Kenneth Patchen

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Kenneth Patchen
Born December 13, 1911
Died January 8, 1972

Kenneth Patchen (December 13, 1911 – January 8, 1972) was an American poet and novelist. Though he denied any direct connection, Patchen's work and ideas regarding the role of artists paralleled those of the Dadaists and Surrealists. Patchen's ambitious body of work also foreshadowed literary art-forms ranging from reading poetry to jazz accompaniment, to the kind of poetry and prose identified as "Beat," to experiments with the oblique approaches to language found in post-modernism, to his late experiments with visual poetry (which he called his "picture poems").


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Career
    • 2.1 Musical collaborations and recordings
  • 3 Bibliography
  • 4 External links


Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio. His father made his living in the nearby steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio. Patchen began to first develop his interest in literature and poetry while he was in high school.

Patchen's first poem was published in the New York Times while he was still in college. He attended Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College for one year, then left school and traveled across the country, working itinerant jobs. He later attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and while still an undergraduate, met Miriam Oikemus at a friend's party. Though they lived far from one another at the time, they soon fell in love, got married, and moved to Greenwich Village, where Patchen struggled to make a living as a writer.

A major tragedy occurred in Patchen's life when he suffered a permanent spinal injury while he was trying to fix a friend's car. This injury caused him an extreme amount of pain and required multiple surgeries. Although the first two surgeries seemed to help with some of his pain, a botched third surgery ended up disabling Patchen for life.

Patchen and his wife also spent much of their lives in California where Patchen became an integral part of the West Coast poetry scene. Then, in Patchen's final years, the couple moved to a small farm house in Connecticut where Patchen eventually created his distinctive painted poems.

Throughout his life-time, Patchen was a fervent pacifist (as he made clear in much of his work) and was against U.S. involvement in World War II. This controversial view, coupled with his immobilization, kept Patchen from ever achieving much success outside of a cult following.


Patchen's early books of poetry were his most political and caused Patchen to be championed, early on, as a Proletariat Poet. This title, which Patchen rejected, never stuck, since Patchen's work varied widely in subject, style, and form. As his career progressed, Patchen continued to push himself into more and more experimental styles and forms, developing, along with writers like Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth, what has come to be known as jazz poetry in the process. He also experimented with his child-like "painted poems," many of which are collected in the book What Shall We Do Without Us.

During the course of his career, Patchen tried his hand at writing experimental novels like The Journal of Albion Moonlight and The Memoirs of A Shy Pornographer, as well as the radio play The City Wears A Slouch Hat.

Patchen was a major influence on the Beat movement, admired by writers like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

His Collected Poems was first published in 1968.

The only existing biography of Patchen, Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet In America, was published in 2000 by Larry Smith.

Musical collaborations and recordings

In 1942 Patchen collaborated with the composer John Cage on the radio play The City Wears A Slouch Hat.

In the 1950's, Patchen collaborated with Charles Mingus, reading his poetry with Mingus' jazz combo. Unfortunately, no known recording of their collaboration exists.

Moe Ash of Folkways Records made some recordings of Patchen reading his poetry and excerpts from one of his novels. These recordings were released as "Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada" (1959), "Selected Poems of Kenneth Patchen" (1960), and "Kenneth Patchen Reads His Love Poems" (released 1961). "From Albion Moonlight" was recorded later at Patchen's home but not released until 1972 by Folkways.

The recording Kenneth Patchen Reads With Jazz In Canada was released onto CD by the label Locust Music in 2004.

Many of his poems have been set to music by David Bedford. Others who have also set Patchen's work to music include: Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann , with his solo album entitled "14 love poems + 10 more" released on the FMP label ; Composer Kyle Gann has set his voice reading a text to music (see below) and violinist Carla Kihlstedt set a text on the "Patchen" track of her solo Tzadik release Two Foot Yard.


  • Before the Brave, 1936
  • First Will and Testament, 1939
  • The Journal of Albion Moonlight, 1941
  • The Dark Kingdom, 1942
  • Cloth of the Tempest, 1943
  • The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, 1945
  • An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air, 1946
  • Outlaw of the Lowest Planet, 1946
  • The Selected Poems of Kenneth Patchen, 1946
  • Sleepers Awake, 1946
  • Panels for the Walls of Heaven,1946
  • Pictures of Life and Death, 1946
  • They Keep Riding Down All the Time, 1946
  • CCCLXXIV Poems, 1948
  • Red Wine and Yellow Hair, 1949
  • Fables and Other Little Tales, 1953
  • Poems of Humor and Protest, 1954
  • Hurrah for Anything, 1957
  • When We Were Here Together, 1957
  • The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen, 1960
  • Hallelujah Anyway, 1966
  • But Even So, 1968
  • Wonderings, 1971
  • In Quest of Candlelighters, 1972
  • The Argument of Innocence, 1976
  • Patchen's Lost Plays, 1977
  • Still Another Pelican in the Breadbox, 1980
  • So Many Little Dyings mp3, a song by Kyle Gann with a sample of Patchen reading
  • Kenneth Patchen Survey
  • Patchen: Man of Anger & Light, by Henry Miller
  • Essay on Patchen as a great poet
  • Picture Poem Examples
  • Poem by Patchen protesting war
  • Obituary of Miriam Patchen by Marcus Williamson in The Independent (UK)
  • Text of the Poem "Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?"
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