|"I believe that we are at a turning one road leads into darkness, another into the light.... Those are stars up there. And this is a man down here."
Kenneth Patchen, Sleepers Awake
Sleeping Through The World's End
by Kenneth Patchen
New York: Padell, 1946.
Kenneth Patchen's Sleepers Awake came
to me as samizdat. A friend who loved the book but despaired
of finding an affordable out-of-print copy had painstakingly
made his own, photocopying all 389 pages of it. Certainly I
was predisposed to love a book that had been such a labor of
love. But long after I had taken a deep breath and shelled out
for my own copy, I continued to be seduced by Patchen's perfect-pitch
American vernacular tale talking. I loved the unity of graphic
and text (even more striking in the book than in a photocopy),
the explosions into concrete poetry, the prophecy, the shell-game
narration, the genre echoes, the painterliness, the direct address,
writer to reader. I loved the vivid interperfusion of world
and dream. I was not at all put off by what some have called
the book's "stridency," as I am a student of manifesto
and more generally am fascinated by exaggeration, polemic, hyperbole,
obsession and passionate statement of all kinds. I was puzzled
by the rhetoric of continual frustration, the way the book kept,
well, chastising my expectation that one thing would follow
another. I had the modernist or pre-modernist predisposition
to search for some residual arc of narrative within the book's
interruptions of interruptions. Despite my attraction to Sleepers,
it seemed to me, as it has to many other readers, dauntingly
fragmented, even if taken as a work of precursor postmodernist
Although Sleepers is arguably Patchen's
most ambitious work, it is not considered his masterpiece. That
honor falls most frequently on The Journal of Albion Moonlight,
another work of wonder and terror set in a moral universe as
personal, as vivid, as lucent, as visionary as any of William
Blake's. Like Sleepers, Albion is an "anti-novel,"
a novel of "the fragmented self," in the words of
Anais Nin, "all the voices of the subconscious speaking
simultaneously." (Cited in Smith, p. 94) It would be ludicrous
to speak of plot in any prose fiction of Patchen, yet certain
structural devices do help to create a sense of shapeliness
in, say, Albion. Despite the breaks, the frustration
of narrative expectation, there are dated journal entries; there
is a clear sense of journey. Sleepers has been harder
on readers who expect coherence. "A magnificent failure,"
says Larry R. Smith (whose profound appreciation of Patchen
is not in question.) "Patchen's Finnegans Wake."
(Smith, p. 85)
The fragmentation and the huge ambition of Sleepers
Awake might remind anyone of Finnegan. But Finnegan
is a work of high-modernist language-referential ambition. Sleepers
Awake is something quite other.
A DIRECT ATTACK ON THE PROBLEM OF MAKING THIS BOOK UNDERSTANDABLE
1. A man
2. A world
3. A man
4. A world
5. A man
6. A world
7. A man
(Sleepers Awake, p. 235)
In its parts and as a whole, in its picaresque-mosaic
way, Sleepers iterates and reiterates this basic man/world
relationship, and seems to be written from the white-hot heart
of it. Indeed, "Art is not to throw light but to be light....,"
said Patchen. "Nothing can happen from the outside."
(Sleepers, 268) This direct address of the reader is
related but peripherally to the "Dear Reader" addresses
of 18th and 19th century fiction. The hot interiority (or personalism)
of Patchen's prose is pervasive. There are no true asides and
no boundaries between narrator, character, and reader. You might
say that Sleepers is written from inside an obsession,
its perceptual mode a furiously vatic mystical surrealism
though Patchen refuted the philosophy of Surrealism: "There
isn't a religious man among them." (Albion, 307)
Said Patchen to Henry Miller, "It is hard
to imagine why God should 'think,' yet this 'thinking' is the
material of the greatest art.... we don't wish to know ourselves,
we wish to be lost in knowing, as a seed in a gust of wind."
( Miller, pp 33-42) From the inside, then, a fully inhabited
voice speaking directly to the reader, buttonholing him, touching
him, trying however to awaken him, fracturing his resistance.
Your resistance. My resistance. The characters come and go,
as in a folk tale, emerging when the voice needs them. They
have an outline quality, a generic quality, like the characters
in epics and comic books, characters defined by action, not
by overheard rumination.
