Reading Through the Stacks: 8. War is a Terrible Thing

I’m not going to lie–it took me a while to get through this collection: Selected Poems by Kenneth Patchen. And while the book wasn’t terrible, I’m really glad that it wasn’t the complete poems because I don’t know how much more of his work I really wanted to read.

Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) wrote over 40 books in his lifetime, including a number of volumes of poetry. He also wrote a radio play, and was interested in art. He painted quite a few poems, a couple of which I’ve included here. He considered himself not a painter, but a writer with paint as a medium. There are also a considerable number of his poems that he illustrated, but honestly these are some of my least favorites of his since they rely on very time-bound jokes that are just…not that funny. He had a debilitating spine problem that caused him a lot of pain, and for the latter part of his life he was essentially bound to the confines of his bed.

The book’s best poems are its darkest, which highlight the dark themes through the words themselves–either slipping and oozing or cracking over the tongue as you say them, sticking like sand or grit between your teeth. They echo the sentiments of the poem and make them harsh to read, which is very well done, but other poetic devices seem over used to me like the “O” invocation.

There is a lot of meditation on the nature of death and the violence and injustice of war. Nature and humanity’s actions are often juxtaposed throughout the poems to call attention to the peace, stability, and relative order of nature in contrast to the chaos of mass slaughter and war.

It’s kind of bleak, really. The hopeful lines in the poems seem way more forced. I think this stanza sums up a lot of this book for me:

“The columns of death glow faintly white
Within the forests of this destroying planet.
Here gleeful beasts track each other
Through lanes of winter and rotting heroes.”

Kenneth Patchen from “These Unreturning Destinies”

From the horror of war to women as whores–Patchen or Patchen’s speakers at least, don’t seem to have a very high regard for women, there is a lot of madonna/whore imagery throughout, where women are either carnal, dirty creatures or untouchable idols. Even when love/sex is portrayed positively, it’s with some version of Snow White, white skin, red lips, who is somewhat untouchable. Women are largely objects of desire and contempt, rather than fully realized people, and I have to admit any poet that writes that way is going to immediately limit my enjoyment of their work. I don’t like the dismissal apparent in the line:

“…I said no and she said some female stuff”

Kenneth Patchen from “He Was Alone (As In Reality)”

When Patchen strays into the abstract, he kind of loses me by saying a lot of nothing. But I do think his anti-war and killing poetry is quite moving. He even, which struck me as unusual for a white poet of his era, has nuanced (although not exceptional views–let’s not kid ourselves), about race. In fact, the very discussion of race at all in anything but a perpetuation of stereotypes seems pretty unusual to me for white poets in the late 1930s when some of these poems were written. I’m not trying to give Patchen more credit than he’s do, but it did strike me that he was discussing race in a way that saw the humanity in people both the good and the bad as well as in himself. Of course, the title of the poem, “Nice Day for a Lynching” feels grotesque, but when it was written, that’s probably a sentiment that would have been expressed by white people attending the murder while cheering and posing for photographs. Patchen writes:

“But I know that one of my hands
Is black, and one white. I know that
One part of me is strangled,
While another part horribly laughs.”

Patchen from “Nice Day for a Lynching”

Patchen in this poem attempts to grapple with his complicity, his empathy for suffering, and his whiteness. I haven’t seen this from a lot of white poets, but I don’t care for his conclusion, which focuses more on his own feelings and selfhood than the person who has just been brutally murdered for sport. The poet uses the senseless death as a reckoning with racism and the concept of race but ultimately, in the words of Bo Burnham “Insist[s] on seeing every socio-political conflict / Through the myopic lens of [his] own self-actualization?” However, the reckoning at all in the 1930s is something and reinforces his themes about violence and death in a more nuanced way, as you cannot get a complete look at violence in the United States by looking only at war, you have to look at violence through race and systemic racism.

So…. yeah. I have some complicated feelings about this book. I can’t say I loved it. I can’t say that I’ll ever read Patchen again, but I can’t say I hated the book either.