Kenneth Patchen, Steel, Rage and Youngstown

July 27, 2010


“What the story tells itself when there’s nobody around to hear it.” Kenneth Patchen (Painted Poem)

I’ve been rereading The Collected Works of Kenneth Patchen. It’s one of those books I’ve had for years carrying from one place to another, north to south. He is a poet of a range that doesn’t seem possible in my current world. He, more than any poet I might have named, influenced my poetic aesthetic as I was growing up. He was sort of my patron poet in the same convoluted way people realize other people’s dreams or wear zodiac charms. Not that Kenneth Patchen and I had any connection beyond being born within thirty miles of one another. I confess to not being initially crazy about his poetry. There are other Ohio poets whose poetry is more quickly attractive, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Richard Howard, James Wright, or Rita Dove to name four. But I found uncanny similarities with Kenneth Patchen in his tastes: jazz, politics, self education, John Cage, visual poems, bondage to the working class ethos and a vision of rebellion and protest as a dialect of salvation. He died when I was nineteen; I was an anonymous fan of the idea of Kenneth Patchen.

My Kenneth Patchen was an anarchist ghost I needed to abandon, or at least recognize and address as one of the secret relationships I carried in my subconscious. Like that singular Sunday my father took me to the Butler Art Institute.

We looked at the hand blown, pitched glass bells and George Bellows “Stag at Sharkey’s”. Today I still guard and cherish a lemonade set of etched amber glass with musically toned glasses and keep boxing in a kind of religious communion with my lost Ohio home. One hot afternoon I was running in Memorial Park in Houston, when to my amazement I discovered I was running alongside Evander Holyfield. We stopped in the parking lot and briefly chatted. I told him how my Dad, who had died that winter, thought Evander should throw left hooks to the body more when he was “inside”. Mr. Holyfield said he was sorry about my father’s passing, and would try to take that advice to heart. I felt more relief and spiritual connection delivering that message from a dead man to a professional boxer than I ever did in church. That seemed more about being part of the mystical body…even if it was a hint about thudding it under the ribs.

Perhaps it was growing up alongside the violence of steelmaking that bonds me to that psychic landscape. We still classify historical ages by the substance of their tools, stone, bronze, iron…I was born at the end of the unionized  steel age. One of the earliest known hot worked iron objects was a dagger found in an Anatolian tomb from around 2,500 BC. It was made of meteoric iron, i.e., iron extracted from meteors. Until the discovery of mined iron ore, all iron came from meteors, we get the name iron from the Etruscan word “aisar” meaning “ from the gods”. Traditionally making steel has been a semi-divine, cruel and secret art (consider poor Hephaestus). The subcontinent of India has a history of ironworking that extends back pasr 1,500 BC. They developed a method (now lost) for producing the Woolz Steel famous in classical antiquity as being more valuable than silver or gold. Woolz Steel was traded and used throughout the Levant to produce legendary Damascus Steel. The Damascus Steel was the even more legendary patterned curved sword wielded by Saladin against Richard the Lion Heart in Sir Walter Scott.

By 500 BC iron metallurgy was known by Celts, and in Britain and Northern Europe. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to suppose that the myth of Merlin, the alchemical magician, and Arthur drawing Excalibur from a stone, or Siegfried miraculously re-forging his father’s sword under the nefarious direction of Minne the Dwarf obliquely reflected the mysteries and costs of the human relationship with steel. One of Patchen’s early poems “Orange Bears” speaks from a childhood gift of rarefied kindness from those workers who used to be called ‘mill hunks’ when such jobs still existed.

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
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!
“The Orange Bears”

Our Father wasn’t in Heaven, he worked shifts in a Bessemer Furnace.

The treatment of steel workers has been cruel in both legend and reality. From Hephaestus explusion from Olympus to Minne’s attempted assassination of Siegfried, through the strikes, private armies and National Guard battles, to their slow industrial dismemberment by depreciation and pension raids, the men who made steel have been a suffering fraternity. A brotherhood of indescribable labor, betrayal and rebellion, gave making steel a consciousness of what was near the essence of men and what would always be denied. That incredible array of humanity who walked through the gates at Carnegie, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Republic, ARMCO, US Steel all carried shattered parts of the Nothung Sword of Siegfried in black lunch boxes that they had to re-forge as the shards of an absent father’s work. The myth and the opera end in blood and fire for all and then the destruction of the known world ends in freezing and abandonment…like February along the Mahoning River.

Mills were like an unrecognized childhood trauma, or rite of passage. They were deep, and mattered.  How much did it matter to the aesthetics of my imaginary patron saint Kenneth Patchen? Or other poets who wrote quietly living in the shadows of the then dying mills like Frank Polite, E.G. Hallaman, Andrena Zawinski, Jim Villani and his famous Pig Iron Press ?

Consider Patchen’s predecessor in the Mahoning Valley, Michael McGovern, the Irish born “Puddler Poet”. McGovern, a Youngstown steel worker published Labor Lyrics and Other Poems in 1899. He wrote these lines to read at a rally to support the Homestead strikers:

…Send forth the words on spirit wings
That wealth no longer shall maintain
In this free land its petty kings,
With armed thugs to guard their reign.
With justice in this noble fight
Wealth’s private armies we defy;
With votes as weapons wielded right,
The cause of labor shall not die.
“Labor’s Cause”

When I grew up I played tennis and met girls at Homestead Park, a public space named in solidarity with the victims of the bloody steel strike in Homestead, PA at the Carnegie Works in 1892. The United Steel Workers Union Hall was a few blocks from my parent’s home. I had a summer job at Calvary Cemetery where every two weeks I cut the grass in the section with Michael McGovern’s grave. It had a tall granite tombstone with an epitaph:

“Just place a rock right over me
And chisel there that all may know it
Here lies the bones of M. McG
Whom people called “The Puddler Poet””.

