Collected Poems, by Ron Padgett.
Coffee House Press. $44.00.
Growing up on the east coast of Florida, sonic booms were regular occurrences. We would feel a deep core shake, run outside to catch a glimpse of light streaking upwards, and stare in silent reverence at an elaborately constructed thing daring to travel to distant and unknown places. This event was huge, and yet for our Space Coast eyes only; a routine experience for those of us who lived in a very specific place during a very specific time. Since then and there, NASA’s space shuttle program has been retired, and though competitions are currently underway to travel to Mars, these days we tend to be a little less tuned into looking up. Luckily for all of us, Coffee House Press has released a vehicle for everyday space travel: Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems.
The experience of reading Padgett’s poetry is like that of being in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day and feeling a sonic boom. He leaves his reader feeling jolted into humility, gasping and grasping for bigger things. In “The Absolutely Huge and Incredible Injustice in the World,” for example, Padgett’s speaker outlines forms of “meanness” (like killing people), before turning to forms of tenderness (as in a relationship involving one balding lover and another gaining weight, “Which means that my bald head feels good / on your soft round belly that feels good too”). In this way, Padgett forces a vulnerable reader to be open to both the ordinary and extraordinary: “you dial 1-800-mattres and in no time get a mattress / ... And the bedroom realizes it can’t run away.” These lines are playful, but they say something serious, progressing to articulate a human and poetic program:
For there must bekindness somewhere else in the world,maybe even out of it, though I’m not crazyabout the emptiness of outer space. I have to livehere, with finite life and inner space and withthe horrible desire to love everything and be disappointed.
Padgett’s “outer space” is more kitsch and demonstrative than solar. The concrete parameters of impermanent, inhabited “inner” life play in tension with the more permanent, uninhabitable ones of “outer” life.
Though Padgett was writing when the space shuttle was taking off, he was nowhere near it. The “Tulsa Kid” (the title of his 1979 book) moved to New York City in 1960 and, through his previous and subsequent friendships, became a key member of the second generation New York School poets. He led poetry workshops, directed the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Place for a few years, and edited the influential 1970 Anthology of New York Poets with David Shapiro. In fact, it could even be said that Padgett started the group on its way to New York, as the magazine he founded as a high school student, The White Dove Review, brought together the poets that came to form the movement’s core. Padgett himself eschews the title (though not the grouping), referring to this group in a recent interview as “the so-called second generation.” And while the publication of the Collected Poems allows Padgett’s work to stand very clearly and strongly on its own, O’Hara and Koch fans will find it second nature to follow the path through joy and subtle patterns to heartfelt deepities (yes).
Opening the Collected up in the middle, one finds “First Drift,” a first draft of Padgett’s credo:
The writing of poemsand the living of lifeseem to requirepaying hard attentionto any and everything,and experiencinga kind of mental orgasm.Yikes! Do Imean that?Unfortunately, I’m afraidI did, dipped to scoopan idea from the roadside,the mental roadside.
Though the colloquial language makes this poetry seem simple, the elaborateness of its construction invites us to move very quickly from an ars poetica to a life manifesto, to a blush, to pavement, to the inside of one’s own head. Though beaming with the antics of a new school, this is old fashioned craft at work. For example, “did” and “dipped” are semantically unrelated, but by placing them side by side, Padgett allows their aural and visual likeness to resonate, speeding up the movement that the preceeding lines slowly set in motion.
With references to things like mental orgasms, which both demand a reader’s attention and distract it, Padgett consistently creates spaces on the page that are as slippery (in reading) as the spaces described. And while he frequently invokes humor to open up the reader’s heart and head, readers have often mistaken that humor for an end instead of a means. In Padgett’s poetry (and this is especially true of his later poetry) humor is a way of expanding the rational and imagined space of his poetic situations; jokes are means of getting closer to what he calls “inner space,” while also exercising its elasticity. If the large Collected has a single agenda, it may be to perform, repeatedly, this contract-expand-contract exercise, as the book goes so far as to open (and imply a close) with the line, “Now it is over and everyone knew it.” What’s a reader opening up an eight-hundred-page book to do? On a very basic level, she must put aside expectations of “it” and consider being open to other possibilities.
