Kenneth Patchen, a pioneer in avant-garde poetry, the picture poem, and poetry jazz, was born on December 13, 1911, in Niles, Ohio. Patchen seemed destined to a life of physical labor in the local steel mills before a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin took him away from the industrial Ohio valley and allowed him to take part in the Alexander Meikeljohn Experimental College. After completing a year at the University of Wisconsin and a few months at the Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, he ended his university studies and began three years of traveling and working at odd jobs.
In December of 1933, Patchen met Miriam Oikemos, an anti-war organizer and college student from Smith College, whom he married on June 28, 1934. Miriam Patchen was an active participant in her husband's endeavors, working beside him writing bibliographies and biographical sketches under the assumed name Gail Eaton. Miriam also took care of her husband during his intervals of poor health, especially during the physical decline of his last twelve years.
Patchen's first book, Before the Brave, was published in 1936. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for this work the same year.
Patchen sought to expand the experiential element of poetry and he made two significant contributions: the picture poem and poetry-jazz. The first contribution was a fusion of painting and poetry in which he combined fanciful, colorful images with his unusual verse in his childlike hand. This form, known as the picture poem, was released in portfolios filled with silk screen printings of Patchen's original art work. In the late 50s, Patchen redirected his focus from the visual realm to the audio frontier. The result was poetry-jazz, the reading of poetry against the backdrop of jazz music. Traveling to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Patchen appeared at night clubs such as the Black Hawk, made college appearances and recorded with the Allyn Ferguson Jazz Sextet.
Kenneth Patchen's work was produced amidst constant physical pain. The pain was the result of a back injury sustained when he was twenty-six. For the rest of his life he was haunted by surgeries, misdiagnoses, surgical mishaps and suffering, which often times limited his creative explorations. Fellow poets such as T.S. Eliot, Thorton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings and others banded together to set up a surgery fund for Patchen in the early fifties. A surgery in 1956 gave Patchen some relief, but a surgical mistake in 1959 left him almost completely bedridden for the rest of his life. Patchen refused to take pain medication because he felt it would dull his creative powers.
Between 1936 and the conclusion of his writing career Patchen published 43 books of poetry, prose and picture poems. Although often associated with the Beat movement, he took great care to dissassociate himself from any form of labeling. He died on January 8, 1972, in Palo Alto, California, where he and Miriam had lived for the preceding twenty years.