But of Life? (2022)

Performed by the UofL Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Dr. Kent Hatteberg at the 2022 University of Louisville New Music Festival.

Program Notes: But of Life? is a poem by the American poet Kenneth Patchen that was originally published in 1930. The poem details and personifies the end of life for a single tree, utilizing rich natural imagery and religious symbolism as the tree’s demise is detailed. In his own life, Patchen was an environmentalist and pacifist who felt a great deal of concern about the effects of man on the natural world long before it was common in the general public to do so. While Patchen was held in high regard by several of his peers such as E.E. Cummings and Henry Miller, his own works enjoyed little financial success, in large part due to the lack of public interest in the themes of environmentalism and pacifism that Patchen espoused. He faced particularly harsh criticism in the wake of World War II, when several literary critics dismissed his pacifistic writing as being mere naïveté.

In this poem, Patchen chooses to personify the tree, writing the opening stanza in first person with the tree as the speaker. The tree expresses its desire to be left alone, stating its hope that “none come touching” any part of it for their own purposes. Patchen goes on to detail the environment around the tree becoming darker and more dire as a fog builds and birds disappear as well as the very stars in the sky. Then, in the climax of the poem, the tree weeps, and as its death is implied, no one hears its final cries of anguish. In a final, one line stanza, Patchen states “so was Crucifixion’s tree” almost as an afterthought to the rest of the text. Patchen would not use such obvious religious symbolism without an explicit purpose. After dwelling on this for quite a while, I’ve come to believe that Patchen’s intended message is that even in one of the most famous and emotionally resonant human sacrifices, the natural world sacrificed first.

Unfortunately, after Patchen’s death in 1972, any remaining public interest in his work seemed to die with him. I stumbled across Patchen and this text while reading about the Jimmy Buffett song Death of an Unpopular Poet. After reading that Patchen was in part the inspiration for the song, I began to dig into his work and felt a strong emotional resonance with much of what I was reading. Patchen’s urgent, tender, and profound calls to action for environmental stewardship and international diplomacy feel ever more necessary in an increasingly militarized and withering world. If Patchen’s work was ahead of its time, then I hold that its time is now. It is my hope that this piece shines a light on Patchen and how his career and legacy were buried by the weight of a world not quite ready for what he had to say.

Benjamin Carter