Almar Gnunsn/Aloysius Best, the "author(s)"
of Sleepers, and their avatars, are, like Albion Moonlight
(and his avatars), a composite journey hero traversing a ravaged
landscape where violence erupts from most human encounters.
The signposts along the way, the narrative markers present in
Albion seem to have been casualties of war in Sleepers.
Most of what is left now is ruin and prophecy, though pockets
of lyric, of story, of parody, of poetry, of love remain. The
language of Sleepers does not represent war in the realistic,
distanced language of social protest, it embodies it, from within,
as if there were no escaping the desolation.
I cry out to Thee
I cannot find my way anymore
I hold out my bloody hands
Since all fall into this same grave
O Father Thou too shalt fail
(Sleepers, p. 272)
The Journal of Albion Moonlight
was published in 1941, the year of Pearl Harbor and American
entry into World War II, the year of Dunkirk and the Battle
of Britain, three years after Kristalnacht. Already, said Kenneth
Rexroth, the "conscience of mankind" had gone to school
"to learn methods of compromising itself. The Moscow trials,
the Kuo Min Tang street executions, the betrayal of Spain, the
Hitler-Stalin Pact...." (Rexroth, p.22) Sleepers
was published in 1946, a year after the liberation of Auschwitz,
a year after the explosion of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and
They're going to blow everything up next
time and I don't believe we have long. Always men
have talked about THE END OF THE WORLD it's nearly
here. A few more straws in the wall...a loose brick or
two replaced...then no stone left standing on another
and the long silence; really forever. What is there
to struggle against? Nobody can put the stars back together
"For Patchen," says Ray Nelson (p.
245)" the Second World War was a culmination of the failure
of history, and even when it is only obliquely mentioned...the
war is intensely in the background of all his prose." In
Sleepers, Patchen inscribes the "phantasmagoria
of war; then he breaks into a prophetic chant, using capitals
and large print to make his message emphatically plain.... What
he hopes to do is to widen the boundaries of consciousness,
sharpen our senses, rouse us out of sleep," says Charles
Glicksberg. "This accounts for the interpolation of squares
with letters either meaningful or meaningless [sic, pe], the
broken skein of fantastic and melodramatic incidents, the counterpointing
of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the vulgar, the
mystical and the erotic. The circus of freaks... the various
impersonations of the hero of the tale, the series of abductions,
seductions, rapes, druggings, killings, are all forgotten as
the author suddenly whispers that death is still with us, always
present " (Glicksberg, 187)
A "direct attack" on the problem of
understanding: the words distill the essence of a text that
is an action, sign upon sign, like a beacon warning airplanes
away from a radio tower. Like a rotating lamp in a lighthouse,
flashing warning to endangered ships from a rocky point. (Warning
to the reader in the here and now: there are no beacons, no
airplanes, no radio towers, no lighthouse lamps, no endangered
ships, and no rocky points in Sleepers Awake.)
Patchen was a radical pacifist, intolerant and
intemperate in the face of apocalypse. He was a pacifist during
a "just" war, a "good" war, when pacifism
was not, as during the Vietnam War, a popular movement. Though
as a young man he had come angry from the steel mills of Youngstown
to speak with the Left during the thirties, when he was regarded
as a proletarian Shelley, he alienated the Left by his failure
to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He alienated
more intellectuals and artists with his outspoken belief that
the bombing of German cities was no appropriate or effective
response to The Holocaust. "I am the world-crier, and this
is my dangerous career.... ("Early in the Morning,"
Collected Poems, 160-161.) He went to jail for his pacifism.
"For my money, poet and killer can't
be used to describe the same person," the stranger
"Something along that line occurred to me in prison."
"How much'd you get?" I asked, watching the
stranger disappear through a small hole in the ceiling.
"Because you refused to break one of God's commandments."
"Yeh. So long....."
