Poems by Kenneth Patchen


Street Corner College

Next year the grave grass will cover us.
We stand now, and laugh;
Watching the girls go by;
Betting on slow horses; drinking cheap gin.
We have nothing to do; nowhere to go; nobody.

Last year was a year ago; nothing more.
We weren’t younger then; nor older now.

We manage to have the look the young men have;
We feel nothing behind our faces, one way or other.

We shall probably not be quite dead when we die.
We were never anything all the way; not even soldiers.

We are the insulted, brother, the desolate boys.
Sleepwalkers in a dark and terrible land,
Where solitude is a dirty knife at our throats.
Cold stars watch us, chum
Cold stars and the whores.


The Orange Bears

The orange bears with soft friendly eyes
Who played with me when I was ten,
Christ, before I’d left home they’d had
Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs
Seared by hot slag, their soft trusting
Bellies kicked in, their tongues ripped
Out, and I went down through the woods
To the smelly crick with Whitman
In the Haldeman-Julius edition,
And I just sat there worrying my thumbnail
Into the cover—What did he know about
Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal
And the National Guard coming over
From Wheeling to stand in front of the millgates
With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers?

I remember you would put daisies
On the windowsill at night and in
The morning they’d be so covered with soot
You couldn’t tell what they were anymore.

A hell of a fat chance my orange bears had!


Do The Dead Know What Time It Is?

The old guy put down his beer.
Son, he said,
……….(and a girl came over to the table where we were:
……….asked us by Jack Christ to buy her a drink.)
Son, I am going to tell you something
The like of which nobody ever was told.
……….(and the girl said, I’ve got nothing on tonight;
……….how about you and me going to your place?)
I am going to tell you the story of my mother’s
Meeting with God.
……….(and I whispered to the girl: I don’t have a room,
……….but maybe…)
She walked up to where the top of the world is
And He came right up to her and said
So at last you’ve come home.
……….(but maybe what?
……….I thought I’d like to stay here and talk to you.)
My mother started to cry and God
Put His arms around her.
……….(about what?
……….Oh, just talk…we’ll find something.)
She said it was like a fog coming over her face
And light was everywhere and a soft voice saying
You can stop crying now.
……….(what can we talk about that will take all night?
……….and I said that I didn’t know.)
You can stop crying now.


BEHOLD, ONE OF SEVERAL LITTLE CHRISTS, with a curiously haunted ugly face, crouched beneath the first and the last, embracing you in its horrible arms, blowing its fetid breath in your face and using fearful threats of death and of judgment

Their war-boots said bigshots to the plank floor.
I am the timorous mouse, brother mortal, take aim
at my wee brown eye and you will hit William T. God.
Bring her in Leather Face said: he is my leader, a strong boy
And the dirt of many marches is on his soul; swarms
……….of camp fires
In the bush-country, lions like bastard druids, telling us
To come out and give them a taste, and the dust and the sand
When the water is gone and you wonder what you are
……….there for.
Not believing the stuff about flags after you have seen
……….a man
Rope-necked on a dirty platform and the pretty girls yelling
……….like mad
Moving their thighs as though Death were coming
into them
I am the crafty Caesar and my baby sister shall one day
be whore to all the world, tastefully gowned in your guts.
Beautiful my heart said when I saw her.
She was very young and everything good was in her face.
I could have been Christ if she had touched me.
Nail her to the door my leader said and they put knives
Through her hands and knives through her feet, but
I did not turn my face away
I am a singer of songs and there is no one
listening now
Flame of all the world, honor of the wounded tiger.
There is something that has not been said.
There is something that can not be said,
To The Word which is the girl who hangs here.
To the one upon whom her eyes now are
For her pain, for her innocence, for her pigeon-mouthed death
That coos and trills over the fogsweet deeps of her flesh.
For those who killed her and for the strange planet
……….of her
For all the mockery of the just and for the battlements of salt
That man has against the howling dark
There is nothing, there is no voice, no quiet hand,
There is the sneer of the bat and the gull’s fang.
There is a lobster beating his breast and singing,
Yea, singing, I am the answer to your prayer, sugar,
I am the one to come to your window in
……….the first stinking
Of night and I shall bed thee down in star-manure,
A pot of green paint for thy Jerusalem, believe me,
Babe, till the seas gang gok my rod shall comfort thee
I am of the first thing and of the last thing
Mine is the face in your dream
Mine is the body beside you in the night
Why isn’t she dead grumbled the leader
It was getting later than the night had room for
And the lanterns were beginning to look silly
(Birds pleading with something out in the swamp)
Our faces hunched over our brains like tight pods.
We looked again at the maps and a little stream of her blood
Had made a river that we had no fit equipment to cross
And her hand had fallen over the city that we hoped to take
Her hair went over us praying here all of us not the least
Nor the greatest not the pure alone but those who are
On murder the evil more than the good over the lost
……….and the
Over the gambler and the bitch followed by the whole

