Kenneth Patchen the ‘Blathering’ ‘Creep’ vs. Allen Ginsberg the ‘Irresponsible Mountebank’
This makes me one of the dumb-dumbs who Allen Ginsberg seems to have been so annoyed with: When I finally read Kenneth Patchen’s poetry and heard his jazz recordings a few years ago, I saw it all as an anticipation of Ginsberg et al., more proximate than Walt Whitman or William Blake.
“Let us have madness openly, O men
Of my generation. Let us follow
The footsteps of this slaughtered age:
See it trail across Time’s dim land
Into the closed house of eternity
With the noise that dying has,
With the face that dead things wear—
not ever say.”
—Patchen, from “Let Us Have Madness Openly,” 1936
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” and so on.
—Ginsberg, from “Howl,” 1956
What could be more obvious?
And yet, according to his letters, Ginsberg was not influenced by Patchen, resented the assumption, considered him a “creep,” his poems “random… blathering.”
Here are the four times Patchen’s name comes up in The Letters of Allen Ginsberg:
“I looked up [Kenneth] Rexroth’s connections here, he’s away on vacation but sent me name of a Prof. [Ruth] Witt-Diamant at San Fran State College who runs a poetry institute or club. Moderators are Kenneth Patchen (of all the creeps) (I have been spared meeting him so far but will see him for the sake of my universal conscience),…”
—Letter to Louis Ginsberg, Edith Ginsberg, and Eugene Brooks,
July 10, 1954
“[Y]ou’ll have to see for yourself how [Gregory Corso’s poetry] follows a method and differs from say a random Patchen type blathering.”
—Letter to Carolyn Kizer,
September 10, 1956
“Patchen and cummings had NO influence on 1) Kerouac 2) Corso 3) Burroughs 4) Myself much less Snyder Whalen McClure. They did have some influence on Ferlinghetti.”
—Letter to Monarch Notes, Messrs. Roy, Cooperman,
Leavitt, and Violi,
December 3, 1966
“The discussion on poetry-jazz again is dated, and inaccurate: based mostly on Rexroth-Patchen’s practice rather than Corso, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lamantia, John Wieners, etc.”
And it looks like Patchen had an even lower opinion of Ginsberg and the rest of the so-called “Beat Generation” writers than Ginsberg had of him. In March of 1959, the Village Voice quoted Patchen at length as he launched into a particularly bitter tear about the whole crew in an article titled “Kenneth Patchen on the ‘Brat’ Generation.”
Before laying into the Beats directly, Patchen treats himself to a heap of self-praise: Charlie Parker “owned all my published works.” Charles Mingus loves me. I invented “Poetry-Jazz” back in 1950 with “no thought-out self-consciousness about starting a new medium.”
“Actually there’s been very little real Poetry-Jazz,” Patchen continued, “just a lot of Johnny-come-latelies reading to a jazz background. That sort of stuff is about as important as Ted Malone reading to organ.”*
Before Patchen gave the genre its “public birth” in 1957, “P-J was known as a Bohemian-stunt type thing staged for Life magazine in connection with a story about Frisco’s Beat Generation,” he said. “I’m not part of that scene, and I refuse to be a part of that staged freak show.”
“[T]he Brat Generation” has “no significance whatever as a literary movement. What is remarkable about it is its function in revealing the capacity of the so-called intellectual community to digest what the most strong-stomached swine would find indigestible. I believe that this intellectual community has indeed found its proper spokesmen—irresponsible mountebanks in a freak show brought into existence through the agency of the greatest enemy of the arts and the artist in our time: the minions of Time magazine and all the rest of the mass-media distortionists.
“The word ‘freak show’ is the key to the whole matter. The intellectual community which undoubtedly would still find the mimicking of physical cripples distasteful is now, amazingly enough, captivated, even enraptured, by the spectacle of young men publicly demonstrating the most obviously aggressive and distinctively anti-social symptoms of mental illness. There seems to be an incredible amalgam of masochism and sadism publicly set forth and welcomed by joyless, loveless, unthoughtful members of a new ‘Age of Fish’—or better perhaps, Kitsch—youth.
“Whatever the original intentions of the Beat Generation writers, all is now lost in the sordid mess of potage that is being served up by them. Harmful, hateful, and sniveling-nasty social behavior is to be condemned whether it functions behind the mask of Zen Buddhism, Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself, or what have you. These people have no respect, trust, or affection for themselves, and it follows that they can have none for others. The artist in America has always had a hard time, and his lot is not being made any easier by the raucous clatter of a bandwagon bearing tenth-rate juveniles in their 30s.”
But even as these writers’ poetry has survived them, their aesthetic-philosophical distinctions—which Patchen frames as the difference between an emotional and intellectual “communion” on the one hand and the cynical performance of anti-social tendencies on the other—have not. Over both poets’ protestations, Patchen is frequently categorized as Beat or proto-Beat.
I’m tempted to read Patchen’s words as anticipating later reassessments of the Beats’ legacy. But Patchen’s objection has nothing to do with sexism and oblivious exploitation of privilege. His implicit disgust at the Beats having “a girl stripping to jazz” at a poetry reading is not outrage at exploitation but at profane spectacle. It’s outrage at sheer outrageousness. In that, his view is kind of quaint, if sobering.†
If these guys didn’t want to be associated with one another, they needed to make that clear in their poetry. Maybe Ginsberg should have titled his chapbook Howl & Other Poems Owing Nothing to the Practice of Kenneth Patchen. Patchen could have renamed his poem “Let Us Have Madness Openly… but Not the Anti-Social Madness of Tenth-Rate Juveniles in Their 30s.”
*: Interestingly enough, despite Ginsberg’s work being associated with P-J (including by himself, above), the poet has virtually zero recordings to show for it. Plenty of musical collaborations, much of them improvisation-heavy, but no poetry-jazz per se—none that I and another Ginsberg buff can find—except for one of Ginsberg reading “The Green Automobile” while a jazz record plays in the background. Funny, considering Patchen’s uncharitable description of Beat practice.
†: On the other hand, his profound distrust of mass media is as relevant as ever.