(Sleepers Awake, 74)
"It is not true, historically," said
Patchen's friend Kenneth Rexroth, "that the poet is the
unacknowledged legislator of mankind. On the contrary, poets
seem to flourish under despotism.... It is hard to find a common
ground for Isaiah and Richard Lovelace. Artist and prophet seem
perpetually at war in Blake and D.H. Lawrence. But there comes
a point when the minimum integrity necessary to the bare functioning
of the artist is destroyed by social evil unless he rise and
denounce it.... If the conscience remains awake, there comes
a time when the practice of literature is intolerable dishonesty,
the artist is overridden by the human being and is drafted into
the role of Jeremiah." (Rexroth, 23)
Linear prose is a flawed medium if the end is
upon us. Its deployment on the page suggests a perpetuity of
next moments. Patchen deploys typography to force a holistic
perception rather than a linear reading. Admirers of his "concrete
poetry" would lift these perception bursts from the prose,
surgically excising the shredded narrative that surrounds them.
Admirers of Patchen's narrative, on the other hand, deplore
his breaking into typography, as into some obscene dance, rather
than letting narrative do the proper work of prose fiction,
that ongoing movie which makes more sense coheres better
than life, thus reassuring us. Patchen refuses to provide
the narrative consolation so central to the novel's historic
claim on its readers. Sleepers's author, narrator, characters
and reader will not transcend the chaos of the end time by any
ordering that denies the danger: our attention and only our
attention will bind up the world's wounds.
I am afraid.
All of the songs are still.
The legends drip a black pus.
Dark beyond reaching is the pain in my heart.
(Sleepers Awake, p. 351)
"It takes a great deal of love to give
a damn one way or another what happens from now on," Patchen
told Henry Miller. "I still do. The situation for human
beings is hopeless. For the while that's left, though, we can
remember the Great and the gods." (Miller, p.37)
No cooled-out hipster, Patchen, though he was
a truly superb jazz poet. For him, it was requisite that the
artist provide a "personal model of engagement and wonder
" (Smith, p. 65). And, like Blake in his wonder, Patchen
sustained purity of vision in complete engagement not only with
the music of language but also with the creation of the physical
book, writing to printing, in service to an "enflamed adventure."
Patchen's "enflamed adventure" is
not per se the high modernist intersection of world and
sensibility, though a man, the world, suggests that intersection.
The enflamed adventure is at least as much in the repetition,
a man a world a man a world, beating on the reader like that
two-by-four with which, in the joke, the drover must get the
attention of the donkey before the beast will move. Sleepers
is like an action-painted encyclopedia of Zen in which the teacher
hits the student again and again to awaken him. Old Zenalofsky.
"Sleepers, awake on the precipice." ( p. 235) "Be
as children again." ( p. 87) A man, a world, a man, a world.
Pay attention! A desperate poet of love and Patchen was,
after all, arguably our century's greatest love poet
trying to save a world from disaster already present.
... if I ever got near an assured
income, I'd write books along the order of great canvases,
including everything in them huge symphonies that
would handle poetry and prose as they present themselves
from day to day and from one aspect of my life and interests
to another. But that's all over.....
(Miller, p. 36)
The great canvas of Modernist sensibility, the
huge symphony, exploded, exploded, exploded again. Patchen destroyed
the great canvas, a deliberate sacrifice, like a forest ranger
setting a fire to prevent a much larger fire. What other response
was there, or is there, to the horrors culminating in The Holocaust
and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What other response was there
or is there to the end time? We have forgotten.
... the paradox of this society is that
you cannot even die in it any more since you are already
dead... And it is not simply an effect of living in the
nuclear age, but derives from the ease with which we now
live, which makes survivors of us all. If the bomb drops,
we shall neither have the time to die nor any awareness
of dying. But already in our hyper-protected society we
no longer have any awareness of death, since we have subtly
passed over into a state where life is excessively easy.
.... The explosions and the extermination (Auschwitz
and Hiroshima) still go on, though they have simply
taken on a purulent, endemic form. The chain reaction
continues nonetheless, the contagion, the unfolding
of the viral and bacteriological process. The end of
history was precisely the inauguration of this chain
(Baudrillard, pp. 42-43)
There is nothing easy about Patchen. He is not
a televisionated persona, cool and porous, nor is he a cyberpersonality,
endlessly and effortlessly morphing. Now, in 2000, 54 years
after Sleepers Awake was published, Patchen's obsessive
stridency is foreign to us. We read Sleepers as an oddly
prescient postmodern precursor or even as vintage mysticism,
as if he were Rumi manqué. "Man of anger and light,"
Henry Miller characterized Patchen. There is no way to separate
the anger from the light. And the apocalyptic danger that urged
Patchen to act has not been defused, only hidden in layers of
affluent normalcy. Bosnia, Rwanda, c'est nous. Killing
and killed in a Gulf War buried under layers of television,
already dead, as we who no longer feel.
