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 of these poems powerful. Her detailed description of how a chicken is decapitated and what happens afterward is made even more troubling by the presence of a nameless witness (a young girl or boy) who has seen this done again and again (as I did in my childhood), and who now, years later, is recalling with horror and growing comprehension what took place then before her eyes, a terrifying, never-to-be-forgotten demonstration of what holds on to life and won’t give it up, not the head left severed on the stump, not even that other head mulling over the experience and writing the poem, but something else, something deep down in the guts.
“Fixation” reminds me of a story I heard years ago about a crazed young man who attempted to crucify himself from the beams in his parents’ barn, but who had only managed to drive a single nail into one of his hands when they found him holding a hammer and looking with bloodshot eyes at his feet. Evidently, the speaker of the poem has been thinking about crucifixion for some time. Is he Jesus trying to summon courage or some nameless fellow identifying himself with the Lord? If his mind was strong enough, he is convinced, he’d be able to raise himself above his suffering and see the world from up there as he has never seen it before. How heartbreaking the olive groves look, the peaceful hills with their roads and huts and the flocks of sheep grazing! How miraculous they all are in their ordinariness! How awful that one must undergo such suffering to discover a simple truth!
Ron Padgett was born in 1942 and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father, Wayne, about whom he wrote a moving memoir, Oklahoma Tough (2003), was a bootlegger in a state that was dry until 1959 and where transporting and selling whiskey illegally was good business. His mother, Lucille, kept the accounts. They had no moral compunction about selling the stuff. Why would they? It was legal everywhere else in the United States. Padgett learned to read early and his parents supplied him with comic books until he got to high school where a favorite English teacher encouraged him to read serious books.
Made self-conscious by his father’s business and the social stigma that went with it, he began to see himself as an outsider, someone who wrote poetry and fiction, kept a journal, and also worked part-time in a bookstore. With a couple of his childhood friends, the artist Joe Brainard and the writer Dick Gallup, he started a hip little magazine, The White Dove Review, which lasted for five issues and published poems by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Gilbert Sorrentino, LeRoi Jones, and Ted Berrigan, who was then a senior at the University of Tulsa. Although Berrigan was a few years older than Padgett, they became close friends and leaders of a group John Ashbery was to dub “the soi-disant Tulsa School of Poetry.” Both of them moved to New York City in 1960, where Padgett enrolled as a student at Columbia University to study English and comparative literature.
In New York, he met some of the poets he had published in The White Dove Review, and that led to other encounters and friendships in the busy poetry and art scene. There were almost nightly readings at St. Mark’s Church, Le Metro, and a few other cafés and bars. Poets and painters met in the Cedar Tavern, the San Remo, and other less famous watering holes and argued about art, literature, and politics. Associations of this kind, typical of European avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada, are rare in this country, where most poets and artists live hundreds of miles from each other. In New York, Padgett lived in great poverty in various furnished rooms and small apartments in the Village and on the Upper West Side that came with wobbly furniture, decades of grime, and plenty of cockroaches.
Nobody had a real job. When broke, Berrigan and Brainard sold their blood, stole food from supermarkets, and shoplifted books, read them, and then resold them. Padgett somehow managed to get a degree and to write a great deal. His first book was called In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964) and was brought out by C Press, which also published a magazine by that name. Started in 1963 by Berrigan, the mimeographed publication had as its immediate precursor The Censored Review, which Padgett founded at Columbia as a university literary magazine with the same group of contributors, only to have it suppressed by the dean. C became the main outlet of what was beginning to be known as the Second Generation New York School Poets. It included the work of younger poets like Bernadette Mayer, Ann Waldman, and Lewis Warsh as well as members of the earlier generation, such as Edwin Denby and Frank O’Hara. One of the issues had a cover by Warhol.
What was Padgett’s poetry like then? In Joe, his marvelous memoir of Brainard, he describes some of the ideas he and his artist friend shared at the time. “The willingness to risk making a ‘mistake’ was something Joe admired not only in Ted [Berrigan] but also in his abstract expressionist idols.”1 What the poets learned from painters, as David Lehman wrote in his book The Last Avant-Garde, is “that it was okay for a poem to chronicle the history of its own making—that the mind of the poet, rather than the world, could be the true subject of the poem.”2
Padgett agreed with that. He interrupts one of his longish early poems, “Cufflinks,” to say: “But right now I don’t know where to take this line of thinking/and I’m thinking you might be getting bored with this first person./ Let me switch,” he adds casually, “to an earlier train of thought involving the unconscious.” Kenneth Koch, who was Padgett’s teacher at Columbia, is the most obvious influence, but there were others. Leaving aside his contemporaries, he was familiar not only with the Surrealists but also with earlier French poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars and most certainly Max Jacob, whose prose poems combine genuine religious feeling and mysticism with parodies of newspapers, popular novels, crime stories, and other such unlikely sources. Jacob knew how to string unconnected phrases into a narrative, to place a familiar image in a new context and change its meaning. Art is a game, he believed. He was a somber little man with a top hat who wrote goofy poems.
Padgett’s poems, too, have that insouciant and comic quality. He writes as if he can’t tell the difference between when he is being silly and when he is being serious, and of course he can. In a poem called “Method” he explains that Kenneth Koch’s way of writing “was to have a general notion of the whole poem/before he started,” whereas he goes wherever the words on the page take him. Not to strain for “significance,” and yet to leave a lasting impression on the reader is the task of such poetry. “If a grander theme emerges from the details by itself, fine,” Padgett said in an interview, “who am I to argue with a grander theme?”3
Is there another poet who could even imagine writing a long poem about the pictures in his high school yearbook and succeed? Padgett’s collections of poems are all unpredictable. One finds in them short lyrics, autobiographical narratives, absurdist fables, poems that turn on some bit of language, and poems like the following one, from You Never Know, that are as much about paying attention to reality as other poems are about turning it upside down:
The blue jay’s cry goes up on stilts and takes
a few brisk strides through the mixed deciduous trees,
some of which rustle. It’s not their answer.
They reach out and catch
him as he lands on branch and branch,
then flutters and stops: this
is his domain, and he is king.
He wears a little crown and in
his heart there is murder,
i.e., breakfast. The stilts rise again
in him and he cries out.
Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Coffee House Press, 2004), p. 57.↩
The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), p. 3.↩