categories: Contemporary Literature
University of Houston Special Collections recently acquired a new addition for our Kenneth Patchen Collection. This nine page letter from the poet’s wife, Miriam Patchen, to Ida Hodes is dated May 31, 1963 and includes Ms. Hodes’s response. The letter highlights the physical and financial struggles of both Kenneth and Miriam and will be included alongside other correspondence in the collection.
The arc of Kenneth Patchen’s life and artistic career reads like an outsider artist archetype. Born in Niles, Ohio in 1911, his father was a steelworker in the heart of the nation’s thriving foundry. A ravenous reader and writer at a young age, Patchen sidestepped his blue-collar inevitability to forge and enter an artistic world. Earning a scholarship to Alexander Meiklejohn’s Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Patchen would have his first taste of publishing success (a poem in the New York Times, no less) and cut his formal education short, traveling around the country, writing, and working odd jobs for a number of years. It was during this time he would meet Miriam Oikemus, with whom he would spend his life as she worked beside him and cared for him while he battled crippling pain from a back injury he suffered in his twenties.
Before there was the stereotype of the beatnik poet capped by a black beret, reading poetry in a coffeehouse while the lurid notes of jazz trip through the smoky air, Kenneth Patchen was appearing in nightclubs along the West Coast, reading on college campuses, and recording with jazz ensembles. Before the Beat Generation’s seething and bubbling of the 1950s threatened to explode into the counterculture of the 1960s, there was the small, devoted following of a poet named Patchen, who had a habit of mixing his media. His poetry spoke too boldly to simply be confined to the page as he experimented with poetry-jazz (the mixture of the language of poetry fused with the improvisational medium of music) and the picture poem (where the words are given opportunity to play off the visuals of the paint).
Patchen struggled with pain, however, and the financial impact was pronounced. Fellowships and income from publishing no doubt helped, but limited ability to tour, lecture, or give readings kept money tight. A surgery fund established by fellow poets (including such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, and W.H. Auden) helped and, with proper medical care, Patchen seemed to be headed towards a better quality of life. It was the 1959 surgical debacle however, resulting in severe injury to his back, that left Patchen bedridden for the majority of the last 13 years of his life. By the time he passed away in 1972, Patchen had published 43 books of poetry, prose, and picture poems, though his creative successes were no doubt cut short by the physical pain with which he struggled. The balancing of finances as well as the day to day drudgery and heartache proved difficult for both Kenneth and Miriam as we see highlighted in this new acquisition.
In piecing together a medical malpractice suit related to his injury, Miriam’s frustration is evident as she attempts to placate their attorneys and place a price tag on her husband’s worth. Miriam writes to Ms. Hodes, a former contact at the Poetry Center, “Apparently, the only crime is to deprive a wage-earner of a salary. That’s all we get from the law. ‘How much have you lost?’ When? How? My apologies–I’m nearly hysterical with the weight of these 4 years.”
Kenneth Patchen would pass away in 1972 while Miriam Patchen, to whom Kenneth would dedicate all of his works, passed away in 2000.
A number of Patchen’s works are available in a variety of media in Special Collections. If you see something of interest, please let us know and we’ll set it aside for your visit. Of course, no trip would be complete without a peek into Patchen’s papers, a collection including materials related to his diverse creative works and their promotion as well as personal correspondence and photographs.