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One mind-stumping sensation a reader is likely to glean from Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2013) is that the poems wrote themselves, and that he just happened to be in the room when they showed up. There is even a substantial section in Collected Poems that Padgett titled: POEMS I GUESS I WROTE (2001). Who wrote these poems, if he didn’t? Was it the Angel of Poetry, Saskatchewan Sam, or benevolent pixies, or did they each just appear, spontaneously generated, at one time or another? Only Padgett could have achieved the appearance of such effortlessness.
Padgett’s writing strikes me as essentially without an identifiable style. Of course, this is absolutely false. He does have a style; it is just that it is neither literary nor a form of branding. His writing isn’t traditionalist, surrealist, avant-gardist, minimalist, metaphysical, pataphysical, philosophical, scientific, conceptual, extravagant, obscure, metaphorical, or riddled with puns. While he has a huge bag of tricks, particularly in the early books, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964) and Great Balls of Fire (1969), he seems never to rely on a particular device — collage, for example — to generate work over a long period. He does not try to be profound, which is not to say his poems are modest — as that can become, and often is, a pose. They are not about a favorite pet, though animals do run and even somersault in at least one poem. The writing doesn’t seem to be driven by any cause or trauma. They are not political or claiming to be agents of social change. Finally, the poetry is not autobiographical in any overt, attention- getting way (The “look what happened to me school” that continues to be prevalent).
Despite all the many things that Padgett’s poems are not — and I have only touched the tip of the iceberg — there are a few things about the poems, prose poems, lists and gatherings that you can count on. They are apt to be occasional, funny, and about something quotidian or underfoot — such as reading a French-English dictionary, drinking chocolate milk or having a fantasy about seeing his father sitting on the front porch as it rains. But for all the humor and air of innocence that dances through the poems — as nimble, succinct and gracefully elegant as Fred Astaire — other feelings, at once dark and possibly unfathomable, are hinted at, without Padgett stepping in and spelling them out.
It seems to me that Padgett recognizes that certain events exist in the domain of the unspeakable, and they don’t necessarily have to be devastating and traumatic to become something not written about. To write about them is to cheapen them as well as turn them into a commodity. It is to go into the comfort and encouragement business.
In the prose poem, “The Poet’s Breakfast,” which was included in You Never Know (2002), Padgett begins:
What does a writer do? A writer sits and goes through hell. I’m not exactly going through hell, but then, I’m not driven by the belief that the world is waiting for my next bit of hard-earned genius.
He goes on: “I seem to feel that since I can do nothing to save souls, it is my job to slow the material world’s inevitable slide into rack and ruin.” And, as the poem proceeds – jumping (as one’s thoughts do) from the pleasures of “raking and piling the grass” to “Juan Gris’s 1914 painting, Breakfast,” which “became part of [him] in 1962, when [he] first saw it” – one gets a sense of Padgett’s genius, which is to track the places, feelings, memories and events conjured up as well as manifested, however fleetingly, by the meandering mind. In this he shares an affinity with certain aspects of Abstract Expressionism, and with those artists whose works are a record of the painting coming into being. It is writing that is both necessary and without pretense.
Padgett recalls seeing Gris’s 1914 painting “Breakfast” with his lifelong friend, Joe Brainard (1942–1994). They met in high school, while growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Padgett and his friend and neighbor, Dick Gallup, were seventeen when started a literary journal, The White Dove Review (1959–60), which published young and well-known poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Padgett asked Brainard, whose work he admired but who he didn’t know at the time, to be the art editor. After the three of them, along with the older poet and friend, Ted Berrigan, who was stationed in Tulsa at the time, moved to New York, and began to be known in the city’s downtown literary and art circles, John Ashbery affectionately dubbed them the “soi-disant Tulsa School of Poetry.”
At the time that Padgett wrote “The Poet’s Breakfast,” Brainard was HIV positive and would die of AIDS-induced pneumonia a few years later, at the age of 52. The enjoyment of the details of everyday life — this is what Padgett and Brainard shared in both their life and work, and it is something that is found throughout Collected Poems.
