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October 25, 2011

Beyond words

Exhibition highlights Kenneth Patchen’s fusion of poetry and image

Kenneth Patchen’s experiments with text and art pioneered the painted poem. He “blurred the boundary between print and art,” says exhibit curator Richard Peek, director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation.

The University is hosting the largest ever exhibition of the graphic art of Kenneth Patchen, the controversial 20th century poet-painter who pioneered the anti-novel, concrete poetry, poetry-jazz, and picture-poems.


An Astonished Eye: The Art of Kenneth Patchen runs through Jan. 5 in Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation.

The exhibition presents a collection of more than 200 painted books, silk-screen broadsides, picture poems, paintings, photographs, and inscribed first editions. The show pays tribute to a prolific artist whose work gained widespread attention and whose readings of poetry accompanied with jazz were a phenomenon in the 1950s.

“Patchen blurred the boundary between print and art,” says exhibit curator Richard Peek, director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation. Though first and foremost a poet, he adopted the idea of the “total artist,” extending his creative process to include printing, book binding, and design, says Peek. Whether in text or image, Patchen’s work was infused with a “strong moral voice driven by a wild imagination,” Peeks says.

Infuriating to critics and largely ignored by academics, Patchen has been lauded as “the best poet American literary expressionism can show” by Poet Laureate James Dickey and as “all that a poet should represent” by novelist and painter Henry Miller. His boosters, including James Laughlin, Kenneth Rexroth, and E.E. Cummings, “would constitute a Who’s Who in 20th–century American letters,” writes Peek in the catalog to the show.

Patchen writings, published from the 1930s until his death in 1972, have been labeled as romantic, proletarian, socialist, surrealist, dadaist, and beat, but his work ultimately defies categorization. Of his dozens of books, the antiwar novel The Journal of Albion, completed just as the United States would enter World War II, is considered a landmark of experimental literature and has remained in print ever since.

As a visual artist, Patchen is remembered for his ambitious experiments with typography and collage, his painted books, abstract paintings, painted poems, and drawings.

His pioneering “poetry-jazz,” in which he fit his free-form verse with the fusion of West Coast “cool” and East Coast “hot” jazz, attracted a solid following in the 1950s. As a performing artist, he toured widely, if briefly, and recorded with jazz greats Ally Ferguson, Alan Neil, and Charlie Mingus. His poetry has inspired new works from more than 40 composers, including Eastman School graduate John Hollenbeck, ’90, ’91 (MA), whose new CD based on Patchen’s poetry, What Is the Beautiful?, was commissioned for the exhibit. (Listen to a track:

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