I have a cartoonish sense of the beatniks, the kind of pop-informed cliche vision—people in black turtlenecks snapping in some 50s era coffeehouse—that poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) would have hated. Patchen pioneered the poetry-jazz movement of the late 50s, donning his bright red, second-hand sport coat to perform his poetry accompanied by a jazz quartet in places like San Francisco’s Blackhawk Club.
A reviewer for the New York Times was just as impressed with Patchen’s book of poems Hurrah for Anything as he was with Patchen’s hyper-bohemian lifestyle. “‘The world Kenneth Patchen lives is wild with surprise, love and words, complete in its own fantastic system,” he wrote, “too much glorious, crazy, love-bemused, bitter, word-drunk and wonder-struck to say.”
As for Patchen, who was successful, but utterly broke, he despised the cheap commercial turn poetry had taken, with both Life and Time doing articles on the whole poetry-jazz scene, which they lumped in with the striptease-to-poetry trend.
‘The poet should resist all efforts to categorize him as a painted monkey on a stick,” Patchen wrote to a friend, “not for personal reasons alone, but because it does damage to poetry itself.”
One of my favorites of his poems is “The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon Colored Gloves.” On the page it perfectly expresses those times, or how I imagine them anyway, and the recorded version of Patchen reading it is transportive. Check it out!
You can listen to the poetry-jazz version following the link…