Ron Padgett
by Michael Leddy
 

When a group of fifth-graders asked Ron Padgett to name a favorite poem, he chose Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them," a poem that records the sights, sounds, and thoughts of a poet's lunch hour in New York City. One of the many things that Padgett likes about "A Step Away from Them," as he has explained, is that "this is probably the first time a cheeseburger got into a poem!" ("A Step Away from Them"). A cheeseburger, of course, is not conventional material for poetry. For one thing, it is a relatively recent invention; the word "cheeseburger" dates from the 1930s and thus lacks the poetic prestige we might associate with a reference to meat or bread or wine, each of which appears in poetry as far back as Homer in ancient Greece. And unlike lofty modern subjects, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, which inspired the poet Hart Crane, a cheeseburger is a small, everyday part of reality.

Ron Padgett's poems celebrate the unexpected imaginative possibilities of such everyday things: frankfurters, Dagwood sandwiches, chocolate milk, salt and pepper-shakers, Mighty Mouse, Ohio Blue Tip matches, typewriters, and colored pencils, to name a few. As he describes his purpose as a poet, "that's what I want to do/ Tell you wonderful things" ("Wonderful Things"). Veering in and out of everyday realities with unpredictable, funny shifts and turns, Padgett's poems, too, are wonderful things.

Early Life

Ron Padgett was born on 17 June 1942 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His family circumstances gave him, early on, a feeling of being an outsider. His father, Wayne, was a bootlegger, transporting and selling whiskey in what was until 1959 a "dry" state, and his mother, Lucille, kept the accounts. As Padgett has recalled, "I was a sensitive kid, perhaps made sensitive by my father's profession and the social stigma attached to it" (Foster, p. 69).

Padgett was reading from an early age, and his parents kept him well supplied with his favorite reading matter, comic books. Their bright colors, excitement, and shifts from panel to panel were to have a significant influence on his poetry. He read little more than comic books and assigned schoolwork until junior high school, when his English teacher encouraged him to read in a wide variety of subjects. Latin and the exotic vocabulary of geometry—"hypotenuse," "rhomboid"—also helped spark Padgett's appreciation of the pleasures of language. His interest in reading and writing blossomed, and by age thirteen he was writing poetry and fiction and keeping a journal.

A Young Writer and Editor

By age fifteen, Padgett was working part-time in a Tulsa bookstore, reading Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Arthur Rimbaud and learning about little magazines. With two friends Joe Brainard, an artist and writer, and Dick Gallup, a poet, he created his own little magazine, the White Dove Review, soliciting and publishing work by Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other poets. Padgett has marveled at his unexpected transformation: "In a little over four years I had gone from being an indifferent reader to a writer, editor, and bookseller!" (Creative Reading: What It Is, How to Do It, and Why, p. 26).

In 1959, Padgett, a high school junior, met a young poet named Ted Berrigan, a senior at the University of Tulsa. Despite the difference in their ages, the two poets forged a strong friendship over hours of conversation in coffee shops and diners. Their friendship was to develop further in New York City.

From Tulsa to New York and Paris

Padgett left Tulsa in the fall of 1960 to study English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. He discovered a city alive with art and culture: museums, bookstores, classic and foreign films, folk music, jazz, and poetry readings. Padgett has recalled the excitement that the city inspired in him: "The sheer energy of the streets was irresistible, a force that made me want to go to the Museum of Modern Art, Bleecker Street Cinema, the Eighth Street Bookstore, Wall Street at midnight and a thousand other places, all at the same time, and then go back to my room and write a poem" ("The Streets as Muse to a Peripatetic Poet").

Padgett did indeed write a great deal while a student at Columbia. He and his friends were early participants in the "mimeograph revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, which enabled poets to publish their work cheaply and easily. Padgett's collaborations with Berrigan and Brainard (both of whom had moved to New York) included Some Things, Seventeen, and Bean Spasms. Berrigan's C Press also published Padgett's In Advance of the Broken Arm. These pointedly noncommercial mimeograph publications (the cover of Seventeen says "PRICE: One Cent") are now likely to be found only in the rare-book collections of university libraries.

In 1963, Padgett married Patricia Mitchell, another Tulsan who had come to New York. (They later had a son, Wayne.) Padgett's interest in French poetry, which began with Rimbaud, grew during his time at Columbia. He worked on translation with the poet and Columbia professor Kenneth Koch and focused on the poetry of dada and surrealism. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1964 Padgett received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Paris. There he found himself increasingly interested in the predecessors of dada and surrealism-the poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, and Pierre Reverdy. Apollinaire's quick shifts of focus, Cendrars's informality, Jacob's comedy, and Reverdy's mysteriousness would significantly influence Padgett's poetry.

