“I kind of like that I don’t know what I’m doing,” joked Ron Padgett during an informal Q&A session on Wednesday, Feb. 25. His reading at Russell House later that night expressed this admirable humility; the short anecdotes between poems and the affable tone in which he read refused to acknowledge his own expertise and skill.
While Padgett claimed that he inherited a bit of arrogance from his individualist father, who never wanted to be told what to do, what struck me most about his overall demeanor was that he maintained an ambivalence about his own superiority. He ended his response to one question with a shrug, remarking, “But…what do I know?” as if to negate the entirety of what he had just said.
For someone who has claimed that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, Padgett is incredibly prolific. He has published more than 20 poetry collections, as well as three prose collections and translations of French poets like Guillaume Apollinaire. His works relish imperfection, including lines like “I lost my train of thought” or “What I forgot to mention.” Instead of erasing something he decides he disagrees with, he simply undoes its claims in the next line. This practice infuses humanity into his poems, rendering them conversational in nature.
Padgett developed this style after years of practicing various writing techniques. He began writing when he was a teenager growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He described his first poems as the wistful, clichéd, tortured emotions of a 13-year-old with a crush who looked out his window and saw his feelings reflected in the trees being pushed around in the wind. He reported that in college he began to intentionally break up syntax and words in order to write “things that made no sense.”
It was during this time that Padgett also began to use specific techniques, many of which he learned from his professor, Kenneth Koch. One such method is called homophonic translation, in which a poet looks at a language he or she doesn’t know and attempts to guess what the words mean.
He has also said that in college he tried to become free of the “tyranny of meaning,” a flowery term he defined as the way our subconscious responds to words before we even know what they mean. A huge part of this reaction depends on the physical shape of letters themselves, which Padgett claims evoke different feelings.
Although Padgett is normally seen as a poet of the second generation of the New York School, he has an aversion to labeled movements and the way that they generalize their members’ work. While he was and is a part of the social group of writers and artists that are identified as the New York School’s second generation, and was heavily influenced by this community, he clarified that he has many influences and doesn’t see himself as part of one specific movement.
In fact, Padgett’s aversion isn’t limited to labeled movements. Throughout both the Q&A and the reading, he expressed a general rejection of restrictions. When asked about how he developed his writing style, he responded that he doesn’t want to be locked into a preconception about who he is and what he should be writing.
Padgett said that he lives in fear of writing the same poem his entire life, and his poetry expresses this disinclination; from 10-second to seven-minute poems, Padgett writes with huge variety. Many of his pieces are light and humorous, and he acknowledged this silliness with the tone in which he read them as the audience chuckled along. Others are more serious and heavy. He alternates surrealist images, like “humanity swirling around,” with the minutiae of reality, like pea coats and cups of coffee.
Padgett’s friends and connections are probably the reason he is normally boxed into the categorization of a New York School poet. In high school, he founded “The White Dove Review” with Dick Gallup, Joe Brainard, and Ted Berrigan. The publication included poems from Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and E.E. Cummings, among others; at 17, Padgett had already become a part of a community of great poets.
His presence in New York’s East Village and the network of friendships that he developed there further contribute to this image of him as a part of the New York School’s second generation. Relationships with the likes of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Koch, and his fellow “White Dove Review” co-founders integrated him into this creative community and influenced his work to a huge extent.
On Wednesday, Padgett expressed his usual humility by thanking the audience for skipping various TV premieres to come hear him read. He then read a wide variety of his work, including poems, prose, and some prose poetry. He began with some poems about his childhood, and then moved into some of his sillier works, sprinkled with a few heavier ones.
He ended with a new poem—which he had never read out loud in public—called “Do the Math,” during which he asked the audience to close their eyes as he closed his own, halting the poem and then resuming to discuss the purpose of that brief, blind silence. This self-awareness, which is present throughout his work, extends to Padgett’s own personality as well.
Padgett proclaimed towards the end of his reading that he is “happy with being nutty.” I imagine his readers are also happy with his nuttiness: it is what makes his poems so tangibly human and gives them an infectious personality that, even without any interpretation, is simply enjoyable to witness.