Thursday, November 14, 2013

Padgett's Collected Poems

Ron Padgett's Collected Poems has just been published by Coffee House Press [Minneapolis: 2013]--and it's a monstrous big collection, 50 years in the making. 

I've been reading Padgett's work for almost that long, since becoming interested in poetry in high school and publishing my first poems in the high school literary magazine at 17 in 1965. 

I first saw his work in mimeo magazines in the late 1960's. Great Balls of Fire [Holt, 1969] was published during my first year at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, and I remember reading it with a mixture of curiosity and vague incomprehension. The obvious facts of Padgett's biography--born and raised in Tulsa, removal to New York City, study with Koch, collaboration with fellow Oklahomans Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard, Fulbright to Paris, French translations--seemed reflected in his work: The Dadaist sound translations of Reverdy, the distinctly surrealist air of many of his poems, the tongue-in-cheek humor, and an enveloping aura of camp (of Pop Art, Warhol and cultural mischief) which was so much a characteristic of the art scene in those days. 

Padgett's early work had at least two separate aspects then: One, a kind of dumbed-down simplicity and credulity which seemed to demand acceptance as honest description (think William Carlos Williams), and Two, a weird abstraction associated with French Surrealism and the spirit of Duchamp. One thing seemed clear: Padgett wasn't a lyric poet; he seemed either entirely incapable of, or completely uninterested in writing musically. Nearly all his poems were either prosaic statements, or satiric or absurdist spoofs. I deduced then that his biggest challenge was in writing a poem that he wouldn't feel embarrassed by, a self-consciousness that fed off of insecurity and an habitual reluctance to express personal feelings. Conviction (or sincerity) seemed entirely lacking in this early work. 

All this became clearer to me as my reading of the preceding  first   generation of New York School Poets widened and deepened. Padgett had clearly followed a path blazed by his mentor Koch (with whom he studied at Columbia). Koch, of the original four key core members of the group (Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler being the other three), functioned as the clown. Almost nothing that Koch published could be taken at face value; it was obviously a kind of put-on, an extended joke against the traditional grain of form and pretension. Koch was well-versed in classical literature, but his pop epics and giddy frivolity seemed just for laughs. Padgett seemed to me then, initially, to have invested in this spirit of early French Modernism (think Apollinaire, Satie, Jacob, Duchamp, Jarry, Artaud, Cocteau, Larbaud), as a literary strategy, both as a talisman of loyalty, and as a protective camouflage against straightforward appraisal. Humor, in your work, might save you from being considered trivial or emotionally fragile.   

Still, there were occasional early poems which, in their simplicity and frankness, seemed genuine and clean.


     An orange and blue box of Poulain chocolate
     Is what I think of often
     As I sit just outside the late afternoon sunlight--
     I see it in another light
     Sitting on a brown oak or something table,
     Maybe a white kitchen one,
     And when I reach out for it
     My hand touches it
     And I pick it up  
                                 --from Great Balls of Fire [1969]


The poem, though initially guileless and direct, is actually a witty turn about the problem of representation and reality in art. A branded artifact, presented initially as a verifiable object from the world of experience, is seen in a symbolic poetic field, which is in turn pierced to obtain the actual physical object ("I pick it up"). The other light in which it is seen ("afternoon sunlight") is the flat context. The position of the speaker shifts, while the object rests just beyond him, until, at the end, he grasps it. It's a small victory over abstraction, and though relatively modest in intention, a small miracle.    

There was a modesty about Padgett's early poetic persona, perhaps a humility or bashfulness which derived from his plains roots. But rather than conceal this, he seems to have embraced it.

                    Post-Publication Blues

          My first book of poems
          has just been published.
          It is over there on the table
          lying there on the table, where
          it is lying. It has
          a beautiful cover and design.
          The publishers spent a lot of money
          on it and devoted many
          man-and woman-hours on it.
          The bookstores are ordering copies.
          Unfortunately I am a very bad poet and
          the book is no good.
                                            --from Toujours L'Amour [1976] 

Of course, nearly every book of poetry published in the United States is a publisher's loss leader. A prominent bookseller once commented to me that Padgett's first trade book, Great Balls of Fire, had "bombed"--leaving excess copies that were unceremoniously dumped on the remainder tables. There's a certain pragmatism in using your own embarrassment as an aesthetic tool, and Padgett seems to have learned a good deal from his own modesty, and to have figured out how to use this to his advantage. 

Once Padgett had settled on camp humor as a m├ętier, he abandoned the Dada-ist tricks, and concentrated on straightforward comedy.

