Saturday, January 23, 2010

“The Orange Bears”

On the surface, Kenneth Patchen’s poetry contains seemingly contradictory elements—while he was a truly great love poet & someone who could evoke great tenderness & compassion with his words, he had a savage & brutally matter-of-fact side. Just consider some of these poem titles: “I don’t want to startle you, but they are going to kill most of us”; “Eve of St. Agony or the Middle Class was Sitting on its Fat,” “Nice Day for a Lynching” or “"May I Ask You A Question, Mr. Youngstown Sheet & Tube?" Of course, the visceral outrage expressed in these & other poems goes hand in hand with the compassion—Patchen saw a world torn apart by war & ravaged by cruelty & the worst forms of injustice. When he saw these things, he expressed his outrage, openly & directly in his poetry.

Today’s poem, “The Orange Bears,” is an example of this outrage. Patchen grew up in Niles, Ohio, & his father worked in a steel mill in nearby Youngstown. This provides the poems context. In those days, the strikes were broken up by the National Guard—now it’s all done with much less physical violence—management taking photos of the workers on the picket line (I’ve seen this myself in San Francisco when the hotel workers went on strike) so they can identify employees for reprisal, or simply having the President of the United States fire all the members of the Air Traffic Controllers Union.

I thought Dominic Rivron made an astute comment on the first Patchen poem this month, saying that Patchen walks the line of being corny, but never falls off. It’s a big artistic risk to speak plainly & emotionally. Patchen is an example to us because he didn’t shirk that.

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!

Kenneth Patchen


  1. Having grown up in West Virginia, where our history was formed by Mother Jones and the mine wars, I can visualize and understand this poem in my core. I remember washing the coal dust from the bannisters of our front porch every day - our daisies were covered, too.

    I have really liked all of the Patchen poems you've posted (that's a little alliterative!), but this one moves me as if it's part of my collective unconscious.

  2. I so much agree with Karen - the history of the exploitation of workers is such an invisible one (so convenient for those who still profit from it in the seemingly never-ending saga - now in the form of U.S. corporations profiting from a new wage-slave class of workers in other countries- this exploitation happening hand-in-glove once again with government policies and military force...)
    There is a rare kind of affirmation of the truth of this kind of sanctioned exploitation in Patchen's poems, and also a consciousness of the deadening effect it has on all of us, even as passive participants. Thanks for posting this poem, John!

  3. Hi Karen & Eberle

    Karen: Yes, I can see that this one would have a very direct impact!

    Eberle: Thanks for weighing in!

  4. Lord ,John, you are an Education for me! So many times I visit your blog to learn some new Art & Artists.This Guy Is Good.Very Much So.Thank You.I Will Look into him & enjoy.
    I hope the weekend is being good to You.

  5. Hi Tony: Glad you enjoyed the Patchen poem! Have a great weekend--guess it's winding down where you are.

  6. I can't help but think of my mom's home town of Glace Bay and the coal mines. I never lived there, but I know that coal-crusted landscape - the dirty sidewalks and the faces of the miners.
    (I also had an orange bear. I recently wrote about him on BFtP.)

  7. Hi Kat: I've never been around mining--I grew up in a very working class mill town, so I have some sense (especially since both my father & I worked in a paper mill), but the mines are more extreme. I'll have to check out your orange bear post!

  8. *love* Karen's comment. Well, waht I wanted to say is that life is so busy - mine anyway. Kids, work - an unending cycle. I come to this blog for my dose of culture and poetry. It never fails me. I am sure there are others I could read, but this is where has led me. I don't remember hearing about Patchen before this blog. I'm so glad to make his acquaintance. I love the visceral!

  9. Hi Jen: Yes, I thought that comment by Karen was really on the money, & was much appreciated. So glad you're a supporter! Hope you folks are ok in OKC with the storm possibly moving in.

  10. Oh, I don't think Patchen's ever corny.


    What are Orange Bears??

  11. Like 'Teddy Bears'?


    For some reason, I thought it must be a type of flower.

  12. Or Hell, maybe it is.

    (I'm making a fool of myself this evening. Enjoying your blog while my daughter is sweetly dreaming.)

  13. Hi Ginger: Not making a fool of yourself--it was a pleasant surprise to see your comments this morning! Yes, he means teddy bears.

  14. I just wanted to say thanks for all I have learned and discovered in poetry and art and lit through your blog. Wow, I like Kenneth Patchen and I'd never heard of him before your blog.


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