How to Be Perfect by Ron Padgett
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2007)
How Long by Ron Padgett
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2011)
Ron Padgett’s recent offerings, How to Be Perfect (Coffee House Press, 2007) and How Long (Coffee House Press, 2011), are at once elegiac and playful negotiations of the demands of day-to-day life and the metaphysical longings of a lifetime. Padgett’s choice to use “how” in both titles is revealing, for it points to the intensive introspection that underpins much of his latest poetry. While How to be Perfect is an incomplete statement, How Long is an incomplete question. Readers may ask the poet, “How to perfect what? How long until what happens?” and expect direct answers—maybe even truths. They may wait around awhile before realizing that, for Padgett, play is the thing.
In both works, Padgett’s destination and the time it takes to reach it are subjected to well-staged disruptions. In a flash, the poet-trickster unmoors us in a sea full of strange creatures, scrambles our bearings and lauds some fair land (Was it the Garden of Eden or Hidden Valley?) that few have held on long enough to see. We have the love-child of Socrates and James Dean playing the captain and doubling as mutinous shipmate for a few dollars more. We are asked to think and rethink, and yet we are asked to enjoy and bring joy. We are left a bit woozy but somehow wiser as we emerge from the strobe-lit tunnel of Padgett’s theme park ride where history plays itself out among automatons posing as rum-soaked pirates. “And what exactly is the theme of this motley theme park?” we might ask as we unbuckle ourselves and shuffle into the confectionary-coated sunlight. It is “how”—how to discover and cultivate decency in a realm of staggering artifice and inhumanity. It is “how”—how to adequately respond to difficult personal experiences on a quest for two life-sustaining values: compassion and beauty.
How to be Perfect finds the elder statesman of the New York School cycling through wonder, tenderness, melancholy, and righteous anger as he meditates on the nature of transience and begins to “mark time” in his old age (74). Indeed, Padgett writes early on that “Death throws everything/ into high relief” and proceeds to show his readers, line by line, the “how” of cultivating human perfection—which is to say, some semblance of virtue—under inimical circumstances (20). However arch Padgett’s sense of perfection may appear, one cannot question the sincerity of his insistence on seeking beauty over truth—messy delights over austere verities—especially with regard to sustaining rightness in our relationships. Throughout How to be Perfect, the poet returns to this idea, stressing meaningful living in a manner that is characteristically quirky, arresting and seemingly effortless. The title poem, with its mixture of capricious, entertaining and yet sobering advice, succeeds in making suggestions for readers without sinking into pedantry. Like some latter-day Benjamin Franklin on a sugar high, Padgett lists ways for readers to enhance their lives:
Live with an animal.
Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.
If you need help, ask for it.
Cultivate good posture until it becomes natural.
If someone murders your child, get a shotgun and blow his
Expect society to be defective. Then weep when you find that it
is far more defective than you imagined.
When you borrow something, return it in an even better
Keep your childish side alive. (24 and 27)
Published four years later, Padgett’s How Long may be seen in many respects as a companion volume to How to be Perfect. Padgett now explicitly asks “how” instead of telling “how,” juxtaposing the voice of a stoical old man with that of an impulsive youth. Padgett’s shifts in voice, phrase, image, and thought provide readers with off-kilter musings on memory, mortality and the value of seemingly ordinary moments with friends and family. Many of Padgett’s more intimate pieces would even appear to affirm Wordsworth’s well-known assertion that “The Child is the father of Man.” Padgett’s apparent affirmation, though, is by no means total, for totalization would lead to a forced and altogether false reprieve in a world of unending “how.” He is neither naïve nor willfully ignorant about the fragility of intimacy, the tyranny of nostalgia, the limitations of personal experience as a means of knowing, and the precariousness of 21st century America. In fact, the poet feels rather cynical at times, arguing that poetry, too, cannot but fail in the face of that overwhelming question and its attendant postmodern qualifications. In the title poem, he writes:
Do you mind me 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 table
and lets you rearrange them in your head,
which you can do unless your head is a square
the size of a tabletop. (51)
While Padgett makes it clear throughout the work that he wishes to welcome experience, to seek out the freeing receptiveness of his youth, he cannot deny that age has rendered him at best “an open parenthesis” (82). Self-awareness of personal and artistic limitations complicate Padgett’s struggle for sure footing, and his fitful search for a window still open to some species of peace or even transcendence—that answer to the old blues refrain, “How long?” While Padgett is too comfortable with ambiguity to fall into a Prufrock-like psychic morass, like Prufrock he entertains the question of “how” and contemplates acquiescing to the machinations of Fate over the fog of his teacup. Fortunately, however, these melancholic and occasionally cantankerous twilight dilemmas are mitigated by self-possession and a freewheeling sense of humor that “keep[s] a ball of laughter inside that Hunh”—that “how” of living well in the face of outrageous fortune and finitude (58).
Like Ron Padgett, Caleb Puckett used to live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike Ron Padgett, though, Puckett’s northeasterly movement landed him in Kansas. Puckett’s newest prose collection, Market Street Exit, was recently released by Otoliths. Otoliths also published his previous prose collection, Tales from the Hinterland, in 2008.