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I am sitting in a cafe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side thinking about what I am going to write about Ron Padgett’s Big Cabin (2019), which Coffee House Press has sent me, presumably because I reviewed two of his earlier books. The day after I received the book I brought it with me on the train to Boston, where I was going to critique 22 MFA graduate students in Boston University’s painting department. By the time the train got to Boston, I had finished the book and was dipping back into it.
Padgett writes in a relaxed, vernacular style. His poems often remind me of cartoon thought balloons floating above a solitary figure who has just had a revelation. In “Sweeping Away,” he writes, “What I want to do / is to forget everything / I ever knew about poetry / and sweep the pine needles / off the cabin roof,” concluding:
The pen is mightier than the sword
but today the broom
is mightier than the pen.
A few moments before I began writing this review, I imagined a scene in which W. H. Auden and Padgett are seated side by side at a bar, or across from each other at a diner. They have come to the end of their conversation and are about to part. Remembering his poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden looks at Padgett and says in his gravelly voice: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” With a smile breaking across his face, like sunlight on a pond, Padgett replies: “Why should it?”
I began reading Padgett in the 1970s, when I was in my mid-20s and had just arrived in New York. I bought copies of Bean Spasms: Poems and Prose, (with Ted Berrigan, New York, NY: Kulchur Press, 1967); Great Balls of Fire (New York, NY: Holt, 1969); The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Jim and Ron, (with Jim Dine, London, England: Cape Goliard Press, 1970); and Crazy Compositions (Southampton, New York: Big Sky, 1974). From then on, I have bought any book of his that I could find – poetry, prose, and translations. In 2007, I published Padgett’s translation of Prose Poems by Pierre Reverdy through my press, Black Square Editions. So if you are looking for a critical review, I am not sure you have come to the right place.
As a poet, Padgett’s poems make me gnash my teeth. Although I am sure this is not at all the case, I keep getting the sense that they came to him as naturally as a dog wagging his tail. He makes it all looks so easy, so effortless. In “Sweeping Away,” the poem I cited earlier, everything is pared down and precise – something I associate with Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Tu Fu. Rexroth’s merging of intense feeling with his masterful sense of form is what ultimately moves the reader.
Padgett seems to have absorbed that precision without sounding like anyone but himself. What he does share with Tu Fu is his sense of solitariness, with the main difference being that Tu Fu is given to brooding and Padgett isn’t. I sense something dark flowing beneath the surface of these self-mocking poems, filled with moments of lightness and tender humor.
That darkness can be wistful, as in the poem, “In the Winter of 1969-70”:
In the winter of 1969-70
I went out to an old shed
Behind Fairfield Porter’s house
And fired up the coal stove,
Cleared a spot on the workbench,
Sat down and started translating
The poetry of Blaise Cendrars.
Padgett’s poems can be simultaneously amiable and wistful, or self-mocking. The poet is always observant, often of small things – that moment when he feels connected to the world around him, as in “The Hook”:
It’s gray that grabs you
And won’t let go
And you don’t want it to.
It’s a tree.
Big Cabin is divided into three sections, with the middle one in prose. As stated on the book’s back cover, it was “[w]ritten over three autumns in a cabin in Vermont […].” The first section contains 25 poems, the second, in prose, is 10 pages, broken up into shorter sections, and the last has 35 poems.
Among the poems in the first section is a beautiful, tender portrait of a neighbor, “Harold Clough,” who “once mailed a donut to my dog”; an address to the French Poet Eluard; and a consideration of Shelley “as a person and not / the great Romantic poet / who died at thirty tragically.”
The middle section, “Completion,” begins:
I am writing this in a school notebook whose puzzling name, printed on the front cover in large type, is Completion, with a sort of subtitle: “Take your fun where you can find it.”
Padgett goes on from there, always tracking his physical location, or what he is doing or thinking, which is about “being an only child” and his sense of “aloneness.” What he “thought of as a privileged status has begun to feel like a deprivation.” Written over a period of weeks or months, the last section of “Completion” looks back over his life (and the deaths of friends and relatives), as well as the present he inhabits. It begins:
I should be open to the idea that it is not a tragedy that writing in this notebook has brought me no closer to discovering what it was I might have been looking for, particularly since there is no way of knowing what it might have been.
At times, reality bursts in, bringing Padgett back to what is around him (“[…] and now a full blast / of sunlight hits the wet grass.”). Padgett writes about ”being / in this, the only world.” He always locates you in a physical space, be it in a cabin in Vermont (“I like it here in this cabin”) or a situation — “I am writing […],” or “I am going to look at my watch […],” or “It feels cold in this room / until I go outside.”
A lot of readers have pointed out how generous, funny, playful, and witty Padgett’s poems are. While these characterizations feel true, it seems to me that one of the motivations driving the poems is the poet’s desire for knowledge, which he pursues without making any grand claims for this yearning. It is Padgett’s craving that animates his writing, and keeps him alert to the small and easily dismissed moments that make up our everyday lives. Does poetry need to be like a toaster and make something happen? Is that why you should read it?
Big Cabin(2019) by Ron Padgett is published by Coffee House Press.