Collected Poems

Ron Padgett. Coffee House Press (Consortium, dist.), $44 (840p) ISBN 978-1-56689-342-8
Reviewed by David Lehman. Long a mainstay of the New York School’s second generation, Ron Padgett—the self-styled “Tulsa Kid,” as the title of one of his books has it—left Oklahoma to attend Columbia University and become a big city poet. He studied with Kenneth Koch, met Frank O’Hara, made the pilgrimage to Paris, read and translated Reverdy, Apollinaire, Cendrars. From the start his poems had a joyous nonchalance about them—the Renaissance term for it is sprezzatura. Five decades fuel his Collected Poems, a tome teeming with Padgett’s trademark traits: comic energy, good humor, alert intelligence, constant curiosity, and the determination to put it all into poems.

Padgett is prolific, buoyant, confident that the day will yield its poem, nothing forced. He has written affecting memoirs of Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard, two close friends from Tulsa days. His Collected highlights an array of New York School strategies. But though he mentions his wife and friends in poems, even ending a poem with the phone number of one of them (Larry Fagin), Padgett’s poems are not crowded with people and events in the O’Hara manner. If there is a consistency of purpose it is Padgett’s devotion to an esthetic path, his trust in the imagination and the associative logic that powers it. In “My Room” the logic leads quite naturally (and hilariously) from a lamp that Ted Berrigan once took from a hotel room to the value of studying Latin.

The tone is conversational, and the subjects and approaches are various. There are fine prose poems (“Light as Air,” “Essay on Imagination”), poems in the form of pseudo-translations from the Italian (“Fiat Ode”), a poem based on sound translations of Reverdy (“Lash Larue is Rio Grande and Tristan comma a bully fardle”), directives that all creative writing students should read (“Poetic License”), spontaneous aphorisms (“When I first looked in the mirror, I had always been there”), a caustic comment on cosmic irony (“The Joke”), poems in praise of humble pleasures (chocolate milk, an old typewriter, the use of “cordially” as a complimentary close), even a guide on “How to Be Perfect.” There are also one-of-a-kind stunts that somehow retain their freshness after repeated readings. An early poem called “Nothing in that Drawer” consists of that phrase repeated 14 times.

Reading these poems you can’t help feeling how much fun it was to write them. Consider here how the lining contributes to the magic of the mood: “First day of spring/ or last of winter./ My legs run down/ the stairs and out/ the door, my top/half here typing.” That is Padgett at his most joyful. But this exemplar of the gloriously zany, this champion of comic-book characters, turns out also to be a fount of wisdom and good sense: “It’s not embarrassing to be sentimental/When the sentiment equals/ Seeing things just as they are here now.” David Lehman is the founder and editor of the Best American Poetry series and the author of the just-published New and Selected Poems (Scribner).

Reviewed on: 10/28/2013
Release date: 11/01/2013
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