A Life in Writing

In 1966, Padgett returned to New York City, which has since remained his home. From 1969 to 1979 he taught poetry writing in public schools. He also served as director of the Poetry Project at Saint Mark's Church, organizing poetry readings and writing workshops. In 1980 he became publications director for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that brings teachers and creative writers together to develop new approaches to teaching writing. Padgett has edited numerous publications for teachers and students and has written Creative Reading, a guide to unusual and inventive ways to read. He has also taught imaginative writing at Columbia University and Brooklyn College.

A Poet in Print

Since the 1960s Ron Padgett has published numerous volumes of poetry, culminating in New & Selected Poems. He has also established himself as a distinguished translator of French poetry and fiction. His fresh, lucid translations of Apollinaire, Jacob, Reverdy, and, most notably, Cendrars, have received much acclaim. In the 1980s Padgett began to pay increasing attention to autobiographical prose and memoir. Most notable are his essay "Among the Blacks," about growing up amid racism, and Ted, a moving memoir of his friendship with Ted Berrigan.

Padgett and the New York School

An early review of Padgett's poetry identifies him as "a poet of the New York School, second generation," a shorthand characterization that has been repeated in later discussions of his work. While the characterization has stuck, it is misleading in a number of ways.

The term "New York school," typically applied to the poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler, suggests a group identity or style, yet the work of each of these four poets is quite distinct from that of the others. The work of the poets of the socalled second genertion-Padgett, Berrigan, Joseph Ceravolo, and other younger writers influenced by the New York school-also shows great variety.

Such terms as "New York school" give literary critics a convenient way to group writers, but they do little to suggest the distinctive qualities of each poet. Padgett prefers to see poets as individuals rather than to classify them: "I don't think it's all that interesting to generalize about poets by putting them in 'schools.'" (Foster, p. 78).

Padgett's early poetry does show the influence of the older New York poets. "Strawberries in Mexico," for instance, is indebted to O'Hara's poems of urban life, particularly the exuberant "Steps." And the tone of innocent celebration in a poem such as "Ode to the Astronauts" ("O astronauts!" in Great Balls of Fire) shows the influence of Koch's exclamatory excitement. These are debts that Padgett made no attempt to hide: in "Strawberries in Mexico" he says of O'Hara, "I'm thinking about him like mad today / (As anyone familiar with his poetry will tell)."

Padgett's early poetry, however, reveals qualities that already mark a difference. It is difficult to imagine Koch or O'Hara undertaking a project as methodical as Padgett's "Some Bombs, an intentional mistranslation of six poems from Pierre Reverdy's Quelques poèmes (1916). Padgett "translated" the title and poems into English by putting words to the sounds, not meanings, of Reverdy's French. Thus the line "La rue est grande et triste comme un boulevard" (The street is big and sad like a boulevard) becomes "Lash Larue is Rio Grande and Tristan comma a bully fardle" (Great Balls of Fire).

Padgett has characterized his work as a little more "'down home'" than that of other New York poets (Foster, p. 75): this "translation," in which the poet finds a cowboy star and a southwestern landscape in Reverdy's French, offers a good example. And Padgett's willingness to experiment with the poems of a poet whom he reveres suggests the distinctive cheerful irreverence that characterizes much of his poetry.

The Pleasures of Poetry

Padgett's "Some Bombs," though, is more than irreverent comedy. It is, among other things, a reminder that the work of the poet is that of a maker (the word "poet") comes from the ancient Greek "poietes," or maker). While we sometimes think of poems as agonized expressions of feeling, written in the wake of difficult, painful experiences, Padgett reminds us that poetry is also a matter of making things with words, an activity that can give the maker great pleasure. As he has remarked, "It's fun making these little machines and making them turn out like you wanted-well, never like you wanted but in a way you like" (Rohrer, p. 195).

Padgett's pleasure in the work of making is related to his pleasure in his materials-words and their possibilities. Sometimes he finds strangeness and mystery in such ordinary words as "sleep" and "cup," as in his two-line poem "December": "I will sleep / in my little cup." In "Who and Each" he ponders the origins of the word "which." And very often, Padgett takes pleasure in the inelegance of colloquial American English: "Oh God! It's great!" ("Chocolate Milk"), "I dunno about this Euphues" ("Euphues"), "Duh" ("Ode to Stupidity").

Padgett's pleasure in writing can also be seen in the sheer variety of his poems. They range from the two-line "December" to the fragmented, long poem "Tone Arm," which reads like a diary entry. Between these poles, there are songs (such as "Song"), irreverent odes (such as "Ode to Stupidity") and unconventional love poems addressed to his wife, Patricia. "Love Poem," for instance, begins as a tribute to Ohio Blue Tip matches. And "Sweet Pea" takes the familiar poetic strategy of praising by comparison ("are more beautiful than . . .") to unconventional lengths, with comparisons to dozens of different flowers, a gesture whose excessiveness is both comic and endearing.

