Monday, February 21, 2011

A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player (and Everyone Else): The Visual Poetry of Kenneth Patchen

by Stephen J. Gertz

Cover to A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player.

Dadaist, Surrealist, Jazz poet, Beat poet, visual poet - Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) - hellraiser and "naturalist of the public nightmare" - was all of those things, and none of them. He was, resolutely, Kenneth Patchen, that's all; that was that, and that was plenty: forty books of poetry, prose and drama  published during a career that began in Greenwich Village and ended in Palo Alto, California.

"The poet should resist all efforts to categorize him as a painted monkey on a stick, not for personal reasons alone, but because it does damage to poetry itself" (Patchen, letter to a friend).

An early example of Patchen's experiments with visual poetry - his charming and eloquent painted and silkscreened poems - A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player (1955) is a distinctive, joyful melange of text, drawings and decorations that furthered the explorations of Apollonaire with his  calligrams, and the Dadaists and Lettrists from earlier in the twentieth century.

The great fly fleet
From A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player.

Silkscreened from Patchen's original painted manuscript on handmade Japanese paper by fine printer Frank Bacher, many hand-colored by Patchen, A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player is rarely found complete with all eighteen broadsides. Copies, have, alas (but with grudging understanding) been broken up to sell the broadsides individually, each a stunning work of art.

Eureka! A complete copy has now come to market. ABPC records only three copies at auction in the last thirty-five years, one of which was, unsurprisingly, incomplete. This is likely the only complete copy we'll be seeing for quite some time.

Patchen influenced  Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Dick McBride. In 1942 he collaborated with modernist composer John Cage on a radio play, The City Wears a Slouch Hat. During the 1950s Patchen collaborated with Jazz bassist and composer, Charles Mingus, reading his poetry to the Mingus group's accompaniment.

"...I worked with a poet named Patchen. He was wearing his scarlet jacket and sitting on a stool on a little stage in a theatre you walk upstairs to down on fourteenth street.

"We improvised behind him while he read his poems, which I read ahead of time. 'It's dark out, Jack' - this was one of his poems - 'It's dark out, Jack, the stations out there don't identify themselves, we're in it raw-blind like burned rats, it's running out all around us, the footprints of the beast, one nobody has any notion of. The white and vacant eyes of something above there, something that doesn't know we exist. I smell heartbreak up there, Jack, a heartbreak at the center of things, and in which we don't figure at all.' Patchen's a real artist, you'd dig him, doctor. 'I believe in truth' he said, 'I believe that every good thought I have, all men shall have. I believe that the perfect shape of everything has been prepared'" (Mingus, Charles. Beneath the Underdog, p. 330).

Tiger contemplating a cake
From A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player.

Let us have madness openly.
0 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 –
nor ever say
We wanted more; we looked to find
An open door, an utter deed of love,
Transforming day's evil darkness;
but We found extended hell & fog Upon the earth,
& within the head
A rotting bog of lean huge graves.
      – Kenneth Patchen, "Let Us Have Madness"

That was written in 1936, nineteen years before Ginsberg's Howl (1955).

Binding the quiet into chalky sheaves
From A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player.
"His voice is the voice of a conscience which is forgotten. He speaks from the moral viewpoint of the new century, the century of assured hope, before the dawn of the world-in-concentration-camp. But he speaks of the world as it is.

"Imagine if suddenly the men of 1900 — H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin, Romain Rolland, Martin Nexo, Maxim Gorky, Jack London — had been caught up, unprepared & uncompromised, fifty years into the terrible future.

"Patchen speaks as they would have spoken, in terms of unqualified horror & rejection. He speaks as Émile Zola spoke once — “A moment in the conscience of mankind.” (Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Naturalist of the Public Nightmare. From Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959).

In Back Of
From A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player.

 I am the world crier, 
& this is my dangerous career.
I am the one to call your bluff,
& this is my climate.
- Kenneth Patchen

I am the joy of the desiring
The days of my living
are summer days
The nights of my glory
outshine the blazing
wavecaps of the heavens
at their floodtide
Mine is the confident hand shaping this

- Kenneth Patchen

What Indeed!
From A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player.

PATCHEN, Kenneth. A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player. [Palo Alto]: [Printed for the Author by Frank Bacher], 1955. First edition, limited to 200 copies. Folio. Eighteen poems as eighteen silkscreened broadsides, 39 x 30 cm each, printed on handmade Japanese paper, loose, as issued, in screen-printed card portfolio. The copy of acclaimed painter and graphic artist, Ben Shahn, with his bookplate.


Images from A Surprise for the Bagpipe Player courtesy of Lorne Bair Rare Books, which is jointly offering this splendid copy with Between the Covers, with our thanks. Please contact for details.

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