Many readers associate Ron Padgett with the so-called second generation of the New York School of Poets. He did, after all, edit, with David Shapiro, the multi-generational spread An Anthology of New York Poets (1970), was at one time director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Lower East Side, and has continued for decades to split his time living between homes in Vermont and Manhattan. He has also written intimate memoirs of, as well as edited works by, his friends, poet Ted Berrigan and artist Joe Brainard. And of course in the 1960s, the three collaborated on the infamously mischievous Bean Spasms, now a classic of collaboration from the era.
Yet Padgett has also translated several notable French poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Pierre Reverdy, written the go-to poet apprentice book Handbook on Poetic Forms, published a memoir of his bootlegger father that is as equally engaging as those on Berrigan and Brainard, reeled off numerous reviews and other short prose works collected in not less than two volumes to date, and produced numerous fantastic collaborations with visual artists and fellow poets (none of which are included in Collected Poems). In short, his overall output is quite prolific and far-ranging beyond any “school” of one sort or another.
Poet Noel Black’s interview with Padgett, published in Black’s zine LOG in 1998, has for years been among my all-time favorite interviews. An inveterate fan of Padgett’s, Black came to the interview well prepared, resulting in a detailed run-through of Padgett’s reflections on his work up to that point in time. Padgett speaks in depth of the strategy employed for writing one of his first longer poems, “Cufflinks,” and offers splendidly demure reflections regarding his early poem “Bartok in Autumn” (not included in Collected Poems, having been published during the 1950s when Padgett was in high school and editing the zine White Dove Review—for which, while still a teenager, he managed to successfully solicit work from Allen Ginsberg, among notable others). Throughout the interview Padgett throws out nifty, quotable summations, including: “I don’t think anything is taboo in poetry, which is one of the reasons I like poetry.”
Padgett’s poetry freely ranges through various forms and subject matter. His early work is near-Cubist in a fragmentary, cut-up juxtaposition of nervy spasticity. As he progresses, prose poems make regular appearance throughout the years, as do poems averaging several pages in length. All come across as delightfully spontaneous creations where leaps of logic mix with the illogical, while a frivolous yet sincere charm coats all. Padgett himself admits that in his poems he never knows what’s coming next as he writes, enabling him an uninhibited freedom that he’s naturally suited to as he goes. Humor certainly appears dominant throughout Padgett’s poetry. Yet a serious tone, straight-faced as ever, prevails. Padgett’s laughter comes with more of a grimace rather than carefree jubilance.
In the early summer of 1921, race riots erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I recently came across mention of these events on two separate occasions. One was NPR radio station KQED’s announcing an upcoming broadcast of an episode of the show “State of the Re:Union” that focused on Tulsa, promising “the program explores one of the country’s deadliest race riots, a story that has been suppressed for 90 years.” Who knew? Well, I for one had been reminded of the tragedy as a couple days before that I had been reading Padgett’s Collected Poems and had come across his piece “Radio” from the collection Toujours L’Amour, published in 1976! The second section of “Radio” (drawing upon language found in news sources) details the riots and the events which led up to them—a young black male “bootblack” accidentally stepping on a young white woman elevator operator’s foot and her subsequent accusation of being attacked by him.
As a Tulsa native, Padgett obviously has a somewhat vested interest in the events along with their subsequent suppression. However, he passes no personal judgment in the poem; instead it lets the events speak for themselves. In 1976 this poem must have come as a shock to readers, or at least it’s easy for today’s readers to feel it should have. While it’s rather atypical of a Padgett poem to delve into historical events outside of those more personal to himself, family, and friends, especially ones rich with seemingly unavoidable political ramifications, it is not at all surprising to be surprised by a Padgett poem. Padgett regularly deals in realms of the unexpected. Just when you think you know what to expect next he jolts your expectations. The Collected Poems definitively convinces that there is no such thing as a stereotypical Ron Padgett poem. There is no label to place Padgett under other than Padgett, and even then he’s sure to surprise himself.