Patchen endured many years of persistent pain
toward the end of his life, his spine permanently injured by
a slip from the operating table onto the floor during surgery.
Yet he continued to write, to perform jazz poetry, and to paint:
a total artist, a great and a brave "spokesman of God"
(Sleepers, p. 317), a singular, magnificent seer. It
is a shocking shame that Patchen's most challenging book, Sleepers
Awake, is out of print. In our 'excessively easy lives,"
we need this book. We need Patchen's "model of engagement
and wonder" (Smith, p. 65) his model of a man who still
gives a damn, and never more of a damn than in the powerfully
sacrificial anti-novel Sleepers Awake.
"If through indifference and inertia we
can create human as well as atomic bombs," said Henry Miller
in giving the argument for Patchen's art, "then...the poet
has the right to explode in his own fashion at his own appointed
time. If all is hopelessly given over to destruction, why should
the poet not lead the way? Why should he remain amid the ruins
like a crazed beast? If we deny our Maker, why should we preserve
the maker of words and images? Are the forms and symbols he
spins to be put above Creation itself?" (Miller, p. 39)
In defining the canon without Sleepers Awake,
we have written the Bible of our culture without The Book of
Jeremiah, without The Book of Revelation. It is time that Sleepers
Awake were back in print.
DRAWN ON FOR THIS ESSAY
Baudrillard, Jean. America, trans. Chris Turner. London/New
York: Verso, 1988.
Morgan, Richard, Ed.,"Kenneth Patchen:
A Collection of Essays. New York: AMS, 1977.
Glicksberg, Charles I., "The World of
Kenneth Patchen," pp. 181-192.
Miller, Henry. "Patchen: Man of Anger and Light,"
Nelson, Ray, "The Moral Prose of Kenneth Patchen,"
Rexroth, Kenneth, "Naturalist of the Public Nightmare,"
Patchen, Kenneth, Collected Poems. New
Patchen, Kenneth, Sleepers Awake. New
York: Padell, 1946; Hardcover. Out of Print.
Patchen, Kenneth, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.
New York: New Directions Paperback, 1961.
Smith, Larry R. Kenneth Patchen. Boston:
Twayne, 1978. Out of Print.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Nelson, Raymond. Kenneth Patchen and American Mysticism.
Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina, 1984. Out of Print.
Patchen, Kenneth. Aflame and Afun of Walking
Faces: Fables and Drawings. New Directions, 1970. Hardcover.
Patchen, Kenneth. Awash with Roses: The Collected
Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press,
Patchen, Kenneth. Doubleheader. W.W.
Norton & Co., 1996.
Patchen, Kenneth. In Quest of Candlelighters.
New Directions, 1972. Out of Print.
Patchen, Kenneth. Selected Poems. W.W.
Norton, paperback, 1999.
Patchen, Kenneth. Sleepers Awake. New
Directions, 1969, 1970, 1972. Paperback. Out of Print.
Patchen, Kenneth.Still Another Pelican in
the Breadbox, foreword Miriam Patchen. Youngstown, Ohio:
Pig Iron Press, 1980. Out of print.
Patchen, Kenneth. The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer,
intro. Jonathan Williams. New Directions Classics, # 879, paperback,
Patchen, Kenneth. The Argument of Innocence.
Oakland, CA,The Scrimshaw Press, 1976. Out of Print.
Patchen, Kenneth. Wonderings. New Directions,
Smith, Larry. Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet
in America. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, paperback, 2000.
Home Page, with complete links
Box Arias from Sleepers
Awake a collaboration of Kaldron and Light and Dust
and silkscreened poems by Kenneth Patchen, a collaboration
of Kaldron and Light and Dust
"Kenneth Patchen, Man
of Anger and Light" by Henry Miller and "A Letter
to God" by Kenneth Patchen
White Caves," a poem by Kenneth Patchen
"Kenneth Patchen: Poetry
and Jazz Days, 1957-1959" by Larry Smith (Jacket
extracts from Sleepers Awake
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