How to Be Perfect
Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976–2006
Here are two poets who’ve been writing extraordinary poems and who deserve to be better known. Born just a year apart, their work is, however, as different as night and day. Or so it would at first appear. Critics say of Ellen Voigt that she has a “naturalist’s devotion to the physical world” and of Ron Padgett that he is a kind of Pop artist with a passion for comic strips, movies, and other aspects of popular culture. Put this way, the two aesthetics not only sound irreconcilable, they also convey the impression that a poem about a squirrel in a tree will be more authentic than one about a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Not to my mind. Reading Padgett one realizes that playfulness and lightness of touch are not at odds with seriousness, while reading Voigt one comes to understand that what we think of as reality is the product of both painstaking observation and the imagination. The either-or position, which appeals to those who like to believe that there is only one way to write great poetry, ignores the common experience that in the last two centuries memorable poems have come in many guises. The richness of American poetry eludes the dogmatic critic and the timid reader. It is possible to love both Robert Frost and Kenneth Koch and not be a dunce. To make my claim more persuasive, let me quote a couple of poems I admire, from Padgett and then Voigt.
It’s not that hard to climb up
on a cross and have nails driven
into your hands and feet.
Of course it would hurt, but
if your mind were strong enough
you wouldn’t notice. You
would notice how much farther
you can see up here, how
there’s even a breeze
that cools your leaking blood.
The hills with olive groves fold in
to other hills with roads and huts,
flocks of sheep on a distant rise.
The neck lodged under a stick,
the stick under her foot,
she held the full white breast
with both hands, yanked up and out,
and the head was delivered of the body.
Brain stuck like a lens; the profile
fringed with red feathers.
the head lay on the ground like a coin.
But the rest, released into the yard,
language and direction wrung from it,
flapped the insufficient wings
and staggered forward, convulsed, instinctive—
I thought it was sobbing to see it hump the dust,
pulsing out those muddy juices,
as if something deep in the gizzard,
in the sack of soft nuggets,
drove it toward the amputated member.
Even then, watching it litter the ground
with snowy refusals, I knew it was this
that held life, gave life,
and not the head with its hard contemplative eye.
The first poem is from Padgett’s book You Never Know (2001), and Voigt’s comes from Claiming Kin (1976), and is included in her new book, Messenger. I find both …