While such poems as "Sweet Pea" have clear subjects and strategies, Padgett's poetic collages offer much less orderly reading experiences. "Big Bluejay Composition" presents something of the pleasures of improvisation, with the poet making it up as he goes, noticing a book title or a movie on television, remembering a bit of a song lyric, and reminding us, in a joking way, of the pleasure of writing: "now's the time to compose a few immortal lines."

Padgett's work in the 1990s includes many poems in prose. His description of the writing situations he creates for his students seems to tell us what happens in many of his prose poems: "The everyday world reveals something surprising and true about itself or else just falls away completely." (The Point, p. 94). In "The Salt and Pepper Shakers," for instance, the thought of buying a second pair of shakers prompts Padgett to appreciate "the satisfying beauty" of the ones he has (The Big Something). In a poem such as "Waldo's Song," however, the everyday world disappears as a spot on the ceiling turns into an imaginary scene from South America in 1948.

A Poetry of Shifts and Turns

Short or long, in lines or in prose, Padgett's poems typically feature unpredictable, funny shifts and turns that make reading an adventure. The adventure is one in which the poet participates; for Padgett, writing is a matter of being open to unanticipated discoveries. He has described what sometimes happens when he writes poetry: "The words arrive unexpectedly in my mind and flow down through my fingers onto the page, taking sudden turns on their own" (The Point, p. 93). As Padgett explains, his openness is not a matter of unconscious or automatic writing; he is always making aesthetic judgments and alterations as he writes.

Padgett attributes his openness in writing to poetic collaborations, primarily with Ted Berrigan, in which "one of us would take the other guy's line and divert it" (Ted, p. 53). Collaboration, he says, "got me out of having just one voice in my head" (Rohrer, p. 192) and offered "ways to write while being simultaneously in control and out of control of the piece at hand" (Eshleman, p. 17).

Padgett's most remarkable poems have just that sense of control and lack of control. They begin in one place, take side trips along the way, and reach unexpected destinations. As the poet Alice Notley says, "Padgett's poems often seem to be about the journey they take: given where you begin, where will you end up?" (p. 105). The detours may be comic or serious, zany or poignant. "Famous Flames" begins with a tribute to "the idea of the noble book" and ends with a high school science teacher's glasses bursting into flame. "Joe Brainard's Painting 'Bingo'" shows a poet painting himself into a corner as he rethinks his poem's start:

I suffer when I sit next to Joe Brainard's painting "Bingo"

I could have made that line into a whole stanza

I suffer
When I sit
Next to Joe
Brainard's painting
"Bingo."

"Who and Each" takes a very different turn, recounting a lengthy search through the Oxford English Dictionary for the origins of the word "which" before coming to an unexpected and understated ending: "Thus I spend my days, / waiting for my friends to die." The abruptness of the ending lets us understand that the poet's dictionary search has been a temporary distraction from much more urgent matters.

"Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space" is a good example of a Padgett poem, one whose shifts and turns offer a demonstration of the impermanence that is the poem's theme. The title suggests public speaking, perhaps by someone who thinks about the big scheme of things. The sober first line ("Here is my philosophy") leads to a definitive statement: "Everything changes." It sounds like a cliché, but it has good philosophical company: the Greek philosopher Heraclitus made the same point when he said that you cannot step twice into the same river.

Then the poem takes unexpected turns. Everything does change: Padgett parenthetically updates his words' meanings before shifting to ordinary American speech ("charges right past it") and godlike speech ("I had no beginning and I shall have / no end"). The poem then moves from "giant / ideas," such as eternity, to a unit of time we can more easily grasp-the "few minutes" it takes to cook vegetables. Padgett's wordplay shines at the poem's end, where "better" inspires "butter" and a new philosophy, drawn perhaps from the directions on a package of frozen vegetables: "butter and serve."

As the poet Clayton Eshleman has suggested, Ron Padgett is "a major figure in contemporary American letters" (p. 8). His "fast and happy and loony and funny" poems (Notley, p. 112) make him a rare and remarkable presence in poetry.

References
Eshleman, Clayton. "Padgett the Collaborator." Chicago Review 43, no. 2 (1997): 8-20.
Guiney, Mortimer. "Reverdy in New York." World Literature Today 59, no. 4 (1985): 538-543. On the French influence on Padgett's poetry.
Lehman, David. The Last Avant Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Notley, Alice. "Ron Padgett's Visual Imagination." Arshile X, no. 9 (1998): 101-119.
Ratcliffe, Stephen. "Supernatural Diet." Talisman X, no. 7 (1991): 111-117. On Supernatural Overtones, Padgett's collaboration with Ron Padgett.
Rohrer, Matthew. "Ron Padgett's New & Selected Poems." Iowa review 27, no. 2(1997): 190-196.
Shapiro, David. "A Night Painting of Ron Padgett." Talisman X, no 7. (1991): 82-87.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. "The New York School, continued." New York Times Book Review, 19 September 1976: 8.

Credit: Michael Leddy's article is from World Poets, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000. Reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.