of the earliest figures associated with the literary beat movement, Kenneth Patchen was an avant-garde writer, poet, and artist whose work consistently demonstrated his proletarian roots, as well as his commitments to pacifism, socialism, relentless experimentation with literary form, and radical human consciousness. From 1936 to 1972, Patchen published more than 36 books of poetry, fiction, and drama, including experiments in the antinovel, concrete poetry (see visual poetry), poetry and jazz (several of his recordings have been released on the Folkways record label), irrational tales and verse, and painting. Strongly influenced by Walt Whitman and William Blake, Patchen's unique aesthetic followed no particular group or style, and, like Blake, he saw his art as the visionary work of a poet-prophet. From his introduction to Blake's The Book of Job (1947) also came one of Patchen's many assertions of personal and artistic freedom, a cry for personal liberty that contributed to the ethos of an emerging post-World War II American counterculture: "Do what you want and what you want will make / everybody more beautiful."
The third of five children in a working-class family, Kenneth was born in Niles, Ohio. An excellent student and athlete, Patchen worked two summers in the Ohio steel mills with his father and brother to supplement his college scholarship at Alexander Meilejohn's Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin. Later he studied with his mentor, Meilejohn, at the Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, but Patchen soon became disenchanted with academics and left after one semester. In 1967 he received an award from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities for "lifelong contribution to American letters."
Working at odd jobs and traveling in the United States and Canada from 1930 to 1933, Patchen continued his writing. "Permanence," a sonnet, was published in the New York Times in 1932. Before the Brave (1936), Patchen's first book of poetry, set out his favored themes of love and pacifism in the years leading to world war. In "Class of 1934," a bitter survey of the prewar political climate, he writes, "Hitler offers / Death Death." As the war churned on, Patchen wrote prolifically and angrily about its destructiveness. His refrain, "To hell with power and hate and war," in "Instructions for Angels" (1945) characteristically precedes an equally fervent call to love and humanity. Refusing the violence and death of battle, the speaker locates instead the life-giving power of his lover, for "in her eyes / Is a country where death can never go" ("All the Roses of the World" ).
In 1959 a surgical accident permanently damaged his spine, and Patchen was bedridden for the remainder of his life. This, however, did not prevent him from continuing to write and paint.
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