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.
The new book, How to Be Perfect, is Padgett’s fullest and his best. Everything is a mystery, it says, from the toothbrush one uses to the surprise that one is getting old. Padgett includes an eleven-page didactic poem, “The Absolutely Huge and Incredible Injustice in the World,” which asks the question, What makes us so mean as a species? and then provides a series of witty answers. The title poem, too, is made up of prose fragments. On one level, it is a series of recommendations on how to conduct one’s life and a portrait of a man profoundly troubled by the world he lives in. The admonitions range from banal to wise, but their cumulative effect is moving. There are in addition a dozen or so wonderful short poems on such unlikely subjects as watching a bad Charlie Chan film or worrying about how people in ancient times trimmed their nails. The zaniness is still there, and so is the invention, but there’s an additional darker note, a political and moral indignation that was not present in the earlier poetry. As is often the case, leave it to the comic writer to best convey our tragic predicament:
WHY GOD DID WHAT HE DID
God hates you
which is why he created the world
and put you in it
and gave you the power to realize
that you’re here
for a while
and then poof
and while you’re here
you come to see
that the world too will be
by a fiery bowling ball,
ten thousand times the size of the earth,
hurtling through space
at this very moment
so that nothing absolutely
because that’s what God wants
and he wants you to know it
because he really hates you
and he wants you to know that too
And then there is this movingly understated elegy for his mother:
When my mother died
she left very little: old clothes,
modest furniture, dishes, some
change, and that was about it.
Except for the stapler. I found it
in a drawer stuffed with old bills
and bank statements. Right off
I noticed how easily it penetrated
stacks of paper, leaving no bruise
on the heel of my hand.
It worked so well I brought it home,
along with a box of staples, from
which only a few of the original 5000
were missing. The trick is remembering
how to load it—it takes me several minutes
to figure it out each time, but I persist until
Oh yes, that’s it! Somewhere in all this
my mother is spread out and floating
like a mist so fine it can’t be seen,
an idea of wafting, the opposite of stapler.
In a poem called “Mad Scientist,” which reads like another self-portrait, Padgett imagines the madman in a tower “where his instruments gleam in half-light…/and sparks are fizzing in the thought balloon/above his head, for yes,” Padgett adds, “he is a cartoon scientist,”
just as everything I think about is a cartoon something
because anything cartoon is immortal
in its own funny little way.
After reading his many wonderful and original poems, I believe he is right about that.
Ellen Bryant Voigt was born in 1943 and raised on a farm in south-central Virginia. As a child she showed talent for music and started taking piano lessons when she was four because her older sister did. As she grew older, she got to be so good that she played in her church and for her father’s barbershop quartet. What appealed to her, she said later, was the discipline. In a poem called “At the Piano” she describes a girl practicing and says of her:
She knows nothing, but Bach knows everything.
Outside, in the vast disordered world,
the calves have been taken from their mothers;
both groups bawled and hooted all night long….
“I’m a formalist; that’s part of my makeup,” Voigt says, adding that she doesn’t have much tolerance for disorder. With that in mind, it is not surprising that her poems, regardless of whether they are written in strict forms or in free verse, are all well made.
Becoming a poet, as is often the case, was almost an accident for her. Voigt attended Converse College, an all-women’s school in South Carolina, for its music conservatory, but eventually changed her major to literature and poetry. In an interview with Monica Mankin, she describes playing the piano at the age of nineteen at a resort with singing waiters and waitresses, where one of the tenors who loved poetry showed her poems by Rilke and E.E. Cummings. She thought they were cool. Voigt did her graduate work at the University of Iowa where she studied with the poet Donald Justice and received an MFA. Since 1969 she has been living in Vermont. Her first book, Claiming Kin, came out in 1976. Since then there have been five others, and two of them, Shadow of Heaven in 2002 and her new one, were finalists for the National Book Award. If nothing else, these nominations show the high esteem in which she is held by her fellow poets and critics.
Messenger: New and Selected Poems, 1976–2006 is a deeply satisfying collection. Ranging from short lyrics to long poetic sequences and ambitious historical narratives, the poems are about rural life, Voigt’s memories of growing up on a farm, and stories about family, children, and animals. “The real poem is a knife-edge,/quick and clean,” Voigt writes. Though many of her poems tell stories, their economy is striking. She favors a language that is both precise and lush, and a narrative that is both immediately accessible and richly layered with meaning for the attentive reader. Here’s such a poem:
Something was killing sheep
but it was sheep this dog attended on the farm—
a black-and-white border collie, patrolling his fold
like a parish priest. The second time the neighbor came,
claiming to have spotted the dog at night, a crouched figure
slithering toward the pen on the far side of the county,
the farmer let him witness how the dog,
alert and steady, mended the frayed
edge of the flock, the clumped sheep calm
as they drifted together along the stony hill.
But still more sheep across the glen were slaughtered,
and the man returned more confident. This time,
the master called his dog forward,
and stroking the eager head, prized open the mouth to find,
wound around the base of the back teeth—squat molars
the paws can’t reach to clean—small coils of wool,
fine and stiff, like threads from his own jacket.
