Kenneth Patchen suffered throughout his adult life from a spinal injury that made physical pain a constant companion. The condition worsened, and the poet would spend the last 13 years of his life confined to bed, nearly paralyzed. But during these last years, when it became impossible for him to produce the sustained effort necessary for his longer writing projects, Patchen began an unusual creation that has come to be known as the Picture Poems. The 200 pages of the final work combined poetry with painting, drawing, and collage to form a contemporary illuminated manuscript.
Kenneth Patchen - poet, novelist, painter, playwright, pacifist - produced over 50 books during his lifetime. For readers who are accustomed to admiring, from a safe distance, the intellectual and verbal sheen of a carefully tooled poem, Patchen's books will probably be either frightening, exhilarating, or both. The experience must be a little like opening your eyes from a light sleep only to find the massive head of a lion leaning over you ... weeping.
Patchen used any means available to touch his readers. Not satisfied with the conventionally printed poem, he experimented with typography and design, ink drawings, and silk-screened broadsides in an effort to recapture some of the early mystery that was invested in the printed word and to break through that barrier that separates writer and reader.
Patchen's publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions Press, had issued several earlier collections of the paintings, but these small black-and-white reproductions could never communicate the sheer exuberance of the originals. But now we have ''What Shall We Do Without Us?'' from Sierra Club Books, 37 full-color picture poems accompanied by a thoughtful reminiscence from Laughlin and a bibliography of the poet's work.
Today, a dozen years after his death, Patchen's still-loyal following will be joined by a new generation of readers intrigued by his unique style and that distinctive voice that is by turns a fiery prophetic declamation or a quiet, whimsical drawl.
Perhaps most vital at this time is the powerful pacifist message of his art. Patchen himself said: ''I speak for a generation born in one war and doomed to die in another.''
It is no coincidence that interest in his writing underwent a resurgence in the decade of the Vietnam war, and again now in the 1980s when speculation about nuclear war and the survival of the planet arises in daily conversation and newspaper headlines.
As we've come to expect of Sierra Club publications, the Patchen book is handsomely produced; the color reproductions approach the dazzling intensity of the painted collages. The art critic Alfred Frankenstein called Patchen ''probably the most sophisticated primitive in the history of American art.'' Although untrained in the graphic arts, the poet had studied and been affected by the work of other artists. William Blake's lovely illustrated books were certainly the most prominent influence on him. While Blake's pictures were a separate accompaniment to the verse, Patchen's painting and rough-handed calligraphy were integrated into one exuberant expression. His brushwork is often uneven, full of motion, and looks as if it might change completely with a second examination. Each piece incorporates a broad range of media, built up in layers of color on the sheets; Patchen used tempera and acrylic paints, cut papers, casein, crayons, marking pens, coffee, tea, cloth dyes, and almost anything at hand that would achieve a desired visual effect. As in the paintings of Klee and Miro, each rough shape, each bold line, creates an almost physical tension that draws a viewer into the composition, into contact with the kingdom of Patchen's creatures.
These creatures are perhaps the most affecting part of the poet's composition. Seemingly childlike, realized with a surprising simplicity of form, they establish a powerful bond with their audience. His characters may possess birdlike wings with an elephantine nose, bearlike paws with a feathery crown and rainbow-colored skin. But the aura they project is wise, magical, yet quite vulnerable. Their whole world seems a fragile, just-born thing; and Patchen's achievement, visually and poetically, is that he makes the viewer feel he or she is somehow taking part in its creation.
The poems that visually surround these fantastical beings speak with the authority and intimacy of lifelong friends.
Some are simply humorous, like the poet's solution to the din of politics: ''I Proclaim This Inter-National Shut Your Big Fat Flapping Mouth Week.'' Others are more ruefully satirical: ''And to think...,'' says one bearish animal, ''It Started Out Like Any Other World, Intended, one might almost have been led to believe, to last for a good long time.'' In my favorite tableau, a purple-crowned king and a confetti-colored commoner are linked together by the affirmation: ''The One Who Comes to Question Himself Has Cared for Mankind.''
Young people delight in the poet's fabulous figures, the directness and humor of his verse. Visiting the Patchen Archives at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I've seen adult admirers slip into tears or break the library silence with laughter. But it is the children - especially the ones we too often conceal within ourselves - that Kenneth Patchen was most interested in reaching with his bitter and beatific illuminations.