What I’ll write about today’s piece might be needlessly complex. I’ll try not to take too much of your time so you can get to the simple performance of the poem below and you can decide.
The usual job of a critical essay on a poem or other work of art is to explain how something works and doesn’t work, usually making use of, or in the context of, criteria for artistic value. Within these efforts, the spread of essays praising or condemning a poet, poem, or poems is maintained. There’s no contradiction here. How can there be good art if we don’t have bad art? Judgments, pointing out good and bad, are equally creative, just as when we are writing and revising ourselves.
Is this a critical essay? I’m not sure it is. Instead, I think of these pieces of prose as short notes about my experiences with the texts, nearly always literary poems, as I combine them with music and perform them. And in the case of today’s audio piece using Kenneth Patchen’s “Instructions for Angels” my experience so contradicts what criteria I believe I have that it calls into question that I have them or really believe in them.
What do I think are the things I look for in a successful poem? First, I think poetry is musical speech. “Instructions for Angels” is free verse, something formalists take as problematic. I doubt I’m a formalist. I admit the effects of rhyme and meter, but my musical sense admits also that the amount of symmetry and regularity can and should vary. There’s some underlying da DUM da DUM iambic back-beat feel here in Patchen’s poem, that King James version 17th century English thing that can itself now feel overused or overfamiliar. But familiarity is not always bad, no more than regularity in structure. “Instructions for Angels” does clearly use one musical feature: the refrain. Perhaps this is what drew me to it when skimming through a book-length selected poems looking for what would be good to set with music. I’m not alone in choosing this poem. I’ve found several other musical settings online.
Today’s piece is easy enough to play on guitar, so guitarists have at it.
I do think we too often confuse imagery with poetry’s essence, praising coded word-play rather than word-music. But imagery is a more abstract version of word music isn’t it? That this-is-like-that, or things arrayed in an as-above-so-below manner is an intellectual harmony. The intervals and combinations are pleasing as audible music is. “Instructions for Angels” is plainsong in this regard. Yes, I suppose angels and God have a certain majesty, but as a recent coronation reminds us, tired pomp can bore quickly. The rest of the poem is full of threadbare, generalized counters isn’t it? “pretty girl,” “red mouth,” “baby,” “beautiful,” “rain,” “snow,” “flowers,” “trees,” “winds,” and “fields.” If one looks for fresh and arresting imagery this poem doesn’t seem to have it. If I was revising this poem or it was being workshopped, it would be easy to imagine changing a few of those general terms to more specific ones. I can see someone asking “But Ken, what flower exactly do you like? Give us the name so we can see it.”
How about a poem’s message? Shouldn’t that count for something? Yes, I think it should, yet over the ages critics can worry that worthy messages are too common, too cheap — or that art for art’s sake has judged any meaning as secondary. Writing in the 1930s Patchen was often reacting to a Modernism that was too inhuman, too concerned with form, and too unconcerned with the fates of its readers. I sense the present pendulum has once more swung and we are now again asking poems to tell us worthy things, and for the poets to be worthy people. I should be happy, yet I’m not always happy with poems on the right side of the issues. I wouldn’t like it if that was all the poetry I read and sing. Am I just cursed with contrariness? Should I note here that Patchen’s pacifism continued throughout WWII? That was a contrary position and not helpful to his poetic career at the time.
If a poem’s message is important, shouldn’t it be as clear as prose about saying it? How obscure can or should poetry be? Again, poems and critics differ on this, but there’s a consensus that a poem shouldn’t be harder to understand than it has to be.
That “has to be” is a broad thing however. Proponents of exciting and fresh images and language will say beauty and skill allows indirection, ambiguity is true to life, a little, even a lot, of mystery can compel, and that irony combats blandness and tiresome cliché. The greatest benefit of workshopping poems, or at least second readers, is for a poet to find out they are sometimes unintentionally obscure.
One could say that “Instructions for Angels” is clear. But on first and later readings, even into my performance, there was one small thing that was less than clear and more at odd. We don’t have to wait long for it: the first sentence says “Take the usual events/For your tall.” “The usual events” is clear, it’s a statement of purpose for the everyday and common that Patchen will praise as the poem continues. But “tall?” It looks like a typo.* I could make more immediate sense if it was “tale,” “tail,” “toll” or “tell.” Is Patchen saying “Angels pass this info up (way up, like to heaven) the chain?” A phrase soon to come, “Blue weather,” is fine, and there is some nice ambiguity there: blues or blue skies? Patchen returns and expands that image with “The weather in the highest soul” indicating he intends that ambiguity.
So where does that leave me, all this applying of what I think and have been taught to understand might constitute a “good poem?” In my present, poems have two states: ones that interest me, often because I can see performing them; and then, the ones I skip over. It may not be the fault of the poet or their poem that I skip them — that poem just doesn’t exist with me in my moment. I’m not totally without criteria, some things I can predict, but this poem is an example of a poem that met me emotionally in my moment, the place where some poems live while others are undressed tombstones. Is Patchen’s poem technically perfect? Unlikely, but there’s a ruined recording take were I just started crying a bit as I tried to sing.
I don’t believe every poem needs to do that. Pleasure in the words, images, and music of some other poems will make them live for me. Amazement at virtuosities can compel at times. If every poem in the world was like “Instructions for Angels,” I’d be a rebel angel, and crawl into a John Ashbery volume and never come out. As it is, I’d instruct the angels to not poop on my head and to pass it up the line that I’m grateful for Kenneth Patchen.
You can hear my performance of “Instructions for Angels” with the graphical player below. No player? This highlighted link will open a new tab with one.
*I have a scanned pdf of the published collection presumably OK’d by Patchen, but the typo theory remains possible. Patchen was recorded reading some of his poems, sometimes with music. That would answer this doubt, but as far as search goes I haven’t found him reading this poem.