People who like to categorize things often refer to Ron Padgett as a second-generation New York School poet. What that really means is that he’s one of a group of friends who have worked and played in the city for the last fifty years or more. Although the writers shoehorned into the group are very different, they do share some attitudes, including an affinity with the visual artists who have lived and worked among them. Most important, their poetry is characterized by an intellectual playfulness that relishes wordplay and popular culture, willfully risking the appearance of triviality while often confronting the limits of language and the imagination.
No one has contributed more to sustain the liveliness of the writing than Ron Padgett. Since the early 1960s he has been writing a deceptively spare poetry t hat is often quite funny and reveals its very serious playfulness only indirectly. For instance, early in his new book, How to Be Perfect, the poem “Rinso” begins with him doing the dishes but rapidly goes somewhere else entirely before returning to the task at hand:
The slight agitationof pots and pansand a few dishesin sudsy waterinto which handsplunge and fingersoperate like ina magic act in whichbubbles burstinto flowers presentedto the blonde girlwho rotates ona wheel that fliesup through the ceiling anddisappears.The dishes are sparkling.
Yes, it’s funny, but there is something absolutely wonderful about it.
The bravely and absurdly titled poem that gives its name to the whole collection is a long series of sentences that give advice — even though one of the first directions for achieving perfection is “Don’t give advice.” These aphorisms move from the practical (“Keep your windows clean”) to the improbable (“Do not practice cannibalism”). Along the way it includes things – “Don’t stay angry about anything for more that a week, but don’t forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm’s length and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball collection” — that are weirdly and perfectly wise, and that could be written by no one but Ron Padgett.
It is typical of Padgett that he would choose to read with a younger writer just making his reputation. Ander Monson, who teaches and Grand Valley State, has had some dramatic early success: in the last couple of years he has published his first book of poetry, a collection of fiction, and a memoir, all of them prizewinners. Monson is a native of the UP, and his imagination seems to return fairly regularly to the edge of Superior. His collection Vacationland, which takes its title from an old motel outside Houghton, does some difficult things. Essentially a collection of elegies for young people gone too soon in their northern landscape, it begins with an image that recurs elsewhere in Vacationland — a young man on a snowmobile that’s broken through the ice:
The ice in the canalthe faulty floor through which hedescendedblazing on the back of his Arctic Catis black as slatewhich means it’s thinand the boys on the shorethrow aimless stones that yieldricochets with laser sounds.
It will be very interesting to hear how these northern images by Ander Monson play with the New York sophistication of Ron Padgett with the two read together at EMU on Friday, November 9.