I first read Kenneth Patchen’s “23rd Street Runs in to Heaven” when I was in my late teens while collecting all of the Pocket Poets editions published by City Lights. The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen stood out for me because of “23rd Street Runs into Heaven.” I still think of it as a perfect poem, although at the time I first read it never would I have thought of it as an immemorial poem. What it means to me now, a half century later, and how I read the poem is completely different than how I first read the poem. The difference is that I initially read the poem in a romantic light, with desire and passion flickering within the margins; whereas, now I read the poem as a testament to active loving on a mature and deeply moving humane level.
“23rd Street Runs into Heaven” is just more than a poet’s poem and much more than just a favorite poem. When you live with a poem for several decades you realize why poetry meant something to you in the first place. Some of the other poems that fit that category for me are Art Beck’s “Fog,” James Wright’s “A Blessing,” Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters,” and Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense,” in no particular order. These poems are much like an opera lover’s favorite arias. They are talismans. They are healing prayers. They are the best of old friends.
There are not many people that I have known that are aware of “23rd Street Runs into Heaven.” In 2012, when I was invited to be the opening reader in the Devil’s Kitchen literary festival held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, due to my having been the co-winner of the Crab Orchard Open Series Poetry Competition, one of my colleagues at the week-long event, who was also invited to attend, just happened to mention “23rd Street Runs into Heaven” in a lecture he was giving. For a prose writer, and not a poet, to have cited the Patchen poem with such respect brought an uncharacteristic nonverbal utterance from within me, issuing out of my mouth, which had dropped open in sheer surprise.
Trying to cover for myself, since I am normally not known for such a loud outburst that made others in the seats in front of me turn to look at who could have made such a noise, I leaned toward the co-host of the event and tried to portray what had arisen from such depths within me was due to the poem mentioned being one of nearly unutterable beauty and uniquely significant in its deftness of craft. Instead, my embarrassment faded somewhat into a deep appreciation of the poem being cited in the first place and that perhaps my nonverbal burst of delight might have led others to not only reference the poem, and read it, but to also sip the poem’s contents like one does with a cherished crystal glass containing the G. E. Massenez Crème de Cassis de Lyon that one savors before dinner.
Judging by the copyrights listed for The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen, in the edition I own, the poems were composed between 1939 and 1965, the latter year being the publication date of the book. However, I believe we can discern that the poem was written in the 40s or 50s due to the “newsboys” starting “their murder-into-pennies round.” Somehow, I have always imagined the noir that Patchen creates to be similar to that of a film starring Humphrey Bogart, such as The Maltese Falcon, which was filmed in San Francisco, and the “before-supper Sabbath” being an innocent one—with, albeit, an unforeseen and possibly marauding darkness lurking in the shadows. Here is the first verse of the poem:
“You stand near the window as lights wink
On along the street. Somewhere a trolley, taking
Shopgirls and clerks home, clatters through
This before-supper Sabbath. An alley cat cries
To find the garbage cans sealed; newsboys
Begin their murder-into pennies round.”
This can be considered the first verse of a sonnet—a mid-20th century American sonnet. The lines are taught and they conjure a tone of warmth and a certain timbre: the background noise of a city on an early Saturday night. This first verse delineates the framework for elemental human comfort, a pause in the work week, a sense of one’s being on the very cusp of experiencing some rest, if not repose.
The next eight lines finish the sonnet and explicate why “23rd Street Runs into Heaven” is such an accomplished poem. At first, decades ago, I was infused with the poem’s indelible portrayal of two lovers settling in together for a night at home, the intimacy that Patchen creates with just a few masterful images, the sacredness of that intimacy, and the honoring of how much humans, everywhere, yearn for that to have happened at least once in their lives, to have been able to store that immemorial, priceless evening in their memory for all time. These lines are not only cinematic, they are also lyrically melodious. They form both film and soundtrack. Their visceral romantic sweep are nothing less than extraordinary—but what we also find in the every day and nearly ordinary. It is what I term finding the numinous in the commonplace.