15 thoughts on “Poems by Kenneth Patchen

  1. Ana Galvan

    I have contemplated “Street Corner College” for a couple of days. I’d loved to be lost in its lines and think about their meaning. The first thing that struck me was the gloomy mood, the melancholy. I asked Mitch about these soldiers in line 11 and it makes me think of the interwar period, those years of economic depression and disillusion: “sleepwalkers in a dark and terrible land.” Lurking death is expressed in the future tense, “[…] the grass will cover us” and “We shall probably not be quite dead when we die.”
    The speaker uses the plural subject pronoun, we. “We are the insulted.” Who has insulted him? Society? What was this insult? I didn’t know how to answer these questions but then I came across a scene in Atonement by Ian McEwan that made it clear for me. The scene takes place in WWII and the protagonist is trying to escape the bombs and comes across a swarm. “’Bees!’ […] After all the danger, this was a kind of insult.”
    And then I found another interesting thing in the last stanza. The speaker is addressing the reader as “brother” and then “chum” as part of that “we” and it made me think of the poem “Trench Poets” by Rickword: “I knew a man, he was my chum/But he grew blacker every day,/And would not brush the flies away,/ Nor blanch however fierce the hum.”
    Finally the repetition in the last two lines: “Cold stars” the emphatic meaning of the repetition and the position at the end of the poem, makes the reader pay attention. “Cold stars” are dead stars, only their historical light reaches us.

    1. Jedediah Smith

      Thanks for all your insights Anna. You really press deeply into the poem for meaning. Looking at the word “insulted,” we often think of the word in verbal terms, but its main meaning is “to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt.” So, to be insulted as a group in this way can be about class and poverty, very powerful forces during the Depression.

      I’m also interested in that use of “chum.” For me as a speaker of (somewhat dated) American English, it adds a dark irony, and I really can’t explain why. Take a line like “they are going to kill us,” and by itself it is a plain, unemotional statement of fact. Change it slightly to “they are going to kill us, pal” and it takes on a tough, joking, ironic quality for me. I feel the chum works that way here.

      In the Creative Writing Salon, you also wrote “the word “laugh” in the first stanza because after that, in the third, the speaker says “We feel nothing behind our faces”, maybe I’m not following the time established in the poem. Is that laughing now or past?” I don’t actually see a conflict there. The laughing of young men on a corner is false, jeering, cruel … not happy.

      Patchen wrote this in about 1937. In 1959, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a very similar poem
      “The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel”

      We real cool. We
      Left school. We

      Lurk late. We
      Strike straight. We

      Sing sin. We
      Thin gin. We

      Jazz June. We
      Die soon.

      Both have that sense of despair brought on by the world as well as by self destructive forces. For Brooks, race was the looming external danger. For Patchen, it was the spreading world war.

      1. Ana Galvan

        Yes, I remembered “We real cool” and thought of the similarities between the two poems.

        I’m still pondering about the word laugh. I don’t get cruel or jeering. It’s separated from “we stand now” by a comma and further separated from the next line by a semicolon. It’s an empty laugh maybe that’s why he says “We feel nothing behind our faces”. It’s intriguing to me the use of this word. Why not smile? A laugh takes more effort, is more physical.