So he took down the rifle from the rack
and shot the dog and buried him,
his best companion in the field for seven years.
Once satisfied, the appetite is never dulled again.
Night after night, its sweet insistent promise
drives the animal under the rail fence and miles away
for a fresh kill; and with guilty cunning brings him back
to his familiar charges, just now stirring in the early light,
brings him home to his proud husbandry.
Voigt at times reminds me of Robert Frost. There is that poem of his called “Out, Out—,” about a young boy who at the end of a long day cutting wood is left in charge of the buzz saw, which suddenly “leaps” and cuts off his hand. Since they are too far from a hospital, the boy dies in the arms of his parents, after which, Frost concludes, those who are not dead go back to their affairs. The harsh truth of these words is shocking, as is often the case in Voigt’s poems. Those who know little about rural life tend to ignore its grim realities, the endless round of hard work in the fields with or without animals that are always hungry, sick, lost, calving, farrowing, or waiting for slaughter.
In the poem “Bright Leaf,” Voigt describes workers sitting in the pickup truck at the end of a long day, much too tired to even speak, brush at flies, or hush a baby with a sugartit. “Did you think they were singing?” she asks ironically. Of course not. Farmers’ wives tend to be lonely. They live with men who know how to speak only of what is practical. There’s a horrifying poem in the book about Voigt’s grandfather killing a mule with a hammer because it wouldn’t budge. In poetry, we are prepared to hear about violence and suffering in full expectation that they will lead to some uplifting message. There is none here. “Nothing is learned by turning away,” Voigt writes. People die, animals die. The earth doesn’t grieve. The flocks of birds come to feed,
the cat dispatches
another expendable animal from the field.
Soon she will go inside to cull her litter,
addressing each with a diagnostic tongue.
“A bleak energy of mourning permeates her work,” Edward Hirsch said in a review. This is true. The longest section in Messenger consists of a book-length sequence of sonnets, Kyrie, that deals with World War I and the 1918–1919 influenza epidemic that killed worldwide more than double the number killed in that war. The thirty-two poems are written in several voices: those of boys sent over to Europe to fight and of the folks left at home, worrying about them and coping with the epidemic. These are “the little people” official history has no time for, caught in events beyond their comprehension, watching tragedies multiply and their loved ones come home either “wrapped in the flag or waving it.” Only their presidents and kings are happy. As Voigt tells it,
Once the world had had its fill of war,
in a secret wood, as the countryside lay stunned,
at the hour of the wolf and the vole, in a railroad car,
the generals met and put their weapons down.
Like spring it was, a word passed over all
the pocked and riven ground, and underground;
now the nations sat in a gilded hall,
dividing what they’d keep of what they’d won.
And so the armies could be done with war,
and soldiers trickled home to study peace.
But the old gardens grew a tough new weed,
and the old lives didn’t fit as they had before,
and where there’d been the dream, a stranger’s face,
and where there’d been the war, an empty sleeve.
One would think that such sympathy for the suffering of others would be fairly commonplace in contemporary American poetry, but that’s not really the case. We have become a nation of self-absorbed individuals who care little about the lives of the underprivileged, and that attitude has even affected our literature. Voigt doesn’t have trouble putting herself in other people’s shoes. Her poems are pleadings that others’ histories and hard-earned wisdoms be remembered. She writes about herself, of course, but that’s not her main subject. It’s the wonder of lives little noticed and little remembered that is the theme and the emotion behind many of her poems. I read somewhere that in old Spanish the word for “to remember” also meant “to wake up.” What is an instant compared to a lifetime? And yet there are instants of blazing consciousness when we come close to understanding our lives. This appropriately titled poem “Largesse” has that quality of seeing the world as if for the first time:
Banging the blue shutters—night-rain;
and a deep gash opened in the yard.
By noon, the usual unstinting sun
but also wind, the olive trees gone silver,
inside out, and the slender cypresses,
like women in fringed shawls, hugging themselves,
and over the rosemary hedge the pocked fig
giving its purple scrota to the ground.
What was it had made me sad? At the market,
stall after noisy stall, melons, olives,
more fresh herbs than I could name, tomatoes
still stitched to the cut vine, the soft
transparent squid shelved on ice; also,
hanging there beside the garlic braids,
meek as the sausages: plucked fowl with feet.
Under a goose-wing, I had a violent dream.
I was carrying a baby and was blind,
or blinded on and off, the ledge I walked
blanking out long minutes at a time.
He’d flung a confident arm around my neck.
A spidery crack traversed his china skull.
Then it was not a ledge but a bridge, like a tongue.
From the window over my desk, I could look down
at the rain-ruined nest the sangliers
had scrabbled in the thyme, or up, to the bald
mountain in all the paintings. I looked up.
That’s where one looks in the grip of a dream.
In the poem “The Last Class,” Voigt says that she is driven by
an old compulsion to record,
something from my life, to fix
some truth beyond all change….
I don’t believe Padgett would put it that way, but he too shares the same impulses. And so did Whitman! And so did Dickinson! Poets are many things, but they are also witnesses.
Some keep their eyes open; some keep their eyes closed so they may see better. No matter how you look at it, the world is a strange place.
December 18, 2008