“We are shut in, secure for a little, safe until
Tomorrow. You slip your dress off, roll down
Your stockings, careful against runs. Naked now,
With soft light on soft flesh, you pause
For a moment; turn and face me—
Smile in a way that only women know
Who have lain long with their lover
And are made more virginal.”
The poem could have concluded there. The last line of the verse, “And are made more virginal” astounds one with its gravity. The sense of awe that is infused in the reader leaves one in a state of gratitude that resembles a cloud of bliss which can last for a small forever. We are not only left with a sense of profundity but a real feeling of what it truly means to be alive—something few poems offer. However, let’s hold that feeling for just a moment and let us focus now on the poem’s final line, which after a half a century of rereading it I have finally come to the conclusion that Patchen may have added the line to the finished sonnet as an afterthought, that the poem had been written, perhaps on a sheet of paper, and he added the line afterward, after the initial heat of composition. And this is how he finished it:
“Our supper is plain but we are very wonderful.”
This line cinches it. We have gone from the profound to the ordinary and in this juxtaposition we enter the realm of the extraordinary, the transcendent, the immemorial. This poem presents us with this gift. Actually, this poem itself is a gift. How absolutely human we not only feel but also how consummately human we actually have become. Rich or poor, isn’t this what we want and need to experience in our relatively brief lives? Isn’t this what the Buddha had in mind when after finishing a lecture he looked into the throng of listeners in front of him and he saw his disciple Kashyapa hold up a flower, upon which the Buddha transmitted direct prajna (wisdom) as Kashyapa bowed his head in understanding. As Joseph Campbell relayed, “Life has no meaning, life is an experience.” Kenneth Patchen gives his readers such an experience in “23rd Street Runs into Heaven.”
However, what I’ve learned these last fifty years is that although the last line of “23rd Street Runs into Heaven” does propel the poem into a kind of radiance, what I didn’t at all understand was how a woman could be “made more virginal.” The poem, I had thought, was a testament to what is sensual, to the celebration of lovers, to the sanctity of intimacy itself. Also, I had thought early on, in what was sheer poetic reverie, that Patchen was describing the indescribable: a woman who has “lain long with their lover/ And are made more virginal.”
What I’ve come to understand, only recently, is that none of that is true, or at least not all of it is. What I’ve come to comprehend, especially after my own experience with my partner, Tevis, is that women are, indeed, “more virginal,” in actuality, if they have “lain long with their lover,” since the scene that Patchen describes is rather quite ordinary. It is so ordinary that the two lovers have transcended the sensual, and possibly the sexual, and that they have become so at one with each other that common sensuality is certainly a touchstone to their sanctity of intimacy. But it is in what is truly sacred we find in the commonness of “soft light on soft flesh’ so much so that their awareness of the oneness of each other is not dependent at all upon it. They have gone beyond it. Their oneness is such that their “supper is plain” although “they are very wonderful.” They have experienced their communion plainly and have been transubstantiated by it.
“23rd Street Runs into Heaven” is as much a poem of transcendence as it is of love, as much about love as it regards the transubstantiation of the flesh, as much as physical alchemy as the sacramental act of “our supper” being “plain but we are very wonderful.” It is as much as Kashyapa holding up the flower in acknowledgment of having understood the Buddha’s sermon as it is about Joseph Campbell guiding us into the wisdom of our not wanting an explanation of the mystery of life as much as actually experiencing it fully.
“23rd Street Runs into Heaven” is all of those things, and more, just like every immemorial poem is—and after a lifetime of reading and recommending poems there sometimes seems to be so very few of the quality and resonance of this poem. This Kenneth Patchen poem is one I have absolutely loved extolling, and passing it on to you, so that you can then extol it to others. In this, I believe lies both the mystery of life and the experience of living it, which is what the best poetry can, and does, perpetuate in what is immemorial about it.
Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love. co-winner in the 2011 Crab Orchard Series Open Poetry Contest, and A Bird Who Seems to Know Me, winner of the 2018 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Prize. A translation of and Giuseppe Ungaretti’s L’Allegria/Cheerfulness is forthcoming with Shanti Arts.