  2. Jedediah Smith

    “We stand now, and laugh; / Watching the girls go by; / Betting on slow horses; drinking cheap gin.” Separated by semicolons, but all one sentence. When a group of young men is “watching the girls go by,” then yes, I think the laughter is lascivious and often jeering. A smile would not fit that mood. Maybe a grin, more likely a leer, but not a smile which conveys kindness, something they aren’t feeling. They are drinking, gambling, girlwatching, and dying.

  3. Ana Galvan

    How about “Orange bears”? I love the title. For me orange is a working color, the warning vest road workers wear, a color to call attention. I looked at pictures online to see if “orange bears” was a type of teddy bear because the teddy bears of my childhood were brown (there was a blue one too) but I’ve never seen an orange one. What do you think about this poem?

  4. Jedediah Smith

    Since it’s about men who work at mills with coal, slag, and rollers, that means they’re in a steel mill where the workers wear bulky coveralls and move around furnaces outlining their silhouettes in fire, thus orange bears.

    1. Ana Galvan

      I love the imagery of the orange bears now.
      Last stanza, who is the you in the “you would put daisies/ On the windowsill at night”?

      1. Jedediah Smith

        I think that is grammatically the generic you, and since it’s in the context of remembering his childhood, it was something he and maybe others did as children.

    1. Jedediah Smith

      Tho the poem was written years later, it refers to the Youngstown steel strike of 1916-1917 which he witnessed as a youth.

  5. Ana Galvan

    I have to reread “Do The Dead Know What Time It Is?” because this one, with the parenthetical remarks, is tricky. I’m trying to figure out how the title relates to the rest of the poem.

    I found something interesting though. The clear influence of Dylan Thomas (“Jack Christ”)

  6. Jedediah Smith

    One thing I notice in “Do the Dead,” is the contrast between the elevated subject of the monolog about meeting God and the pathetic dialog of the man trying to pick up the girl — maybe a hooker, maybe not — failing because he lacks money for a place. The language of the monolog is also more vivid than the pickup, which even ends with “I said that I didn’t know.” The conversation mirrors the flatness of bar life and comes, at least in part, from the lack of a vital living mind behind it.

    There is also a contrast within the God story itself since it is told by an old guy drinking beer, a drunk maybe.

    I also notice the subject of time coming into the poem in many places: the girl’s disbelief that anything exists worthy of talking about all night. In fact most points at which time is mentioned, speech is mentioned too: “EVER was TOLD” … “SAID so at LAST” … and even “stop CRYING NOW,” if crying is a form of speech.

    So, I think the Dead of the title, refers less to life and death than to the state of really being alive enough in one’s emotional life to express oneself in a vivid verbal way.

  7. Ana Galvan

    The more I read “Do the Dead”, the more I see the scene developing in my mind. I admire how Patchen has created a scene with only one line “The old guy put down his beer” and the alternating use of monologue and dialogue. I can see the old man lost in thought, not aware of what is happening around him. Talking away until he finds a meaningful way to end his monologue and repeats the line maybe in a thoughtful whisper.

    The poem has the feeling of a play with parallel characters: the old man and his mother, the speaker and the girl. Isolating the speaker and the girl with the parenthesis is very clever.

    Here is a link to a reading of the poem by Patchen with jazz in the background. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaY4yGNti1E

  8. Ana Galvan

    The last poem has a surrealist feeling to me. How involved was Patchen with the surrealism and dadaism movements?

    1. Jedediah Smith

      Taking a quotation on William Carlos Williams which fits Patchen as well, “he used linguistic and literary conventions in order to subvert them and so clear the ground for a new kind of writing.”
      So yes, Patchen was very familiar with European avant garde artists and writers and the practice of antiliterature. He was called “the lone one-man DADA of America.”
      His was not just an act of destruction but creation as well. In Patchen’s case, that creation did not come from membership in a movement like surrealism, which we should remember, at the time was a very formal school with aesthetic statements and political manifestos, all watched over by Andre Breton who would actually kick people out of the movement if they did not follow his dogma.

      Nor did his creation come from an intellectual, Europeanized tradition (as utilized by Eliot and Pound) but from an intuitive and emotional passion. The intuitive, meditative nature made his work surreal (with a small “s”) which after all is truer to the spirit of surrealism than any dogma.

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