                    Poema del City

          I live in the city.
          It's a tough life,
          often unpleasant, sometimes
          downright awful. But it has what
          we call its compensations.

          To kill a roach, for example,
          is to my mind not pleasant
          but it does develop one's reflexes.
          and that's that.
          Sometimes, though, the battered roach
          will haul itself onto broken legs and,
          wildly waving its bent antennae,
          stagger off into the darkness

          to warn the others, who live in the shadow
          of the great waterfall in their little teepees.
          Behind them rise the gleaming brown and blue mass
          of the Grand Tetons, topped with white snow
          that blushes, come dawn, and glows, come dusk.
          Silent gray wisps rise from the smouldering campfires. 
                                                                                    --from Toujours L'Amour [1976]

How seriously can you take a poet who's willing to front silliness like this? Indeed, what has seriousness to do with it at all? Perhaps, approaching the problem of honesty, or verisimilitude, is best conducted in an atmosphere of light-hearted casualness. Poets who write with grave implication in every phrase, every line, risk sounding grim; is there anything worse than trying to sound deliberately profound, even if the muse is off visiting her mother? 

There are poets who never seem to approach the page with anything less than a feeling of ultimate dread--a poet like Louise Gluck, for instance, for whom every poetic occasion feels as if it were a grim and unrelentingly difficult task. Probably, we need both kinds of poets, those who would be reluctant to display any kind of levity, and those who would be equally shy of being seen being upset or angry. 


          The black-and-white terrier
          flexed his body
          in midair, turned
          and yelped

          It was his birthday
          and he was two
                                      --from You Never Know [2002]

For me, small but successful poems like this are ten times better, and more useful, than ambitious narrative poems of 100 times this length, that require a commitment of hours of devoted attention. They're never easy, and they come when you least expect it, and even with absolutely no effort. They are like simple gifts.   

Cover art by Joe Brainard

Padgett's work seems at its best, to me, when he's least concerned with impressing the reader with his conviction, and more concerned to share a discovery he'd made. Many of Padgett's later works are about the difficulty of trying to write decent poems. That difficulty isn't writer's block, but more like a secret way of sneaking into a poem or a subject, so as not to disturb it, not to alert it to the fact that you are stalking it. Because trying too hard, or being too obvious about it, may scare inspiration away. We don't really know where good poems come from, but it's often possible to "sense" when it's in the room, or hovering just outside the window. We're not even sure what "it" actually is.

Padgett has worked in the schools teaching poetry writing, like his mentor Koch, and seems interested in the idea that poetry is something that almost anyone can do, given a few simple tips. If writing poetry were that easy, perhaps we wouldn't admire poets as much as we do. Does everyone have at least one good poem in them? Can practice improve the odds?   

I used to wonder about the collaborative implications of Padgett's co-authored book (with Berrigan), Bean Spasms [Kulchur Press, 1967]. If two young poets could work so closely together that the two became indistinguishable, or simply melted together into a new hybrid being, what might that mean to the integrity of an individual identity? The same question arose with respect to Ashbery and Schuyler's camp novel, A Nest of Ninnies [Dutton, 1969]. Was it like Auden and Isherwood, or Ellery Queen, with one person doing the dialogue, the other the description? Could Ron and Ted write alternate lines of a single poem, and have it make any kind of sense? Collaboration in this way was a novel concept, which spread through the literary community in the late 1960's and early 1970's. 

But Padgett is the author of all the poems in this big book. Still, one has the feeling that the idea of an "automatic" poem, or the disembodied voice of poetry, was a notion that appealed to the comic and mischievous sense of these guys, and suggested compositional variations that could bring new energy into the act of writing. Berrigan used it to create his Sonnets [Grove Press, 1964], mixing quotation, reportage, and expedient personal detail together to cobble an ingenious sequence of linked interactive poems. 

Padgett, on the other hand, less interested in formal complexity, seems to have been drawn to making two-dimensional personae, rather in the manner of Pop Art. He went on record as claiming to enjoy watching cartoons on television, something no traditional or academic poet would be likely to admit. (Reportedly, Padgett has even been involved in making software apps for writing poetry on computers.) The construction of comic masks--or, self-effacing personal parodies of himself--would become a crucial element in his work over the coming decades. 

In a sense, Padgett is one of the earliest examples of a writer who tended to see artistic problems in terms of the distortions that modern media imposes on its material. We may think that radio, or movies, or television, or computer games, succeed to the degree that they may compete with the earlier narrational tropes of fiction or classical literature. But it's also possible for writers to adopt some of the qualities of the new media, and bring them back to the written word.   