Read as a whole, Padgett’s Collected Poems offers a ride that delights and develops over fifty-some years of quietly daring work. (He is quiet in public persona only in relation to his peers and predecessors such as Ted Berrigan or Frank O’Hara.) In his books’ titles alone, Padgett has signaled a gently subversive agenda. Consider: Great Balls of Fire, Toujours L’Amour, The Big Something, You Never Know, How to Be Perfect, and How Long. Throughout these and previously unpublished works, everyday objects are treated as portals through which worlds free from binaries may be accessed. What’s more, Padgett offers constructions that are often concerned with formal limitations (and the means for escaping them) while written in a manner seemingly free from form — rarely do his poems follow any of the traditional structures of meter or rhyme. This is particularly true for Padgett’s many urban poems set in the moment when one steps outside of the confines of a room and into the streets of New York City. In these he utilizes a particularly supple sense of poetic form, taking great formal care in constructing metaphors that deliberately explode structural constraints. For example, here is one of Padgett’s earlier poems, “Gentlemen Prefer Carrots” (first published in 1976), in its entirety:
I nearly went to sleep standing on a corner today.The light turned greenPeople charged down into the street, armswith bags and boxeswhile I stood there disappearing.And after dinner, forehead restingon the table, I saw some gentlemeneating carrots in a dining carwith a landscape whizzing past outside,really fast trees and hills, varied sightsand views, and those carrots disappearinginto the eaters’ mouths. I raisedmy eyes: music on the machine,light, and fall coming on.
Beginning in medias res is a very New York School thing to do. But this doesn’t quite begin in the middle of things — rather in a “nearly” state, it starts in the middle of boredom. And it exploits this nearly-ness further, by setting out a time limit from its beginning: “I nearly went to sleep ... today.” Immediately we expect an explanation for why the speaker “nearly” fell asleep and why he didn’t. The disjunctive dynamic between so vibrant a setting and such a soporific feeling offers the stanza its abstract parameters; much like the sonnet-length but not-sonnet form offers a physical one. Both sets of parameters supply an instantly generative tension.
The second line, in length and sentiment, suggests an impending shift: “The light turned green.” But instead of offering a place for the speaker to move from, it ushers in the speaker’s disappearance. The idea of feeling crowded out of a city by its other inhabitants is not new. What modern poetry reader could forget T.S. Eliot’s description of a “death” which had “undone so many” on London Bridge? But Padgett’s speaker disappears in a lonelier way: swamped by “so many” running daily errands (“arms / with bags and boxes”), he considers drifting out of consciousness while in the middle of lively action. The poem permits a wandering across space and time, the precise kind of indistinct mind-wandering permitted when waiting for a street light to change. With the mention of gentlemen “in a dining car,” the reader is further allowed to wonder if the speaker did fall asleep on the street corner and if, consequently, this poem is the vestige of a dream. The speaker starts half-asleep and moves to an upside-down half-awake state, then raises his “eyes,” owing to the transitional properties of a line break, to become aware of a bigger sense of the street (“music on the machine, / light, and fall coming on”). Padgett creates his own music to accompany this moment: offering varied line lengths that prohibit a rhythm from developing, he implores his readers to slow down, lest they too fall subject to “disappearing.”
“Gentlemen Prefer Carrots” focuses on the implosive dimensions of a vanishing point, as in “those carrots disappearing” — a moment that dwells on the consumptive habits of city subjects. Throughout his work, Padgett explores the associative powers of domestic props, lodging his “giant ideas” in homely found materials. With a turn of the page, Padgett offers a poem addressed, in title, to “Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space,” which also deals with vegetables, this time going so far as to posit a philosophy:
Here is my philosophy:Everything changes (the word “everything”has just changed as theword “change” has: it nowmeans “no change”) soquickly that it literally surpasses my belief,charges right past itlike some of the giantideas in this area.I had no beginning and I shall haveno end: the beam of lightstretches out before and behindand I cook the vegetablesfor a few minutes only,the fewer the better. Butterand serve. Here is myphilosophy: butter and serve.