A puddler was a steelworker who worked with 2,500 degree molten ore. I can’t think of many other poets so invested in a job as to meld it into their poetic identity. Later I spent a couple of years working in steel and aluminum mills. It was wild and gloriously dangerous work…at least when I was young. But what I saw in the soaking pits, slamming onto the rolling table, or shoveled up as burning scale was only the corpse of the dragon. By then the hellish struggle of steel work had been abandoned in Youngstown leaving a shrinking population, permanently unemployed workers, and neighborhood bars on nearly every corner that used to cash paychecks on Fridays given over to serve cheap liquor to a steady parade of variously mangled men.

How can you unlearn the rage of a place like that…and how can you not try every day?

With increasing rarity “The Deer Hunter” shows up in rotation on one of the cable stations. Parts were shot around Youngstown and I always watch for the scenes of the working mills and what I can convince myself are scenes of my hometown. It almost seems like an obligation, like New Yorkers watch “Law and Order” to identify the locations. Except, of course that NYC hasn’t disappeared (and well it shouldn’t since many of the girders that support its classic skyline were hot rolled in Youngstown mills). Like a nostalgia for childhood trauma, the film is magnetically horrible, but so precious we keep it locked in the deep embrace of ourselves. My late mother, who hadn’t seen a film in a theater since “The Sound of Music”, saw “The Deer Hunter”. “It’s about suicide.” she offered in her telephone review from her perennially smokey den on the Southside, “and living with suicide…like everybody in Youngstown”.

A proletariat life is a life of concrete values, the minutes of working class life are calculated by dollars and down to parts of cents. The Labor Relations Board can furnish you with the cash value of a severed finger, a lost eye or prorate paralysis. Human beings sell their bodies for a contracted time, after that transaction the rest of their life becomes secondary. In wage slavery, the wage is relatively inconsequential, slavery is always the consequence. Men in mills frequently loved the work, but hated the job (as opposed to the salaried supervisors in short sleeve white shirts in the tiny air conditioned boxes who hated their work and the men who did the work). Labor Unions bargained for money, pensions and a certain amount of safety, but what they symbolically negotiated was the illusion of humanity…that a worker had human rights and his ownership had limits in some unread clause of the contract.

If you count my 48 hours as a Teamster, I’ve been a member of four different unions over the course of my working life. The bitterest union disputes I witnessed had to do with shop rules and whose job entailed what activities. I only heard whiskey tales about the “Little Steel” strike, threatening scabs, lock outs, or “wildcats”, but I felt the powerful sense of kinship in the rebellious “No!” Rebellion appears so near to freedom as to be indistinct walking the picket line. One of the signature experiences of our current age is that restless, adolescent seething, stalking away…obstreperous refusal for an ethical principle…or perhaps it’s the loss of that capacity into marketing focus groups and manipulated images that fuels our anger.

In some ways that collective anger was what I was hoping my conceptual Kenneth Patchen could clarify for me. He might poetically calm me, change me and my history into something more spiritual and open than shattering mills, a filthy mill town and a constellation of lost promises and bars. I hoped that his writing would bring, if not philosophical order, an understanding mirror, or at least a level of respect to the proletariat chaos that ebbed and fell around me. Of course he couldn’t quiet me, that was hardly his job.

Besides the early trauma of steel mills Patchen had his own struggles, pacifism during World War II and the wars beyond, a continually deteriorating back injury and lifelong poverty. Nonetheless he continued writing and protesting for human dignity in a defeated world. He published his first book in 1936 and continued writing until his death in 1978. He is a member of the generation of poets like W.H. Auden, Muriel Rukeyser, Josephine Miles or Edna St. Vincent Millay whose work is constantly being ‘rediscovered’ and lost. He collaborated with John Cage and jazz musicians including Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Charles Mingus to set his poetry in musical recordings and extended the language and evocation of American poetry into new American forms. The Beats as well as modern popular artists like Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are indebted to his experimentation. The extensive body of his work is a shifting amalgam of poetic and visual forms all at once political, mystical, surreal, ugly, clever and humane. He expects a hard day’s work from his readers. He owned little and left much. Like the Orange Bears, he withstood an abusive world and gave away kindness.


4 Responses to “Kenneth Patchen, Steel, Rage and Youngstown”

  1. Vince Says:

    In one more cruel irony, the site of the Homestead strike and riots? Big-box retail. There’s a Macy’s, a Damon’s, a PF Chang’s and a movie theater where shooting started during the opening weekend for “Get Rich or Die Tryin'”

  2. Larry Smith Says:

    Wow, quite a remembrance and visioning of your life here in connection with your place. I share much of it as a son of the blast furnaces in Mingo Junction, Ohio, and Weirton, WV where my father worked the railroad. I worked two summers in the mills to pay for college. You say it beautifully, and yes “The Orange Bears” poem was an awakening and a reminder for me in my writing and publishing life. Bottom Dog Press does a Working Lives Series with about 20 books meant for working people.
    Best to you.

  3. domzuccone Says:

    Larry, Thanks for reading. I’ve spent time in Weirton thank you. My Uncle Al owned Shaw’s Jewelry there, now my cousin Lennie runs it. If you need something mention my name…actually mention my father’s name, but you know how that works. Best, Dom

  4. Dom, this is a fantastic essay. I’m thrilled to have come across it. Please take a look at Youngstown’s new online literary magazine, Jenny (named after the Jennette Blast Furnace), at I run the magazine with a group of great students. I’d love to see a piece like this in the nonfiction section of the magazine in the future. Would you consider sending it, or anything like it, to us?

    Chris Barzak

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