs the reader/viewer to stumble upon the scene in this field and hear the woman say to her friend, 'My they look peculiar', and the reader/viewer needs the poem and its inhabitants in order to look differently at her own existence, to see herself in a new light, or to look objectively at herself. The point of the poem is that peculiarity, and beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and that we as readers/viewers are objects of scrutiny all the time. Once that is known, then that sense of well being needs to be passed on to all the other "peculiar-looking creatures." The relationship is the same one the reader establishes with a book. In the literal sense both the reader and the book exist separately, but their meeting engenders an offspring. The book comes alive in the mind of the reader, there is a suspension of disbelief, and the world of the book is accepted, then embellished by the symbiosis, i.e., by the reader's imagination.

Figure 31

Patchen's later work truly encompasses the new dimension of the visual and linguistic. Here he demands that the reader/viewer be engaged in both the text handwritten by the poet and in the accompanying graphic element on the field of the page. Peter Veres describes the works of this later period: "They are messages from other lands, spoken in our vernacular by vaguely familiar creatures. Figures and words share a continuum of presence and form, a counterpoint of meaning, an interchange of energies. Words as images, images as concepts, co-existing without subservience to each other, are combined to create a richer whole."

What Patchen is affirming in such primal simplicity is the unity of life principal basic to his vision. Each of us shares the responsibility. Just as our relationship to books depends on a suspension of disbelief, so should our lives. In this primal quality of Patchen's art one feels an elemental contact with a visual and verbal archetype, the archetype of communication. Patchen has a fundamental reverence for the positive life inherent in all creatures. He is also a realist, as his often graphic representations of life prove. A person who sees both its horror and beauty must believe in some future for humanity. We cannot separate Patchen from his art. "The fact that out of all the morass of mediocrity and conformity there is this small current of communication, not with an audience limited to 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."

Charles S. Maden


Kenneth Patchen. The Last Interview; Gene Detro: Capra Press, Santa Barbara, p. 19. Detro. interview, p. 18.

Miriam Patchen. "Biographical Sketch, " Kenneth Patchen: Painter of Poems, p. 6.

Peter Veres. The Argument of Innocence: A Selection from the Arts of Kenneth Patchen, pp. 38.

Veres. pp. 38-40.

Miriam Patchen. p. 6.

Kenneth Patchen. Introduction to Blake's Illustrations for the Book of Job.

Detro. interview, p. 21.

Henry Miller. Patchen, Man of Anger and Light, from Stands Still Like a Hummingbird, p. 29.

Kenneth Patchen. "A Note on 'The Hunted City' "Naked Poetry: Recent Poetry in Open Forms, eds., p. 107.

Mary Ellen Solt. ed., Concrete Poetry: A World View, p. 7.

Smith. Kenneth Patchen, p. 115.

Solt. p. 13.

Nahma Sandrow. Surrealism: Theatre, Arts, Ideas, p. 80.

Eugene Gomringer. "From Line to Composition"in Solt, p. 57.

Kenneth Patchen. quoted in Miller, pp. 29-30.

Veres. p. 54.

Kenneth Patchen. Last Interview, p. 19.

James Boyer May. from "Homage to Kenneth Patchen,"Outsider, p. 103.

William Blake. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Kenneth Patchen. Hallelujah Anyway. p. 39 (numbering starts with first poem).

Veres. p. 50.

Veres. p. 44.

Veres. p. 78.

Alfred Frankenstein. "Patchen's Search for a Beautiful World,'"San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, 28 January, 1973, p. 38.

Veres. p. 53.

KUOW Radio. Interview with Kenneth Patchen. quoted in Kenneth Patchen: A collection of Essays, p. 67.

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