After offering up a few figurative vegetables to imagine instead of eat, Padgett convinces us to thrive on intangibilities. “Everything changes” after all — including the word “changes,” which changes to “charges.” Following this second almost-sonnet, we are offered another one (they seem to get progressively longer) which dares to takes this sense of “charging” into a “changing” further: “Realizing” begins with “Walking briskly past Schrafft’s,” and ends “realizing I was remembering pushed / me ahead into whatever else was going to happen, / my writing this, you reading.” In this way, Padgett demonstrates an early and general tendency to show a self-reflective speaker moving while staying still, becoming a kind of current, suggesting the reader do the same.
While his credo crystallizes in his most recent poetry, there are clues to suggest that Padgett has always had a very particular program. Poems like “Stairway to the Stars” — perhaps an allusion to a Joe Brainard painting — make the imperative clear, while the message is as unclear and ephemerally persuasive as a dream:
He seemed satisfied by the beautyof the logic that had arrived,the royal hall now lightly radiant
as he arose from his throneand the world fell away,courtiers, battlements, and clouds,
and he rose like a piece of paperon which his effigy had been tracedin dotted lines whose dots came loose.
Because Padgett upholds O’Hara’s call to make “a poem a surprise,” I’m leaving out the last stanza here. But linear dots coming loose seem precisely the indistinct point: to create space on the page and in the mind.
In terms of structure, simply and superficially, Padgett’s early poems tend to be short in length and narrow in shape, while his later works are longer, broken into more (and less regular) stanzas, with longer lines. Manifesting this later tendency, “How Long” is composed of forty-some irregular stanzas that span nine pages. Through its length, complexity, and title, “How Long” propels us through nonlinear imagery and syntax, inviting us to wander, not in a clear direction but, instead, within a sense of space. Pursuing this expansion, the speaker teases our desire for a definite point, and instead of offering one, taunts us:
Do you mind my going on like this?You want something else, right?Perhaps you want what you think poetry should give you,but poetry doesn’t give anyone anything,it simply puts the syllables on the tableand lets you rearrange them in your head,which you can do unless your head is a squarethe size of the tabletop.So why don’t you lift your head off the tableand go lie down somewheremore comfortableand not worry about anything,including the list of things to worry aboutthat you keep revising in your head,for there is a slot through which that listcan slip and float down like a baby in a rocking crib,down to a comfy dreamlandand be transformed into a list of gods whose jokes are wonderful.
Beginning with a contemporary defense of poesy, and ending with the resurfacing of the joke, these lines ask the reader to simultaneously let go, open up, fall asleep, and dissolve. The “slot through which” Padgett’s poems slip is here, finally, valorized, and our attention is forced on the word “slot” through the momentarily iambic rhythm it sets in motion (“slot through which that list / can slip”). The slot’s importance is that it makes the “slip” possible. The poem’s “slip” begins here with a reference — again — to a concrete domestic object: “the table.” We are invited to lift our head off of a table, yet it was never actually placed on one. Though the lines flow through their enjambment and syntactical equations into a seemingly comprehensible image, the movement is at once circumspect and expansive.
It is the repeated “slip” — and the subsequent proliferation of “slipping” — that gives Padgett’s creations the power to move simultaneously down (“to a comfy dreamland”) and up (“into a list of gods whose jokes are wonderful”). Forty-five years after Great Balls of Fire, Padgett’s poems still fuel our capacity for joyful incomprehensibility and subsequent mobility of thought. Padgett ends “How Long” by preemptively ventriloquizing his audience’s potential question mark: “Hunh?” and answering, “I keep a ball of laughter inside that Hunh.”