There is a kind of progression in Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems that, while difficult to articulate, feels as easy as breathing, as light as a Bonnard interior, as campy and commonplace as a Wayne Thiebaud breakfast, and as naturally wonderful as a Hanukah present from your aunt Gertrude. For example, a friend recently presented me with an orange short-haired cat named Crush. I’d never had a cat before. And so, while having Crush hasn’t changed my life, it has, in a way, because Crush makes the harder moments more endurable. I’m thinking of times when he bounds up to me and kisses me in his own way with his cheek; also, more generally, mornings where waking up isn’t a chore, (even if it is), and the toast and the coffee feel almost reverent and playful in their irreverence. There are all these unforced instances when life is neither spattered over with a tight-fisted ideology nor witnessed with our daily horse blinders on, when something is seen, witnessed, participated in—something special, funny, lovely, warm, absurd, modest, ambitious, whimsical, meaningful. Padgett’s poems are full of these moments—not chestnut instances that make you squeamish with cheesiness, but rather hilarious and untapped times that make you giddy with delight. His Collected Poems constitutes an important 20th and 21st century chronicling of these “ah!” or “huh!” or “yee Gads, wow” experiences—times when we allow ourselves to day-dream and imagine, lose ourselves pleasurably in a funny reverie, play with our cat or dog or strange hamster named “Edgar,” joke with a loved one, or notice something familiar in a new, refreshing light.
Confession: I was initially going to argue that Padgett’s progression is analogous to Frank O’Hara’s, beginning with his wildly innovative, parataxic, and associational poems, and ending with poems with at least one foot in narrative; but this formulation kind of falls apart, like a soggy card castle. There is less a sense of Padgett shucking off the yoke of the New York poem to “FIND HIS VOICE,” (a notion Padgett would probably be uncomfortable with—see his poem “Voice”) as there is of the poet experimenting and learning different and new ways of making the New York poem, and poetry more generally, his own. The process or accretion of reading through Padgett’s poems, then, is just as much psychological as literary—we become aware that we are reading not only the work of a poet, but the work of a whole zany person as well, who is documenting through his poetry the individual and unique process of growing up and aging. What’s amazing about Padgett’s poems is that this process, as David Lehman has pointed out, feels so much fun, and also natural, while also, at times, sad and touching. It’s a privilege to read these poems.
So what is a Padgett poem like? Often there is the sense of an imagination stretching itself to explore what Padgett calls in one poem “alternative events”—many Padgett poems do this in wackily innovative ways. For one of many examples, here is “Poema del City,” from his third book, Toujours L’Amour—incidentally, the book in which Padgett seems to hit his stride, not sounding like the stereotypical New York poet, (dazzling but sometimes slightly tiring), but more like (gulp) himself.
Poema del City
I live in the city.
It’s a tough life,
often unpleasant, sometimes
downright awful, But it has what
we call its compensations.
To kill a roach, for example,
is to my mind not pleasant
but it does develop one’s reflexes.
and that’s that.
Sometimes, though, the battered roach
will haul itself onto broken legs and,
wildly waving its bent antennae,
stagger off into the darkness
to warn the others, who live in the shadow
of the great waterfall in their little teepees.
Behind them rise the gleaming brown and blue mass
of the Grand Tetons, topped with white snow
that blushes, come dawn, and glows, come dusk.
Silent gray wisps rise from the smouldering campfires.
Notice in the third stanza, how there is a sudden break, a departure that takes us into the literal land of the unexpected. I love that last line, how it spins us into an adventure beyond our expectations and assumptions, and does so with a kind of hilarious, quiet grace. I love, too, how the poem, while ostensibly about the “compensations” of stomping on roaches, is also about the compensations of reading good poetry—i.e. leading us somewhere, only to turn the lights off pleasantly and introduce something we hadn’t foreseen at all, like a moving movie or puppet play. Many of Padgett’s poems are like that—they are these kinds of recipes for one way of writing a poem, i.e. beginning with something, anything, and then letting your imagination seize this something and see where it takes you—a cup of coffee, a memory, an irrational fear, an arrangement of materials on a desk.
And that’s the thing—for while Padgett is often guarding himself against taking himself too seriously, he at the same time evinces a desire to take himself seriously, but through the “smaller” moments that he gets down on paper. And he succeeds, wildly. Here is “Tennyson Invincible,” also from Toujours L’Amour:
Where is the poem “Tennyson Invincible”
I’ve been wanting to write for almost two years?
It seems to exist
in a world continuous but not contiguous
like an alternative to an event:
I ate a larger bowl of cereal
this morning and wasn’t killed by that speeding taxi!
Inside the taxi a passenger stares
glumly into the future
which the past absorbs as he
leads his life through it.
Pretty soon poof
No Nothing. A thousand
years pass. An animal
with a shiny white ball for a head
declaims, through strange body vibrations,
“Tennyson Invincible.” This
of course will not happen—
just a fantasy I had.
I love the word “glumly” in the tenth line, its almost onomatopoeia-like quality, close to “poof,” and its juxtaposition to the funny and banal inclusion in the poem about “eating a larger bowl of cereal.” But is it banal? On one level, yes; our morning rituals do not normally bespeak of the extraordinary. But on another level, I think Padgett’s inclusion of his breakfast cereal in the poem is an important swerve away from the imagined and desired poem “Tennyson Invincible” (hilarious title), away from the more cooked poetics of a Lowell, or even of a Tennyson or Wordsworth, and towards a claiming of subject matter that is normally considered too “trite,” too “unimportant,” too “un-epical.” That is, I have the same impression, reading this poem, that I had seeing a painting by Thiebaud of a “roast beef dinner” at the Toledo Museum of Art: I thought instantly to myself, “yes, why not?” And then, “how wonderful!”
And these poems are wonderful, but not just because they are funny and brilliantly light-hearted, or because they take themselves seriously while not taking themselves seriously; they are also wonderful in the way in which they handle pathos. Rather than explain right away, here is “Little Elegy,” from You Never Know:
Blaise Cendrars in his final days, old
and ill, wrote down his final words:
This morning on the windowsill a bird.
I find that so beautiful and moving
I can barely stand it, though
it makes me see the aged poet, head
turned towards the window and a small bird
perched there, staring in, angling its head
at the bulbous nose and squinty eyes:
I have come to visit you, old man.
But now I’ll lift my wings and they will beat,
for flying is my great thrill,
and where the wings sprout out
is calling me to leap and fly.
Morning, windowsill, and bird
all flown away. Goodbye, goodbye.
In this small lyric is encapsulated so much: a meditation on mortality, (although “mortality” in the context of this poem feels too heavy, even bathetic), on poetry, on somehow living everyday and learning to say goodbye everyday to everything we love and cherish, but doing this in a way that is also beautiful and artful and poignant. The poem validates for us every time we have been moved by a work of art so much that we “barely stand it,” how we leave such experiences thankful, changed, charged, quiet, and somehow powerfully sad; or as Padgett writes with sighing emphatic candor, “and it takes your breath away. / It takes your breath away.”