Kenneth Patchen - We Meet


The first line of jacket copy on the back cover of We Meet betrays a grim truth: "Meet Kenneth Patchen, a prolific, ground-breaking proletarian poet/painter whose most eclectic and wildly eccentric works are re-launched in a single startling volume."

For 90% of browsers who pick up this new compilation in a bookstore, it will be their first encounter with Patchen, who has been relegated to the margin of the literature canon for decades. And for 100% of these new readers who actually follow through and make the purchase, their vision of Patchen will be incomplete. 

Henry Miller put it best when he characterized Patchen as "a man of anger and light." Perhaps more than any author in American Letters, he was the most binary. In We Meet, we see his light. But the celebration loses much of its power when divorced from the darkness that gives his writing its dimension.

Although Patchen conducts a two-sided dialogue throughout most of his work - between the destructive and creative forces at work within the human condition - the voices are, at times, indistinguishable. It is clear that both his joy and his despair are amplified by one another, and are thus intimately correlated. When he speaks of war, the sense of tragedy is derived from an imagining of war's opposite: the virginal beauty of nature, the healing properties of love, the ecstasy of spiritual communion. When he rejoices in these sensations, it is in a spirit of violent disavowal of ugliness.

What is collected in We Meet are his most surreal expressions of this dialectic, with a heavy emphasis on celebration. The vocabulary is wholly unique - his characters operate in a continuum whose outlandish parameters blur with our own, perhaps even coincide seamlessly. We see manifestations of ourselves, troubled creatures attempting to cultivate virtue, to connect. Like us, they do not always succeed. But the thread that binds their stories together is the possibility of consummation. Through the tribulations of Patchen's bizarre gallery we glimpse the end of a trajectory – a landscape of unmitigated togetherness. It is the faltering, the abandonment of that trajectory that sends him plummeting into rage.

Part of the umbrage seeps through in a few spots throughout the book, especially in the "Anything for Hurrah" section. Tones of fury and weariness underlie much of the "eccentricity," though the depth of that fury is obscured to anyone who is not familiar with Patchen's more confrontational work. Consequently, the selections here may come across as mere wordplay, whimsy, fancy. What gives Patchen's work its frequently overwhelming power is his anger, which, in this instance, is mostly implied. At his best (which is his most bellicose), his writing is more potent than 100 Howls compressed to the point of fission, exploding directly into one's heart and mind with the force of a dying star. What we see here is not really Patchen at his best.

It is unclear whether or not New Directions intends for this new volume to be an introduction for the uninitiated. If so, We Meet as a vehicle for popular revival may ultimately suffer from its lack of supernovas. Its great success is in encapsulating one very important element of his work. The book is a joy to read – engaging, funny, fascinating. But it represents the least seductive of the elements: in Patchen’s reality, the phantasmagoric picnic is the reward at the end of a very long, very unsettling journey through the valley of the shadow. And without the hike, the meal loses some of its flavor.

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