Perfect Sound Forever

Hearing Each Other

Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz
by Mike Wood
(May 2006)

Ignored both by the academy and by the street, Kenneth Patchen's rebellion against and challenge to conformity continues even in death. His black mark seems to be that he truly believed in freedom, which put him outside hip fads, outside any political groups left or right that demanded his loyalty, and where no critics' asses would be kissed. He followed his own vision to the end, with little recognition or financial success. His poems, paintings, "painted books" and novels, make him to the 20th century what Whitman was to the 19th, and a close to a true Dadaist, minus the nihilism, of any American. His novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, is one of the greatest written by an American; its absence from official critical conversation is a further disgrace to academia. While tenured professors fawn over any literary theory that floats over from France, American writers who do not fit into neat post-modern paradigms, or who challenge whatever canon is currently hip, are ignored. Language is distancing enough as it is; the obsession with linguistic pretension further distances one from an actual cultural discourse that all can participate in. Patchen risked ridicule and poverty to speak both to the powerful and to the powerless. Henry Miller called Patchen "the living symbol of protest" in his essay "Kenneth Patchen: Man of Anger & Light." It was his compassion for communicating eternal truths that made his connection to music authentic. His hope, for art and for the country, rivaled what Toqueville saw when he first hopped off the boat in Newport. His was a voice unafraid to be hopeful, accusatory, sentimental, alone.

That voice also resonated with a musical quality that stands as authentic in a genre with more misses than hits. Literary readings backed up with live musical backup need not be a relic of the Beat era, as recent recordings by Alvin Lucier, Harry Partch, Lee Ranaldo, John Trudell, and virtually the entire career of Linton Kwesi Johnson attest. What has tended to treat most such outings as dated has been the actual recordings from the early days of the experimentation, which have not aged well. Whether it be Allen Ginsberg's self-satisfied sutra chanting, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's high school-quality profundity, or Michael McClure's kooky old Saxon phraseology, poetry read with jazz in the 50's seems to reflect the lack of an internal filter rather than possession of collaboration. Earlier attempts to meld poetry and music, such as Richard Hulsenbeck's "Negro Songs" or Hugo Ball's proto-scat, while shocking and daring in intent, were initial steps in creating an organic music with poetry performance.

Only Jack Kerouac too read with soul, and tried to feel the seams where the rhythms of his words could complement and amplify the band's harmonic ideas. Like Patchen, his reading and listening was true and un-self-conscious, which made him more open to trying to belong to the music rather than impose his voice on it.

Patchen used his voice as an extra instrument in the band, as extra color on the pallette. Like Kerouac who was a huge fan of Charlie Parker, Patchen was sensitive to the long improv lines of the sax, the hard bop time of the drummer. His ear is sensitive also in its awareness of the spiritual potential of the music; there is an ecstatic quality to his phrasings. The best example of this is his 1959 collaboration with the Al Neil Trio, released originally released on Folkways, and recently reissued on Locust Music as Kenneth Patchen Reads With Jazz in Canada.

On the record, Patchen is both relaxed and playful. Neil's piano strolls in and among the poet's lines, each building off the other, hearing each for moments to push the narrative further. Al Neil's narrative is not boundary-threatening: it is straight hard bop with a surprisingly tender progression. On the suite "Four Blues Poems", his long lines follow the sax, the piano guiding both:

"How come that gun colored fellow won't let us into the Hippodrome?"

"When the day seems to die in our arms and we have not done much that is beautiful."

The short story, "As I opened the Window," a joyous drunken, slightly perverse tale of aging night owls on the town, allows Patchen to be both subversive and reassuring, like the bop swinging behind him. His story becomes a call to freedom and a salute to the absolute wonder of each human.

His ear for the difficult rhythms of free music can also be seen in his erratic 1949 collaboration with John Cage, who wrote the music for Patchen's play The City Wears a Slouch Hat. His libretto of the struggling man in a treacherous world where both men and machine try to kill a pure heart, pulsates along with Cage's proto-industrial score, words and music creating claustrophobia, disorientation, and wonder. This score was a hastily- watered down version of what Cage had originally intended. The percussion-driven piece was intended to be a much more involved piece, but the 250-page score was rejected at the last minute by the radio producers. Still, Patchen's sense of rhythm and of how the music fit the mood of the piece is apparent in his lines. While Patchen's tendency to risk preciousness with his empathy exists—and here often crosses that line, there is his usual love and hope in the defiance of his characters.

If it has been treacherous and often foolish for legendary poets to try and match sonic wits with an improvising band listening in to the rhythm of the words, it has been impossible and sad for amateurs. In 1987 I attempted to read a long poem backed by a jazz band at one of the greatest venues for experimentation still standing, Providence's own AS220. Since I was 21, the poetry was fatally infected with shock and pride, but the band was great. The alto had the lead, and the drummer tried to follow my lines, at times anticipating the breaks that more mature poetry would have produced, but didn't. I at least tried to have my ear open enough to follow, not graft, to rhythm. So I drank and read long lines about a woman I saw in Boston, about how I fell in love with her face, and couldn't write about her, let alone get up the nerve to speak to her. My poem talked of buying a packet of shitty poems sold by a homeless guy in Harvard Square, and leafing through them, hoping they would give me an idea of how to speak to this girl. The music screeched and mumbled, trying to coax energy from defeated, speechless words, like a conversation between George Garzone and Humbert Humbert. The sax player told me to wrap it up between each of his solos, and the bass player's born-again parents told me after the show that they were worried for my soul. My words made the music try too hard, and I didn't truly hear them. We left the stage with little insight into why we had met in the first place.

Reading with music is always like the old anxiety dream of standing in front of class naked. The image is preposterous and primed for ridicule, an act by a poser trying to be noticed for daring…unless one has a hot body. When done right, by a poet with an ear for the music, with words that complement and adorn the rhythms, the result is masterly. To have a passion for the music does not hurt, either. Kerouac had the ear, and many of his readings approach what Patchen was able to do - but no one surpassed him.

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