Kenneth Patchen, Selected Poems (New Directions, 1957)
[originally posted 22Nov2002]
Selected by the New Directions staff after Patchen’s death, Selected Poems was meant to introduce a new generation to the poet and novelist the back cover calls “the most compelling force in American poetry since Whitman.” (One wonders what Allen Ginsberg, whose “Howl” had been published by New Directions two years previous, had to say about that.) The collection does a good job at introduction, and does an even better job at showing the inconsistency of Patchen’s poetic work.
Even those readers who have never attempted creative writing themselves are likely to have had at least one English teacher try and hammer “show, don’t tell” into their heads. Patchen’s contemporary and fellow New Directions poet William Carlos Williams put it even better: “no ideas but in things.” Marshall McLuhan called this immutable rule “the medium is the message.” Patchen understood this, and his best work in this collection shows it in breathtaking style, especially in a collection of short prose pieces from The Famous Boating Party towards the end of the book that are worth slogging through the first hundred pages. However, the majority of those first hundred pages show Patchen forgot it, and regularly, in his fervor to write tepid, ineffectual antiwar poems. It’s hard to imagine the same guy wrote the painfully awkward
He who can come to his own formulation
Shall be found to assume mastery
Over the roads which lead
On the whole human event
(“The Climate of War”)
also wrote the jaw-dropping
Sword on the wind, black knuckles of a thief, is this
King to be left here like a cast-off dog? the bloated
tongues of flies licking the juice of is saving wounds?
(“Red Wine and Yellow Hair”)
As the above section from the uniformly wonderful “Red Wine and Yellow Hair” hopefully makes evident, when Patchen is on his game, he is very, very on his game. Every once in a while, especially towards the end of the book, something rises out of the stew of didacticity and smacks the reader right between the eyes. And those moments are well worth the cover price of this book. I just wish there had been more of them. ***