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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 could 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

Tony Hoagland reads Kenneth Patchen’s “The Orange Bears”

Transcription of Commentary

This is Tony Hoagland. I’m going to read a poem by Kenneth Patchen, an American poet. The poem is called “The Orange Bears.”

I love this poem by Kenneth Patchen, and let me tell you a little bit about him as an American poet. He was born in 1911. He died in 1972. He had a beautiful early career in which he was published by Random House and given a Guggenheim grant. And he belongs to a tradition I’d call the sort of buried visionary tradition in American poetry. He was a great pacifist; in some ways he was a socialist, in some ways he was affected by William Blake; and he was a romantic visionary. This is kind of a repressed tradition in American poetry, especially in 20th century American poetry. It seems we are embarrassed by our visionaries. We are also embarrassed by our political poets. The entire socialist tradition of the ‘20s and ‘30s has been repressed and sort of removed from the anthologies, which is a sort of canonical excision which has been documented and described by the scholar Cary Nelson in his anthology of American poetry.

So Kenneth Patchen was sort of part of that tradition. He was born in Wheeling—he was born in Youngstown, Ohio, close to Wheeling, West Virginia. And the poem “The Orange Bears” is obviously set in a coal-mining area where there is coal soot covering everything. The poem is obviously in the voice of child, and it’s a poem of great passion, and great grief, and also great anger. To me, this seems like one kind of political poem, really worthwhile kind of political poem. The kind of poem that is in defense of the human, and defense of childhood, and defense of the innocent part of us that is childlike, and given to wonder, and has friends like the orange bears.

One of the functions of the poet is to explain the world for the rest of us, for citizens, and to sort of sketch out a map of the world’s hierarchies and causalities and consequences. And I feel that Kenneth Patchen does this in this poem quite beautifully because he’s situating so many different kinds of social and imaginative and anti-imaginative forces in the world that he’s describing. You know the National Guardsmen coming over to strike break, to prevent the union members from striking with their drawn bayonets. You have the coal soot and the coal dust that settles on everything, which is the consequence of industry. And you have the orange bears which are these imaginative allies, part of childhood. You have the wounded child who’s angry at having his innocence taken away, and you have the odd ally, apparently, of Walt Whitman in the Haldeman-Julius edition which the speaker of the poem takes down to the creek to read. And then he says, What did he know about orange bears and the National Guard coming over from Wheeling, West Virginia with drawn bayonets? So, it’s wonderful the way that the speaker is situated among all kinds of forces, and his meticulous mapping of those forces justifies his grief, his anger. And in that sense, I feel like Kenneth Patchen’s poem redeems and reminds us of that part of us that has been violated. I don’t mean that in any kind of artsy, therapeutic way. He actually is describing the way that the soul is tarnished and innocence is evicted. This seems to me to be a beautiful social and political act performed through poetry, which is the act that really lies at the heart of pacifism and our ideas of justice and reminds us of our right to feel outrage, and reminds us of the defense of the soul or the violation of the soul that happens all the time.

In that sense I just want to remind you of two other American poets. One is Wallace Stevens, who believed in a very different way that he practiced that the poem is an act of violence designed to push out, to push back at the forces of violence and invasion and nihilism that surround us—to defend the space of the self and the space of the soul. The other is—the other poet I want to bring up is Walt Whitman, who in Kenneth Patchen’s poem is in some ways maligned because all the promises that Whitman makes about the freedom of the self and the immortality of the soul and the great beauty of the world turn out to have been empty promises as far as the speaker of this poem goes. So I love that in his striking back, he strikes back at Whitman also and says: “What did he know about / orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal / And the National Guard coming over / . . . with drawn bayonets?” I love it that this is an equal opportunity outrage on the part of the speaker of the poem. But the other poem, the other—there are a few lines by Whitman which I’d like to remind you of in which Whitman says, in the middle of “Leaves of Grass,” “I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat, / (It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you.”

I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat—and I just want to say here that we have to remember the urgent importance that certain things be said, and be said again and again, not to waste the time of our readers, and not to waste the mission of poetry and what it can do.

“The Orange Bears” Kenneth Patchen from Collected Poems of Kenneth Patchen.

New Directions, 1949.

Reprinted by permission of New Directions.

Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland

Read “Hard Rain” by Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland (1953- ) was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina and educated at the University of Iowa and the University of Arizona. He is the author of Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010), his fourth full-length collection of poetry. Hoagland was selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for his collection What Narcissism Means to Me (2003). He currently teaches at the University of Houston and in the Warren Wilson MFA program.

Learn more about Tony Hoagland at The Poetry Foundation

Kenneth Patchen

Kenneth Patchen

Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) was born in Ohio and briefly attended Alexander Meiklejohn's Experimental College and the University of Wisconsin. The author of more than twenty books of poetry, he published his first book, Before the Brave, in 1936. He received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation that same year, and in 1967 he received an award for his "life-long contribution to American Letters" from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities. Photo courtesy of New Directions Publishing.</p>

Learn more about Kenneth Patchen at The Poetry Foundation