Kenneth Patchen – Eve of St Agony Or The Middleclass Was Sitting On Its Fat

Originally posted in November, 2011:

Proletariat Poet

patchen - Copy

I’m sure this is a repetitive point, but writing this blog is as much diary as it is music review and presenting poetry. It keeps me busy, reflects music being listened to, and then other thoughts and ideas. Sometimes it gets read by others.  One writes to be read, let’s be clear, but the self-reflection and actual preoccupation of the physical writing is the fundamental purpose, designed or not.

Just ahead of reviewing The Claudia Quintet + 1 featuring Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann – What Is the Beautiful? I have been reading the poetry of Kenneth Patchen which this album celebrates. I did not know his work, though I should, so I have been reading about him and his poetry before getting into this album that honours the 100th year of his life and work, Patchen having died in 1972. So as well as diary and self-reflection and so on, researching and writing for this blog is educational.

Patchen was active in linking poetry with jazz music and performance and that is clearly the  focus of The Claudia Quintet album. I’ve enjoyed reading a small selection of his poetry found online, especially his more political fare. In his early days he was apparently referred to as the Proletariat Poet, and although Patchen allegedly rejected this appellation, it is obvious why he was given the title, and the one poem I’m going to print here illustrates that. It also speaks as much for today as it did when written in 1939 [*],

Man-dirt and stomachs that the sea unloads; rockets
of quick lice crawling inland, planting their damn flags,
putting their malethings in any hole that will stand still,
yapping bloody murder while they slice off each other’s heads,
spewing themselves around, priesting, whoring, lording
it over little guys, messing their pants, writing gush-notes
to their grandmas, wanting somebody to do something pronto,
wanting the good thing right now and the bad stuff for the other boy.
Gullet, praise God for the gut with the patented zipper;
sing loud for the lads who sell ice boxes on the burning deck.
Dear reader, gentle reader, dainty little reader, this is
the way we go round the milktrucks and seamusic, Sike’s trap and Meg’s rib,
the wobbly sparrow with two strikes on the bible, behave
Alfred, your pokus is out; I used to collect old ladies,
pickling them in brine and painting mustaches on their bellies,
later I went in for stripteasing before Save Democracy Clubs;
when the joint was raided we were all caught with our pants down.
But I will say this: I like butter on both sides of my bread
and my sister can rape a Hun any time she’s a mind to,
or the Yellow Peril for that matter; Hector, your papa’s in the lobby.
The old days were different; the ball scores meant something then,
two pill in the side pocket and two bits says so; he got up slow see,
shook the water out of his hair, wam, tell me that ain’t a sweet left hand;
I told her what to do and we did it, Jesus I said, is your name McCoy?
Maybe it was the beer or because she was only sixteen but I got hoarse
just thinking about her; married a john who travels in cotton underwear.
Now you take today; I don’t want it. Wessex, who was that with I saw you lady?
Tony gave all his dough to the church; Lizzie believed in feeding her own face;
and that’s why you’ll never meet a worm who isn’t an antichrist, my friend,
I mean when you get down to a brass tack you’ll find some sucker sitting on it.
Whereas. Muckle’s whip and Jessie’s rod, boyo, it sure looks black
in the gut of this particular whale. Hilda, is that a .38 in your handbag?

Ghosts in packs like dogs grinning at ghosts
Pocketless thieves in a city that never sleeps
Chains clank, warders curse, this world is stark mad

Hey! Fatty, don’t look now but that’s a Revolution breathing down your neck.

[*] Read today’s High Pay Commission report, for example, and especially the Banks’ refutations of its findings which essentially amount to arguing that top salary increases are by the Banks’ calculations only massively disproportionate rather than mega-massively disproportionate! Their creed: greed is relative.

NB And in the years since this posting, little has changed in this regard, banking recently removed from investigation! But then, that is the lasting relevance of Patchen’s preoccupations, sadly.

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