Padgett’s memory of seeing the Gris painting leads to him to a memory: “I should add that I was looking at it with Joe Brainard, who knew how truly beautiful it was, and I was seeing it through his eyes…” And then after finishing this thought, Padgett immediately follows with: “And now, as Joe and I drive to town, I’m struck by how bizarre it is that in a few years he will be gone and how brave he is to keep enjoying the details of everyday life. I am forty-nine years old and surrounded by death. Does writing help? Probably not.”
There are neither Job-like howls, nor self-pity in these poems. Instead, there is the recognition that whatever else life is, it is also ‘bizarre.”
Padgett’s devotion to the pleasures of the everyday, no matter how seemingly incidental, occasional and small, transform his poems into unlikely celebrations. He is one of the most self-effacing poets writing today; his work is quiet, gentle and funny, but that should not lull the reader into thinking he has modest ambitions, because he doesn’t. He is a poet who refuses to show off, refuses to let us know how much he has read, refuses to act like a prophet or speak to us as if we needed to hear what he has to say, to learn the lesson that he has to teach us. He has none of those elevated views of the self that are all too often associated with poets, or that poets adopt in order to convince themselves of their importance.
I remember when I first became a loyal reader of Ron Padgett. I had bought a secondhand copy of Great Balls of Fire shortly after I moved to New York in 1975. This is where I first read “The Complete Works,” a fitting title for Padgett’s longest poem, which is basically a list of descriptive, declarative sentences in which a single letter has been removed, added or substituted:
Tin is a soft, lustrous metal which becomes brittle when heard.
Edgar divided the dainties among the fiends.
Dick wept farther and further into the dense wood.
In this and in the one titled “Y . . r D . . K,” Padgett underscored the materiality of words; they were things made up of smaller things: letters. Adding or removing a letter changed the thing’s identity, such as “friends” becoming “fiends.” I was hooked and since then have bought every book whose cover claims that Ron Padgett is the author.
My appreciation of Padgett continued to grow throughout the 1970s, with the publication of Toujours L’Amours (1976), Tulsa Kid (1979) and Triangles in the Afternoon (1979) in rapid succession. And then, just as I began thinking that there would be a new book by Padgett every couple of years, it took him more than a decade to publish his next book of poetry, The Big Something (1990), followed five years later by New & Selected Poems (1995), which I thought left too much out. This is one reason why Collected Poems is so satisfying; it gives the full range of Padgett’s poetry.
Padgett never seems to get embarrassed by the odd and silly places his mind takes him. Toward the end of his prose poem, “The Woodpecker Today,” which begins with a very clear and precise description — “The wings of the redheaded woodpecker flashed white as he landed on the deck rail, well fed and magisterial…” — the poet recalls “an article that explained why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.” And then he follows the implication of this memory to its logical but impossible ending: “As these thoughts ran through my head, for a moment I saw a small helmet materialize on the woodpecker’s head – a silver Detroit Lion’s helmet. I hope he comes back. I would like to get the entire uniform on him.” On the opposite page is the prose poem, “The Ape Man,” which begins” “Why is it that I seem to want to write so often about writing? I am not theoretician of language.” Later, he states: “Perhaps it can’t be put into words, because words can’t be used to describe themselves, just as an eye can’t see itself.”
Padget’s refusal to theorize goes against the grain of much that is being written today, poems as manifestoes and declarations of what can and can’t be done. He seems to have no interest in being right, which, frankly, I find refreshing. He recognizes that stating what your poems are up to doesn’t make it true. Instead, he writes a poem titled “Charley Chan Wins Again,” another favorite, which begins:
Now honorable leg broken.
The fog drifts over the docks.
It is a terrible movie
I can’t watch, but I do.
It is that assent that is so central to Padgett’s poetry, what distinguishes his body of work from others. He doesn’t seem afraid to write something trivial or ordinary, because domestic life can be a full and wondrous adventure.
“The Love Cook”
Let me cook you some dinner.
Sit down and take off your shoes
and socks and in fact the rest
of your clothes, have a daiquiri,
turn on some music and dance
around the house, inside and out,
it’s night and the neighbors
are sleeping, those dolts, and
the stars are shining bright,
and I’ve got the burners lit
for you, you hungry thing.
Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2013) is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.