Padgett's willingness to allow the cruder aspects of the language and imagery of cartoons, for instance, to find a place in his straight poetics, might constitute an appropriation that lightens and intensifies its affects. 

Again, the example of Pop Art is instructive. Warhol and Lichtenstein and Oldenburg weren't just critiquing their subject-matter; they were borrowing some of its power--its sensuality and durable shine--as well. Padgett and Berrigan were harbingers in the recognition of the ironic significance of popular culture. If their works occasionally seemed like insincere ad-copy, this was right in step with the prevailing innovations of the epoch. And, unlike the predictable condemnation of the official cultural organs, they embraced and celebrated its energy and giddy charm. 

Padgett is in no sense a romantic poet, but a kind of neo-classicist, one who sees creative writing as an artificial reduction of the complexity of speech and meditation, a simplification of the layered, elusive surface of actual experience. His close childhood friend, the late Joe Brainard, whose art was always associated with the work of Padgett, Berrigan, Elmslie et al--really, the whole New York poetry and art scene during their heyday--wrote I Remember [1970-73], a work closely allied in feeling and mood to Padgett's poetry, though more openly emotional and personal than his. Both I Remember and Padgett's early poetry bear comparison, as ingenious comic projections of two-dimensional personae. Such resemblances might seem gratuitous, except that both men grew up going to the same high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, together with another classmate, Dick Gallup--each of whom, in the tradition of the New York exile artists--grew up elsewhere, but came to Gotham to realize their artistic selves--artists, too, who came to view the rest of America as a crude caricature of itself, placed in relief against the fast-paced, ruthlessly hip New York art scene. They adopted the tough, mannered style of city life, and mocked it by putting up hard, emblematic symbolic totems, whose style derived from signage and advertising tropes--

Cover art by Joe Brainard


          The waitress
          at lunch today
          could have been
          in a 1940's movie,
          an innocent,
          cheerful, and open
          young woman--ah,
          girl!--with a smile
          that brings back
          a time
          that probably
          never existed.
          Did people
          really say Drat?
          Or just characters
          in films
          and comic strips
          who now
          are as real
          as real people. 
                                      --from How Long [2011]

How much more typical could a poem of Padgett's be? An ostensibly real human being met in the workaday world is compared to a character in a movie. If people in comic strips or cartoons are as real as people you see in real life, which version has the greater integrity or significance? Like Brainard, Padgett seems to see "real life" as having taken place in the past, when people "acted" in naive ways, and were filled with surplus sentiment, not realizing how stupid and clunky they were. We can be nostalgic about this imagined past, perhaps even wistful, but we're too sophisticated and suave and impatient to invest in anything so obviously un-hip. 

A lot of the poems in this Collected Poems are long, which makes quoting them difficult in a blog. 

                    A Train for Kenneth

          One train may hide another
          or it might hide the mountain
          into which it disappears and
          hides itself. You step
          into that tunnel, stop,
          the tracks gleaming at your feet
          but no light further on.

          (This is not a metaphor.)
          (So what is it?)

          It's a stanza, in which
          the train is hiding. You
          can't see it because 
          the letters are so dark--
          the light around them
          makes them even darker.

          But now the train comes
          out the other end and smoke
          is trailing from its stack, for
          this happened in olden days,
          when chugging existed. 

When I was a kid, my stepdad used to use the phrase "thinking out loud," which meant airing your views as you were formulating them in your mind. I think "thinking out loud" might be one way to summarize Padgett's modus operandi. He's a straight shooter, but he often misses life's elusive complexity by choosing instead to prod us with goofy cop-outs. They're all mildly amusing, and the light touch is better than the heavy-handed. Still, I often wonder what Padgett "really thinks" about life, when he's being completely serious. Maybe the poems are as serious as he really gets. That would be odd. 


Kirby Olson said...

I like him better than all the other second wave New York poets. He has a brain and seems modest.

Curtis Faville said...

This is predictable.

If you read carefully, I'm not condemning Padgett--quite the opposite.

I find his construction of personae similar to how you behave on your blog--taking humorous stances to generate energy.

Padgett is fun, but there are limits to fun. I always ran out of patience with Koch, and for the same reason. Silliness is fine, but there are limits.

Who would want to write Ogden Nash poems all the time? So limiting.

But Padgett's been consistent. I enjoy reading him, but it requires an antidote. Even Woody Allen is serious, some of the time.